R.A.P. Interview: Keith Smith

Keith Smith, Production Director, K-Earth, Los Angeles, California

Keith-Smith-Jul00by Jerry Vigil 

This month’s RAP Interview offers a long-overdue visit with another one of LA’s extremely talented imaging producers. Keith Smith took the Production Director’s helm at K-Earth nine years ago. In that time, he has worked with some of radio’s most legendary on-air talents and has taken the imaging of the Oldies format to a new level. In the LA imaging wars, Keith has shaped a sound for K-Earth that penetrates this super competitive market with a resonance that stacks this Oldies station up against some of the best imaged contemporary stations in LA, and with his help, K-Earth continues to rate as one of the country’s top Oldies stations, book after book.

JV: How did you get started in this business?
Keith: In 1982, I started junior college and majored in video games at the Chuck E. Cheese pizza restaurant, a pretty consistent theme that runs through all radio backgrounds, I’m sure. I started moving toward radio when a friend of mine told me about a class that met all my requirements—you could get a guaranteed A, they were transferable units, and you didn’t have to buy a book. That class happened to be Broadcasting. So, by the summer of ’82, I was bitten by the radio bug. The idea of being paid to sit in a little air-conditioned room and play music really sounded good to me at the time, but I soon found out that I had absolutely no disk jockey talent. I was in a difficult position because I loved the idea of being in radio. Then I found out about production. I started cutting up promos at the school radio station, and I just totally dug it. This was at a city college in Hayward, California called Chabot Junior College.

By the winter of ’83, I moved into a production internship at K101 in San Francisco. I hung around there working for free and eventually moved into somewhat of a paid position as a commercial producer—paid through trade which, as I look back on it now, was quite a scam. I eventually got an opportunity at the Production Director position after the Production Director at the time, Tim Jordan, moved on to KFRC. That was my big opportunity, and that happened in the Spring of 1985.

I was cruising along there at K101 and actually realized how much I didn’t know about production. I was learning on the fly. And I really wasn’t one of those guys who was an avid radio lover as a young kid, so I didn’t have a whole lot of background on what promos sounded like and stuff, although I did listen to KFRC a little bit as a kid. So, during that time at K101, I was really just trying to find myself as a producer and figure out what exactly I had gotten myself into. Then I started to get a clue. In early ’86, I got a call totally out of the blue from a guy I’d never heard of named Steve Rivers who was programming a radio station called KMEL. They had just switched from AOR to CHR a few months prior. He offered me a gig over there as Production Director, and I took it. That’s when I found myself in production boot camp and I really realized how much I didn’t know.

Steve Rivers is a fanatic about production, and he played me tapes of guys he had worked with in the past. I suppose that was his way of saying, “make it sound like this.” I was still trying to get a clue, and working for him under the pressure of needing to perform was really, like I said, boot camp. I worked at KMEL from February of ’86 until April of ’91. In the middle there, I transitioned from being the Production Director to producing the John London Morning Zoo. Then John got a job opportunity in Los Angeles, and there was no position for me. So, I was on the beach and out of work for about four months.

Then I got a call from Mike Phillips, who I worked with as an intern at K101. He called and said there was the possibility of an opening at K-Earth. I had not heard a whole lot about K-Earth, and I didn’t know whether it was on AM or FM. I just needed a job. I had no money, and I told him I would take it, not knowing what the format was or whether it was an AM or FM station. As I was coming to interview, driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I thought I’d give the station a listen. I found out the format was Oldies, so I figured it was probably on the AM band. I knew it was K-Earth 101, so I figured maybe they were at 1010 AM, and they just dropped one of the zeros. So I’m getting up over the Grapevine, I’ve got it on 1010 AM, and I’m hearing static. I’m thinking, if this is on the AM, I’m in some serious trouble. I switched it over to 101 FM, and there it was. I breathed a sigh of relief, and here I am.

JV: CBS/Infinity has several stations in LA including KROQ, KFWB, KNX, KTWV, KLSX and more. Are any of these stations in the same building you are in?
Keith: At this point, we are our own tenants, but that may change. We had Metro Traffic sharing the building for a while, and they moved out probably two years ago. So, we’re taking up this big old building all by ourselves.

JV: Imagine that…you’re a Production Director for just one station in this conglomerated industry.
Keith: I know it’s a rare thing, and I really feel sorry for people who are caught up in all that multi-station production stuff because I can’t imagine it. I’ve never done it before.

JV: What are your responsibilities there, and what help do you have?
Keith: I am responsible primarily for the station imaging, and I have additional programming responsibilities as far as strategy and positioning the station, writing, and so forth. There are four of us who kind of make up the core of the programming end, and we all team up and put everything together. Mike Phillips and I team up primarily, and it’s a great working relationship because our individual skills compliment each other well. But my main production responsibilities are the imaging. I have a commercial guy who is solely responsible for dealing with all the commercial stuff. Together, we knock it all out, and he’s great. We call him The Machine. Gary Marshall is The Machine. He just cranks it out. Commercial production drives me crazy, but he loves it and does a great job.

JV: K-Earth has quite a history. What are some highlights over the past ten years since you’ve been there?
Keith: I came to K-Earth on the heels of Mike Phillips becoming the Program Director. A few months prior to my coming, K-Earth had gone through a sale and gone through some management changes. They brought Bill Drake in from RKO, and Mike Phillips was brought in as the Program Director. They really changed the focus of the presentation, which was, before Mike’s coming, all over the board musically. Going to their library, you’d see everything from Van Halen to some of the wimpiest stuff you hear like Air Supply. It was crazy.

Mike came in and really cleaned things up, and in just a matter of a couple of books he took them from—I don’t even know how low they were, but it was pretty horrible—to top five in the market. And for thirty books, he was in the top five. So, he’s had great radio success, and I was able to come in and enjoy that throughout the ten years.

Also, there was a point in ’92 where they had an opportunity to bring in Robert W. Morgan and the Real Don Steele. And from somewhat of a spectator’s standpoint, it seemed that when they brought those guys in, it was like K-Earth became almost bigger than life because people automatically associated K-Earth with the old KHJ when those guys came on. Plus, we were using all the jingles and logos and stuff, and these guys really did bring quite a lot to the table when they came on. They’re really talented, and there was a mystique about K-Earth with those guys here. It was interesting how all of that played out from behind the scenes.

JV: Don Steele passed away in August of ’97, and you produced quite a tribute to him. Tell us a little about that.
Keith: I had access to a lot of his old air checks through his wife, whom I knew prior. She actually worked here in the programming department before he came on board, so I had established a relationship with her. After all this came about, one night I started to think that it would be nice to take all of the things that Don had done and tell his story. So, I sat down at the computer, hacked out a script, and ran it by his wife. She provided me with just a ton of great material from him. There was no deadline, so I was able to just work on it as time allowed. I was able to put the guy’s career down in a two-hour CD format. It was a fun experience because I had a good relationship with him, and we were friends here at the radio station. We would talk about stuff, but being from the Bay Area, I really never knew of the guy’s history at KHJ until after he came on. And I didn’t know any of his history prior to KHJ. I can’t even tell you that I had heard too much of his KHJ work until after he had passed on.

So, when I had all these tapes and started going through them, that’s when I realized what a talent the guy was and how ahead of his time he was and how creative he was, considering that he was coming into radio, as far as Top Forty radio, when it was in its infancy. He was one of those guys, in my opinion, who propelled Top Forty radio from an infant to an adult in a really short period of time.

JV: Did this 2-CD tribute air on the station?
Keith: Actually, it didn’t air. Initially, I thought they would air it, but I think that the consensus was that we needed to focus more on moving forward than bringing people back to what we had lost. And because it took me a few months to put this all together, by the time it was done, we’d already hired Shotgun Tom Kelly as the Real Don Steele’s replacement. And we didn’t know how that was going to go, not based on Shotgun Tom Kelly, but just based on the shoes of the Real Don Steele and how people were going to take to that. Shotgun Tom was doing a great job, and I think they were happy and just didn’t want to bring people’s memory back to the Real Don Steele.

JV: I’m sure there are people out there who would love to listen to the two CDs. Have you made them available to the public?
Keith: Well, it was really quite costly, not only because of the reproduction of the CDs themselves, but I contracted someone to do an elaborate artwork cover that folds out into a poster. That was very costly, and I didn’t feel comfortable selling it to recoup the cost. My initial impetus for doing this was just so that people could enjoy the Real Don Steele. It wasn’t about making money, and I just didn’t feel comfortable about that. So instead, I gave a copy to Uncle Ricky who has a web site that people can go and listen to it if they want to hear it. It’s at reelradio.com. If they’ve got audio on their computer, they can listen to it as many times as they want. Uncle Ricky has really devoted a good part of his life to this site. It has all kinds of air checks from all kinds of different guys, a lot of whom you’ve never even heard of, but it’s a real treasure trove for anybody who is a radio junkie.

JV: How would you define your style of production, your production philosophy?
Keith: I guess my production philosophy flows out of the different places I’ve been. I started out with a Top Forty CHR station that was kind of on the urban end. I was there in the mid-eighties when the Max Headroom stuttering and all that stuff that got tiresome after about a month or so was going on. The MTV stuff was starting to impact the culture with all the quick edits and such, and it was starting to filter its way into radio. After people had been exposed to that for a while, I think us as radio guys said, “Hey, people are being exposed to all this great stuff on MTV. We need to compete. We need to sound like we’re hip, too.”

So, I came up in that era. But I was also exposed to KFRC in the mid-seventies with the Ron Hummel production, which was in my opinion stellar and ahead of its time in the seventies. I don’t know the guy personally, but his production wasn’t just background to KFRC. It added a spark of magic to that radio station at the time, and that always stuck in the back of my mind as I was moving on to KMEL, which was becoming a successful CHR station in San Francisco. My goal was always to have that kind of an impact on the station. Production guys can influence a station more than any DJ because our stuff is on twenty-four hours a day and in multiple spots on the hot clocks. So that was the foundation, just realizing the impact that production can have on the radio station.

As I moved on to K-Earth, one of the things I was told when I was hired was that we are a Top Forty station that just happens to play Oldies. That was the mentality for this radio station. And our production here at K-Earth is designed to generate forward momentum for the station. Our station, even though we play slow songs, needs to have momentum. It needs to sound like it’s alive. And if the production isn’t helping that, then our station isn’t going to achieve that goal. The production here at K-Earth really gives the format a fresh sound. We’re not adding any new songs on the Oldies play list, you know, so if the production isn’t fresh and if the production isn’t exciting, then I think it’s going to have an impact on the station. You can go out and get one of those oldies compilation CDs and listen to that if you want. If the jocks aren’t adding the entertainment value, and if the production isn’t happening, then I think the Oldies station is dead in the water. But that’s just my opinion.

There are other formats that are naturally pushing the envelope and that lend themselves to cutting edge production. I think that Oldies stations need to realize, at least our Oldies station needs to realize, from a production standpoint, that we’re not just competing with ourselves. We’re either a secondary or a tertiary choice for most people, other than our P1 listeners. They can be punching to an Alternative radio station. They can be punching around to KIIS-FM or any of these other stations and then decide, “hey, I want to hear 'Dock of the Bay',” and then they come back here. So, in my mind, we’re competing with all these other different radio stations from a production standpoint. And if my production sounds like it’s back in the sixties, then in comparison with stuff that is pushing the envelope and is cutting edge, my stuff is even going to sound older and more stale. So, I’m putting myself to the task of trying to keep K-Earth on the cutting edge within the parameters of our format and our demographic. I want to add a little edge to my Oldies production. I think that’s one of the reasons Mike hired me from a CHR radio station. He realized that just because you’re an Oldies radio station, you don’t have to talk about fuzzy dice and ’55 Chevys, and your production doesn’t have to sound like that either. He told me he wanted the station to sound contemporary, but I think there was a little hesitancy because they didn’t want all the Max Headroom crazy stuttering and all the other stuff that was going on in CHR. At first, he was a little bit leery that maybe I’d come in here and just go absolutely crazy and throw lasers on everything. And I realized that I did want to get the production to a certain point, but it was going to have to be gradually. And it wasn’t just because of management and their perceptions. It was because of the audience as well. If I just came in here and started slinging both guns out of the holsters right off the bat, it probably would freak some people out.

But slowly, I have taken our production to what I consider—and I’m sure there would be room for debate—to be “on the edge” production for this Oldies station. I’ve been quite impressed with the Alternative style of production and have tried to come up with a form of that type of quick edit style of production that you hear most famously on KROQ and some of the other great Alternative stations. I think it is very clever and very well done for the most part, and I’ve tried to work some of that into our context here at K-Earth—not a lot of it and obviously not to the same extreme, but I do want to be comparable as much as I can to what people will be listening to on the whole spectrum of the radio dial here in Los Angeles.

Also, one other thing that I realized which was different here at K-Earth than what I had been used to was that K-Earth was a very contest-driven radio station. Every month we do a different contest, and one of the things we realized very quickly is that these contests have to be entertaining, not for just the three to five percent of the active contest players, but for the ninety-five to ninety-seven percent of the other people who are listening at the time. So, we try and come up with creative and fun and entertaining contests, and my goal is to make sure that these things are entertaining through a lot of theater of the mind, using a lot of sound effects and familiar beds and stuff like that. A lot of that I learned as I was producing the morning show in San Francisco. We used very recognizable beds a lot. Take the Superman theme for example. When you hear that bed, there are certain images that are conjured up in your mind, and it’s consistent. You play it for ten people, and they’re going to think of a strong guy. There are certain things they are going to think of when they hear that bed. That was one of the things I learned as a morning show producer, and I brought it in and incorporated into what I was doing here at K-Earth. That’s another thing that has shaped my style of production.

JV: How do you bridge that gap between Oldies and Contemporary in the imaging statements you use at K-Earth? What kind of messages are you sending to give the station a contemporary feel, but at the same time being an Oldies station?
Keith: We never want to bring people back and say, “Remember 1965” because we don’t know how many of those memories are good or bad anyway. I think our messages are timeless in the sense that they don’t brand us as old or new. They just tell people the benefit of the station, and it’s my job to make that come alive through the sound. If our statement is, “All the great Oldies,” then that statement is just telling people, “Hey, this is what you’re going to get when you come to this radio station.” When we’re telling them what they’re going to get when they come to K-Earth, it’s a statement that does not make us sound old, it just informs the listener.

One of the statements I did that I really enjoy is, “Ain’t nothing like the real thing” which kind of tied in to the Coke handle as well as the song. We decided that was one of the positioning statements we wanted to work with. Then, because there was a song to connect to that, we went to the Johnny Mann Singers, and they wrote a jingle for it. Then I took production elements that sounded really cutting edge and put it all together, and it just blended really well. I’ll put in on the tape I’m sending for the RAP Cassette. What you’ll hear is how I tied the Oldies aspect through the jingle, “Ain’t nothing like the real thing, K101” together with cutting edge sounds, so it doesn’t make our station sound old. From a production standpoint--using a positioning statement that made sense obviously--it would hold up on KIIS or any other radio station. Yet, it puts our message across. It magnifies Oldies, and it tells the people exactly what we’re about, that we are the real deal when it comes to Oldies.

JV: What kind of equipment are you working with?
Keith: I use the Orban Audicy digital editor. Man, if they made it any more simple, I’d feel guilty. I mean, it’s really fifteen or twenty minutes of playing around with it, and you’re basically up to speed. That was one of the reasons the engineering people made that decision. I’m not the only one who is working on it, and they wanted to be able to take people in and train them in as little time as possible. I’ve never really wanted for anything. The Audicy has done everything I’ve needed to do, and it’s cut down my production time considerably. It’s just amazing how much time you can save with these things.

JV: Do you have two production rooms there?
Keith: They have two very small news/edit facilities, which are very basic. They have one larger news/edit facility that has a pretty nice little Pacific Recorders console in it. That room is used as an ISDN room for jocks that are doing recording and stuff like that. When Charlie Van Dyke was working here, he was doing his work out of that room. And they have a news booth that also works as a production facility. Then there’s our commercial production studio, which is a mirror of Studio A, which is the broadcast studio. So, if they need to clean Studio A or something goes wrong, they can just swap with the commercial production studio and broadcast from there. And then there’s my room with the Audicy and a Pacific Recorders ABX34 mixing console.

JV: What’s in the commercial studio?
Keith: It was a 4-track facility, but they’ve hauled that thing out and used it as a boat anchor. We have an Audicy in there, too. They converted the old DSE7000 to an Audicy.

JV: How is the Internet influencing your production, if at all?
Keith: Interestingly enough, it’s not affecting it a whole lot, but there have been times. We just got into a contest where we are giving away a Mustang, and I found a Mustang Internet site that had audio on it. So, if I needed a Mustang idling, which I did, I got it off the Internet. And there are a lot of these Wave sites that have drop-ins. I don’t focus a lot on putting drop-ins in the promos, but I know the morning show uses little snippets from some of these Wave sites that pull stuff off the TV. I think that we’re just scratching the surface right now. Once they start to speed this thing up, they’re going to be sending commercials up and down the Internet like crazy.

JV: You hear quite a bit of imaging work utilizing movie and TV drop-ins—promos, IDs and sweepers—almost to the point of overuse. What is your take on this production style?
Keith: Well, I don’t want to sound critical. First of all, I think there are a great number of people who use it, and it sounds great. They use it creatively, and sometimes I’m in awe of (a) where they find the drops, and (b) how creatively they work it in. And I think that’s the distinction because I think production ought to make you go “aah.” When you hear it done right, it sounds great. But like anything, like the Max Headroom stuttering in the eighties, it can be used right in the right instance, and it sounds great; but then someone will hear it and decide to start stuttering every other word. It makes you say, “Please! Get the promo over with. Just finish with the stuttering already!” I think it’s like anything else. Whether it’s white noise or repeating your sentences or using that filter sound that they use—and that I use every once in awhile—if you use it when it’s right, it sounds right. But if you’re just using it because you can’t think of anything else to do or you’re chained to that type of production and that’s the style you feel most comfortable with and you’re just doing it to do it, then I think you just put yourself in a rut.

JV: There are probably a few Program Directors out there directing their production people by saying, “I want some MTV type production with lots of quick edits, and give me some movie drops and that kind of thing.” This can make a production person tend to do it for less than the right reason.
Keith: Yes, and I feel sorry for those guys because a good Program Director can assess the strength of their talent and work toward their strength as opposed to saying, “hey, this guy does it this way, so I want you to do it exactly the way he does it.” And if you do that, you’re not going to get the best out of your people. I have a great Program Director. He knows how to channel my strengths. He sets up basic guidelines and then allows me to have that “free reign” because he trusts in what I do.

JV: What production libraries are you using for imaging?
Keith: When I came in here to K-Earth, one of the things I at least knew was that this radio station needed more Brown Bag Production, and I’m sure that’s probably a pretty common response that you get. I think Brown Bag is head and shoulders above anything else that I hear. So, I weeded out some of the stuff they had and replaced it with Brown Bag stuff. I think Mike and Bob Lee are really doing a great job. I have their “Rampage” package, their “Smoke” package, and their “Fire Power” package. About three years ago, we even went up to the Denver area to the old Brown Bag factory and produced a K-Earth custom package, which was just a whole lot of fun. It was basically format elements—weather beds, talk beds and stuff like that. You’re kind of in a gray area with Oldies because you can either sound too CHR when you start to use format elements, or you can sound like what I like to call the “fuzzy dice” sound. So, we took a good three or four months and just worked back and forth on honing down each one of these elements. A lot of it was based on the old 93 KHJ theme, which we had been using for years here at K-Earth. We didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, so we put a nineties or whatever spin on it. I’d always wanted to be involved in something like that, and it was a great experience. I guess about three years ago, I started to experiment with some of that Alternative flavor and started sprinkling it into the K-Earth production, too. For that, I picked up a little inexpensive package put out by Avdeli, SpeedTracks. It has some of those little sounds you can do quick edit stuff with. But the majority of it is Brown Bag.

JV: You’re in an exceptional market when it comes to great production and great radio stations. What are some of the stations and who are some of the production gurus that grab your attention?
Keith: There’s KIIS where Ron Shapiro was for a long time. Now they’ve got Jeff Thomas in there. There’s KROQ with John Frost. And Stew Herrera at KLOS is another exceptional production guy. There’s Howard Hoffman, a buddy of mine from KMEL, who is working at KABC. These are some of the guys who keep me reaching toward keeping that edge on K-Earth.

JV: What do you do or where do you go to get the creative juices flowing?
Keith: Well, when we work on a project, we don’t look at it as something we have to do as much as we look at it as something that would entertain ourselves. We don’t totally program the contests and stuff to our own desires, but we do enjoy what we do. We come up with stuff that is fun, not only for the listeners, but fun for us, too. We really love coming up with the creative stuff. And once we get it together and are getting ready to put it on the air, that’s an exciting time. I look forward to it. There’s a period of about a week before a contest goes on the air where there’s a lot of stress—we need to get stuff done, and we want it to sound right—but once that contest goes on the air, and we know that it sounds the way that we want it to sound, we really enjoy it. It’s fun. It’s still fun. I’ve only been in the business for fifteen years. My boss has been in the business for at least twice that, and he still loves the programming aspect of radio. I think that’s the difference. It’s not a job. We’re not digging ditches in the heat. We dig what we do.

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