R.A.P. Interview: John Frost

John Frost, FrostBytesOnline, Los Angeles, CA

john-frost-aug01By Jerry Vigil

This month, we’re excited to check in once again with the legendary John Frost. In our last visit (September 1995 RAP Interview), John was about halfway through what would end up to be a long and amazing 14 years at Infinity’s KROQ in Los Angeles. But ending his rule at KROQ would hardly be the end of hearing John’s remarkable work on the airwaves. On the contrary, he’s being heard more than ever. Early this year, Premiere Radio Networks lured the prod god over to the Clear Channel side where John now puts his rare talents online for subscribing stations to download and use daily. FrostBytesOnline made its debut in April, and it looks like the sky’s the limit for John.

JV: What was a typical day like for you during the last couple of years at KROQ?
John: During the last couple of years, my job got exponentially harder the longer I was there. Part of that was the fact that being anywhere that long makes it hard to get fresh and creative ideas. You have the same basic things to promote coming down the pike every year. They’re always the same, but now you have to have a fresh take on it again. It just started to feel not fresh, and it just became harder and harder. At times, it was like pulling teeth, and I really thought I was creatively done. I thought I had nothing more to give, and that’s why I knew it was time for a change. And the way things have worked out, I can’t imagine having not gone now. But I don’t regret any of the time I spent there. I had so much fun at KROQ.

In a typical day the last couple of years, I did probably five or six promos a week, so that’s a little more than one a day. And with me not feeling as fresh and clean as I once did, they were just harder to do. So, a lot of times I would end up having to redo them because they weren’t meeting the vision of the Program Director or whatever the case happened to be. And that would sometimes double your workload. There was lots of stuff to do there.

JV: There are guys out there reading this thinking, “Wow, one promo a day! That sounds wonderful!” But your stuff is not something you slap together in a half an hour or so.
John: Well, here’s the thing. They want every promo to sound huge and unique and special in some way. KROQ puts pressure on itself just by being KROQ, and a lot of times they over-think it. And I’m sure that’s the case in a lot of smaller markets as well. Maybe it’s the egos of the programming staff and the production staff, but a lot of times it gets thought over way too much and changed many, many times. While six promos may not sound like a lot, believe me, you still have little short breakers and solicits to do. You have the twenty legal IDs for the weekend, each mentioning a different song to listen for. I mean there are things that made it a busy week. I want to say we did three or four music promos a week. Those things are anything from just three hooks and out to the actual beat-mixed, work of art type promos that you hear a lot in the industry.

So, it was probably three or four music promos a week. Then every Friday you were doing the promo for Monday that starts the major promotion for that week. Every week and every weekend, we had a major promotion. The major promotion would run all week, then about Wednesday it would need an update. So there’s another promo that you had to do. Also the weekend promo goes on Thursday afternoon, and you could tape one or two of those depending on how the Program Director feels. And each of those is a different major promotion. So it was really taxing.

JV: What kind of hours did you put in?
John: I’ve always kept a short day, and that made it even more taxing. When I say a short day, I was there at nine-thirty and I was consistently out by five. Creatively, that can be a really long day. And I’ve already gone through my years of working until ten at night trying to get established.

JV: Describe the process you would go through to cut one of your promos. For example, when they come to you and say, “Hey, we’re going to do this kind of a weekend. We want one of your best promos here.”
John: The process varied, and that in itself was kind of taxing. The Program Director at times really wanted to have a say, and other times would just let you go, depending on how strongly he felt about it at the moment or how happy he was in his life or whatever it happens to be. And Program Directors are like that. That’s their job. They have to be that way. I would like to pick it up and run with it and create something that I thought was really good and really loved, but a lot of times I wasn’t able to go and do that. And if I did go and do that and it turned out to be one of those things he cared more about than he vocalized at the beginning, I’d end up having to redo it anyway and make it “big, huge and cool” instead of “funny, odd and quirky.”

So the process changed. But usually I would sit down and think of parallels and ideas and ways of relating the promotion to the listener that didn’t seem exactly obvious—some unique way of putting things, since, after all, it is just a ticket giveaway. That’s what most of them were, either a ticket giveaway or a flyaway. So once you sit down and figure what kind of things will work for it, then you make sure it’s not just fashion for fashion’s sake. And you make sure it actually fits the vibe and the feel that that promotion needs. It’s hard to do slapstick comedy about bands like Tool, which are just dark and morose from the word go. And you probably shouldn’t unless you are just totally making fun of them, but even then, it still is not going to really fit the vibe of the listener who cares about Tool. So, you really have to pick and choose and figure out what’s appropriate for what promotion. Usually we would sit down and do that. Then I would sit down with the Program Director and we would decide what he wanted to do. I’d get a feel for exactly how odd he’d let us go because I never liked putting out anything that I perceived that anybody could put out.

JV: How much notice would you usually get before the promo had to be on the air?
John: Usually, the day before I was doing the next day’s promo.

JV: That’s not a lot of time to be cranking out some real gems.
John: Well, at times I did some really good stuff. Then at times I just needed to get by and move on, and that was kind of a bummer because I was letting something go before I could be done with it. So you’re shortcutting yourself like crazy and just pushing them out, and I hate doing that because, in my opinion, a lot of the art of radio has already been lost because it’s all about making ratings. You play ten in a row, and then you play commercials, and then you play ten in a row. I hated doing that. It was a constant battle because all it would do is make me stay there longer in the day, something that I had already proclaimed I did not want to necessarily do.

JV: There had to be other stations that were wanting your work. Did you do any free-lance work while you were at KROQ?
John: I could not do free-lance of my own volition. Infinity didn’t want me to do stations that were not Infinity, and stations that were Infinity never called because each one is kind of run somewhat contrary to the corporate feel, inasmuch as there’s a small corporate office overseeing everything, but everybody’s a maverick. ‘BCN in Boston handles their own stuff, and their Program Director would just as soon shoot himself in the head as be taking a corporate promo, for instance. And KROQ was run the same way. Most of the stations in the chain are run pretty much by the Program Director. And I think that’s great because the Program Director, who is ultimately going to lose his job if the ratings aren’t there, should be responsible for how the station sounds. And if it doesn’t get ratings, they’re bad programmers; and if it does get ratings, then they are the ones who should get the credit. That’s a lot different from the company I just came to, which is Clear Channel.

JV: How did your departure from KROQ come about?
John: I wasn’t sure I wanted to sign for another three years. I knew it was going to be really tough for me to see myself doing the same thing again for another three years. How long do you have to be there before you feel like it’s okay to move on? I’m a good corporate citizen after fourteen years of being there. They can’t really fault me for that. I ended up leaving with the promise of being able to do things that KROQ couldn’t do for me anyway. While they could match the money that Premiere put out, they couldn’t match the possible other money that could come. And the creative freedom, it turns out, has been giant over here. I’m able to do pretty much whatever I want, mostly for my own service.

JV: What’s the job description for your new gig there?
John: I’ve just have “Hot Shot Radio Producer” on my card. Actually, I do a variety of things here. Every once in a while they need a demo to sound spicy so they can sell it to radio, so I’ll do that. Every once in a while they need a product imaged like Carson Daly who has a countdown. They might need a unique feel to some jingles and opens and closes and stuff, and I’ll do that. Fox Sports Radio, which is one of their services, needed a revamp, so I helped with that. But my main thing is my own service, in which I’m in a partnership deal with Premiere.

FrostBites-OnlineJV: Tell us about your service.
John: FrostBytesOnline.com is an imaging service, which for a variety of reasons, is like no other imaging service out there. One of them being that it’s all available to the radio station via MP3 the day I do it. And the station, which has an exclusive in its market, uses whatever they want from whatever I end up doing. They decide what fits them and what doesn’t fit them. They can use it all or use none of it. It’s the normal Premiere barter thing where stations give up however many spots a week to have the exclusive rights to it in their city.

And because we’re not dealing with burning CDs and mailing them out or preparing overnight packages and all that, the stuff is delivered to them instantaneously. That makes it possible for me to give a topical item to everybody when it’s in the news that moment. I can do a comedy bit about Jurassic Park just opening to this huge amount of money or small amount of money or whatever. Whatever is in the news that day, I can hop on, do a comedy bit like I’m sitting at their station, and have it for their morning show. That instantaneous aspect makes it real easy for me to do comedy bits.

In addition to comedy bits, the other things I’m delivering are sound effects which I make, music beds for promos or whatever which I make, and jingles which I make prefabricated with the demonstration call letters in place so they get an idea where they go. Then right after that I deliver the generic version for them to go ahead and punch their own call letters into. There are new music opens, promo opens, and promo pieces. For example, when summer was coming up, I put up little five second comedy pieces about summer, perfect for cutting into promos about either their summer vacation or their summer flyaway or whatever promotion. You know they’re going to be running something talking about summer at some point in the summer. So, I’m able to give them little imaging pieces that certainly they may not be able to do as readily in Duluth or where the Production Director is also the afternoon guy. I also provide a comedy series to help the morning show. Comedy bits, jingles, promos, music bits, sound effects—just whatever I think of on any given day, I produce and put online.

JV: You mentioned having a lot of creative freedom. Where are the lines, if there are any?
John: I have an idea who’s subscribing. I know the stations are Active Rock, Alternative and there are some CHRs. So I kind of know where the focus goes, but other than that, they don’t tell me what to put up. They don’t tell me what not to put up. I haven’t had a boss ever tell me what not to put on this site. So, it’s basically my feel for what I’d like to hear, and that’s why it’s so horrendously creatively freeing. And I have an interest monetarily in the site as well, so I want to do my absolute best. I end up putting an average of five things up there a day. I promised Premiere ten a week, knowing how Premiere might be loading me down with other things to do. But I’m so into this site, I’m putting up five things a day. Today I put up four music beds and a piece for the comedy series. Most days I would put up several new music jingles and a couple of sound effects and perhaps a comedy thing about whatever happened that day. I’m having just super fun. I mean, if I want to do little comedy vignettes of different ways of Timothy McVeigh dying, I can. Whatever. It doesn’t even matter if it fits or if stations find it airable. If I want to do it, I can do it, and they can decide.

JV: What’s a typical day for you like now?
John: Well, let me see. I love Mondays here at Premiere because all the comedy writers go to a big brainstorming meeting about what’s coming up that week—what things to watch for in the news, what things are going to be on TV, what President Bush’s schedule is that week—and you get all these ideas just from that. And they give you a full cheat sheet on all the things that were mentioned in the meeting, which you take downstairs with you so you can go, “Oh, Dick Cheny got that new pacemaker. I can do something with that,” or whatever else happens to be in the news. I love that creative meeting on Mondays. It gives you a whole pool of ideas to pull from. Then you just come down here to the studio and do something goofy and move on.

Any other day, I pretty much come into the studio and first try to figure out what I want to do today. Maybe some of the comedy things from the Monday meeting struck my interest. I might want to sit down with one of my music programs and make some really freaked out music beds. If I get a music piece I really like, then maybe I’ll turn it into a jingle for new music or something else that I can put up there. I pretty much decide what I do, and I know I’m done when I have four or five things to put up every day. Then I’m ready to call it a day for the site, and I can do something else I might need to do on the side for Premiere.

JV: Are you keeping the same hours there that you did at KROQ?
John: It depends. It is somewhere between ten and five and ten and three. It depends on the day. I’m certainly not staying later than six on a given day.

JV: So you’re not one of these people who have their own business and work 18 hours a day because it’s theirs.
John: Well, I’ll tell you, when I first got here, the clock just kept flying by. It was so exciting to be in a new environment, and I was so excited to find out that I was not creatively dry. For some reason I have it in my mind that creativity is a finite thing, and once you’re out, you’re out. You see it happen to funny people. Chevy Chase. You see it happen to celebrities all the time. Gee, he used to be so funny. What happened? So, I have this fear that it’s finite, and once I got out of KROQ and got here, I found the well wasn’t dry. Just the change of venue made a difference. After fourteen years, it’s understandable. You’re looking at the same four walls trying to glean a new idea that you haven’t seen within those same four walls. But when I first got here, I would stay until eight-thirty, nine or ten, just because I kept forgetting to leave. I’ve gotten past that initial excitement, but I’m still having so much fun on a daily basis.

JV: What kind of studio are you working out of?
John: They built me this bitching ass studio. I have my own window looking out to the Boulevard, which also proves to be a problem because of shiny cars driving by and girls walking by—it’s summer you know. And my machine is backed right up pretty much toward the window, so I’m looking out the window and going, “Yeah! Hey, what’s going on over here? Hey, look at them over there!” So, that’s a little bit of a distraction, but it doesn’t distract me as much as it used to. There was never stuff to watch in my other room. I also like it because I’m on ground level, and I see cars driving by. It strikes me how many cars there are in L.A., and it strikes me again how many cars there must be in America, and then I just want to do funny things for my site.

Anyway, we are going to have this huge Pro Tools installation with all these different rooms. Premiere probably has about thirty different production rooms with different producers doing different projects. They are doing a huge installation where it will all be networked. If you happen to quit in one room, you can just call it up in the next room and continue. That’s not in my room yet. Right now, I’m an Audicy guy. I always have been. I don’t mind Pro Tools, but for the shear speed of cranking things out, I still like Audicy, limited as it is. I also like Cool Edit.

JV: Do you take any of this work home with you?
John: I used to have a full studio at home. I’m going through a divorce, and my wife, who wants to be able to write music or piss me off or whatever, made me leave the studio. So, I’m now in an apartment down on Wilshire Boulevard where I have grand plans to build another studio but have not done that yet. It’s only been ninety days. Give me some time—I will have another studio. And I can’t wait because then I can upload from home or wherever I am. So if I’m doing music on a music program or whatever, I can literally do it from my PC at home and upload from there on a long holiday weekend instead of coming in to work, which I really like the idea of.

JV: Your service is geared primarily to rock and CHR stations, correct?
John: For the most part. If I were to put them in order of subscribers I have to my knowledge, I believe Active Rock subscribes the most so far, followed by Alternative, followed by CHR. And Premiere hasn’t even actually worked CHR on the service yet, but it sounds to me in a lot of ways like a natural fit for CHR. I don’t see me being CHR, but I may be wrong. Either I’m growing up, CHR is growing up, or I’m not as cutting edge as I think or something. But a lot of this stuff really feels like a natural CHR fit. Now, it has to be a pretty cool CHR, but they’re still going to find things on there. For example, I’ll do the Survivor Update in Thirty Seconds Flat where I act out whatever happened on Survivor that night. When Survivor is on, I’ll watch the 5:00pm Eastern feed. I’ll be done by 6:30 or so because I will have had all the parts already laid out. I know what the sound effects are going to be. What I don’t have, I’ll go and find real quick. But I act it out with just stupid, quick acting, taking huge leaps, and when it’s boring, I just change the dialogue completely and touch on basic points. But they have it for the next morning show.

I really wanted to do a Sopranos update except it was on Sunday night, and I didn’t want to go into work on Sunday. But if I were to do a Sopranos Update in Thirty Seconds Flat where I act out the whole thing, I would act it out in full operatic form. I would sing the whole thing, singing the major plot points real fast. And because it’s the Sopranos, it makes total sense being an operatic thing. To hear something moving that fast, touching on the basic points, is so hilarious.

Basically, I can do that for anything that comes up. I did the Survivor Update in Thirty Seconds Flat for every episode, but they put it on another prep service because my site was not up yet. But that’s the kind of thing that I just toss up there, and it would totally fit on CHR. Power 106 was playing it here in town, and that’s a hip hop and R&B station. Come on, I sound really white to be on a hip-hop and R&B station.

JV: There are even some news talk stations that are getting pretty wild these days.
John: Yeah, and the way news/talk is going, particularly on the host side, some of the stuff is totally playable, and it’s newsworthy. I don’t know whether they’re going to get into the beds, the sound effects, the jingles and the other things that are offered there, but certainly there’s stuff there that can be used if it makes sense and you can free up some avails.

My basic goal was to not be format specific with this—and they’re going to work on the CHR angle and we’ll see how well that works—but my basic goal was just to help the station’s morning show, their producer, their commercial guy, and their Program Director all at once. I wanted to give them all things they could use.

JV: You do a lot of your own voice work, right?
John: I do it all.

JV: That has to be nice. You don’t have to worry about casting voice talent and waiting for them to arrive before you can put your stuff together.
John: Yeah. But I do like to call in voice talent because there are a lot of them on staff here. They have on-staff singers. They have all kinds of stuff here that makes my job a lot easier. But you’re right, just trying to get somebody lined up and then get them down here can be time consuming. If I just happen to be in a creative flow at that exact moment, I usually end up voicing a girl’s voice myself instead of going and calling one of the girls upstairs.

JV: How’s FrostBytes doing so far?
John: I’m on in seven of the top ten markets, and I’m on sixty or seventy affiliates in different cities. The large markets include New York, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, San Diego, and San Francisco, I think. I can’t remember beyond that except I know that LA is not on it yet, partially because of the politics of the move from one multi-conglomerate to another, and there are some hard feelings there. But I think I’m really close to getting that one.

JV: That sounds like a great number of stations for the first two or three months.
John: It really is. They’re super excited about it. They say it’s above what they thought it was going to do already. It actually is, I think, an amazing service. I ask that people tell me what they use and what they don’t use so that I can kind of tailor the service and perhaps spend less time on things that aren’t being used as much as other things that are more important to these stations.

I got a flood of e-mails that made me feel so good that people were out there finding ways of using the service. They were sending examples of how they were using it, sending promos as MP3 attachments, and it was just amazing. It was a really good feeling to know that I was on the air—it’s kind of a bummer when you can’t hear it in your own market, which at the moment I can’t. But it’s a really good feeling to know that people are using the stuff. Somebody said the other day, “Man, everybody always used to rip you off. Now you just give it to them!” That’s great. It’s so much fun to do that. Then I get to hear what they do with it and how they use it, and a lot of times it’s used in ways I never thought of.

JV: The cream of radio’s production personnel has been rising to the top, leaving individual stations to take positions such as yours or producing for a large number of stations within a group or even on their own. In the meantime the high-paying positions for production people have been going away. How do you perceive this evolution? Is there a future in radio production like there was ten years ago, or is this a field people should consider twice before pursuing as a ten-year or twenty-year career?
John: I haven’t really thought of it in that way. I mean, there are still a lot of ways you can make money, at least in this vein, if you have voice skills. There’s tons of voice work out there, maybe more so in LA than in the rest of the country just because you’ve got all the commercial and promo crap everywhere just for networks.

But I think it always was a hard go in production. I didn’t get into this on purpose. I got into it because I wasn’t as good at being the deejay. There’s definitely still money to be made at this, and you may have to be more creative on how you do it. You may have to figure out new and unique ways of freelancing, and you may have to actually develop a unique sound and milk it until other people start to realize it and do it themselves, because if somebody can get pretty much that same sound and a cheaper producer, they will probably go and do that.

However, with satellite radio coming on with three hundred channels or whatever it is and another couple of birds up there from some competing services, they’re going to want imaging at some point. I know they’re not going to want commercials, and they’re not going to want to talk, but at some point to make something good, they’re going to want something that’s unique and different from what their competitors have.

JV: You’re saying that not only is there a lot of work, but there’s more work coming.
John: I think there’s work coming. I don’t know how it’s going to shake out. I don’t know how it’s going to pay. But for creative producers…I mean, there’s money doing radio spots for movies for instance, where they need a fresher, younger feel than their chop shops are able to put out. I found a lot of money doing that. And again, I think the advantage there is just being in this town. But if you look around in your town, there will be ways to make money while being a creative producer and having some measure of fun.

But you’re right. I think the whole industry is tightening up. I think if you’re a Program Director, you’re looking at programming the West Coast of some company’s chain; and if you’re a Music Director, you’re probably overseeing the clocks for several stations now. The whole thing is being tightened up by corporations.

I have yet to find out what the Internet is going to do to help or to hurt, but there’s a creative need out there. And at some point, I want somebody to bring back creative radio. I hope it makes a comeback just because it’s the only station not playing ten in a row. I hope it stands out like a sore thumb.

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