Eric Chase, Creative Services Director, WFLA/WFLZ, Tampa, Florida
by Jerry Vigil
In this day and age of consolidation, it’s getting easier to find the great production people. Just look at the hot stations in the big chains and see who’s behind the imaging wheel. For Jacor’s WFLA/WFLZ in Tampa, it’s Eric Chase, an imaging ace who had the good fortune to land his first radio gig as an assistant to one of the masters, Joel Moss at WEBN/Cincinnati. Top off three years with Joel with a musical background and the right dose of the “right stuff,” and Eric quickly developed into one of today’s most talented imaging producers. As you’ll read in this month’s interview, the huge Jacor group isn’t keeping Eric’s skills exclusive to WFLA/WFLZ. Apparently, in this age of consolidation, when you go to work for station A, you might well find yourself working for station B, C, and D, maybe H, and probably X, Y, and Z. And, yes...they all “need it now!” What’s it like? How does he do it? Read on.
RAP: How did you get started in radio?
Eric: Well, I kind of backed into radio. I went to journalism school at Missouri and got my degree in Advertising in ’82. After I graduated from Missouri, and as I was searching for an ad agency job over that summer, I had a chance to go on the road with a band. I’ve been a musician since I was a kid. I started out playing drums when I was eight, and I was playing the guitar when I was ten or so. I picked up bass and keyboards along the way. Anyway, I had a chance to go on the road with a band after college, and I ended up being on the road for eight years. I got burned out on the road, being with various types of bands, pretty much traveling fifty-two weeks a year, so I ended up in Fort Walton Beach in the Destin area doing a house gig at the Hog’s Breath Saloon. I did that for a couple of years.
About the time I decided I’d had enough of being in a bar every night of my life, I went to Atlanta to work in this recording studio. The guy who owned it and I used to play in a band together in Kansas City, which is where I’m from. I did that for about a year, then I did some solo gigs up in Atlanta and ended up in Cincinnati where my girlfriend is from. At this point I was getting really desperate to get out of the bar business.
I answered a blind ad in a newspaper in Cincinnati and sent a tape of some real basic commercial stuff I had done in Atlanta. I ended up interviewing at WEBN in Cincinnati and got hired there by Tom Owens, who is now like a Jacor grand high poobah of programming, and Joel Moss. I was basically hired as Joel Moss’ assistant. This was about six years ago, and six years ago I had never even seen a cart machine. So I just fell backwards into radio. And coming from a musician’s background, I’d always kind of hated radio and what it did to music. That’s still kind of my attitude, even though I’m on the inside now.
But that’s how I ended up in radio, and certainly it’s a twist of fate that I ended up there with Joel Moss because we really hit it off. We still talk a lot and miss each other now that I’ve come down here. I basically learned everything I know about radio and production and writing for it from Joel, although I did come from a writing/advertising background.
RAP: What kinds of production did you do while you were working with Joel at WEBN?
Eric: At that point, Joel was handling the imaging for ‘EBN, and we were sharing the spot load. Then, as I started to get better at it, we’d do bits and songs for things like the Fools’ Parade. Song parodies are a real natural thing to me because I played in cover bands for centuries it seems like, and imitating people playing and singing is about the easiest thing I can think of doing. That was a really fun period at ‘EBN, aside from dealing with salespeople all day. It was very creative there--a lot of really cool people up there at the time.
RAP: How did you wind up in Tampa?
Eric: I had the opportunity to come down here or go work for The Richards Group, which is an ad agency in Dallas, on the Taco Bell account doing just Taco Bell radio. I went for the gig down here which was Creative Services for WFLA and WFLZ, the news/talk and the CHR. This was the chair Brian James was sitting in at the time. Brian was basically being driven insane by the workload and his voice stuff, so I took over the Creative Services gig. That was really my first foray into imaging. At that point, we switched from the Power Pig on ‘FLZ to 93.3 FLZ, a mainstream CHR pretending to be hip which was a real natural kind of thing.
RAP: What’s the workload like now?
Eric: At this point, ‘FLZ has become the Jacor CHR hub, and we’re doing a lot of stuff for other stations out of here--programming, production concepts, promotions, the whole bit. I mean, sometimes it feels like almost everybody working for this station has been stretched to the limit. And the same is going on for the news/talk world. I’ve developed a different kind of news/talk attitude, and I’m doing a lot of cookie-cutter stuff for news/talk stations around the chain. I think we must have fifty, sixty, seventy news/talks. I don’t know how many, but there are a lot of stations running Dr. Laura, Rush, etc., and I’m doing a lot of that cookie-cutter stuff. When I produce something here, I’ll send the parts up to Jacor, and the bits and pieces will get around the chain.
In the CHR world, there are a lot of start-ups going on. Right now, I’m involved in Z107.7 in St. Louis which we just hit the air with about a month ago. That’s the same situation I was in with KIIS-FM in LA starting back in February when Jacor bought that. It was basically, “Let’s re-image the thing, try to be a little cooler, and try to make it more like ‘FLZ.” That’s the mode we’re in now. Because ‘FLZ has been so successful, we’re trying to clone it and stick it everywhere, with a few adjustments here and there.
RAP: What was your involvement with KIIS in LA?
Eric: With KIIS, I ended up doing the stuff from here. They offered me the job out there, but I didn’t want to live in LA. And at that time, the station had a very Gannett mentality. It was very stiff and sales driven, and Jacor is very loose. That still appeals to me about Jacor, although the money is getting tighter and we’re behaving more like a bottom-line oriented company. I ended up having to do LA for about six or seven months while we attempted to hire Jeff Thomas out of London from Virgin. Then we finally got him in the country. It just so happens that today, I had to do a Sandy Thomas session for KIIS because Jeff had to leave the country because of immigration issues. Right now he’s in Sydney. Hopefully, he’ll be producing the stuff from there for about a month while this immigration stuff is finalized, and then he’ll be back in.
Jeff and I together did a start-up package for the St. Louis station, Z107.7, and since then I’ve been attempting to do their stuff while they look for somebody to hire. By the way, “Help wanted in St. Louis! We need a Creative Services guy in St. Louis!” I think they need him to do an air shift or something else, too. It’s not a great situation, but I think there’s potential to kick some ass in St. Louis because they haven’t seen this type of CHR before. It’s an in-your-face, hip CHR, pretending to be hip in the imaging, yet playing the same old crap, basically.
RAP: So, along with imaging WFLA and WFLZ, you’re pretty busy putting start-up packages together for other stations in the chain.
Eric: Yes, and in the last couple of weeks, they wanted me to do another start-up in Charleston, which is going to be a similar thing, but more of a female-driven AC. And since I’m still involved in the St. Louis station, not to mention ‘FLZ and ‘FLA, I’ve been juggling all these balls, and some of them are starting to hit the floor. I told them I could do it just as long as I didn’t have to do the organizing of the voice sessions, then do the sessions and everything else. So we ended up having Brian Price out of ‘DVE in Pittsburgh do some of the stuff, and I contributed some “beat-breaky” kinds of things. That’s still on-going, so I think I might be involved in like five stations, but it’s always changing. However, ‘FLA and ‘FLZ do stay constant
RAP: Do you have any help there at WFLA/WFLZ?
Eric: I now have two assistants to help me out, one for AM and one for FM, although they don’t have a studio to work out of. So we have to crank my studio around the clock. The relief now is that I’ve got my home studio up and running, so I’ve got ProTools there and ProTools here. Sometimes I work twelve to sixteen hours a day between here and home just trying to find a place to do the writing, do the production, and take four billion phone calls in a day. It’s become quite intense. I find myself running up and down the hall like that scene from Broadcast News where that girl’s trying to get the tape to the control room in time to get it on the air. But that’s the intensity level, and it has really picked up lately. So I’m hoping that having the ability to do some of the work at home is going to help.
RAP: Twelve to sixteen hour days, working at the station AND at home. It sounds like they’re getting everything they can out of you!
Eric: It’s insane, it really is. And it’s interesting because I’m talking to a lot of people around the country, and it’s not uncommon. I mean, there are people screaming bloody murder in the bigger companies. The better people in the bigger companies are just getting pummeled by work from various stations. They’re being required to do work from all over, and it’s just stretching everybody so thin that I feel like there is going to be this mass exodus of production people into the free-lance world soon. We’ll see how it all pans out.
RAP: I would imagine you don’t find much time for any free-lance work.
Eric: There’s a lot of it out there, and I turn down a lot of it. I do voice stuff, however. I do about ten stations at this point. But as far as free-lance production, the only production I do outside these two stations is the stuff that Jacor makes me do, which is a free-lance situation. The only difference is that you don’t have the opportunity to say no. I can’t say, “Sorry, I don’t have time,” so you just add it to the pile.
RAP: Well, I’ll assume you’re being compensated for the extra work and making a decent living.
Eric: I really can’t complain about that. And the voice stuff certainly helps. Sitting down and reading a page is a lot easier than producing a page. I have several stations in the UK, and I have one in Dallas, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Lexington.
RAP: All this extra work must have started happening recently. When you first got to Tampa, weren’t things pretty mellow, working for just the AM and the FM?
Eric: Yeah, then it kind of snowballed. ‘FLZ started to take off. ‘FLZ has won all kinds of awards. I don’t have the luxury of being in on the high-fiving and back-slapping when we win these things because I’m involved in so many different things. We’ve got five stations in the building here and two across town, so it’s not like you really have time to go whoo-hoo over one station being number one and winning Billboard Station of the Year or Gavin Awards or whatever it is. I think ‘FLZ has pretty much racked up all of them in the last two years, and it’s snowballed from there.
RAP: Tell us a bit about the style of imaging you’re doing for WFLZ. How does it compare to what you were doing with Joel at WEBN in Cincinnati?
Eric: Making the jump to CHR was a little weird, coming from a rock station, coming from ‘EBN where basically anything goes, but I kept fighting to keep a bit of that in-your-face attitude in there. Most CHR stations are terrified of going down that road. One of the promotions we’re currently doing--our main promotion--is “The Breast Christmas Ever” which is a boob job giveaway, and for a female-driven CHR, that’s a fairly in-your-face presentation with fairly edgy imaging. Of course, it’s nothing like we’d do at ‘EBN. I mean, at ‘EBN you could basically say or do anything you wanted, just as long as you bleeped the “u” out of f**k. That was about the only rule. The freedom was great up there, and you know, I miss that rock mentality. I don’t miss the sameness of the music, but that idea of anything goes was the coolest thing about ‘EBN. And ‘EBN is being cloned around the country as well. 98 Rock down here now sounds a lot like ‘EBN, complete with John Wells’ voice. And they’ve got Carl Harris down here who came from Cincinnati where he was producing Channel Z. It was him and Brad Hardin, and they actually brought in another guy who used to be at ‘EBN in Cincinnati.
So this is the Jacor family. People are bouncing around the country from station to station. B.J. Harris, here at ‘FLZ, is the head of CHR chain-wide, which I think is up to about twenty stations now. He’s incredibly scattered trying to deal with all these stations and ‘FLZ. We just lost Jeff Kapugi, our PD here, up to St. Louis where he’s trying to get that thing off the ground with a lot of obstacles--limited budgets, no production rooms, no production guy, which is certainly becoming a thorn in my side as we get into more promotions.
RAP: Welcome to the era of consolidation. It sounds like you’re right in the middle of it and one of Jacor’s key production personnel.
Eric: Some of the idea of this consolidation, especially in the KIIS FM situation, was that, “Hey, this will be cool. We’ll get Sandy Thomas and have him voice KIIS, and we’ll get him on ‘FLZ. Then we’ll be able to do the same stuff and just plug in the call letters, right?” Well, when it boiled down to it, the fact was that they are two completely different monsters, and it was pretty rare that it was as simple as just dragging over some different call letters or a different voice. And it’s going to evolve like that in St. Louis, too, although we’re starting off on a good note because we’re both doing the breast giveaway which makes things a little easier. Although, the way they’re approaching it up there is a little bit different, so everything has to be a little different. If I have to do two versions of a promo down here, I’ll have to do two more versions for up there, maybe three more versions up there just because of the nature of it. Then it becomes a monster.
RAP: What’s a typical day like for you?
Eric: Well, it’s 7:30 at night right now, and I just ate breakfast, which has kind of become the norm. I typically come in at eight and work until six. Then Brian Fink, my FM assistant comes in. Hopefully, I’ve had time to think about it and leave him some stuff to do. He’s very good. He’s really developing into a great production guy. Then at ten p.m., my AM guy comes in. So Brian’s only got that four-hour window. Well, that’s the plan, but yesterday was a nightmare. Last night I didn’t get out of here until ten thirty because I was dealing with St. Louis stuff which I ended up having to recut today because they gave me the wrong numbers. So, I get out of here at ten thirty last night and go home where I had to do some writing. That may have gone on until twelve thirty or one. Then I vegged out for a while and went to bed. I was back in here at about eight thirty this morning when the shit started to hit the fan. Today I dealt with five PDs: the guy here at ‘FLZ/’FLA, Jeff Kapugi in St. Louis--”We need our boob shit and we need it now”--the guy at the station that is going to be “Alice” in Charleston, and the KIIS-FM guy calling in a panic--"You’re doing the session with Sandy, right? You got the copy? You got the copy, right?" Then there was some other guy in the mix today.
That’s the insanity, and then there’s trying to juggle the priorities. If you’re dealing with five different PDs in four different markets...well, just take this building with the two PDs. It’s news/talk and CHR, and they basically don’t exist to each other. Their sets of priorities are totally different. St. Louis’ priorities are different. Everybody has their priorities, and it becomes very difficult to prioritize things. You just have to kind of go, “Well, when Corporate calls, that’s the priority.”
Normally, the stuff I give to assistants would be stuff like compiling composite tapes or putting together DATs with cookie-cutter Dr. Laura promos or cookie-cutter Rush promos that we could send around to all the news/talks without the voice tracks so they could plug in their own guy. But I ended up having to take an hour today just to get San Diego some stuff that I’d probably done three or four times before. There tends to be a lot of wasted time still, and it’s just because of the nature and the insanity of the situation right now. It’s nationwide, and it’s industry-wide. And the idea of one creative services guy just imaging one station, I think that is really a vanishing breed because stations are trying to do more with less people, and that’s just a fact.
RAP: It seems another thing that is vanishing along with that one guy for one station is having your main production guy physically in your station. Fortunately, they have you there at ‘FLA and ‘FLZ, but as you mentioned, these guys in LA and St. Louis panic because they can’t walk down the hall and say, “I need this now.”
Eric: Right. And lately, ‘FLA has been getting the short end of the stick. When corporate is standing behind going, “We’ve got to make this St. Louis thing happen,” or, “We’ve got to make this Charleston thing happen,” you don’t even know what station you’re working for anymore. You’ve just got to kind of go with the flow. But lately, the chain-wide projects have taken on more importance, and these local stations, we’re kind of letting them slide a little bit, from a Jacor point of view. But in the Jacor world of CHR, if we don’t have five or six different promos in all the time, then we’re feeling naked. And of course, all of those have to be changed up every couple of days.
Then, when you’re talking about doing this for three or four stations, it becomes insanity. And of course, the news/talk load is another beast altogether, with daily promos for the news, almost a daily promo for the morning show, Rush promos, Dr. Laura promos, plus our local talk show hosts. And I do have a really good assistant for that named Flounder, oddly enough, and he’s holding down the fort. We’re just hanging on by our fingernails, basically, trying to keep ahead on this AM stuff. And with news/talk, when you throw in something like, say, the Oklahoma City bombing, then you have do drop everything and just deal with that. When the Oklahoma City bombing hit, I basically took an entire day and produced this really intense sound bite laden thing to that song, Lightning Crashes. It was cool and ended up making the rounds around the chain, but it took an entire day.
RAP: I don’t see where you could possibly find the time for stuff like that anymore, and with your musical background, parodies and song oriented projects are probably your strong suit.
Eric: My favorite stuff to do is bits and song parodies, and that really is my strength. But you’re right, there’s not a lot of time to do that anymore because you literally have to drop everything for the best part of a day. If I’ve got to recreate the music from scratch, that might take three hours to do, to figure out all the parts, play them, and mix them. And then you’re talking about doing the writing and the singing on top of that. Then if you want to add some value with some sound bites and some wacky stuff going on to really making it action-packed, you’re talking about a whole day to do that. And if you take a day to do one thing like that, the balls start falling all over the place. So it’s not a world where you can get away with that anymore, although I still do it. I just end up working longer, coming in on Saturday, coming in on Sunday. I sit there on Sunday watching the game as I edit.
You’ve just got to hopefully get through the stuff as best as you can. The frustrating part for me is that there is no time to do your really best work. That’s the problem. You really have to keep that assembly line going or else people start screaming bloody murder. For instance, M.J., part of the M.J. and B.J. morning team here, has been after me all week to try to do this project where we put together some fake jingles that kind of sound real, but they’re real cheesy. To build something like that from scratch, my estimate is that it will take about a day doing the music, the vocals, and everything else. You know, to take a day to do something is almost impossible in this situation unless it’s a Saturday or unless it’s like midnight to eight o’clock in the morning. It’s just too insane here during the day to deal with that stuff.
RAP: How many promos would you say you cut in a day?
Eric: Well, it depends. Sometimes I look back on this insane, nonstop day, and maybe I only produced four promos. But a lot of the time is spent organizing sessions, dealing with people on the phone, putting fires out. There’s a lot of that--recarting stuff that blows up, dealing with all the little emergencies, doing voice sessions. I do anywhere from three to five voice sessions a week, all of which have to be written.
Now on other days, where that kind of stuff might not be hitting the fan and I can really sit down and produce, there might be days where I produce ten promos. In my opinion, a really cool top to bottom FM promo, with lots going on, if I really throw everything into it, it might take me two to three hours. But it’s really hard to take that much time. With a lot of the AM stuff, I just get some material from the show and throw it in there. I have projects that are basically templates where I move the voice tracks around and slap it together in a half hour. There’s a lot of that going on, especially on the AM side.
RAP: What percentage of your time would you say is spent on management and organizing things?
Eric: I’d say forty percent of my time now, and it’s becoming more and more. I’m having to deal with a lot of different people, a lot of different priorities. I’m getting a lot of phone calls, and I have a hard time saying, “I can’t talk. I’m too busy. Screw you,” because I want to talk to people.
So, I’d say it’s up in the neighborhood of twenty to forty percent of my time being spent doing that kind of stuff. And I spend a lot of time doing things that really should be assistant-type duties. But, because of our studio situation, I don’t have an assistant here while I’m here, someone to run over to the fax machine and stand and wait for all these “breast requests” to come through. There’s a lot of little stuff that goes on that I have to do just because I don’t have anyone else to pawn it off on at the time.
RAP: Apparently, you have just one production studio at the station. That’s pretty amazing, considering the work load.
Eric: Yeah, basically one studio. However, the ProTools thing is new. I have that at home, and I’m getting it here. It’s not up and running here yet, but hopefully at that point I’ll be able to get out of here at six, even if I’m not done. I’ll be able to take my Jaz disc home, pop it in, and just pick up where I left off. So that’s going to open up some possibilities, and I think it’s going to save me some sanity to be able to actually leave here after an eight or nine hour day. I’m a severe tech head. I love technology, and that’s what really appeals to me about ProTools. In fact, on my home system, I have video capability, too.
I really love computers, and I’m a big fan of the Mac. I have three Macs now, two at home and one here. They’re great machines, and the capabilities of all computers are just increasing so much all the time. They are just tools, but I can really get excited about that stuff. When I first sat down to ProTools and the guy did the demo for me and said, “Look, you can do this, this, this and this...oh, and look at the toys,” I was like “Ooohhhhhh!” I couldn’t believe it, and that’s one thing that kind of keeps me excited, these little bumps of enthusiasm from little things like that. I hope to get one from the change over to a really cool system here, although it’s a serious learning curve as well. But I’m really looking forward to it. When you’re on a certain system for a while, you get set in your ways. The DM-80 is a classic example. You’ve got eight tracks, and you tend to do the same thing in every promo. I think I need a kick in the ass to do some stuff differently because you tend to fall into the same patterns. You’re on the assembly line. That’s kind of what you’re expected to do, so that’s what you do. You’ve just got to throw a wrench into it every now and then, and I’m hurling a big wrench right about now.
RAP: How do you use compression? Do you compress voice tracks going into the workstation?
Eric: Well, typically, voice tracks are so heavily compressed on the voice guy’s end of it, so there’s no need to compress the thing going in. But for the sake of punch, and for the sake of evenness, I always compress the mix to one degree or another. Right now I’m using the Compellor. I don’t compress much on the mix, just enough. The Compellor is a little different than the standard compressor. It’s real clean, and it just has a drive control. It’s very simple. Sometimes I’ll crank up the drive, and sometimes I’ll crank it down. What I’m looking for from a compressor is punch. It’s kind of an in-your-face feel that won’t be there without compression. And of course, you get more compression on the air which you’ve got to be wary of because you can squash the life out of something too much in your production room. Then, when you put it on the air, it gets squashed again and really turns to mush, especially on the AM. I hate hearing stuff on the air and going, “Oh, I can’t believe it sounds like that.”
RAP: What about EQ?
Eric: EQ I use all the time. These are people who say, “What do you need EQ for?” I think it’s incredibly important. And this Focusrite EQ I have in ProTools has really opened up my eyes. I’d never heard a really high quality EQ that’s really precise, really crisp. I’ll always do four or five different EQs in a promo. Sometimes I’ll run voice tracks through a guitar amp simulator and distort them. Sometimes I’ll run them through a phone. But I’ll do a lot of wacky stuff with EQ.
I don’t use a lot of reverb except maybe for an effect if you want to be in a canyon or something. Reverb’s kind of gone out of style, and I’m trying to come up with something that’s a little less traditional as far as new and different ways to whack out a voice. Adding EQ is just one way--EQ, pitch, backwards scrubbing, distortion, anything goes.
RAP: You mentioned recarting things earlier, so you guys must still be on cart there. Is that correct?
Eric: Yeah, as unbelievable as it may seem. We’re supposed to go to a digital system within the next few months on both stations down here. That’s going to be nice because our cart machines sound horrible. They’re really old. And that’s another thing that takes a little time. With the cart machines in my room, you have to cart something up at least three times if you want it to be on there good once, and that is a pain. But hopefully, this digital thing will end up saving us some time in that department.
RAP: Are you writing all of the promos?
Eric: Yeah, for the most part. Some of the basic stuff on the AM will come from programming, rejoiners or real basic stuff for football games. For example, we’re doing the FSU game, and they typically don’t burden me with writing that stuff. I’ll just do the voice session, get the tracks, and hand it off to one of my assistants. But certainly all the FM stuff--all the conceptual image stuff and most of the liners--all that is coming through me. I wouldn’t have it any other way as far as promos go because it all starts in your brain and at the typewriter. The idea that the programmer can kind of come up with a half-assed script and you can save it in the production room and make it something good is really not valid. I mean, you can polish up a turd, but it’s still a turd. I’d rather take it from the ground up. Basically, these guys can give me a fact sheet--”here’s what we want to say; here’s what we’re doing; here’s how we’re doing it”--then from there I can come up with some concepts.
RAP: Do you ever get involved in any commercial production?
Eric: I haven’t done a spot since I left ‘EBN. In some ways, I kind of miss doing spots because you have sixty seconds in which to develop something, and in promos, you’re limited a little bit more. And with promos, you’ve got to use a certain voice guy for the most part--although I typically use three, four, five voices in promos with various wacky things flying in and out. But you can really develop a concept in a spot. It would be kind of cool if I was able to do one spot a year, if I could pick my own client, a client with one shining concept at the heart of the spot, no laundry list, but something you could really take and run with. Those are the award-winning spots. In Cincinnati, Joel and I would wait for the Mercury Awards to come out, and we’d pop in the Mercury Awards CD and go, “Oh yeah, this is so cool.” And a lot of that stuff is all very much from a writer’s point of view. It will be sixty seconds of dry voice, and it will be brilliant. In radio promos, if we had a sixty-second promo with dry voice, everybody would be screaming, “Where the hell’s the production?” You can’t do that in promos, but in a spot, if you have a well-written spot and a great voice doing it and a great concept at the heart of it, you can get away with much less production.
It all comes down to the writing, and there’s an appeal for that. I’ve always thought that the coolest gig in the world would be to be a writer for The Simpsons because the stuff they come up with is so cutting and funny and intelligent, and there’s lots of buried stuff that most people will never get. I like the multilayered approach. You’ve got one thing going on the surface, but there’s some stuff going on underneath that maybe some people will catch, maybe nobody will catch. But at least I know it’s there, and I’m happier because of it.
Getting back to the spot thing, it was really a blast in Cincinnati when Joel and I had the rare opportunity to sit in the same room, write a spot, and produce it together. Those were some of the spots we won awards for. But man, those days are gone. It’s pretty much a guy in a room anymore, a guy in a room on an assembly line.
RAP: When you sit down to write a promo, what’s your creative approach? Where do you start?
Eric: I’m really open to anything, anything goes. It might start with an idea for a goofy piece of a song, or it might come from just a clever line from the guys over in programming, and I’ll use that as a launching point. And the Jacor programmers are good at giving you a hook to hang a promo on, which is what you need. There’s always a little bit of a twist that you can take and run with, and that’s the key to making something memorable, to have something that is beyond just a laundry list.
RAP: What’s a recent example of finding and using a “hook” like this in a promo?
Eric: The thing that comes to mind, because I’ve been living it the past couple days for two markets, are The Breast Christmas promos. I started out basically with the idea of taking some Christmas carols and making them breast songs. The first one was like, “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a breast augmentation...,” and that was all there was to that one. Then there are the ones I haven’t used yet. I produced all the little pieces of songs, and they’ll kind of make their way into promos over the next few weeks. Another one of them was [to Silver Bells], “Bigger breasts, bigger breasts, it’s Christmas time for your titties,” and of course I’ll bleep out titties and maybe have a little disclaimer that says, “Sorry we were unable to finish this song because it contained the word titties,” then bleep that and have another disclaimer, a Monty Python kind of thing.
I can’t remember what the other songs were, but that promotion tends to be revolving around these goofy little songs. But the creative idea really can come from anywhere. I got into a mode a while back where Sandy Thomas does this great Steven Wright type read, this real bored kind of thing. And in CHR, it’s this constant hype of, “Winners, winners, winners! You’ve got to get winners in all of these promos!” So it struck me to have this really bored guy reading this stuff: [in a slow Stephen Wright voice] “It’s the contest with absolutely, positively no hype whatsoever....” And in between that are all these little sections of winners yelling and screaming with fast music and so forth.
So I like the back and forth, abrupt change kind of mentality with lots of voices. The first time I ever heard John Frost’s stuff I was like, “Whoa! That’s the type stuff I like to do.” It’s kind of cartoony, kind of goofy, but in a hip way. I like to go down that road a lot.
On the other hand, on the news/talk side, there’s much more of an opportunity to be a little more thoughtful with much less of the slam bang. In a thirty-second ‘FLZ promo, there might be fifty, sixty elements. In an AM thirty-second promo, there might be just a voice, a couple of different music beds, and maybe a couple of effects. But as long as the concept is there and the voice guy is there....
I have the luxury of working with Nick Michaels out of Miami who, if you use him properly, can bring this incredible creative writer’s mentality to the voice session. He can take what you’ve given to him and add to it, twist it and make it better. The highlight of my week is doing my Nick Michaels session because after we get done with plowing through whatever copy we’ve got--and a lot of it is real straightforward--we have some fun. This guy can give you any accent under the sun, and that’s really what he excels in. And getting him to do a straight read is like pulling teeth anymore because he has so much fun doing the wacky stuff. I’ll say, “I need a straight read for this,” and he’s like, “No, screw it. I’m doing the Scottish guy.” A session with Nick really becomes entertaining, and we crack each other up to the point sometimes that I end up crying. I’ll go back to these DATs and listen to our old sessions and just find the most brilliant outtake material, stuff that I’ve never had the opportunity to go back and actually do anything with.
But the magical moments with Nick are unplanned. Here’s a good example. We got this weather liner written by somebody in programming. It was, “When it comes to Bay area weather, we know which way the wind blows.” It was written as a straight line. Nick takes a look at it. I hear him kind of thinking, and all of a sudden he just starts singing, “When it comes to Bay area weather, we know which way the wind blows, we know which way the wind blows, we know which way the wind blows...” Then, of course, I start joining in. Then I built it up later in production to make it sound like there are three or four guys building up, then ten guys, and they all end up singing this stupid-ass song. And a seven-second liner became a thirty-second liner with Nick cackling at the end. It’s this crazy laugh he has, and he says, “Come on, Eric, don’t make me do it straight. That was great, man. That was beautiful.” Every now and then he’ll hit one like that. And even with the rigidity of some of our syndicated programming, we fit that stuff in. We’ll make room for it because it gives you a presence that you can’t get anywhere else.
You know, most news/talkers just have a big voice guy puking some real straightforward lines. You do need that straight voice for a lot of things on the AM because there are so many different things to talk about--weather, traffic, news, this show, that show--and you have to do it in a straight way. But you have to do it in a creative way, too, to ease the burn factor.
RAP: They’re very lucky to have you there. How many stations do you think you could single-handedly image at one time?
Eric: And do it properly? One! My dream is to go back to working for one station. I look at this every day and it drives me nuts. I cannot do my best work in this situation. There’s no time to write it. There’s no time to produce it. There’s no time to sit and stare at a wall while you come up with it. You’ve just got to slug it out and do the best you can with it and just try to juggle the priorities.
In the days when Joel Moss was just doing creative for ‘EBN, he’d not only take the time to do the stuff he was handed by programming, but he’d come up with stuff on his own. That concept of saying, “Oh, this would be a good idea. What if I did this today,” that’s where the magic happens, when you get a flash of inspiration and you can actually go down that road and pursue it. Lately, you might get a flash of inspiration, but you have to watch it drift by because you’ve got twenty other things to do before you could even possibly think about that. And if you’re talking about current events, the window of opportunity is very small. If you’re talking about doing a really cool, funny bit or a high production value song parody, and you’ve got twenty other things on your plate, it’s going to be dead by the next day. And if you don’t grab it then, it’s gone. So that’s a source of frustration now, even though every now and then I’ll just flog myself on a weekend and crank one out. But you really end up paying the price for it because it puts you that much further behind. Then everybody’s beating down your door going, “Hey, loved the parody, but I need these ten things.”
RAP: Every creator has his tools. What are your tools as an imaging producer? What do you need to do your job right?
Eric: I need a good voice that can give me something other than just straight ahead stuff. You need a voice person who can deliver the stuff without sounding too cliched. One thing I’ve always hated about radio was the stereotypical CHR delivery, that hyped pukiness. I like to go the opposite way. I like the deadpan thing, and it has been the rage in advertising for years in high-end national advertising. It’s very conversational or really devoid of feeling, those types of reads. Conversational is cool, and if I do something that sounds hyped, it’s like making fun of hype.
You need a good workstation. I like the toys. I’m working with the Roland DM-80 right now, with the Mac front end which is a very basic 8-track thing. I have a sampler. I have a lot of effects units, so I can do some wacky stuff technically to the material which I need.
RAP: What about production music and libraries?
Eric: For the most, part I’ve been kind of burning out on production libraries in general, even though I have a lot of stuff. I have a lot of AV Deli material which is great and very affordable. But once you have a bit of it, you’ve pretty much had it until they come up with the next sound. I have a little bit of Brown Bag, but I’m kind of getting away from the traditional sounding stuff. The last breast promo I produced had no production library stuff in it whatsoever. I’m kind of creating the stuff as I go. I like lots of ballsy but weird sounds. For CHRs, I like to use some edgy music, and for me, production libraries just don’t cut it. I mean, it’s not as good. Somebody doing a techno production library doesn’t sound as good as popping in a Prodigy CD, and there’s so much out there. I go to the cool record stores, hit the bargain bins, and scope out what’s there. I use a lot of alternative and industrial type music on the CHR, and it works for me because I like the imaging to be ten times as aggressive as the music. In order to do that, I really have to get away from the production libraries because that’s what everybody else is doing.
Being a musician, at least I can come up with some of that myself and make it unique. And because I’m doing so much, I burn through these production libraries very quickly. It’s like, “Well, let me put something together that’s weirder or use something as a jumping off point for something else.” I think ProTools is going to allow me to do a lot more of that because there’s just so much you can do. The key word is plug-ins with ProTools, and I’m going to have some serious toys in there. There will be new toys forever, and some cool toys at that. One I’m looking at right now is supposed to be a pitch shifting algorithm that compensates for the chipmunk or Darth Vader effect. It allows you to pitch shift stuff and still have it sound natural, up as much as a half octave or maybe an octave. That’s what it’s purported to do. I find myself imitating female voices singing all the time. This would really help when it comes to that because any time I’m imitating a female, it’s either a falsetto type thing, or I’m having to pitch it. And of course, you pitch something up half an octave, and you pretty much sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks. There’s really no way around it.
Some of the stuff out for ProTools is incredible, and the quality of EQs and everything is there. It’s really going to make a difference in the sound. It blows by the DM-80 like the DM-80 is a 2-track cassette deck or something. So I’m really looking forward to getting into the system and learning it. I’ll probably be crying on Jeff Thomas’ shoulder out in LA a lot because he’s been using it for a few years and is a big fan of it. One of the reasons I got into it in the first place is that I talk to Jeff probably every couple days, and we’ll be trading a lot of stuff.
Killer Hertz, Jeff’s production CD--he did it all with ProTools. The cool thing about Killer Hertz is that it’s somewhere between the traditional style radio stuff ala Brown Bag, big and fat like Brown Bag, but with more of a modern attitude. My only complaint about Killer Hertz is that it’s about six CDs too short. Man, you can burn through that CD in about a day. But it’s starting to catch on. I think a lot of people are going to pick that thing up, and it’s really a bargain. Those show intros alone are worth the price of admission.
RAP: You’re very fortunate to be able to work closely with people like Jeff Thomas today and Joel Moss when you first got into the business. What things do you most remember learning from Joel?
Eric: Rhythm. Being a musician, everything is rhythm to me. My stuff gets more and more rhythmic all the time. I’m finding myself doing pieces of voice tracks to the music now just so I can get them in rhythm because being out of rhythm is starting to drive me crazy. I learned a lot watching Joel work and just hearing, just getting the feel for the rhythm of the promo or the rhythm of the liner. There’s some rhythm going on with the voice and the effects and what you’re going to put in a hole here and what you’re going to hold back with a little pause there. It’s all about rhythm, and it’s all a very natural thing.
You hear it in your head as you go. You say, “Well, something should go here.” It might be a sneeze, but it’s just something that occurs to you that needs to go there. The thing has to just flow right, and I think that’s one of the things I picked up from Joel.
Also, I picked up his writing mentality. Everything originates at the typewriter. It’s not really a production gig; it’s a conceptual thing. It’s nice to be able to sit down at a typewriter and stare at a wall for a while as you try to daydream about what you might be able to do with it. But all too often it becomes a situation where you go into the PD’s office at, say, one forty-five, and meanwhile you’ve got a voice guy deadline at two. The PD says, “Oh, we’ve got to put something on the air by tomorrow.” You’ve got to get something recorded by two, so it’s, “Okay, let’s brainstorm.” So you brainstorm for five minutes and go, “There it is,” and you run back to your room, write it, get it on the fax machine to the voice guy, and then try to make the most of it. But rarely do you end up coming up with something really inspired in that kind of situation. It’s always done sitting down at the typewriter, and if you’re able to bounce ideas off of someone else, too, that’s great. But that’s happening less and less, as well.
As far as the interaction between Joel and me, we’re really on the same page creatively. We’ve always liked the same stuff. We appreciate the multi-layered kind of humor, not just a clever line. Although, Joel is the master of sitting down at a typewriter in a crunch. He’ll sit down at a typewriter with twenty minutes until John Wells’ deadline and end up coming up with something really cool, something that has maybe three or four brilliant lines in it. That’s a little more laborious for me. Sometimes it will come right out, and sometimes you’ve just got to drag it out.
I’ve learned a lot just from being around Joel. You know, it’s interesting. I hated it at the time, and it was really a thorn in our sides; but in those days I had a room, and Joel had a room. I got kicked out of my room at ten every morning for the morning show to come in and do their thing. So I would go to Joel’s room and watch him produce, and that’s probably where all of my arsenal of radio crap came from, just sitting in there watching Joel work with EQ, work with effects, doing weird things to voices, and how he went about thinking up the thing, executing it and mixing it. That was the real eye opener.
As I stayed up there, I became involved in that type of work. Then as we got more stations, I started doing some imaging for various things, and I got involved in T-shirt promos and such. Then Joel and I kind of evolved into this partnership, and when I left, it was really hard because we had a thing going on a personal level as well as a professional level. I came down here, and we both slipped into isolation. And while you can still do the thing in isolation, it helps to have some people around all the time to really bounce the shit off of.
RAP: Well, there are a lot of Program Directors out there who wish they had a creative guy like you or Joel on their payroll. Where are the other great production people?
Eric: I have PDs calling me all the time asking if I know anybody good. I tell them I know a handful of guys, but they’re all in place somewhere and you can’t afford them anyway. Typically, the PDs who call say they have a limited budget, the person has to do an air shift, and they don’t have a room to work out of. When you’re handicapping it like that, you’re never going to get anyone. You might get somebody like I was five years ago. Five years ago I would have basically done it for free. For stations like that, you have to catch somebody young who has some potential and has the mind set. It’s the mind set and the rhythm and the ability to conceptually get the stuff that you want. And hands and ears are good, too. You have to have some production skills, but those can be learned. You’ve got to have it in your head first.
Good production guys are hard to come by. The guys who can do it all from a blank piece of paper to a brilliant finished product, there are not a lot of them out there that I know of. But I’ll tell you what, it’s great to hear some of the high-end stuff out there. It is inspiring to hear somebody like John Frost or the guy you had in last month’s issue [Brian Kelsey, November 1997 RAP Interview] from K-ROCK in New York. His stuff was great. I love hearing Joel’s stuff, and I’ve been trying to get Jeff Thomas to send me some more stuff so I can steal some of his shit, too. We’re all thieves. We’ll take the stuff, be inspired by something, and adapt it to our own thing. You add it to your arsenal, and hopefully develop your own thing with it.
RAP: What’s down the road for you?
Eric: It’s really up in the air, but every day I get this feeling that I don’t know how much longer I can maintain the pace. You feel like you’re hurdling toward burnout at light speed. And there’s a million things to do on the outside. Eventually, I picture myself sitting by my pool doing some voice stuff, doing some production stuff, and just taking on the work I can handle and that I want to handle. I don’t know how far down the line that is, but I have taken the first step with the home studio and pursuing a little more voice work--although I’m not really pursuing it; it’s just coming my way, trickling in gradually. That kind of thing would give me the freedom to do less work and to do better work. That would be the key for me, and to be able to pursue inspiration when it comes along. That’s kind of rare in this situation.
RAP: That sounds like part of that mass exodus of production people you mentioned earlier.
Eric: Oh yeah. There’s lots of grumbling going around, and I’m going, “Hey, what if we got together and we could have this production brain trust?” There’s a lot of talk about it. I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but man oh man, there’s a lot of production people being bludgeoned to death out there, and to one extent or another, it’s going to happen. There’s no question about it.