Dan Popp, Corporate Production Director, Mortenson Broadcasting, WHLO-AM, Akron, Ohio, and President of Colors Audio
If you think top notch production is only for the top markets, think again. If you think the Christian arena of radio doesn't concern itself with quality production, read on. If you think opportunity lies only in the major markets, meet Dan Popp, Corporate Production Director for the Mortenson Broadcasting Company. This month's RAP Interview takes us to Akron, Ohio where Dan has acquired a unique position with the Mortenson chain at WHLO-AM, and he's off to good start with his freelance business, Colors Audio.
R.A.P.: Where did it all begin?
Dan: I started in 1975 as a weekender at a country station in St. Joseph, Missouri. I had just gotten my driver's license, so I was sixteen. I was fired from that job and quickly moved on to most of the other stations in that town. After bumping around in St. Joseph for eleven years, I moved up here to Akron about three years ago to work at WHLO. I worked at HLO for a year and left to work at a station in Canton, then I came back in December of '88.
R.A.P.: What station in Canton was this?
Dan: WHBC, an AM/FM combo. These stations are like number one and two in the market. It was a good move for me in that it helped me find out where I wanted to be. Up to that time I had been in programming and liked programming. I had been on the air and liked doing that. I had been in production and like doing that, but at some time in your life you have to specialize. It was at WHBC that I decided that being on the air was not as fun or creative as it used to be. Programming is a whole new can of worms with all the politics that goes along with that, especially in a small market. So, I decided production was the place to be.
R.A.P.: Your position with Mortenson Broadcasting is Corporate Production Director. How did that come about?
Dan: They really sort of created this position for me. When I came to work for WHLO in '87, they were in very outmoded facilities. New ownership came in and upgraded around that time. They brought me and a lot of other people in, and they moved the facility. When they did that, they created this little 8-track room. The whole purpose behind this room was to provide a resource for the whole chain to draw on. One AM station in Akron, in the owners mind, wasn't going to justify the expense of having this "huge" 8-track studio filled with all this gear. When I and some of the other people left, they really had a need for somebody to come in and utilize the room to help them get their money back out of it. So, they created this position for me to come back and do that.
R.A.P.: As a resource for the other stations in the chain, how much work do you do for them?
Dan: Well, I'm supposed to work about 20 hours a week for HLO and about 10 hours a week for the other stations. In practice it probably works out to a little less than that for the other stations. I try to do things for them that they can't have done in-house. If they just want me to be a different voice on something or just do some average type of production, I try to steer them away from that. I try to do the concert spots, promos, and other things they can't do themselves or don't have the time to do. I think most or all of the other stations have 4-track studios, but they're not really utilized as much as they could be.
R.A.P.: How much of WHLO's production are you doing?
Dan: I probably do about 60% of the production here. Ed Bostic, the Program Director, does some and there are a couple of other guys who do a little bit.
R.A.P.: You're set up on a 30 hour week. Was that done with Colors Audio in mind?
Dan: That was a unique situation. Like I said, they created this post for me, and they knew that I wanted to get out on my own. My freelance stuff here in Akron was kind of snowballing, and I wanted to see if I could make that work. They had the studio and the need for a production person, and I had the desire to do the job. So the deal is, I work 30 hours a week for them, and I get a certain amount of time in their studio for my own clients for free in addition to what they pay me.
R.A.P.: The whole situation sounds very structured and well defined.
Dan: Yes it is. It just gives you a lot more leverage when you come in and say, "OK, I would like to act as an independent contractor here to do your production." That way you're not a hired hand. You're not a disc-jockey they can maneuver around and work six days a week, 50 or 60 hours a week. I said, "OK, I'm going to work 30 hours a week, I'm going to do this and this, and I'm going to make this much money." It's in writing, and it's just a whole different ball game.
R.A.P.: Have you and/or WHLO started your move into digital recording yet?
Dan: Well, I've worked with a DAT recorder on one project. This record company that I was doing record spots for wanted me to master the spots to DAT so they could dump it directly to CD and send it out to the stations that way. So I rented a DAT machine and have a limited amount of experience with that. I've started checking them out on my own. I'm thinking about purchasing one for myself. I'll have one eventually, but it's a matter of whether or not I want to buy another piece of equipment first.
R.A.P.: A record spot on a CD?
Dan: Yea. A couple of the Christian record companies are sending out everything on CD. What they'll do is send you the whole album, or the cuts they want you to play from the album, on a CD. They'll have some promos and drops, spots, and whatever else, all on the one CD. Then you just pick and choose what you need.
R.A.P.: What's in your studio at WHLO?
Dan: We've got the 8-track, a couple of 2-tracks, and the Yamaha SPX-90. We have the upgraded version of the SPX-90 that has two seconds of memory in it. We found out that one was quite a bit better than the other one for stuttering long samples instead of just one syllable. The other version only has about a half second. We've also got a CD player, turntables, and an Orban compressor.
R.A.P.: Are we stuttering much at WHLO?
Dan: Not really. All these things we now call effects, we used to call special effects, and we just used them on special occasions. Now, it's gotten to the point where you have to have 16 effects in the promo or it's not a good promo. I don't agree with that, so we use the stutter effect sparingly.
R.A.P.: How many salespeople are there and who's doing the writing for them?
Dan: There are seven salespeople and I probably do about 75% of the writing. The rest is done by Ed or one of the salespeople.
R.A.P.: You've written us a letter or two emphasizing creative writing. Are you the only creative writer on staff at WHLO?
Dan: Essentially, it's pretty much me; but one of the salespeople, believe it or not, is real creative. He comes up with some real wild stuff. Sometimes we have to rein him in and say, "Wait a minute, Steve, wait a minute. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is not available today!"
R.A.P.: That's good to have a salesperson that's interested enough in the spot to make sure it's creative. Actually, of all the people that should be concerned about creative spots, you would think the salesperson would be at the top of the list. It means better results for the client and return business.
Dan: You would think so, but unfortunately, there is so much pressure in a small market situation. The salespeople are supposed to be on the street eight or nine hours a day; and if somebody sees them at the typewriter writing out copy, they get in trouble.
R.A.P.: What about deadlines there in Akron? Does anybody have them?
Dan: Uhhh.... (chuckle chuckle) Well, we try to enforce a 48 hour turnaround time on most of our stuff, however, there's so much pressure on the sales staff that they end up coming to us at the end of the week saying, "We've got to have this on by the weekend," and every day is almost an exception to the rule.
R.A.P.: It sounds like you don't have a great deal of support from the top regarding deadlines.
Dan: No, and that's one of the differences I see from reading your other interviews. The really big stations and the stations that really have their act together are supporting their people on down the line. It's really not helping the client to just throw their spots together, but sometimes I think there's a little bit of tunnel vision in the smaller markets. It's the 30th of the month, and we have to have $2000 more on the books tomorrow. That's what causes that.
R.A.P.: Apparently, you still find time to do a bang-up job on some spots like the Dewey's Candies spot on last month's Cassette. How do you get the time from the salespeople for a spot like that?
Dan: The Dewey's spot was a spec spot. They bought it, but we spent about 8 or 10 hours putting that thing together, and it was just a spec spot. One of the other salespeople came to me afterwards and said, "How come none of my spec spots sound like that?" I said, "It's because you want yours the next day. They gave us two weeks to do that spot!"
There's a salesperson out there named Jason Jennings who has one of these sales training tools on video, and all or most of our stations have these. One of his things is that when you go into a client, you have two spec spots -- Not just one, but two spec spots! I think they're gradually getting away from that idea because they're finding it doesn't work. For a while it was like anybody in the phone book could have two spec spots and they wanted them by tomorrow. I have 20 hours a week for WHLO production, which essentially is part-time. Ed, the Program Director, has less than that, and the other guys' time is minuscule. Essentially, we have two part-time people working in production, and that's it. I try to explain this to the salespeople. I tell them, "This may work some-where where you have round the clock production, but we can't do two spec spots for everybody that has a bait shop!"
R.A.P.: Is this your first job at a Christian formatted station?
Dan: No, I've been sort of back and forth in that format. In my 14 or 15 years, I've pretty much been all over the road as far as formats go. I decided a long time ago that if there was going to be such a thing as Christian radio, that I, with my personal beliefs, would try to get into it and try to make it sound as good as I could. They're making big strides. There are still a lot of hurdles to be overcome and a lot of backward mindsets; but overall, the quality of the Christian recording industry in general and even Christian radio stations is improving. There are several Christian stations around the country that are up in the fours, fives, and even sixes. When I was programming our little station in St. Joe, we had a six in the Birch, but there were only four stations in that market if you exclude the Kansas City stations.
R.A.P.: Are all the stations in the Mortenson chain Christian A/C like WHLO?
Dan: The stations in our chain all have different formats. We've got a black gospel station in Baltimore, a country gospel station in Lexington, and another station in Lexington that is more like MOR, I guess you could say. So we're pretty much all over the Christian road. The owner of the chain is either a present or former minister.
R.A.P.: Is there any big difference in production on a Christian format versus a non-Christian format?
Dan: Well, you can't say "booger" (more chuckles). There's not a whole lot, as far as production techniques and stuff, because the people listening to Christian radio also watch TV, and they do occasionally listen to another radio station. They know what's out there and what sounds good. The only difference is in the copy. You have to be careful. For example, there's a cheese company in the area that calls their cheese, "Hell Of A Good Cheese." That's their brand name. We couldn't run their spot because we'd offend everybody if we said, "Hell of a good cheese" on the air! It can get to a point where you can actually do more harm to the client than good for him. Then you have to say to the client, "In the best interests of both of us, do something else."
I've done some editing out of guitar solos. In a real conservative Christian format, you've got this need to have these good songs, but along would come this song with a searing guitar solo after the third verse. I'd just have to go in and cut it out. A lot of Christians are offended by that. It sounds too rock and roll for them. We don't do that here at WHLO, but I've done it at another station. There are Christian rock shows and Christian rock groups, and they sell a lot of records; but demographically, they don't support a radio station.
R.A.P.: In your 14 years in radio, what is your overview of radio's Production Department?
Dan: Well, I sort of see two attitudes out there. One is the "we sell it, you throw it together and put it on" attitude that doesn't really care what it sounds like. The other is the attitude that we as production people have, where we want every single spot to sound as good as we can possibly make it. I don't know if it's going to go one way or the other. Maybe it's just going to split in half.
Everybody at WHLO appreciates good production. It's just a matter of whether they feel they have time to allow you to go in there and play with something and make it really good. The people at the very top are the ones telling the salespeople, "You have to have this much money this month. Get out there and hustle," and they don't care what the spot sounds like. If the salesman goes back and tells him, "Well, it's going to take us four hours to do this spot," I'm sure management would hit the roof. "You've got other spots to do. Just write that one and put it on the air!"
R.A.P.: When did Colors Audio come into existence?
Dan: I started that in December of '88, and that was one of the best things I ever did. My freelance stuff in Akron was really starting to take off, and I was having to make decisions as to whether I wanted to be in radio all the time, work six days a week, do whatever people told me to do and say whatever they wanted me to say; or was I going to be able to really have some say in my own destiny and go out and make a business for myself out of this freelance stuff. So, when the opportunity came up to have this nice base at HLO and also have some free time and studio time to do my own business, I jumped on it. It has been good.
R.A.P.: What kind of production is Colors Audio into?
Dan: I did a series of concert spots for a Christian group that I'm still working on. They'll be on the road until December 11th. Then I did a national record spot for a Christian record company. That's the one we mastered to DAT. I've also done some national TV voice-overs as well.
R.A.P.: What kind of money is there in the Christian arena of production?
Dan: When I sent out demos, I didn't know what to ask for. Word Records, which is one of the biggest Christian record companies, paid me $750 to do two spots for them, a 60 and a 30.
R.A.P.: What is your plan of attack when you go into production of a record spot?
Dan: I try to be a bit more organized than I used to. I start out building the bed on 2-track. A part of that is using the razor blade, counting one, two, three, four and making a cut. When it's all done, if it's 70 seconds long, you can go back and cut something out of the middle. When you're doing it on 8-track or 4-track, you can't do that. There are people in town I've learned from, one person in particular who used to be a Bill Young protégé. He really had things organized in his mind. He would write copy as he laid down the bed. I've tried to learn from that and try to have everything organized. Generally I'll start out with something flashy, like an a cappella part, to get their attention, and then go into the biggest song or maybe save that until later in the spot. I pretty much have to feel my way through it as I'm doing it, but I definitely prepare the bed first then write the copy to the bed. I want the bed to sort of stand on its own as a work of art.
R.A.P.: How do you use the compressor in your work?
Dan: I use it all the time, but I use it at a moderate setting. Speaking of concert spots, a lot of the stuff I hear many times will be muddy. It sounds way over-compressed. It sounds like they've compressed the music, then compressed the vocals. Then, when they mix it, they compress the whole thing again, and it just sounds awful. Then they're going to play it over somebody's transmitter and get it compressed again. It evidently is the fast and easy way to do things and not have to set levels or something. I don't know. I hate that sound, though. If the music is already compressed going on to the record, which it usually is, why compress it again? I just compress my voice and try to keep it moderate. Something, as far as tips, that I've learned is that you can emphasize the highs and lows on the music and get it to sound real crisp and yet have a nice bottom end to it going onto the tape. Then you can use that mid-range for your voice. You can roll off a lot of the bass on your voice and mix the music hotter, and yet your voice will still be intelligible. A lot of guys are afraid to roll off any bass on their voice in fear that they might emasculate themselves or something; but really, the breaking quality of your voice is not coming from the low range. It's coming from the mid-range and the presence band. When you boost those frequencies, you sound louder, then you can turn the music up hotter in the mix.
So, I don't compress the bed when I lay it down to the 8-track and I don't compress the whole thing when I do a mix. I just use the compressor on the voice in a case like a record spot. I think people's ears are getting more educated. Everybody has a CD player now, and they know what quality is. I think programmers and production people need to take that into account. The theory sometimes is, "I can hear that, but the average person out there can't hear that." Well, they may not be able to hear it and put their finger on exactly what's wrong with it, but you play that back to back with another spot that sounds better, and they can tell which one is better.
R.A.P.: Give us some of your thoughts on copywriting.
Dan: Somebody once said that great radio spots start at the typewriter. That's it. That's the foundation on which you build the whole spot. When we were moving to our new facility and still working out of the old place, all we had in our production room was a mike, a reel-to-reel and a cart machine. Everything else had been moved, and we had this restaurant account that wanted a real creative spot done. So, I sat down at the typewriter and came up with this character that was nuts about chicken, since the restaurant specialized in chicken. The whole spot is carried by the copy because there is nothing else on the spot -- It's just dry voice. That spot has been so effective, they're still using it three years later, and they've expanded it to a whole campaign. The owner came into town, heard the spot, and was impressed that you could do good radio without having the effects. Sure, you can layer 19 effects together, but can you do a good dry voice spot.
I think copy is 70% of the ad, and the other 30% is the delivery and production. We're bozo on production, and we'll notice something good; but I'll play something that I've spent hours on for one of my family, and they'll just kind of yawn their way through it, or they'll make a comment about something I said in the ad, which once again points out how strong the copy is.
R.A.P.: Would you say the listener listens first and foremost to what is being said in an ad?
Dan: I can't say that all the time, but I know that, in our market, we've got about 20 stations on the dial with these super produced promos and liners voiced by the guys with the necks as thick as sewer pipes and all these sampled effects going on behind it -- so what? First of all, everybody does it, so it doesn't stand out anymore, and they've been doing it for a long time. Secondly, people are just not that into it.
I think the stuff from Ed Brown at KSHE (on The Cassette) was great. It didn't all depend on the awesomeness of the production. It was dependent upon the copywriter. He had some real unique things with the dragnet thing and shooting people that didn't listen to KSHE. That was cute. It gets your attention and makes you think. The other stuff just kind of blows by you. We've come to expect somebody at the top of the hour to come on with this huge voice and all this stuff and say the call letters with some "rip the knob off" line or whatever. So what?
R.A.P.: What's in the future for you?
Dan: More of the same, I hope. I'd eventually like to get back to the Kansas City area, but it seems really tight there, and there's a whole lot of opportunity for me here. So, I think I'll be here for a while. I'd like to have my own studio, obviously.
R.A.P.: Any parting thoughts you'd like to pass on to your peers?
Dan: I would just say, if somebody's got a freelance business and they see that it's got potential to go somewhere, then start thinking about creative ways to build a base like I did and get out on your own. I've talked to other people who are out on their own, freelance video producers or whatever, and they say, "Man, it's the greatest thing I ever did," and I agree. It's just so neat to work for yourself. You control the quality of everything you do, which is very important to me. You have a say over how your day is gonna go and who you're gonna work for and how much it's gonna cost. There's a tremendous freedom.
R.A.P.: What would you say to the beginner radio guy with his heart set on production in a bigger market?
Dan: Well, he's already got step one: He's got your magazine, and he's trying to educate himself about what's out there and how to do better. That's 90% of it. I would say try to find some other people who are further up in the food chain than you are and try to learn from them and get them to critique your spots and help you out.
We'd like to thank Dan for this month's interview and wish him the best for the upcoming New Year. We stress again that the RAP Interview is your place to speak your mind. This is the only publication that offers this forum for radio's producers. The RAP Interview is a place to air your grievances, speak your mind, and share your experiences with your peers. No one person knows it all, and we all can gain from someone else's experiences. If you have something to share that takes more than a letter, ask for an interview. We've yet to say no, and our list isn't that long. If you have someone else in mind you'd like us to interview, let us know who it is. We'll gladly ask them.