R.A.P. Interview: Joe Knight

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RAP: One of the basic rules of copywriting today is that you've got to hook that listener within the first few seconds. Is this a rule you use as well?
Joe: Yes, I try to get you into my web quickly. For example, I wrote one for a battery company, York Battery up in York, Pennsylvania, a number of years ago. You hear this orchestral fanfare and the guy says, "It's time now for This Is York Battery, and here's your host, Ralph Pushy." And it's Ralph Edwards saying, "Thanks, Jay, and hello out there." And then he goes in to introduce this guy as famous daredevil driver, Pop Wheely, and says, "Remember when you tried to drive an automobile off the top of Dolly Parton? It wouldn't start so you had to go to York Battery, and they had the one that got 'er going. Remember that sound?" All of a sudden you know that it's This is Your Life, and you're working all the different batteries into this spot.

I try to get them hooked early. I try to get them into whatever situation it is. Maybe it's a guy who has kidnapped another guy and is holding him for ransom for three tacos that he's ordering. Whatever the little crazy situation is, if there is one in the spot, I try to get them there in the first line. That helps me, and it makes the listener comfortable. Now they know what's going on, and they don't have to cerebrate over it.

RAP: You must be amazed at how advertising has changed over the years. I'll watch these programs on television that show old commercials, and the change is so dramatic. The way they used to pitch us, the customer, back then seemed so plain and simple. It was so up front and so easy to see what they were doing. Now you watch a commercial and you may get sucked into something for twenty-nine seconds before you know what they're trying to sell you. Then in the last second you get a logo.
Joe: This goes back to what we were talking about with ad agencies a while ago. They get so super, supra clever, and they can do it so easily with all the morphing and the incredible visuals they have. It's really tough to avoid that, I would think. And you're absolutely right. With a lot of them, I don't know what the hell they're selling. But I really admire it. I think, "Boy, that is great, but what the hell was that again?"

Being in the business I certainly admire what they're doing on TV now, I really do. I just think it's incredible. I don't know what the hell or how the hell they're doing it, but it's just marvelous. But here's what gets me. Here's this Mercedes going very slowly across the screen and Janis Joplin is singing "Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz...." My God, if you tried to do that for Ned's Hardware, he would throw you out. But Mercedes Benz went for it. But you get Ned's Hardware and no, they want that name in there thirty-seven times. It's tough to explain. I don't go out on sales calls, so I don't know what the salesmen are saying to the clients. I just try to give them as much information as I can to help them sell the creative.

RAP: It sounds like a wonderful win-win situation there. You still get to play in a craft you love and pretty much set your hours, and they get direct benefits in the way of new clients and added revenue. They must be happy to have you.
Joe: They really are. It's a good deal for both. And the material is good. I'm really proud of what I do. I'm not the best writer or the best voice man or best straight announcer or best producer, but I may be one of the best writers/straight men/producers around doing this all on my own. It's a rare thing, plus, I don't have to do it. And that gives you so much freedom when you have that financial thing stripped away from you.

I had a couple of appointments when I first moved down here. I said, "I'm going around to these radio stations with my little dog and pony show and tag on with one of them." Well, I went to a couple of them and they couldn't believe it. They thought maybe I was some serial killer who was going to inveigle my way into their station and then either steal all their stuff or kill somebody because they could not believe that some guy who had all this background and all this jazz was going to come in and do it for nothing, on the comp, to sell. But this one guy who was with WARO caught on immediately. He said, "Where do you live, Joe?" I said, "I'm in Fort Myers." He said, "Well, you don't want to commute to Naples." And I said, "No." He said, "We'll put a studio in for you," and he called his chief engineer right there. It was just a couple of 2-track machines and a CD, just a minimal thing. It had a little board and cost just a few grand, but I turned out some great stuff. He could see the potential right away.

RAP: Why did you leave this deal with WARO?
Joe: The guy that hired me left. The new management really didn't...I don't know, they just forgot about me almost. So it really was no fun anymore. I wanted action, and, boy, I'm getting it here, I'm telling you.

RAP: Andy Frame mentioned you had a spot in the Broadcasters Hall of Fame. When did this happen?
Joe: Well, let me digress. I do an NFL banquet every year. It's a charity banquet for abused children and their families. It's called Courage House, and they've probably got about eight or nine of them in different NFL cities. Anyway, I go up there every year to do this thing in Baltimore, and we're having it again this year. The banquet is March 18th. So last year I went to one of the cocktail parties and a fellow in his mid-thirties said, "Joe Knight, the Knight of the Spinning Roundtable. Boy, I listened to you when I was a kid, and then you finally left. Where are you now?" We got to talking and he said, "I was really, really thrilled to see your picture and the nice write-up in USA Today." I said, "What?" And he said, "Yeah, it was seventy-five years of radio history and you were right in there." I said, "What are you talking about? Nobody even mentioned it to me." Well, to make a long story nauseating, I contacted USA Today and got three copies of the paper. Sure enough, there's a big full-page spread with pictures of Jack Webb, Howard Stern, and me, and it said, "In the 1950s, gimmicks were big with disk jockeys, and Joe Knight, the Knight of the Spinning Roundtable is pictured here with his suit of armor...."

So I'm like, "My God, how did this happen?" How, out of all the really big guys, did they pick me? So I called the young lady at USA Today who wrote the article and she said, "Oh yeah, Joe and that suit of armor." "Where did you get that photo?" She said, "I got it out of a big coffee table book that a guy had written," and that book is "Blast from the Past - A Pictorial History of Radio's First 75 Years" by Eric Rhoads. So my picture was in this book, and that's how she got this thing. And, apparently, either in New York or up in Pennsylvania where they have a Radio Hall of Fame, I'm in this thing, and believe me, I had no idea. I certainly deserve it! (laughs)

RAP: You must have a ton of amusing stories to tell. Pick one!
Joe: I'll tell you one that might be interesting. When I was in Great Bend, Kansas, I was at this little 250 watt coffee pot. Well, they used to jack that thing up to about a thousand watts at night, and you could get away with murder. I'm telling you this because the statute of limitations has run out. But anyway, the man who managed that radio station, long gone now, a fellow named Clem Morgann, used to book all of the big bands that would come through the Midwest, and there were tons of them in the forties and even on into the early fifties. They would go to Kansas City. Then they might go out to Denver, or they might go down to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Right in the middle of Kansas there was this great, huge hall that was built, an auditorium. It could hold several thousand people. We had almost every traveling band you could ever think come to this hall. We had Jimmy Dorsey, Henry Bussey, Vincent Lopez, all the mickey mouse type bands. We had Louie Armstrong. Fletcher Henderson came through with a band. Paul Whiteman came out of retirement and went on the road for a while. We had Woody Herman and Stan Kenton. Count Basie was there. We even had Chico Marx, one of the Marx Brothers. He fronted a band for a while.

It was incredible, and I was the announcer for all of those bands doing a local broadcast. We had a thirty-minute broadcast. I was at the right time and in the right place to meet all those guys and to get all that exposure and experience. Now, our transmitter only went up to about a thousand watts, but we could get into five different states at night. So wherever those guys were going to play, we would plug their next gig saying, "Hey, don't forget now, after Great Bend, Basie and the boys are going out to Denver," and I'd talk to Count Basie on the mike and plug his next show. So, of course, it was a tremendous inducement for them to do this little local broadcast for us, and we would draw a couple of thousand or twenty-five hundred people into this auditorium to hear these bands. People came from all over--from Oklahoma, Colorado, even from Texas and Arkansas.

RAP: Obviously, you never got caught increasing the power beyond the legal limits.
Joe: And what's funny is that I worked with a couple of guys at that little radio station who years later became members of the FCC. Isn't that great? They got the biggest kick out of it. One of them was a Sports Director on our station, so I said, "You couldn't do anything to us because you were in on it." But, really, we had a lot of fun.

RAP: I'm finding it amazing to watch stations move from tape to digital recorders. You must have experienced some technological changes most of us can only read about.
Joe: Well, obviously, I worked with disks. We'd go live right to disk sometimes. If you goofed up, you were in a peck of trouble. I worked with wire recording. If it broke, you tied a square knot in it and clipped the ends. Then, of course, I worked with tape, and now digital is just incredible. I don't know squat about that and am probably too old to learn. I can do things just about as fast but not as good in many ways. I'm certainly not going to take anything away from Andy. Andy's a master. I just admire his work so much.

RAP: What do you do for creative inspiration? What do you do when you need a great spot fast?
Joe: Let me relate an incident that may answer a lot of your questions. I worked in Baltimore with a fellow who was a very bright guy, very smart. He was terrific, and he thought he was a writer and an announcer and a voice man, and he was not bad in any of them but not really, really great. He would sit down, put a piece of paper in the typewriter, and spend quite a bit of time writing this spot with different voices. I'd end up working with him on some of these things, and they were so damned complicated. Then he'd spend hours picking just the right sound effect, editing this, splicing that, and he'd finally end up with a pretty decent spot, But he spent so much time doing it. And he couldn't figure out how I could come in and do the same thing, and it would take me a tenth of the time. Well, one day he caught me at it. What I was doing, and I'm doing it right now as I'm talking to you, I'm getting a sound effects CD and it says, "Girl in Shower, one minute, one second." Well, I put that on, and whatever this girl is doing, as she's opening and closing the curtain, as the water is starting, I would write a spot to that. I was writing to whatever extant sound effects there were. I wasn't trying to write a spot with all these wild things and then build them in. I did it backwards. That's what he said, and he was so mad. "Well, you're doing it backwards," were his words, and I said, "No, that's the only way to do it. Otherwise, you've got to spend hours on that jazz." Say you were a lyricist, and I'm sending you a great piece of music. You listen to that music, and you put your words to it. That's what I was doing with sound effects. Now, I don't do it every time--I'm painting with kind of a broad brush here--but a lot of times, that's the way I would do it.

Another thing, I would take these sound effects CDs and just look at them. A guy would come in and say he wanted a spot for Ned's Hardware. I'd think, oh God. Wait a minute. Here's an elevator interior. Okay, I'd play that. "We're going up to the second floor of Ned's Hardware." "There is no second floor...," that type of thing. Now I've got a visual. Now I've got a place to put Ned. By actually looking at these sound effects, it triggers something I can deal with. The guy says, "Boy, how'd you ever think of that?" Well, all I did was just look at some sound effects. It's like somebody standing there giving you eighty-three ideas. So that's a lot of the way I work, and obviously, I write to my own strengths. I'm not going to write something I'm not capable of doing, or if I do, I'll get somebody else who can really do it. I'm writing to my own strengths, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. It's certainly served me well.

Here's another thing you can do if you're writing a spot and you're sort of stumped, and everybody draws a blank every now and then. Just put a piece of paper in the typewriter and type, "It looks like it's going to be a long fly ball" or something. Now you're at the ball park. You're stuck, but at least you've got some frame of reference. Put something down and try to write your way out of it. That's one way that has worked for me over the years. Or use the little gimmick with the sound effects. That'll help you a hell of a lot. Think visually, that is if you're writing. If you're doing a straight announce, try to sound like you're doing it live, and if you're acting and you're on mike and there's a knock on the door, don't just say "Come in." Use body English. Step away from the mike.

These are things I use, and I betcha some things a lot of people never thought about. I'm sure people out there have got stuff I've never thought about too, but these techniques have always worked for me, and you just can't go wrong doing things like that.

RAP: You're a real inspiration for people of all ages in this end of the business. It's good to know creative writing and production can carry someone as far and for as long as it has carried you.
Joe: I've just been so fortunate to retain my interest and have a chance to continue in this business. I am at a point where I really don't have to work. I made a lot of dough and invested it, and it's just perfect. I'm the luckiest guy in radio, believe me, to be able to call the shots, but I still want to do it because it's so much fun. I enjoy working with young people, and I'm bringing a lot of the magic of old radio back into today. I do a lot of Bob and Ray type of stuff, and I have lots of crazy characters with funny names.

RAP: You're just having some fun!
Joe: Oh, my gosh. I'm afraid someone's going to catch on to me. I'm having too much fun. But I put fifty-three years in this business and I ought to have something to show for it. My wife and I live very simply, but we take some nice trips. We take the kids to Europe, and I can do a lot of stuff that I didn't do before. But I think exactly the same way I did fifty years ago in my own personal life. I'm sitting here now with jeans on and a polo shirt and a pair of sneaks with my feet up, and it's just great. And when they catch on to me, I'll move to Wichita.

 

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