John Pellegrini, Creative Director, WLS-AM, Chicago, Illinois
by Jerry Vigil
There's nothing like having a station you idolized as a kid, and then one day finding yourself working there, living your loftiest of goals. The Big 89, WLS has changed since John Pellegrini first set his sights on this station, but, as it turns out, Talk radio was also a goal. Now, after some twenty years in the business, John has made his way from small town America to market number 3, at a station and a format that have been his goals for many years.
This month's interview takes a close look at one of Radio And Production's regular writers and how he has made the transition from Production Director for Rock radio to Creative Director at major market Talk radio. There's a lot to learn in this month's interview about Talk radio, creative production, and John Pellegrini himself. And in twenty years, when they talk about the legendary WLS Talk Radio, it's a safe bet that the name John Pellegrini will come up again and again, just like the other legends that have walked the halls of this 50 thousand watt monster in Chicago.
RAP: How did you get into radio, and what are some of the highlights along the road that eventually led you to WLS?
John: I have had a weird career over these last twenty years. I grew up in Milwaukee, though when I was in the seventh grade my family moved just north of Milwaukee to a town called West Bend. I didn't know what culture shock was, but I sure had it. Milwaukee was urban. West Bend was farm country, and we lived across the street from a farm when we first moved there. To this day, I can tell the difference between the smell of cow manure and all the other kinds of poop you can think of.
Growing up, I was the class dork, the one who made all the weird noises and goofy voices, disrupting other students. I wanted to be the next Mel Blanc or Peter Sellers, or both. I loved radio and listened to WLS as well as WOKY out of Milwaukee when it was a Top 40 station. After I got out of high school in 1976, I started working for my dad in his steel fabrication business where I quickly realized that it wasn't my calling. I wanted to either be a famous rock star or become a cool disk jockey like Larry Lujack and John Landecker on WLS. My dad was against me being a rock musician because "all rock stars are on drugs," which was probably true. So he agreed to let me attend one of those quickie "six months to learn everything you need to know about radio" schools in Milwaukee. The year after I graduated it was closed down by the State Board of Education for fraudulent practices, but I still managed to get my first job in radio in Watertown, Wisconsin at WTTN AM/FM in 1978.
WTTN was one of those small town everything for everybody--especially the farmers--radio stations. They played polka music in the morning, "Music to Milk By," they called it. In the midday it was country or MOR, and in the afternoon it was strictly MOR. I was hired as the nighttime disk jockey, and they let me play rock music. But I had to provide my own albums because they weren't about to pay for that disgusting music. So I ended up with about two thousand records in my collection. I also wrote and produced commercials and did a live newscast every hour, including a full hour of news and network programming before my rock and roll shift. Plus, I had to sign off the station at the end of my shift, empty the trash cans, and lock the place up at night. All this for an amazing ninety-five dollars a week. I was given a raise after two months to one hundred twenty dollars a week, but for that I had to take over doing all production and come in at noon every day, including Saturdays and an occasional Sunday shift to boot.
I couldn't afford to live in Watertown on what they were paying me, so I continued to live in West Bend with my mother and drive an hour each way to and from work. I also took a part-time job in West Bend driving a school bus in the morning. My dad died the week I started there, and that, combined with the feeling that this radio deal was a rip-off, soon inspired me to quit altogether. This was near the end of 1979.
Then, several years later, in 1984, the radio bug bit again, and I decided to go to another broadcast school that I thought was a little more prestigious but turned out to be the same nonsense as the last place. This one was located in Wausau, Wisconsin. For those readers of RAP who are fortunate enough to have a Menards Lumber store in their area, I'm proud to say that the goof who does their commercials owned the school. It's out of business right now, the school that is, not his commercial production business. Anyhow, despite that, I was able to obtain a job doing afternoons on WRIG-AM in Wausau, a daytime light rock/oldies station. Wausau had, at that time, a population of around fifty thousand, but WRIG had a total listenership of about eight. At WRIG, I did production and my air shift. But the biggest challenge on the job for me was to get the hell out of Wausau.
I flooded the nation with tape and got a morning drive job in De Kalb, Illinois. WDEK-FM was a full-time CHR, the first twenty-four hour station I ever worked for. I worked with a few people who have gone on to some impressive careers since then, and I got to meet Cindy Crawford before she became famous. She's a De Kalb native and had stopped by the station for an interview. She had just signed with whatever the big modeling agency was in New York that launched her career. Surprisingly, she didn't strike me as anything spectacular at the time. I thought she was too skinny. I guess that's why I'm not a modeling agent.
Anyway, after two years or so in De Kalb, I again started thinking that I wasn't getting anywhere with my career, so I quit and came to Chicago to study with The Second City and try to become an actor. In other words, I was unemployed a lot.
After struggling for a while, I got a call in 1988 from a friend from De Kalb who'd gone to Kansas City. He told me that their sister station in Las Vegas needed a Production Director. I sent a tape, got the job, moved out there, and was fired twice. I've covered that story elsewhere in RAP, so I won't bore you by repeating it. After the Vegas fiasco, I found out from another friend that WGRD in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which was a CHR at the time, needed a production guy, so I sent a tape and got that job. I moved back to the Midwest over Christmas of 1988 and began at WGRD the first week of 1989. I was there for about a year and ten months when I was called by the Production Director at WKLQ, WGRD's main competitor, which had just switched from CHR to AOR. He was leaving and had recommended me for the gig. I met with their Program Director in November of 1990 and wound up staying at WKLQ for over six years. That's when I began sending articles to RAP, which you, to my never ending wonder, have continued to publish over the years.
RAP: What are your responsibilities at WLS?
John: I'm Creative Director, but I'm also the Production Director and copywriter. It's basically the same job I've been doing all along, ever since I became a Production Director, but my boss, Mike Elder, the Operations Manager here at WLS, named the position Creative Director. His view was that this way advertising agencies would be able to relate to what I do because they have Creative Directors on staff as well.
RAP: Why the emphasis on relating to the ad agencies?
John: Advertising agencies need to be aware that there are people in radio who can help them do a better job as far as creation of radio-specific copy. A lot of agencies basically don't do a whole lot of radio. So their knowledge of specialized radio production is very limited, and that certainly applies, unfortunately, to a lot of the clients we have because most of them work in print. So, by using the title Creative Director, he wanted to show the sales staff that, "Hey, we've got a guy here who cannot only voice the commercials, but he can also help the clients write better and more effective ones."
RAP: Along with writing and producing the commercials, are you doing any imaging work?
John: Yes, although the station voice is actually a fellow by the name of Jeff Davis who used to be a disk jockey here back in the rock and roll days of the '70s and '80s. He did nights at the old "Big 89" then went off to Los Angeles and opened up his own voice-over agency.
RAP: Do you have any assistance with the production load?
John: Yes. I have an engineering assistant named Pam Murphy, and she basically handles all the dubs that come in from the agencies. We're trying to figure out a way where we can get her involved in doing some tags and things, too. But, because of her current union contract, she has to be paid a talent fee for each tag she does, and WLS management says, "Well, we can't afford that." But we're trying to see if we can make it possible.
RAP: So, who does the tags?
John: Right now, me.
RAP: Are you compensated for each individual tag?
John: No. It's part of my job in the union contract. All the voice work I do is part of the job.
RAP: You must be getting quite a workout with the voice work.
John: Yeah, well, I try so spice it up a little bit. I have an Orban DSE-7000 here, and it's got a beautiful pitch change effect on it that can raise and lower the voice without any noticeable effect. On an Eventide or a Yamaha, you'll hear that kind of spacy sound whenever you use the pitch change. The DSE has almost no discernible additional effects on it. So I try to pitch the voice around a little bit to give the impression there are multiple voices on the air.
RAP: What else is in the production room?
John: The main console is an ABX 34 from Pacific Research and Engineering. We've got an Otari MTR-10 2-track, and an Otari MX-70 8-track. This is what they used before they got the Orban. We're keeping the Otari in here because some of the old production was done on one-inch 8-track tape. All these tape reels are stored down the hall. If a client came in and voiced something a year or two or three ago, and they decide to rerun it, I go down the hall and find that tape.
Other things in the studio include a Denon CD player, an Eventide Harmonizer, and an Ursa Major digital reverberator. We've got a lot of compressors in here. Apparently, they used to do a lot of compressing. There are a couple of compressors from Audio Design Recording, and there are about eight Urei levelling amplifiers, but they're not in use anymore. They're just kind of sitting here taking up space. We've also got a Urei equalizer that doesn't get used any more either. We've got some audio switchers that are kinda neat. They allow me to access all the AM studios as well as the FM studios and even the television studios for Channel 7 downstairs because we're in the same building. Then we have a Tascam DA30MKII DAT deck that I'm mastering audio on. For microphones, we use the Electro-Voice RE 20s, and I've got a Sennheiser as well. It's the one with the little ring on it that allows for different tonal qualities. I like that one for doing character voices.
RAP: Is this the only production studio?
John: There's a separate room for the dubbing facilities, and that is just a smaller version of this room without the 8-track.
RAP: You didn't mention any digital delivery system. Are you still on cart?
John: Believe it or not, we're still on cart here. We use Dynamax cart decks. Supposedly, we're going to an audio storage system next year. Apparently it's been budgeted for, but the FM will be receiving that first, not us. I can only imagine that's because we have seven studios up here between the AM and the FM, and I know that our morning show, for example, has over a thousand carts dedicated to them alone. We need something with a lot of storage space, and they're working on that.
RAP: What's the format on the FM?
John: Their call letters are now WXCD. For the last two years they were a country format, and just about two months ago they switched to a classic rock format.
RAP: Are you involved with production on the FM?
John: No, they have a separate production guy down there named Ken Scott. He's a nice guy, and he has his own little setup there. I believe he's got a ProTools system instead of an Orban.
RAP: Do you share talent with the FM?
John: Yeah, once in a while I'll voice something for Ken, or he'll voice something for me which helps out a lot.
RAP: Do you get to use any of the talent at the TV station?
John: No, unless they're doing something specifically tied in with the AM. Then they might come up here. But for the most part, I don't even see the people from TV.
RAP: What's the on-air lineup at WLS?
John: We've got Don Wade and Roma in the morning, and then we've got Doctor Laura from nine to eleven. Rush Limbaugh is on from eleven to two, then another hour of Doctor Laura from two to three. Roe Conn and Gary Meier do our afternoons from three to seven, and then we're kind of at a flux point right now on our night shift. We just hired somebody new, and we're in the process of changing the program altogether. I don't even know who the new person is for the seven to ten shift. From ten to one in the morning we have Mike Malloy, and then from one in the morning until five in the morning we run Art Bell.
RAP: Which shows are originating at WLS studios?
John: Our morning show, our afternoon show, the evening show, and the ten to one shift are all local. Doctor Laura, Rush, and Art Bell are syndicated.
RAP: This is your first Talk Radio format. How are you liking it so far?
John: The funny part about coming here to WLS is that I'm fulfilling two goals at the same time that I set for myself a long time ago. I made it a goal that I was one day going to work at WLS, and I was also one day going to work at a Talk radio station. Back then, WLS was music radio, but now that they've switched to Talk, I'm able to do both.
I like the Talk radio format at this point in my life better than the Rock format largely because I'm about to turn forty, and I'm really burned out on rock music. I mean, it was at the point in the last couple of years where I couldn't tell one band from another. I thought that would never happen to me, but it did. Talk radio I like because it's a format that people actually listen to. When most people listen to a Rock station, they're listening to the music, and you try and gear everything so that it's fast, furious, and insane so it fits in with the music. Whereas here, you can actually start to really play around with people's emotions, play around with their ideas, play around with their thought process and put together things that people will listen to just because people are listening. I've noticed that in Talk radio people tend to stay through the commercial sets longer than they would with a Rock format. We have a ton of callers before the commercial sets, and we continue with a ton of callers after the commercial sets. It's like they're paying attention, and they do call if they hear something in the commercial that makes them go, "What was that?"
RAP: Do you think the Talk radio format is a format that a twenty-five year old production person doing Alternative, AOR, or CHR right now could move into, or is this the forty-ish Production Director's format?
John: Oh no. I think anyone doing Rock radio can easily fit into Talk formats, and that's just because Talk radio grew out of Rock radio, which a lot of people tend to forget. WLS back around 1984 began experimenting with a hybrid Rock/Talk format where they were playing some music, not a lot, and they were letting their personalities do a lot more entertainment. Most of today's Talk radio programs, except the ones that have doctors on them, have hosts that came out of Rock music formats, even Rush Limbaugh. He was a disk jockey before he became a Talk radio guy. They became important enough personalities that what they had to say was far more entertaining than the music they were playing. Howard Stern, Don Imus, all of them for the most part started as disk jockeys then went on to become talkers, and I think that certainly the attitude for a Rock format can easily translate into a Talk format, which is why Mike Elder hired me here. He said he wanted to help upgrade the sound of the station and make it more accessible to a younger demo while keeping the older demos. And the tricky part is going to be the process of eventually steering it into that direction. We have to keep our core audience, but we're slowly starting to loosen things up and go into a direction that they never used to go in before, getting a little looser, a little sillier, but at the same time, hopefully, keeping the credibility of a Talk format.
RAP: You've turned out some pretty funny stuff over the years, a sample of which is on your demo on this month's RAP Cassette. What can one do to be more creative with their spots and promos, especially when it comes to humor?
John: I guess what it comes down to is that you really have to forget everything you've ever been taught in terms of politeness. Creativity and political correctness are mutual exclusives. They cannot and do not work together. They say we're a society that no longer has any manners, but I disagree because most of the comedy I see these days is trying so hard not to offend anyone that it's no longer funny.
To be fully creative, you've got to really ignore conventional thinking and go for the jugular vein, just rip their lungs out, basically. In fact, here's a classic example. Thomas Harris is one of my favorite authors, and from what I understand, he's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. But he's also the guy who created Dr. Hannibal Lector. Somehow, he's thrown out all the manners and political correctness that he's been taught, and he's created a villain that's so utterly despicable you'd be afraid to be in the same state with him. He certainly didn't create this character by being worried about offending anyone. I'm not saying that all production people need to create stuff like that. My point is that if you're worried that you've gone too far with something, then trust me, you probably haven't gone far enough.
RAP: How do you approach writing copy for a commercial or promo, and what do you do when nothing seems to want to come out?
John: My first objective is to read everything I can and to learn everything I can about whatever the job is, whether it's a commercial or a promo. Usually I've got an idea in my head worked out before I write it all down, but there are some occasions where I don't have a clue. When that happens, I just try to force myself to write something, even if it's crap because you can always improve crap. And if I'm really stuck for more than a couple of minutes, I'll just put the project away and go on to something else and come back later when I can think clearly again. So basically, I just try to get in there and start writing from the very beginning.
RAP: How does the creative approach at WLS, a talk format, differ from the style of promos and commercials you did at your last gig at WKLQ?
John: At 'KLQ it was an active rock format which allowed a no holds barred attitude, and the clients kind of expected that for the commercials. But at WLS, our clients are a lot different. They're more business oriented like insurance companies, investment programs, health products and such. They're a little more uptight about their image, and they don't want to make waves.
To give you an example, my first month on the job here at WLS I recorded about forty-five scripts that were submitted to me from agencies or from the clients, and all but maybe four of them started with a question and ended with a phone number. You know, "Do you need roof repairs?" or "Are you thinking about buying a house?" "Do you want to make more money?" "Is your investment portfolio giving you the returns you want?" "Do you suffer from hemorrhoids?" And of course there were a lot of other cliches like "dependability you can trust" which is about as meaningless a phrase as anything I've ever heard.
And I'm apparently one of the few production people in this town at a radio station who can actually write my own scripts. Up to now, I guess most of the stations have had their sales staff or sales assistant/copywriter doing the scripts. Then the production people simply voice the spot. So surprisingly, even though this market is number three, the radio spots produced by some of the stations in town were of small market caliber. I say that with affection, of course.
RAP: Do you think advertisers get better response from their ads on Talk radio than on music formats?
John: Yes and no, largely because of the nature of the advertising. The script writing here, in my opinion, was a bit on the poor quality side. So while I think people were sitting through them, I don't necessarily think they were interested in responding because I don't think a lot of the commercials really appeal to people on an emotional level. There was a survey that came out in the retail industry a few years ago. It said that about seventy percent of all purchases were made on emotion rather than price. So if the majority of the customers are buying your products because it appeals to them from an emotional perspective, then why are you continually telling them that price is the important thing? Fact of the matter is, the sale price isn't all that different. If a person wants something, they will buy it. Sometimes they may take the time to see if somebody has a better price, but the majority of business is done because somebody gets it in their head that they really want this item. Then they go out and just buy it.
RAP: About how many spots would you say you're writing and producing a week?
John: I'm not writing as many as I'm just receiving pre-written and recording. There's still a lot of that, and it's probably going to be that way for a while. The process by which we're going to be able to convince the agencies and the clients to let us do more of the writing is going to be a slow one, obviously, because they have it in their minds that the agency must write the scripts. But to answer your question, in a week, I'd have to say I'm writing maybe five spots, but I get between twenty and thirty scripts a week to produce.
RAP: So, you've got about five clients a week that don't have an ad agency doing their creative. What are you doing to show them there's more to radio advertising than just the basic price/item type of spot?
John: I'm hoping to put together a radio advertising seminar sometime before the end of this year that will maybe give our clients more options with their marketing strategies. I can't go into any detail about it because there's nothing definite yet except that our GM, our GSM, our OM, and all the other Ms want to do it. We've had a series of meetings where everyone is like, "Yes, this is something we need to do." But, to actually sit down and develop a budget and develop a program and develop some time to actually do it is going to be the sticking point as to whether or not it's actually going to happen. Certainly though, from what I understand, everybody does want it to happen.
RAP: What about spec spots? Are they part of the mix also?
John: Yeah. We don't discourage them, obviously. One of the problems we had previously was that there were no standards as far as deadlines and spec spots. We had one instance occur just as I started here where a sales rep had promised a client ten spec spots. Unfortunately, the guy who was the interim Production Director didn't know that he had the right to say no, so he went ahead and did them. We have now informed the sales staff that there will only be one spec per client per month and that they are to be used primarily for new clients unless it's an established client who is thinking about a change in direction. Then we'll work with him on that.
RAP: Ten spec spots for one client! That's a new one.
John: It was pretty amazing when I heard about it. Fortunately, they sold the client.
RAP: The Radio And Production Awards are judged on three areas, the technical production value, the copy/creative concept, and the performance of the voice talent. How do you view these areas?
John: The technical end is something I approach as a tool. It's something to help me get the job done like the typewriter or the word processor. But I've always firmly believed that the idea and the writing or the creativity, that creative process has to be the strongest suit, and, of course, after that comes the performance. One of the biggest drawbacks in this business is that so many people are able to write some fantastic scripts, but when it comes time to do the voice work, everybody winds up sounding like the typical radio announcer. Dick Orkin, in his article a few months back, certainly hit the nail on the head when he was saying basically that radio is just regenerating itself with terminal sameness of announcers all over the place. So acting ability and performance, and the creation of characters, and things like that are definitely something that I always try to improve upon for myself, and I couldn't recommend it more for anyone else. I believe in my heart that a commercial that is well produced with tons of incredible effects and has just one guy reading in a "regular announcer's voice" is going to be buried or not noticed as well as a commercial that has two or three or even just one really well performed piece of well written material.
RAP: This is by far the largest market and largest company you've worked for since Cap Cities/ABC was absorbed by Disney not too long ago. Do you get a sense of the magnitude of the company, or is it just another radio station environment?
John: You mean, is Mickey Mouse a good boss? Well, I've yet to meet the little fellow, although I did get my company discount card the other day which entitles me to twenty percent off all Disney merchandise at any company store. That was a thrill. You know, the only time I get a sense of the size of the company is whenever the budgets come up. They're always asking whether Disney is going to improve this or not. Otherwise, we're pretty much left to our own devices, which is nice. It's kind of funny when people around here will occasionally refer to our parent company as Mickey. They'll say, "Mickey has to approve this," or "Mickey's lawyers have to look at this." Then you realize it's THE Mickey that we're talking about here.
I wasn't here when Disney took over, so I don't know how much things changed. According to everyone I've talked to, it's pretty much stayed the same. It's just that now we've got a company that has much bigger budgets and more improvements can be approved.
One thing that startled me was finding out that sometime either at the end of August or September, for the first time in the history of WLS-AM, we are going to get a solid state transmitter. Amazing isn't it? We've been on a tube transmitter all this time. Apparently, under the old regime, it was like, "Don't tell anyone that we've got this old piece sitting out there, and they won't be mad at us because we have to replace it." But when Disney bought the company, they came in and said, "You know, we have two AM fifty thousand watt clear channels, one in New York and one in Chicago. Yet the one in New York uses about one-third the power than the one in Chicago does. Why is that?" Our Chief Engineer said, "Well, that's because we're still on tubes out here," and they said, "Maybe we should change that."
RAP: But hey, what about that nice, warm tube sound everybody loves?
John: I've always said it's not really warm; it's distortion masquerading itself as warm.
RAP: What about the legendary history of WLS? Is there a sense of that in your surroundings?
John: Well, this is not the location of the actual legendary WLS. That station was at 360 North Michigan Avenue, and we're here at 190 North State. They moved us right after they switched to talk to combine the facilities with ABC. There are pictures of the old staff around here, and there are certainly people who have worked with the old staff. The engineering department has a picture of Larry Lujack playing golf with Goofy at Disneyworld in Orlando, which is ironic considering we're now owned by Disney.
From the old staff, Jeff Hendricks and Jim Johnson on the news side are still working here, and Don Wade and Roma, our morning team, were also here in the old days. Gary Meier, who worked here with Steve Dahl back in the eighties, is now back on the air here in the afternoon with a new partner named Roe Conn. And Jeff Davis, our voice guy, used to be here. It's fun to talk with people about the old days. Some of the engineering staff especially will occasionally talk about the old days when it was more of a party atmosphere. Now there are drug tests, and that will pretty much put a kibosh on any party atmosphere.
I'll talk to Jeff Davis on the phone while we're doing some stuff, and I'll ask him about some of the things that happened in the old days. It's funny...as he's talking to me, I'm thinking, "Wow! I was listening to this guy when I was getting started." And then there are other things that remind you of how big the place is. Joan Rivers was up here from New York a couple of months ago doing promotions or something for her radio show. We were sending it over an ISDN line back to New York. Brent Musburger was up here doing his ESPN radio show, and Roger Ebert and Bill Curtis come by regularly to talk with our radio shows. The people around here are like "Well, yeah, Roger's coming up again, and we've got to get another mic, blah, blah, blah...," and I'm like, "Wow!" Inside, I'm totally geeked because all these celebrities are up here, but outside I'm like "Okay, good."
RAP: You've been writing articles for Radio And Production for several years now, and your articles run the gamut, looking at our business from some unusual perspectives and shedding light on subjects in some pretty candid ways. Is there a similarity in your creative approaches to writing commercials and articles for RAP?
John: No, not really. A commercial is basically me trying to make something else look great. Whereas the articles, as selfish as this sounds, I really don't write for Radio And Production. I write them for myself. It comes from my just sitting down and thinking to myself, "Well, okay, let's say I had to explain to somebody how I did this. How do I do it?" Then I've also discovered over the years that when you commit something to paper, it really helps you to crystallize and realize exactly what you actually think about something, and it helped me a lot in terms of figuring out the direction I wanted to go and what my goals are going to be because I was writing about stuff that I realized mattered more to me than I may have thought of previously.
RAP: I'm sure many of the articles have helped others on their path as well.
John: That would certainly be icing on the cake.
RAP: In one recent article of yours, "Who Be You?" [June 1996 RAP], you write about taking advantage of creative opportunities outside of radio. To what extent are you doing this?
John: Not as much as I wish. I had a situation developing in Grand Rapids before I left where a couple of the people at the station and myself were going to work with the radio station in trying to develop some sort of in-house advertising/production agency that would work primarily for WKLQ and WLAD's clients but would also do out-of-house work as well. Unfortunately, it kind of all fell apart when I left. I don't know if I'm going to have a chance to even come close to doing anything like that here. I've got some other projects in the fire right now, and it's just a matter of getting them going. It seems that every time I get an ideal project to begin, something like a new job comes up, and I have to set it aside. But I'm expecting to be in Chicago for a long time, so I'm pretty sure I'll be able to restart some of these projects soon.
RAP: Chicago is a union market, as you've mentioned, and you are now a member of AFTRA. What benefits and drawbacks to being a union member have you noticed so far?
John: Well, I haven't been in long enough to get a clear picture of the total benefit, but the ones I know of right off the bat that I'm excited about, obviously, are the fixed minimums that you can charge for voice work and contract negotiations. The nice thing is, that way you've always got an established price that you know you're at least going to get if you do free-lance or outside work. There's a deal that anyone here, whether it's an air personality or myself, if we are requested by a client to produce a spot that's going to run on other stations, then we get paid a fee for that, and the union establishes that minimum. And, thankfully, they also encourage you to charge more than the minimum. They also have a pretty good health plan, too. My health plan and all the retirement stuff come through the union and not through the radio station, which is an interesting setup.
The only real drawback--and it's not so much a drawback as it is just a change in the way I operate--is that I can no longer go down the hall and record a secretary or a salesperson or anybody I want to do a voice for me. Whoever is going to be on a commercial or a promo has to be a member of the union, and except for a few certain circumstances, they have to be paid for their voice work which, of course, creates a problem when the agency sends a script that calls for more than one voice. We had a case last week on a Friday afternoon at five o'clock. A script showed up that required three voices, and I was the only one here who was able to do it. The rest of the voices would have had to be paid extra. So we called the agency and said, "Look, either it's going to be one voice, or you gotta pay extra talent fees." They said, "Looks like it's going to be only one voice."
RAP: Apparently, even in market number three, that last minute stuff still comes in.
John: Oh, definitely. We've been working as hard as we can to discourage that, and our sales staff has been good about working with me on that, especially since we don't have anyone here over the weekend who can do production. So either it comes in under our deadline on Friday, or it doesn't get done until Monday. The agencies are slowly learning this. But of course, there's always that old thing about the agencies; they'll just say, "Well, looks like you're just not going to get paid for those spots that don't run, then." Unfortunately, we can't charge them for their mistakes.
RAP: Many, if not most, of radio's commercial production people moved into production from the programming side of the business, with little or no education in the field of advertising. Should someone wanting to get into production take some advertising or marketing classes?
John: Well, marketing definitely. Advertising I'm not too certain about. I've got to confess that I never went to college, and any knowledge that I have about advertising comes from the school of hard knocks. Either my idea worked, or I lost money, or I lost the job. So I had to learn the hard way to make an effective commercial.
I can tell you that virtually every person I've met who teaches advertising in colleges or trade schools has no practical experience in the day-to-day operation of commercial creation, especially at the rate of output that we have to have here in radio. And I have yet to meet anyone from that arena who realizes that there's a difference between radio and print and television advertising. So, I think from a creative standpoint, I'd suggest going for a Liberal Arts degree just so you can have loads of different ideas to draw from. But marketing is a universal idea, and understanding how to sell can be used in any situation, no matter what the product or package is. You can learn how to sell your commercials more effectively. You can sell your promos more effectively. You can even sell yourself much better with some marketing experience, and I really do believe that radio production people are going to need more marketing experience.
RAP: Do you see radio production departments down the road becoming increasingly more of a marketing service for clients rather than just some room where print ads are instantly turned into radio ads at the last minute?
John: Oh yeah, definitely. The role of the Production Director and the Creative Director is clearly going to have to be marketing-oriented. Like I wrote in my little diatribe on salaries ["It's Only Money" May 1997 RAP], the main reason why I think we're paid so low is because we fail to make our case for the station in terms of the profits that are generated by our efforts. The best way to resolve that is to invest in marketing experience. In my opinion, the creative person who can go out with the sales rep and help not only sell a spot or a contract, but even long-term campaigns, is going to be worth their weight in gold to a good radio station.
RAP: What do you hate hearing most in the commercials on the radio in general?
John: I guess the standard cliches that everyone is sick of. One thing that I've never been able to fathom is why businesses say things like, "We've been here in the same location since 1802" or whatever. Well, that doesn't cut it any more. What are you going to do for me today? And tell me that you're not going to shut your door down tomorrow. That's all I'm concerned with.
Another thing, as I mentioned earlier, is asking a question when you start your commercial. It's not so much that I hate hearing them; it's just that they don't work, and I'll give you the reason why. There's a sales technique where you absolutely do not ask your customer a question when they are interested in a product. Instead, you just develop a need for it. You tell them, "Look, you really need this don't you. This is a great thing." But you never let them respond to a question like, "Do you need roof repairs?" because ninety percent of the listening audience is going to say, "No," whether they do or not. They're going to say no just because they want to. It's a matter of not letting your customer say no before they even have a chance to hear what your pitch is.
RAP: Where do you go to conjure up your creative ideas?
John: I read a lot. Books are my favorite, primarily because books and radio are the two closest related of all the different media. The printed page and the spoken word are completely interlinked. When you talk about theater of the mind and Orson Welles and the great radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, that was the book. The book came first, then came the radio play. The same with The Shadow. The Shadow started out, I believe, as a pulp fiction series before it went on the radio.
This is going to scare people, but a few years ago without any requirement for a class or anything of that nature, I actually sat down and read the complete unabridged version of Victor Hugo's Les Miserable just for enjoyment's sake, and that book is about fifteen hundred pages long. Victor Hugo is a very, very difficult writer to get the hang of because he was very undisciplined, and he would just go off on little digressions that had nothing to do with the plot. He would go on for pages and pages. So whenever I read the thing, I would have to set aside a minimum of two hours per day in order to get through it because I would have to figure out where I was and where it was supposed to relate to the current plot and back and forth.
But it's things like that that give me creative ideas because you wind up with descriptions and phrases and different ways of looking at things that you just don't get in television. It's my belief that most television writers have a vocabulary of maybe a thousand words, and the Oxford English Dictionary is over twenty volumes. It's about the size of a set of encyclopedias. There's a lot more words out there than we are currently using. Some of them obviously are dated, and you wouldn't want to use all of them. But certainly I think better writing can be achieved. It had been achieved in the past. Now, everything Stephen King writes is like reading a movie script. It's weird. I'm kind of rethinking the direction I take to get my influences from.
RAP: Being in the huge Chicago market with unions and lots of rules, have you noticed any special emphasis on the music copyright infringement issue?
John: Oh yeah, for commercials definitely. And the clients know that, too. They are far more aware of it in this town than they would be normally, and I think it is because all the music licensing and publishing companies have offices here. So the chances of getting away with it are quite minimal. Whereas, in a market far away you can kind of take your chances.
Now we do occasionally use some stuff in promos. We've talked to Disney's lawyers about it, and our Operations Manager, Mike Elder, is familiar with this. There is a clause in all of our licensing agreements that allows for the use of incidental music in promos. And I've also found out that ASCAP and BMI both claim that their licensing agreements includes the right to use music in commercials, although I have never pushed it on that. Just because they say it is okay doesn't mean the publisher of the music is going to agree or the composer of the music is going to agree. So we try to stay away from it as far as commercial use just because that is a definite case where you can prove that someone is using the music to profit from, whereas here at the station, for promo use, it is considered to be incidental music. At least that's what they tell us. Of course, if we get a cease and desist tomorrow, we'll obviously have to yank something.
RAP: You're a great inspiration for people getting into radio who don't have that deep, ballsy voice of God going for them. You've learned how to use your voice, and it has help take you to the nation's third market.
John: You know, it's funny because I've been hearing rumbles in various sectors out there that the big voiced guy might be drawing to a close as far as station imaging goes. Certainly in active rock and alternative rock, they are going with the more believable voice. The guy with the big balls is headed for the classic rock area, and even then some of those are getting away from it. I think what it comes down to is that the Generation X--or whatever you want to call it--outlook is that they don't want the phoniness. They don't want the hype. They want the more realistic sound. That's why I think they're headed that direction.
As far as voice goes, I think the basic thing is to use what you have and learn to push it. I mean, anyone can learn to scream without killing himself. A couple of times, at a couple of the stations I was working for back in the beginning, I had to go and lock myself into the soundproof booth and just scream my head off until I was finally able to scream without losing my voice. That's how you learn how to do that. So eventually anyone can do Yosemite Sam with a little practice. You just have to be willing to take the short sacrifice or do a little bit of vocal exercise.
RAP: What other advice would you give to someone wanting to move up in the production side of radio?
John: The hardest thing for me to learn about this business all these years, especially coming out of the disk jockey end of it, was just to get my head out of my butt and realize that it's a business and not so much an entertainment forum, and the quickest way for me to make a lot of money was to make a lot of money for the station. Now I had, and I still have, no interest at all in doing sales, and I have nothing but tremendous respect for the sales reps who can go out every day and sell this garbage that we do that's called entertainment, but what I can do, and I continue to do, is educate myself in sales and marketing now to find out how it ticks and how I can use it to my advantage. If you have a better ability to present yourself and a better ability to market yourself, that's going to allow you to better understand what the station is going to want from you and how you can use the business to make better money for yourself, either in the current station you're at, or when you go on to your next gig.
If I can help show the sales staff how a more creative commercial is going to generate better business, if I can educate the sales staff on how to sell something like that and help them generate more long-term commitment because of the production that I'm able to produce, then the station is going to be more interested in keeping me and making my end of the place a little more to my liking.
RAP: What have General Managers and Program Directors done for you over the years that has enabled you to become a better Production Director or Creative Director?
John: They've all encouraged me to be as creative as possible within the capacity of the formats of the stations. By that I mean to do whatever I could that sounded right for each format. I've been a Production Director in Light Rock, CHR, AOR, Active Rock, Alternative Rock, and now Talk radio. Plus, when I was still a disk jockey, I did production and promos for stations in CHR, AOR, and Light Rock. What I had to learn, sometimes the hard way, was that not everything I came up with would fit within what the GM or PD saw as the "Sound of the Station."
My advice to GMs and PDs out there who are trying to get more creativity out of their production people is this: these creative maniacs are only as good as their instructions tell them. Make sure you've got a clear vision of exactly what the station is trying to accomplish and who your audience is. I've known PDs who even had it figured right down to a single audience member profile, the ultimate listener that the station was trying to reach. That helps a lot because it gives everyone an image in their mind of who they're trying to communicate with. The second thing that helped me a lot was, once guidelines like that were established, give the creative people the freedom to do anything that comes to their minds. Correct it only if it's way off target. But otherwise, let the sky be the limit. An imagination that's allowed to run rampant will always produce amazing things. Also, don't be afraid to take chances. It's the best way to prevent your station from becoming stale and predictable.
RAP: What is it that you enjoy most about what you're doing? What is it that keeps you in the production room?
John: Well, it's kind of a selfish reason. I just love hearing my stuff on the air. I come in every day with something new, and the reaction from the people I work with is always nice. But it's like I go home, wake up in the morning, put on this radio station that I grew up listening to, and then I hear myself on it. And it's something I don't mind listening to either.
I have a very low threshold of tolerance as far as what I think is good. A lot of the stuff I've done over the years, in situations where people will compliment me on it, in the back of my mind I'm saying, "This absolutely sucks. They're out of their minds." To me, it's the ability to go in and beat what you've done or do something altogether different or completely change directions every single day, and to have the majority of what I do wind up on the air. It's just a great thrill, beyond my ability to describe it at this point.