Tom Versen, Production Director, Digital Planet, Los Angeles, CA
by Jerry Vigil
Digital audio broadcasting is on the horizon, and it won't be long before it is knocking on your door. But, in the meantime, there is another form of digital radio, and it is already here. At the time of this interview (early September), Digital Planet was just days away from throwing the switch and being "on the air" in three test markets in California. The Planet's "radio stations" are commercial free, but they still needed a Production Director. Tom Versen is the lucky and talented gentleman who landed the gig -- one of those production gigs the rest of us just dream about.
R.A.P.: What is Digital Planet?
Tom: Digital Planet is commercial free, digital quality radio. That's the heart of it.
R.A.P.: How does the consumer get it?
Tom: People will get it right now via cable. We're being very careful when we say that because people will associate it with television, and it has nothing to do with television. The only association at all is that it comes in through your existing cable line. A tuner, very much like your cable television tuner, is supplied with the service. This box splits the cable line. One end goes to your cable box, and the other end goes to your stereo system. We send a digital signal down the line, and the tuner converts it to analog so you can put it out through your home stereo system. You'll then have, as we progress, ninety-one channels of digital radio to choose from.
R.A.P.: Will potential subscribers then deal directly with their local cable TV companies to get Digital Planet?
Tom: The way I understand it is that the cable networks will be working with us to supply the service which will cost the consumer eight dollars a month. The tuners that we supply the cable companies with are simple enough to install yourself. If you have the cable company come and hook it up, I think there's a fifteen dollar charge or something close to that. It's very much like cable television in that sense, and I assume the cable companies will have to hook you up and turn you on.
R.A.P.: What is the target date for national broadcast?
Tom: We'll be broadcasting around the country soon, but for now we're just test marketing through January in L.A., San Diego, and San Francisco. The plan is to test market for four months. We're sending the signal out to various cable companies in these markets, and we have a limited amount of tuners right now. So whatever that number is --eight hundred, a thousand -- that's how many consumers will be on line for the first four months.
A main function of the test is obviously to get feedback from the consumers, but I think most importantly, it is also to get the technical aspects of the broadcast together, to make sure the cable companies are getting a good, clean signal.
R.A.P.: Is Digital Planet going to be completely commercial free?
Tom: There will be some simulcasts that will obviously have commercials. We are looking for niche formatted radio stations to simulcast. KNAC, for example, a superstation in Los Angeles for the metal music, will be one station that we're going to simulcast, and we're looking for a lot more. Another station we'll be simulcasting that comes to mind is Picadilly Radio from London which will be interesting for people here in the states to tune in to. That's the kind of thing we're looking for in the simulcast thing, superstations and stations with formats that aren't widely offered.
We will, on the other hand, have our own formats which will be commercial free. To start off with, there are going to be twenty-three or so commercial free formats, then add to that the movie channels and simulcasts of the other radio stations.
R.A.P.: Does Digital Planet plan to make its revenue just on the eight dollar subscriptions?
R.A.P.: Is there any talk at all about making money from the commercial stations that are being simulcast?
Tom: That's not my area, but I really don't think Digital Planet is concerned with making any revenue that way at all. When you consider the amount of people that we'll be able to grab at eight dollars a month, I think that is going to be a significant amount of money. The entire planet becomes a market for you.
Nielsen did some research for us which showed that 71.2% of cable households own a component stereo system. 67.9% of stereo owners have their television in the same room as the stereo. 21.7% of cable households own a CD player, and of all the people who have cable TV, 13.8% are very likely to subscribe. When you consider the number of American households with cable and do some simple math, at eight dollars a month you're talking some serious money.
Even if you generated 5% of all the people that have cable, you're talking about a lot of money coming in each month. With that kind of revenue, we should be able to offer a really nice service for everyone.
R.A.P.: Who's doing the voice work for the promos and such that you'll be airing on the different formats?
Tom: We're hiring the top air personalities and promo voices in the country to voice all of our channels and do our promos. Hollywood Hamilton from KIIS-FM for example, is one of our air personalities, and the list goes on and on with names of that caliber. Danny Dark, the voice of NBC, is one of our promo voices. It's really exciting to work with that caliber of talent.
R.A.P.: How much of a "show" will these air personalities be doing? Is it basically front sells and back sells?
Tom: Exactly. We'll add some entertainment value as we go along, but right now, we're getting those guys to do the front and back sells. So far, we've determined that the people do want to know what they've heard, and we're keeping it about that simple. The promo voices are doing our positioning statements which will identify the channel. For example, "You're listening to the Quake on Digital Planet -- commercial free, digital quality radio in your home," and that type of thing. Those will come up every so often, then every sixth song or so, there'll be a small break to back announce and then front sell the very next song. Then you're right back into music. The idea is to give as much commercial free music as possible.
R.A.P.: What other personalities and promo voices has the Planet locked up for a gig?
Tom: I knew you were going to ask that question. I talked with our Vice President before you called, and well, I could tell you the other names, but then I'd have to kill you. He said, "Only give those two names out right now."
There are some discrete negotiations going on, and there are a lot of names we have to be careful about releasing right now. All I can say is that I'm fortunate enough to know who these people are, and they're definitely the best people in the country. We do have some competition out there that we're going head to head with, and I just can't spill the beans yet. We're going to come on strong.
R.A.P.: Who is your competition?
Tom: Well, there's one company called The Gerald Company that is doing this too. This is all brand new, and I don't know a lot about them. I think they're going to offer only thirty channels which, I believe, is the most they technically can. From the rumors I've heard, they're more of a Muzak kind of thing. Our programming is going to be a lot more dynamic, and the production value and special shows are going to be far superior to our competition's. I haven't heard them yet, and rumor is that they're in their test marketing phase also.
There is a third company expected to be on line soon, but I can't remember their name. To my knowledge, they're still in the development stages and aren't even test marketing yet.
R.A.P.: What is the working atmosphere like around there?
Tom: I've never seen so much energy and enthusiasm put into programming as Paul Goldstein, VP of Programming, has put into it. He hangs up signs saying, "What have we done for our listeners today?" and things like that. You see, we don't have ratings. We don't have people writing things down in a diary. Instead, people vote once a month. They sit down and say, "Okay, I'm going to write this check for eight dollars and send it in, or I'm not." Every month our service will be evaluated, and our listeners will decide whether or not to send in that check. If they don't, we're out of business. We have to listen to what people want to hear, and we have to get it on the air. It doesn't matter what any ratings book says; it depends on whether that check comes in.
It's fun to really have to work for the people, and that is something Paul is very determined to do and will do. It wouldn't surprise me a bit if Paul went door to door and said, "Hey, can I talk to you? I'm the Vice President of Digital Planet. What would you like to hear?" That's just the kind of man he is, and it's fun to have someone with that kind of energy as my boss. This enthusiasm goes up and down the line. You see it in the technical crew. You see it in the President, Bill Delany and the CEO, Doug Talley. It's 9:30 pm right now, and it wouldn't surprise me if Doug Talley is at the Planet working on something. This is really his baby.
Doug will come into my production studio, sit down, take a listen to the speakers and say, "Are you sure those are the speakers you want? Let's get some JBL's in here. Let's get some Tannoys in here." I bring this up because generally, at a radio station, you rarely see the General Managers and the owners of the station. Here, both the President and the CEO take the time to come in and talk to me. This is going to kill production people, but this is the honest to God truth: They'll say, "How are things going? What do you need? What piece of equipment can we get for you that will make your job better and easier." The whole focus for them is to present the cleanest possible signal that man has to offer to the public. It's kind of scary. I've never had that.
R.A.P.: Is it really that easy to get the tools you need? Does management truly understand production?
Tom: My boss, Paul Goldstein, is a production man. He comes from a production background, and his first words to me when I came on board were, "Okay, here's your studio. We got some stuff to get started. I don't know if we did the right thing, so if you have to tear it down and start all over, do it." I have always had to fight for any piece of equipment, regardless of cost; and a lot of times I'd hear, "No way. Not right now. We've got to hire another sales-person," or something like that. Here, I would go in and set myself up with this sales pitch and really start selling my ideas: "Hey, we really need this, etc., etc.," and I didn't have to. He'd say, "Well, go ahead and get it if we need it, for crying out loud! What are you waiting on? Did you order it yet? Let's do it!"
It's the same with Doug Talley, the Chief Executive Officer. He's the technical guy. He's the guy that sits there and goes, "Now how can we transport a digital signal up to the satellite, then down here, and do this and do that...." If it's not crystal clear, he's not going to be happy. His famous words, and I laugh every time I hear them, are: "We're either in business, or we're not." It makes me laugh because I go in there and say, "I need this." And he says, "Do we really need it?" And I'll say, "Well, yes." He'll say, "Well, where's the purchase order?" Then he'll sign it, and I'll go, "Okay, but this thing is kind of expensive." This happened when I was getting a Drawmer unit. I told him we needed it but that it cost "a thousand bucks!" He just looked at me and said, "We're either in business, or we're not." It just kills me. On the other hand, it's scary, too. It's scary because there's no excuse for me to put out bad stuff. Now, when I'm in there in the studio and I hear a little hiss somewhere or something's upcut a little bit, the palms of my hands start sweating. These were things I could get away with before because a lot of stuff just gets lost in the FM band when it gets transmitted. Here, I have no excuse, and I will be shot if there are sounds there that shouldn't be there. These are really positive things to have going.
To give you another example, I went in Saturday and Doug was there. He asked me to make him a cassette dub of a presentation we had that Danny Dark voiced. I did, and we listened to it in the conference room on those speakers and it had a little to much highs. Then we went into the studio on those speakers and it had too many lows there. He is concerned about making our product as true a signal as possible. So he says, "What do you think about those Tannoy speakers you have?" I say, "Well, I like the speakers, but they're a little woofy at about 150." He says, "Yea, I think so too. Do you have any other suggestions?" I say, "Well, I've always favored JBL." He says, "OK. Let's get 'em in here. Now, what about the room? I notice there's not any Sonex in the room. Would that help?" "Well, yes that would be great." "Okay, let's get it in here."
Generally, with General Managers, the focus isn't put on production. Here, the whole focus is on programming and production because, like I said, the people have to send in that check each month, and if they don't, we go out of business. I'm fortunate enough to get the tools I need, and I couldn't be happier.
R.A.P.: Let's talk about your tools. How many studios do you have and what's in them?
Tom: Right now we have two. We have what I call the dub studio, where my assistant, Sabina Gutierrez, works. She has a set of Tannoy speakers, an Aural Exciter, the Compellor compressor, some parametric EQ, a Carvin mixing board, a Sony 1000 R-DAT, and the Tascam 3030 2-track with the dbx-1.
A lot of the tapes we get come from our air personalities around the country. These are the front sells and back sells. We ask them to send them to us flat, then we clean them up here. Then we dub them to DAT, and a computer plays the appropriate voice track at the appropriate time. Sabina handles this work.
In the main studio I have a real nice sound booth with a Sennheiser mike for the talent that comes in. For a console, I have the Carvin 2488. I have an 8-track Tascam and a 2-track plus a Technics SLP-1350 CD player. For effects, I have the Lexicon LXP-1 and the LXP-5. The Lexicon MRC remote control is hooked up to them. We have the Drawmer noise reduction unit I mentioned, and I'm real pleased with it. As with many noise reduction units, this one will drop a few highs so we have some parametric EQ and an Aural Exciter to help with that if necessary. Doug Talley just told me about a fifty thousand dollar unit that we're getting. It's a computer that analyzes anything you run through it, learns what is supposed to be there and what is not, and then sends the audio back out without the noise.
R.A.P.: Is there any MIDI gear in the studios -- synthesizers, samplers?
Tom: Not yet, but there will be. I've only been in the studio for about a month now. I started the day after Memorial Day, and our first priority was programming; so I spent a lot of time helping in that end and haven't had time to really start fully equipping the room.
R.A.P.: What were you doing those first few months?
Tom: Well if you don't have any music to put on the air, you don't have anything; so Tom Miller, Paul Goldstein and I started out in an office with probably fifty thousand songs on CD for all these different formats. Tom and Paul would decide which CD's were going to get played, then they'd get me to get the times on the cuts and determine where crossfades should occur from one song to the next.
Our CD system consists of CD juke boxes. These are the Sony CD changers. There are two of these juke boxes for each format. Then there is a DAT player in the middle and a computer. That basically makes up a radio station. The DAT player has all the voice tracks, positioning statements, and so on, and the computer runs the show.
We wanted the transitions from each element of the program to sound like they were being done by a human instead of a machine, so we listened to each cut and, rather than let the computer determine crossfade points and times, we picked them. That meant listening to some fifty thousand songs to pick the places where we wanted the next song or element to start. That took some time.
Once we had the programming of the music done, my next job was to get the positioning statements and voice tracks together. So I would get the voice talent to come in and cut things such as, "You're rockin' with the Quake in crystal clear digital quality," and things like that with zaps and stingers. We're doing twenty of those for each channel. Well, there's twenty-six channels, so that comes up to over five hundred of these fully produced positioning statements. That's a lot, and I still have five channels to go; so I'm going to be pretty busy this weekend. That's my responsibility right now, and I'm going to be needing a lot of help come the first of the year as we expand.
As far as the programming department, there is Tom Miller, Paul Goldstein and myself handling twenty-six channels. Normally, there are three to five people in that department of a radio station, so as things get going, they said I could hire as many people as I need. The reason I'm mentioning this is if anybody's interested, I'd be glad to help out in any way I can because I'm going to need some good help. Paul has asked me how many people I'm going to need, and a tentative design I have in my mind right now is to have one Production Director per five channels. Then that Production Director would also be allowed an assistant. By the time we get up to ninety-one channels, there is going to be a lot of new people, and a lot of new studios are going to have to be built. It's all going to happen very quickly.
R.A.P.: What about production music? What libraries are you using?
Tom: We're using Associated Production Music's library. They're out of Hollywood, and they're a supplier of music to the major networks and major movie and TV producers. I went to Hollywood with Paul Goldstein to get this music. They had some five hundred to a thousand CD's to choose from. Since we have so many channels, everything from classic rock to classical, I had to find music for all those formats, and eventually, when we have all ninety-one channels, I'm going to need a wide selection of stuff to choose from. This company had it. Then we have Brown Bag, which is a dynamite production tool.
R.A.P.: Which Brown Bag library do you have?
Tom: We have all of them. We have Weapons, Power Tools, Eclipse, Starfire, Flashpoint, we got 'em all.
R.A.P.: You're going to make other production people cry!
Tom: I don't want to come off like I'm bragging about this. When I sit here and think about how wonderful it is to get all these things, it's nice; but at the same time, I think it will help the production departments at other stations. We're going to get a piece of the pie, obviously. There are going to be people out there that are going to listen to us. So, I think radio stations are going to have to be aware of that, and stations and owners that are behind the times are going to have to go, "Wow. We've got some more competition now, and it's all digital. What can we do to make our studios nicer?" So, maybe a lot of the Production Directors will be able to say to their GM's, "Hey, there are three companies out there competing with us, and they're doing a lot of digital quality stuff. It's not that expensive to get the gear, and we can clean up our sound."
I'd be willing to bet that for ten thousand dollars, I could go into any radio station and get their production studios sounding great. It's not that expensive these days. I think the digital competition will help other production people get the equipment they need to make their studios sound great. They're going to need it to compete in the next phase, which is obviously digital quality radio. So, if there are any General Managers reading this, go pop your Production Director ten grand and let him do wonders with it. It'll pay for itself.
R.A.P.: What kind of processing, if any, are you putting on the voice tracks you receive from your air personalities?
Tom: Ideally, I would like to have all the talent come into my studio, but unfortunately, we have talent in Chicago, New York, LA, and all over. As far as the air personalities, I get tapes from them. These people do the tapes in their studios at their radio station, so we're at the mercy of the quality of that studio. As far as our promo and positioning statement voice tracks, I have the voice talent come into our studio, and I record them straight onto DAT using that Sennheiser microphone. It's as clean and pure as can be. Since we have the best voice talent in the country, they sound great. These are people that just open their mouths and birds fly out, so there's not a whole lot that I have to do. It makes my job a whole lot easier.
Now, the tapes I get from the air personalities, sometimes I'll have to put them through the Drawmer unit and maybe roll off some highs or add some highs, depending on what it might need. I try to use as little voice processing as possible. Ideally, with our voice tracks, we're looking for a real natural sound. That's what our CEO is looking for, the natural sound of the voice. He doesn't want the highs all cranked up or a bunch of bass in the voice. He wants it to be real.
R.A.P.: Describe some of the formats that you have.
Tom: Let's see, there's Currents which is just what the name implies, current music. We have the Quake, which is CHR. There's Gems which is popular music from the golden era, Frank Sinatra and the like. There's Fresh Air which is light jazz and new age music. Two of the channels I think are going to be really big are Legends and Stars. Legends features one hour of a legendary artist every hour on the hour commercial free -- Did I sound like a commercial? You flip on the channel and you'll hear an hour of Little Feat. The next hour might be an hour of Barbara Streisand. The next hour might be the Beatles, then the Rolling Stones. We have a guide that you get every month that tells you when and what shows are being played.
Stars is very similar to Legends, but it focuses more on current superstars like Madonna and Paula Abdul. It has a younger demographic appeal. Like Legends, Stars is every hour on the hour and in the evening we have a Led Zeppelin hour, "The Reggae Show, Mon," and a rap hour.
We've given Capitol Records a channel to do with what they want, and obviously, they're going to promote their artists. They call it the Artists Channel. Other channels include Cloud Nine, which is love songs. There's Heartland, which is country. Four Seasons is the classical channel. True Blue is the oldies channel. Revolutions is classic rock. Oh, and there's the Sprouts channel. That's a channel for kids. Those are some I can think of right now.
On top of these we're also going to be simulcasting MTV, Showtime, Cinemax, the Movie Channel, and VH-1, so people will be able to pipe the audio from these stations into their home stereo system.
There are still over sixty channels to fill, and we've talked about gospel. We've talked about Christian. We've talked about a Spanish channel and a Japanese channel. We've talked about a comedy channel, a news channel, a sports channel. I'm trying to think of the one format they haven't thought of, so if anybody has any ideas, I'd love to hear them.
R.A.P.: You have some musical talents. What are they and how are you using them at Digital Planet?
Tom: I play drums, and I have my own company called T.V. Productions. I've done a lot of jingles in the past. I did a lot in San Diego, and I'm starting to get some on the air in Los Angeles.
I've been able to use my talents on some of the positioning statements that we're doing. For instance, for the "Reggae Show, Mon" and the rap channel, We went into the studio with drum machines, keyboards, and samplers and put together some tunes. We wrote some rap songs for our positioning statements on the rap channel. For the Reggae Show, Mon, we wrote some little ten to twenty second reggae songs. A very dear friend of mine, Joe Garnier in St. Louis, is a reggae nut who works with some Jamaican singers, playing the clubs in town. I wrote him an example of what I wanted, and he took the ball from there. He basically handled the reggae stuff, and I did the rap stuff.
The reggae stuff was very easy to do, and anyone can do this really. I took from our APM library a bunch of reggae songs that were already done, I sent them to Joe, and all he had to do was go into the studio with the singers. Any station can do that for a small amount of money if they've got a production library. You could even take some cuts from the Brown Bag stuff, a thirty, a twenty, or even a ten second cut. Get a singer in the studio, put a little reverb on his voice, and you can do some really nice sounding jingles. And you don't have to spend ten thousand dollars on a jingle package. I went up to LA and rented a studio and did twelve rap songs. Combined with the reggae songs, we didn't even spend twelve hundred dollars for the two channels. I took some friends up there, a hundred bucks for the singer, a hundred bucks for the guitar player. The studio time ended up costing more than anything, really. Of course, my time was free. It's really inexpensive, and if you have any musical background at all, you can do it quite easily.
R.A.P.: Tell us a bit more about your background before you got into radio. Did you play in some bands?
Tom: Yea, I had that dream of becoming a rock star, and I still have that dream. I love playing the drums, and I love music. I was on the road for a while with a local band from St. Louis called Steppin' Out. We traveled all over the country. When I came out to San Diego, I was involved with a company called Peters Productions. We did music programming for a lot of small market radio stations, and we also did jingle packages and total image concepts. Then I got involved in a lot of theatre work in San Diego. Most recently, I did a little tour with a show called "Suds," a sixties musical which went off Broadway. I spent three months in New York and got to check out radio stations there, plus I spent a few months in San Francisco looking for more growth. I played drums for Suds while I was there and was sending out resume's and doing interviews in the daytime. I couldn't even get through to the PD at KFOG, though. I thought I was real clever with this one idea. I was cruisin' the streets in San Francisco and I got this Barry Manilow album for like a dollar and a quarter at some sidewalk sale. Then I went into a hardware store, bought a can of spray paint and spray painted the national symbol for "NO" across Barry Manilow's face. I attached my tape and resume' and caught a trolley down to the FOG thinking this was going to make a big impression. I dropped the package off thinking, "No Barry Manilow, this is gonna be great!" but I never got to speak with her. It didn't work. She probably has a stack of Barry Manilow albums with the same thing done to each one of them. I was encouraged though. I was in a pretty big market, and it was kinda fun.
R.A.P.: How did the Digital Planet gig come about?
Tom: Prior to Digital Planet, I was at Magic 102 in San Diego and at Peters Productions prior to that. Magic 102 was my first radio station. I was there for five years. I started off as an intern, working for nothing, and spent most my time there in production and did some air shifts. Before I knew it, I was doing a lot of production with Kevin Casey. He had an air shift and was the Production Director. He's at the Fox in Fresno now. It was a pleasure working with him. He taught me a lot and he's a wonderful talent. Together, we singlehandedly corrupted Magic 102 and got away with putting wacky, weird, crazy stuff on the air.
How I got the job at Digital Planet is a good example of how small of a world this is. Kevin was looking for work while he was still at Magic. I was up in San Francisco playing drums in the Suds show. Kevin saw this ad in R&R for the Planet. After he sent his tape to the Planet, the Fox thing came through. Paul Goldstein called Kevin and said that he liked his work and wanted to talk. Kevin had the gig at the Fox and was already getting ready to go there, so he passed. Paul asked Kevin if he could recommend someone, and Kevin said, "Yea. A friend of mine is up in San Francisco, playing drums for this show called Suds. He's looking right now, and he was my assistant for five years." Paul Goldstein says, "Suds. My best friend's girlfriend is one of the actresses in that show!" In passing, I had met Paul earlier in New York when he was programming the Wave and Production Director for the Wave. We had talked shop at opening night parties at the theatres where Suds was playing. Then the show ran in San Diego, and I met him there again. He had come with his best friend whose girlfriend was in the show. So anyway, Paul says to Kevin, "I know Tom Versen. Have him call me." So I did and I sent him a tape. We did an interview. Then I interviewed with Bill Delany, and the rest is history. It's just a small world. If there's such a thing as fate, this is a good example. It reminds me of an interview some time back in R.A.P. where the guy said to be nice to everybody on your way up because the van driver at your station that you send on errands and push around is going to be the GM someday at the radio station you're not working at yet.
R.A.P.: Are you going to miss commercial radio?
Tom: One thing I thought I was going to miss is the challenges the salespeople would throw at me. I thought I'd miss salespeople coming to me and saying, "Okay. I've got to sell hot tubs. Can you get me something creative to sell hot tubs?" It was really a challenge for me to come up with something good. Now that we're commercial free, I don't have the commercials to play with, but now I get to play around with creative ideas for the promos and positioning statements. Plus, there are a lot of things I'm looking forward to in the programming end of this, like interviews with the stars. We're going to do our own "rock line" type show where we'll get the talent in and do interviews.
R.A.P.: Any parting words for our readers?
Tom: I guess I would say what Kevin and I have always said: Don't settle for, "Well, that's okay." Go back and do it again. If you're doing a dub and you say, "Oh, man. I think I upcut that," if you think you did, stop the machine and go back and do it again. If you think you heard a funny noise, do it again because it's going to haunt you when you hear it on the air and you hear that little glitch. Don't hide behind, "They'll never hear it." Fix it. It'll take another sixty seconds to go back and fix it. All the veterans are going to do that anyway, but for people that are new, that's what I'd pass on. If they're in the small markets and trying to move up, I think that attention to detail is what's going to allow them to progress. If you don't pay attention to the detail, people will go, "Gosh, it just doesn't sound right. There's something there that isn't right." They can't always finger it because they don't know, but if you take that time to fix those little things, you'll not only be happy with yourself, but people will recognize it.
Our thanks to Tom for this month's interview. We can't wait to check in later when all ninety-one channels are cookin'. If you'd like more information about the upcoming positions that will be available at Digital Planet, give Tom a call at (213) xxxxxxx Those of you in the test markets, we'd like to hear your opinion of Digital Planet if you happen to be one of the "test" listeners.