R.A.P. Interview: John Frost

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John Frost, Creative Director, KROQ-FM, Los Angeles, California

john-frost-sep95by Jerry Vigil

This month's interview takes us to the nation's second largest market and that market's number three rated station, KROQ-FM. This legendary modern rocker is emulated by modern rock stations across the country and probably outside the U.S. as well. It's not so much the music that's different; the music is available to everyone. But one can certainly say the imaging is unique. The creative production wizard behind the imaging of this super station is John Frost, a young man who left the "frosty" market of Anchorage, Alaska nearly a decade ago, and landed firmly in the production studio at KROQ. You'll enjoy this month's interview, and you'll love even more John's demo on this month's "Cassette!"

R.A.P.: Tell us about your background in radio.
John: I got started in Anchorage, Alaska when I was about fourteen and a half or fifteen years old pushing buttons for minimum wage at an easy listening station up there. I moved through five or six stations up in Anchorage taking little tiny jumps in salary with increasing duties. I was at an album rock station in Anchorage when I started to get really into production, and I started winning all the little Alaskan production awards, in which there's not a lot of competition. So, I ended up sending a tape to Tom Sandman at WBCN in Boston. Tom was my production hero at the time and was one of the greatest production guys I'd ever heard. I sent a tape and a letter saying, "I'm stuck here in Alaska. I have no idea how my production stacks up, and I have nothing to inspire me, no other good producers in the area. Please just give me a critique of what I'm doing right, what I'm doing wrong, and that sort of thing." I get a really good critique from him, but what really ended up coming from that happened six months down the road when Infinity Broadcasting, which owns WBCN, bought K-Rock in L.A.. They needed a production guy, and Tom passed my tape on. I ended up getting the job, and I flew there straight from Anchorage. That was about eight years ago. I've been here since April, 1987.

R.A.P.: Tell us a bit about the history of K-Rock.
John: K-Rock was the first alternative rock station in the nation and was responsible for playing the first Van Halen song before that was cool. It was always discovering new acts back in its heyday around 1983 when Missing Persons and all those people were coming out. K-Rock's always been a founder of new music and, really, a staple of the community here in Southern California. It has done well despite down times when alternative rock had just horrible music like in the '87 era. Even then we still did pretty well. But, with our current lineup and our current Program Director, who I think is the best in radio--and I don't know everybody, so don't anyone take offense to that--I mean, we're kicking butt! We're what used to be a niche format, and we're third in the market! The number one station is Spanish speaking and Power is number two. We've been number three or four, 12-plus, for the last two years or so. We never expected to get that high. We're not playing pop; we're not the Top 40 station. We're just real excited to be where we are.

K-Rock has been a modern rock station for about fifteen years now. We will play whatever we think is going in a positive direction, whether that means rock ala Pearl Jam or Nirvana or other parts of the alternative spectrum or whatever else is happening, like Beastie Boys, who are more rap than rock. K-Rock also has been hugely emulated by modern rock stations everywhere, and we don't mind that. Our format and everything we do ends up at all the other stations. We started with a little Christmas acoustic concert that we did every year, and then all the other modern rock stations started having their little Christmas acoustic concerts on the days preceding and after ours. Now we have a summer concert, and all the other modern rock stations are doing a summer concert festival in the weeks prior and after ours.


R.A.P.: When you came to K-Rock, were you hired as the Creative Director?
John: When K-Rock had the opening, it was for Production Director, and that was the guy in charge of commercials, station imaging, and anything that came out of the production room...anything. That only lasted about two years. We decided we wanted somebody else to handle the commercials to keep my style from being associated too much with the commercials. The image of modern rock is one where you don't want to confuse your image with that of most of your advertisers. My style is heard on all the jingles, all the promos, all the station imaging we do. And the other guy who does the commercials, he sounds completely different. We want to keep our image special and unique. I remind people of K-Rock, so I don't read commercials.

R.A.P.: So, two years later you became the Creative Director and stopped doing commercials?
John: Something like that, yeah. And we've become more and more a produced radio station to the point where we're almost hyper-produced now. Everything is now some kind of production element, and it is a full-time job now. When I first got here, we weren't doing a lot of station imaging things. We were kind of proud of sounding like just a little more than a college radio station at that time. That was before the ratings really came through for us.

R.A.P.: Who handles the commercials?
John: Raymond Banister. Raymond was one of our DJs that we no longer had a shift for just because we were trying different things, but he's such a great guy. He's the person we put in the position of doing the commercials, and he's always been happy to help in any way he can.

R.A.P.: Is there an AM station attached or a duopoly situation?
John: The same company does own K-Earth which is an oldies station on FM out here. But we don't cross much of the same territory.

R.A.P.: Tell us a bit about K-Rock's image and how it's achieved on the air.
John: We try to really encourage creativity. I think we have the best creative air staff around the clock, people who just try weird stuff. They goof off and do stuff that really stands out. And every production element we have, whether it's a jingle or a promo or whatever, has a personality of its own. It has a life of its own. We want to be really unpredictable. As an image for the station, we want to be interesting and fun and weird to listen to. More than anything, I think, I try to image us like a cartoon version of a radio station where it's a goofy, ongoing, got a personality of its own no matter who's on the air kind of thing. The Program Director and myself are the ones who sit down and figure out what we're going to do at any point to get that accomplished. We figure out what we want to accomplish and how much room we have to goof around with it without losing the point of the promotion or losing the point of the jingle or imaging piece.

R.A.P.: Is this approach to image typical of modern rock stations across the U.S.?
John: I can't really name another station that does it this way. Image-wise, modern rock is traditionally thought of as having a less hype, less self-indulging type image. That's the traditional thing that modern rock is able to do pretty well. The self-indulgent, hypy stuff fits Top 40 better, or somebody else better than it fits us.

K-Rock has a variety of different images going constantly, and it's probably the hardest station I've ever come across to image just because we try to do something that doesn't sound like anything on the radio station right now. And to do that, it's like a constant reinvention. For example, I have this cool delivery, if you will, that I can sell most things with. But we don't want to sound like some cool delivery radio station, so we don't use that character that much. Or, I could write everything into a little sitcom and it might win an award; but when it's standing next to a bunch of other little sitcom-type promos, it doesn't stand out. So we're constantly trying to find something that doesn't sound like anything we've done.


R.A.P.: What's an example of something you've done in the past week or two that makes you say, "Here's something we haven't done before?"
John: A friend of mine came up with this idea and I don't want to--yeah, I guess I can give this away. He'll get mad, but.... Jim Pratt is the creative producer at KOME, our sister station in San Jose, another modern rock station. He came up with getting your call letters off the Wheel of Fortune. The people spin the wheel, then you've got Pat Sajak going, "one fifty," and somebody says "K," and he says, "Yes, there's one K." Then you spin again and get an "R" and then they buy a vowel, which is an O and so on. Then it's all produced with some really fast moving, industrial type rock that makes it into kind of a little mini-promo by the time it's all put together, and it really sounds cool. We hadn't heard that on any other station, and it really stands out. People call and request the stupid thing.

R.A.P.: What's one of the wildest promotions the station has done recently?
John: This is going to sound weird, but this will give you an idea of how K-Rock just wants to goof around. Every weekend we give away something. It's usually music or a lifestyle intensive thing such as concert tickets, music, trips to see bands. It's all lifestyle oriented stuff. But we're always, every weekend, giving something away--I mean, forever, for as long as I can remember! This last weekend we gave away nothing. Not only did we give away nothing, but we had promos, a half dozen promos, that ran all weekend talking about how this weekend K-Rock is giving away nothing in a variety of different ways. There were a lot of funny ways of putting it. In one of the promos it said, "Listen this weekend; you've got nothing to lose. But at best, you've also got nothing to win." Another promo was, "Thanks, K-Rock! Hey, it's the least we could do." Of course, it is the least we could do. Now, there's not going to be any forced listening in that. But we didn't want to throw something on the air like some lame prize and try to make it cool. We didn't have anything. It sounded like a good idea, so we went on and promoted the fact that we had nothing. It was a nothing weekend all weekend, and, actually, people would call in and say, "Did I win?" It was really weird. It's not the most earth-shattering promotion we've ever done, but certainly one of the weird ones.

R.A.P.: Tell us a bit about your Program Director, Kevin Weatherly.
John: Kevin has been here for probably three or four years now and came from Q106 in San Diego, which was a Top 40 station. He's exactly what we needed, though. He brought a lot of Top 40 programming philosophy to K-Rock and had the sense to listen and figure out what the format was before he started changing things. He knew what could be changed and what couldn't be changed. He asked a lot of questions, which seems really obvious, but he's the first Program Director I've ever had do that. He would ask interns handling the phones what they thought was the cool music out right now. I'm to stuck up to do that. I don't want to give interns the time of day, let alone take their opinions to see whether or not we're playing the right music (laughs). But the interns are college kids for God's sake, and that's right smack in the middle of our demo. He'll ask questions of each of them about what they think is cool and what they think is going on musically so that we can keep one step ahead of everybody else in trying to figure out where the music is going to go. That's got to be the hardest thing in the world, and that's why I really admire him. We're playing the hits in a high octane rotation, though, just like any Top 40 station or anybody else who gets ratings. So, it's kind of up to me to entertain them while we play ten songs every two hours or whatever it is.

R.A.P.: How many hours a day are you putting in?
John: Me? Oh, I'm a slacker. Let me see, I guess I'm in about nine and I'm out by four. It used to be ten to three, but my Program Director challenged me to go nine to four, and so I have. It's really hard to say how many hours because I goof around a lot in the hallways. I probably get a good solid four hours of work done.

I've tried it all ways. Kevin has driven me like a son of a gun when we've needed a lot of different things done all at once, and it works that way. I don't like my work as well that way, but I am able to create that way. But Kevin, for the most part, wants us to play around a little in the hallways and wants us to goof around because he understands the creative mind. There's no way of managing two creative minds the same way, and he's been great.

R.A.P.: When you sit down to knock out a promo, what's the first thing you go for? What's the first thing you need to make a good promo?
John: The first thing you have to know is what you've got to communicate. What is this big selling point that deserves a promo? Now, you can't lose that. No matter how much right brain you want to put into this, you cannot lose that in the fashion of the thing. It's got to be functional as well as fashionable, so you've got to keep that in mind first. Then, we usually start by writing it and realizing what the easiest way is to get that point across. But that's usually pretty straightforward and blah, so we end up rewriting it or thinking of some angle of which we haven't heard recently or haven't immediately thought of, but that fits perfectly. If that means creating characters in a little situation or something, so be it--whatever it takes just to make it stand out and sound different. We're giving away concert tickets this weekend, last weekend, the weekend before, the weekend before that. That needs to be different each week, and it's up to me and the Program Director to do that. And it's up to each of the jocks when they deliver it.

I've got to say to producers everywhere, don't be afraid to try new stuff, even if it doesn't come out as a natural, perfect, A-one award-winning promo first time. You'll get better at that kind of style. You'll try it again some day, and it'll come out a little better each time. The more styles you're able to do, whether it's comedy writing, singing, serious, direct promos, weird frenzied promos, whatever--the more styles you're able to do, the more valuable you are. And if you can be like a whole image department in one guy, imagine how valuable that's going to be to a Program Director.

I've been through four or five Program Directors all thinking we had a different focus for K-Rock that was going to get us to the next level. You've pretty much got to be the person that each Program Director can come to, and you've got to deliver the task in a reasonable and competent manner.


R.A.P.: What are your favorite promos to produce?
John: My favorite promos are ones with very few copy facts like, "Get the new K-Rock sticker at all Tower Records locations." If that's all I've got to communicate, and they're going to give me forty seconds to do it, watch out! It's going to get weird.

R.A.P.: What about IDs and drops? You don't have forty seconds to get weird there.
John: It's a lot of experimenting and goofing around. We have something that we call K-Rock anti-jingles because they're just nontypical as far as the word "jingle" goes. We take some music beds, some drum loops, or some samples--whatever we think sounds really cool and rocking and forward moving--and we add to it drops from movies, drops from the station, drops from TV, drops from whatever we can find that seems to be communicating something about music, about lifestyle or whatever. That's going to be twenty seconds long, but they're good bridges in the middle of a music sweep. They don't seem to stop the music because there is music going on in them. It's just a lot of experimenting around.

We have a forty-minute nonstop sweep every hour. We have a "forty minute" jingle out of our second stop set every hour, and those are all sung. I sang them. I once stole music from different unknown songs that I liked the music for or could envision doing a jingle to, and I ended up singing them. I've got a reggae jingle in there. I've got lots of thrash-type rock jingles in there. I've got all kinds of things, but the reason we decided to sing those is because we didn't want them to sound like any of our other jingles. And now people sing them at club nights and things. When we're out at nightclubs, if there is a song playing that we used in one of the jingles, they'll sing the forty-minute jingle on the dance floor...really loud.

It's experimenting around and trying to do something like nothing else on your radio station right now. That's where most creativity comes from. I mean, start a promo out like you've never started a promo before. Don't start with call letters. What if you started out with "Once upon a time there was a puppy named Dave" and go from there and make a whole story about the puppy and then relate it to your sticker somehow or whatever you're doing. Something different. There's a great "blanding" going on in radio across the nation, and that's why this job is so important.

R.A.P.: Where are the listeners' heads these days? What do they want from a radio station like K-Rock?
John: That varies, I'm sure, format to format. Our demo is mostly eighteen to twenty-four or eighteen to thirty-four. The kids in that age have bullshit detectors, pardon my French, going one hundred miles an hour. If you're doing something lame, they'll know it. You can try to cover it up. You can try to hide it. If you're doing a lame contest where you're just giving away gift certificates for a breakfast sandwich or something, if it sounds small time to you, if you've got a gag reflex going, then don't even do it because kids can sense lame.

Kids don't like to be told things are cool. "Cool" is probably the worst word you can use right now when you're trying to sell something to kids, and they hear it in advertising all the time! I don't know what the hip word is now. There's probably a variety of hip words that I would say. You've just got to be a little more honest. You've got to be direct or goofing around, not taking yourself too seriously, because that all looks really hypy and lame. There are a variety of examples you can get into of any of those things, but I think the kids just want to listen to music and don't want to hear a lot of the other stuff. Everything comes up in your research. Everybody knows what their listeners want; they just deny it.

R.A.P.: What do you do when you want to stimulate those creative juices?
John: I go through, as I imagine anybody does, ruts where you are just not as creative. You know, the ideas are just not popping in like they were yesterday. Sometimes it gets really depressing when the rut goes for more than a few days. The way to break out of a rut is to sit down with the intent of doing something different from anything you've done. Try something new because a lot of times you'll discover something new that ends up sounding pretty good. If not, that's fine, too. Try it again tomorrow. Getting out of ruts is one of my passions.

I don't know how I get inspired. It's either there or it's not. I'm kind of a recluse who doesn't like to leave the house, and I'm addicted to video games. But other than that....


R.A.P.: Tell us about the studio you work in.
John: I don't have a lot of toys. The one toy I do have, and I swear it's the best piece of machinery anywhere in radio because it's made for radio, is the Orban DSE 7000. This digital 8-track is literally the fastest thing I've ever seen. As far as getting projects and even nominal little tasks done, I'm able to work at just such a high rate of speed. Machinery cannot stand in your way if you're trying to create something. If the machinery stands in your way, then you could lose your vision. You could lose your interest. You could lose your attention span. That's the only toy we have, but that thing has added years to my creative life.

R.A.P.: Is Raymond working out of another studio?
John: Yes. We have two studios now, and we have two of those DSE 7000s, one in each studio. The DSE makes everything so easy to put together. Even our interns are able to figure it out in half an hour and start putting together productions, which really helps because then we're able to see new creative forces coming up all the time. We have two studios and a variety of people who want to get in there and create stuff.

R.A.P.: How is the station utilizing the current technological frenzy of information highways, the Internet and on-line access?
John: There are a bunch of K-Rock Web sites not sponsored by the station, and then we do have our own Web page or something going up. I don't know if it's on the Internet now or whether it will be soon; but I have seen the artwork for it. We have a lot of fanatical fans who are really into one form of music or another that's served by alternative, and a lot of them apparently have computers because we get a lot of Internet mail. And we read lots of Web sites and things. There's one called "alt.KROQ.fan" something. I can't remember the rest of it, but people are posting letters and letters and letters about K-Rock, about things they like, things they don't like, speculations about K-Rock, everything, and that's not ours. It's somebody else's. But we watch it, and it's another way of getting feedback from your listeners.

R.A.P.: Do you know if there is any audio being put on KROQ's Web site?
John: Yeah, our Web page has different jingles every time you punch a function, I believe. If you're trying to find out about one of our DJs, I believe that you'll hear some of their show or something just by punching on them. So, yes, audio is a big part of the K-Rock Web site.

R.A.P.: What do you think of the digital delivery systems like DGS and the others that are coming out with digital commercial delivery?
John: The DGS is all-right. The one I like, at least so far, is the DCI. I don't know what that stands for, but the reason I like it is that I'm able to send as well as receive. So, I'm able to get some song that we just found or something else up to our sister station in San Jose in about a half an hour just by recording it into the machine and sending it through. Every day I see more stations being added to their list. That's a list of people that we can all communicate with, and, I guess, send audio to and get audio from. But you might have to ask to be a send site like I did. So, if you have DCI or plan to get it, request to be a send site, then we can all send each other stuff.

R.A.P.: Are you doing any free-lance work?
John: I can't image other radio stations because of my contract with Infinity, at least not without their expressed written consent. So, that's one place I've been holding back. But as far as doing commercials, as far as working with record companies, as far as doing cartoon voices and that sort of thing, I'm out there. I just did a voice for a CD-ROM game for the new Sega Saturn system. I'm the voice of a bug in a game called "Bug." I get hit by a lot of things, I say smart-ass stuff, I push on things, and I die and things. I got to say a hundred lines for that, and it's pretty cool to see yourself on a CD-ROM game as a bug, a little green bug.

There are a million agents in this town, and a million voice-over jobs in this town. However, because I don't have an agent, most of the work I've received is from people hearing things they like in the imaging of the station. And even though I don't work on the air that often, a lot of people know me by name just because I've been doing it for eight or nine years and doing weird stuff. People will recite to me something I did six years ago. It's more important to them than it is to me. I don't remember it. I don't remember what I was saying, but whatever it was, I bet it was funny.

R.A.P.: What would you say is your greatest talent?
John: Versatility. Being able to do ten or fifteen voices. Being able to write a promo that requires six different voices in some kind of situation then being able to voice them all because I'm the only guy at the station at the moment and then turn around and do a serious promo and turn around and do some serious PSAs about AIDS and then sing our forty-minute jingles and then do some cartoon voices and whatever else they need done. That's what I gotta do, and it's something a lot of people should work on, their versatility.


R.A.P.: What production libraries are you using?
John: We've always had the crappiest music production libraries, but it hasn't bothered me because I just go ahead and use bands. On the other hand, for our commercials, where they're gonna cease and desist your ass in a second if you use music from bands, we've just recently ordered Attitude from TA&A in Dallas, Toby Arnold and Associates. I think this library is great. There's another one that sounds pretty good that I don't have yet called X Rules. I don't even know who puts it out, but they've been direct mailing to all of us modern rock stations for a while. Other than that, modern rock is a really under served area because they can't just use rock libraries. Rock libraries are full of the squealing, guitar, glamour, Van Halen sounding rock and that just doesn't work for us. So other than those two libraries, Attitude and X Rules, we're really under served in that category. Somebody ought to get on the ball.

For sound effects, we're using Network. I hate the Network sound effects library, but we have it so I use it. We have a couple of Hollywood Edge sound effects CDs, and I've got a variety of cartoon CDs from Sound Ideas and Hollywood Edge.

R.A.P.: Are you serious about cease and desist orders? Will you get one pretty fast in L.A. for using music from a band under a commercial without a license?
John: Yeah. Definitely. Even stuff like the Hawaii Five-O theme. You can't use that because somebody's got the rights to that here somewhere. And the Mission Impossible theme; we've been ceased and desisted on that one. Even things like that which usually would just go into a promo at some point and enhance the mood somehow--we get called on that a lot.

R.A.P.: You got a cease and desist for using these cuts on a promo?
John: I can't remember the exact nature of those two cease and desists, but they can actually cease and desist us from using it on a jingle or a promo, too. We got ceased and desisted on Wipeout by the Surfaris, and I think we were using that just under our surf report. We used to have a surfer who would call in and give a surf report every Saturday morning. It's more image than it is function to do that, but yeah, just using it underneath that, I think we got cease and desisted. Usually, if you're using it to sell auto insurance or something, they're definitely going to cease and desist you. If you're using it as part of imaging your radio station, they may not, but they still can.

R.A.P.: It just depends on their mood.
John: That's right. It depends on their mood. You know, when you're putting it behind an auto insurance commercial, it stands out like a sore thumb to them. If they just hear a little sample of it built into a jingle or a promo or something, it may not bug them. I'm not even clear on the laws. I don't even know what the sample law is. There's something about being able to sample a few seconds, but I don't know if you have to give the composer anything or what you have to do.

R.A.P.: What's down the road for you?
John: I don't know what I'm going to do next. I can't imagine working at another radio station other than K-Rock. I can't think of another modern rock station I'd go to. Maybe I'll go consult and do a network of modern rock stations or something like that. Or maybe I'll go into TV production if one of these scripts gets picked up, or cartoon voicing full-time because that's really easy, or record production. Who knows? I'm having fun. I have no idea what I'm going to do. Maybe I'll just stay here and try to win more awards because awards are neat.

R.A.P.: You mentioned television scripts?
John: Well, I have some characters that I'm trying to shop and get a deal for. I haven't actually written scripts that are out there being considered. I'm actually trying to get my own series with characters I've created--cartoon animation, adult cartoon animation.

R.A.P.: What advice would you pass on to programmers who want to get more out of their creative people?
John: Boy, I don't know. Creative people are weird. Hopefully, everybody knows that a creative person is somebody you have to manage a little bit differently than anybody else in the office. For instance, different things bring out the best in creative people. I would say probably the one thing I don't like, and which really seems to stifle me and burn me out more than anything else, is being micro-managed where every little detail of what you do is constantly held up and questioned. We're supposed to be doing fun stuff anyway, so if it doesn't communicate exactly what you wanted it to as efficiently as some other way you may think of later, you still maybe should do the weird thing from time to time just to keep people guessing about you. Don't micro-manage the image. It's not that important (laughs). When you're goofing around, then that will get across, and they'll realize that you're not so full of yourself...and that's good, too.

R.A.P.: Any parting thoughts for your peers?
John: We're having a lot of fun. Don't forget to have fun. Don't take this life or this job or your work too seriously. Have fun and then maybe the listeners will as well. It's pretty obvious stuff, but it's real easy to forget.

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