Ron Shapiro, Production Director, KIIS-AM/FM, Los Angeles, CA
by Jerry Vigil
It's always a blast to check in at some of America's truly great radio stations with our monthly interviews, and this month's visit is no exception. KIIS radio in LA is a continuing legend in our industry, and many great names have held the Production Director's title at KIIS. The most recent producer to hold the title at Gannett's home base is Ron Shapiro. Join us as we find out how the production department functions at one of America's legendary radio stations. We find out what it's like to work there, and Ron tells us how he managed to land such a prestigious position. His answer to the latter question may surprise you, but don't let his modesty fool you. It takes much more than good timing to become the KIIS Production Director.
R.A.P.: Tell us about your background in the biz and how you got the gig at KIIS.
Ron: My background is basically in syndication. I spent eight years with ABC Watermark doing American Top 40 and American Country Countdown as well as some other shows they were producing. I left in 1986 to go to work with Ron Cutler Productions. Ron was producing programs for CBS Radio as well as Westwood One, and he distributed some of the programs himself.
During all that time I had been free-lancing for almost every other syndication company except for Westwood One. So word was around, I guess, and when Mark Driscoll and his assistant quit KIIS in 1989, they asked me to come in and help them for a couple of days until they found somebody. I'm still here. Most people probably hate me because I landed this job without a demo tape or a résumé. I haven't had a demo tape or a résumé since 1979. I was in the right place at the right time, and I want it known that I never take it for granted. I know how fortunate I am and how fortunate I've been to have worked with the best people for the past twelve years. I still look out my window here at KIIS and can't believe I'm here.
R.A.P.: So there wasn't much time spent in radio then.
Ron: No. The only time I spent in radio was in college radio and very early in my career at a small station in Thousand Oaks, a suburb of Los Angeles. I've never really had to leave LA and I never wanted to.
R.A.P.: Not only were you in the right place at the right time, but you got the gig with very little experience in radio. That's pretty impressive.
Ron: I was in the right place at the right time for Watermark, too. I hit something like twenty or thirty radio stations and production companies the day I walked into Watermark, and somebody had quit that very day. They called me back, and I started in the mail room and editing. Back in the early days of American Top 40, everybody did everything there. The president of the company was the engineer, and the guy working in the mail room, me, was editing all the voice tracks and the masters. So, everything just kind of fell into place that way.
I worked with some of the best talent in the business at Watermark and ABC, and from there, I guess that's where the reputation grew because I was free-lancing for a lot of people as well. Like I said, right place at the right time. I was very fortunate, and I never take it for granted because I know how hard it is to get the gigs.
R.A.P.: Were you into multi-track from the beginning with the syndication programs?
Ron: Yes. Everything from Watermark on up was multi-track. I think that's what helped me here at KIIS.
R.A.P.: Did you have any idea you would be a Production Director after all those years in syndication?
Ron: Not really, but I did always want to work at KIIS. I had some friends that were over here, and I was kind of envious that they were at KIIS. I didn't know what I would do if I ever came to KIIS. I had known all the Production Directors before me, and they were all good friends. So I would never stab them to try and get their job, plus I was doing fine in syndication. I never thought about being a Production Director. I figured I'd have my own production company and just produce radio programs, which I'm currently still working on.
R.A.P.: How long have you been at KIIS?
Ron: February will be two years.
R.A.P.: Would you say your forte is multi-track recording?
Ron: Yes, whether it's a radio program or a promo. Essentially they're the same except that a promo might be sixty seconds where a show might be sixty minutes.
R.A.P.: How much voice work do you do there?
Ron: I do absolutely none. Maybe once in a while I'm in the background of something, buy my voice is not used on any of the promos.
R.A.P.: Who are the voices of KIIS?
Ron: We use Joe Cipriano who is also the voice of Fox TV. Joe is our promo voice, and we also use Ernie Anderson for our sweepers. Once in a while we'll use Bruce Vidal who is on the air, and Magic Matt who is our afternoon guy, but primarily it's Joe Cipriano.
R.A.P.: What are your responsibilities there as Production Director?
Ron: Station promos are the priority. I spend the bulk of my time doing that. We might do ten different promos a week, so it's usually one to two promos a day that I'll be working on. My second responsibility is to track the voice talent for tags and other reads. They're responsible for that since I don't do any voice work. Then I hand off the tag to somebody else, and he puts it together with the movie spot or whatever it is. I'm not tied up too much with commercials unless it's a record store spot or a concert spot or something more complicated than just music and voice.
R.A.P.: Do you also produce sweepers?
Ron: Yes, but we haven't done a lot of new sweepers lately. We've stayed with the same ones for almost a year now. However, when Steve Rivers was here, we were doing sweepers all the time. So I did do a lot, but recently we've backed off. We're more jingle intensive than sweeper intensive. We only use a maximum of two sweepers an hour.
R.A.P.: What's the philosophy on the limited number of sweepers?
Ron: When Steve Rivers was the Program Director, and he's the one that hired me, he had more of that Mark Driscoll, heavy-hitting, ram-it-down-their-throat philosophy. Then came Gerry DeFrancesco, who had programmed KIIS in its heyday when KIIS had tens. KIIS then was a friendlier station. Everybody knew how to sing, "102.7, Kiss-FM." When Gerry came in, he started doing sweepers and he said, "You know, this just doesn't feel like KIIS." We all sat down, those of us that have been in town for a while, and talked about what KIIS meant to us. We took that into consideration and realized that people really think of us more like the hometown station and their friend. When we were ramming things like, "rip the knob off" and those Power Pig types of sweepers and promos, it kind of turned people off. So we softened up, not necessarily the music, but the way that we presented it. Now, there are a lot of jingles, and basically, the only sweeper we use is promoting our ten in a row that we do every hour. There are maybe ten different sweepers pushing the ten in a row, but nothing obnoxious.
Now I have another new boss and his name is Bill Richards. He's the current Program Director and he has only been here about three months, so we're still feeling each other out as far as which way to take the station. We've been doing very well, so we don't really want to change anything.
R.A.P.: What do the latest ratings show?
Ron: As far as 18-34, we're ranked number two behind an A/C station. As far as weekends and teens, we're number one 12+.
R.A.P.: Are you writing commercials and promos?
Ron: I'm writing promos along with Bill Richards and the Assistant Program Director, Gwen Roberts. We'll all sit down at write them together or take turns, depending upon who's free at that moment, but there is input from everyone. If one of us writes a promo, then the other two will get together and might make a few changes here or there. It's really a team effort on the promos.
I don't do any copywriting for spots, however, I will re-write. The copy is done either by the continuity director or the salesman, or they'll hire a free-lance copywriter.
R.A.P.: Salespeople at KIIS writing copy?
Ron: Well, yea. That's when I usually do my re-writing.
R.A.P.: Are you in regular contact with the sales people?
Ron: Yes, but a lot of it is through the traffic department. Luckily, I'm sheltered a little bit from some of that, but they do come and request things. I've been reading the articles from these other Production Directors about those five o'clock deadlines and staying late at night. I'm very fortunate because when I came here we set some guidelines. For the most part, I'd say ninety percent of the time, they abide by the deadlines. Also, because I'm not the voice talent, they have to have it ready when we have voice talent ready. So if they don't have a tag or a script ready by, let's say, three o'clock, chances are it will have to wait until tomorrow and the spot might get bumped. We're in a position here where we're sold out most of the time, so it's not as big a problem as if we were in a small market where you need every single spot. I'm not saying late orders never happen. They'll still come in at five o'clock saying we have an emergency spot, and if it's just a tag, I'll usually go into Magic Matt and say, "When you have a chance, can you come in and read a five second tag?" But I don't like doing that. I don't like disturbing the jocks when they're on the air. They have enough to worry about.
R.A.P.: Do you deal with clients often?
Ron: Very rarely. Only if they're bringing their own talent in, and that might be once every two or three months.
R.A.P.: Prior to KIIS, you've never been a Production Director. Now, two years into the job, is there anything you didn't expect about being a Production Director?
Ron: The biggest thing I didn't expect was the auditorium tests for research, three hundred and fifty hooks, and needing to put those together in the course of maybe three days because they forgot to tell me we were having one of those tests. That's really the only thing that has kind of surprised me.
I'm also surprised at the fact that the area of responsibility that I thought I would have, I really don't, such as writing spots and having people 'under me.' There are other people who do production here, but the way KIIS is set up, some of them work for the engineering department and others work for programming like I do, although they don't work for me. It a very interesting situation, and I don't really know how to describe it. I think it goes back to the people that were here when the union was here and the people that came after the union. There are still some union engineers here, and they're called engineers even though they might do production. Then there are the non-union production people. There are several people around here doing production. Rick Dees has his own staff producing his bits, so I don't have to deal with him all that much except on special projects.
R.A.P.: Are any of the other jocks doing production?
Ron: Very little. They'll do the production of their own show, such as taking callers, but that's about it. Hollywood Hamilton, our nighttime jock, probably does the most production by himself. Rick Dees doesn't, and Magic Matt usually will have either me or his producer do his stuff.
R.A.P.: Outside of the jocks, how many people are doing production of one sort or another?
Ron: I would say five, seriously doing production, and a couple of others from the Dees staff that dabble in it occasionally. They might engineer their own comedy bits.
R.A.P.: You must have a handful of studios around there.
Ron: Including the air studios, we have nine studios. There are seven production rooms, and the AM studio is also used for production since we simulcast. We'll also use the AM studio for our Saturday night mix show and to receive satellite feeds. Any of the studios, except for mine, can go on the air at anytime.
R.A.P.: You work out of the best equipped studio there. What's in it?
Ron: I have an Otari MX-70 8-track. That's analog, but I also have a Dyaxis system, although I'm really only using it more for editing voice tracks rather than mixing. I'll also use it to edit samples for our sampler. That's the Emulator III. There's also a couple of Sony 2-tracks. As far as processing, I'm using a Yamaha Rev-7, the MultiVerb II, the Lexicon PCM-70, and the Eventide SP-2016. We also have a Compellor and an Aural Exciter plus a Dynafex to cut down on some of the noise. Our mike is a Sennheiser 4032-U3. That's the one I like the most. We also have an RE20 and a Neumann U-89, but I prefer the Sennheiser on production. The console is the Pacific Recorders ABX-26.
R.A.P.: Any DAT mastering?
Ron: No. There isn't but there will be. Surprisingly, for the size of the station, we only have one DAT player; and it's not in my room, surprisingly. They're using it more for satellite testing because Gannett is developing a satellite system. I know there's a purchase order in for a new one for me, and hopefully, by the time this interview is out, I'll have my DAT.
R.A.P.: Any other toys on the way other than the DAT machine?
Ron: Well, the other day I tested the Akai DD-1000. It's a self-contained digital editing system without the use of a computer. It records on magneto optical disk. I used it and it was great, but I found a better use for it in another studio. I'm going to try and get it in for doing our hook tapes and any music re-mixes. It is perfect for that, for editing and moving things around. It's very easy to use.
R.A.P.: It sounds like you and KIIS stay pretty much on top of what's out there in the way of equipment.
Ron: That's true. However, a lot of the digital systems were tested here before I actually got here. Paul Donahue, who is Vice President of Engineering for the Gannett chain, stays on top of things. If there's something new out there, he'll ask me to try it out. That's what happened with the Akai unit. Paul is also the person who developed the Denon CD cart system. Nobody really knows that, but Paul was the guy who came up with that and tested it for Denon. I don't think he gets a kick-back or anything, but it was developed with Gannett, although we don't use them which is a strange situation.
R.A.P.: What equipment did you have the station buy for you after you arrived?
Ron: I had them buy the Emulator and the Sony CS3000 dual CD player as well as the Technics SL-P1300 CD player mainly for the pitch control on it.
R.A.P.: Is the E-mu the keyboard version?
Ron: Yes. At the time we bought it, it was top of the line. I'm sure there are things out now that are probably a little bit better, but for my purposes, for the very little music that I compose, it's perfect. Once in a while my traffic manager will come in and help out with some music because he's more of a musician than I am. My background is drums, so if I look at music I know which drum to hit, but as far as notes, I have no clue.
R.A.P.: Do you make a lot of beds?
Ron: Not really. Most of them come from production libraries. We've got quite a few libraries. Three are from Brown Bag. They are Flashpoint, Eclipse, and Weapons. I'm still using Techsonics One. We also have Century 21's Lazer Lightning and FirstCom's Maximum Impact. I'm presently waiting for Attitude from Toby Arnold & Associates. Based on the demo, it's fantastic. I had to get that one. We also have one other library used mostly for commercial production, and that's the APM library.
R.A.P.: Do you think the industry is at a point where it is saturated with production libraries?
Ron: No, I don't. There are a lot of them out there that may be right for one type of station but not right for another. There may be beds better suited for A/C stations while others are better suited for rock. Production Directors won't like every single library out there, and not all Production Directors are going to like the same ones. Of course, there are those that keep showing up, like Brown Bag and Techsonics. They've been around for quite a while.
R.A.P.: Do you make the decisions on the production libraries yourself?
Ron: Yes. That's my decision. That's one thing they do let me do. If I like something I can suggest it, and if it's in the budget then I'm allowed to get it. The same goes for equipment, and it's nice to have Paul Donahue on the premises because he'll find something and ask me if I've heard about it, if I know anything about it, and if I'd like to try it out. It's nice to have him here because if he wants to see something, it always winds up at KIIS as opposed to the other stations in the chain because he's right here. I like that.
R.A.P.: KIIS has quite a reputation of really putting a lot of emphasis on their production. Any thoughts on that?
Ron: They do have that reputation, and I appreciate that, too. They've had some of the best Production Directors here. Don Elliot was Production Director here for quite a few years. Then there was Steve Crowley who's up in Seattle now. Then there was Mark Driscoll. They were the three before me.
Gannett is a very good company, which is rare, I think. I remember when I was in a small town radio station. It's such a different lifestyle here, and I think it's different than the situations at many of the other stations here in LA. Everybody is everybody's friend, and that's really true. We don't mind seeing each other after hours. Everybody helps everybody, and it really is a great situation.
R.A.P.: Do you find that using your creativity on the promos at KIIS is more of a creative outlet than a syndicated show?
Ron: For, let's say, a countdown show, it's is definitely more creative here because with a countdown show you really do nothing more than just countdown the hits, maybe a little interview and maybe a little sound effect here and there. However, the reason I left Watermark in '86 was to do a show called Party America which was with Fast Jimmy Roberts at WPLJ in New York. At that time, it was more a "theatre of the mind" kind of production, club hopping from coast to coast. There was a lot of creativity in that show which was very enticing. Now, over the years, it has changed a little bit. Now it's with Magic Matt of KIIS. Fast Jimmy Roberts is still on the show, but I think it has developed into a countdown kind of show now.
I'm definitely using my creativity in a different way. In the syndication days, my creativity was used in mixing or getting a different blend or different sound for somebody, but I never did any of the writing. Here at KIIS I'm allowed to go crazy in certain areas.
R.A.P.: Where would you say LA radio falls short regarding the production departments at the stations there?
Ron: Actually, a lot of the stuff I hear on the R.A.P. Cassettes that is coming out of the smaller and medium markets I think is superior to a lot of the stuff that's being done here in LA, myself included. I think the bigger the city you get to, the less of a chance you are allowed to take. I listen to Power 106, and not to slight Eric Edwards -- I've never met the man, but I admire his production -- but most of the production on that station sounds pretty much the same. The same goes for Pirate Radio. M.J. Kelli does a great job, but it's always that pissed off kind of sound. I mean, it's all very creative and very funny, but it's all pretty much the same. That's where I think stations are falling short in production. There's not a lot of different types of production on the stations. One oldies station in town is trying to sound like KIIS in their production, but they don't have the music beds to back up all the stuff they're doing with Bobby Ocean's voice. It's all starting to kind of blend together and sound the same, even as different as it is.
On the other hand you have people like Joel Moss, whom I don't know except through The Cassette. His stuff is fantastic. Then there's that guy in Nashville, Glenn Miller. More fantastic stuff. That's where I think it's lacking, at least in LA. There's nothing that creative out here.
R.A.P.: What trends do you see in radio production?
Ron: I think the attention to quality has definitely increased, especially with the digital age and CD's, and the variety of production music that is out now. It really helps, and I think it makes it a little more intense, a little more 90's. Production music is not like a needle drop off of a record anymore. There's stuff that's dedicated strictly to promos now. That's made my job extremely easy. That's what makes me sound good. Many times, it's really the music behind it more than the voice or the way that it's put together.
R.A.P.: What kind of processing do you like to use on the mike?
Ron: I'll do a little bit of processing with the ABX's compressor and de-esser when I'm getting voice tracks, but for the most part, any limiting on the mike is pretty much done on the mixdown instead of compressing, compressing, and compressing. Once in a while I'll use the parametric EQ for a phone sound or a filtered sound, but I kind of shy away from that and also from the stuttering. Stuttering has been overused. If I have one stutter in every twenty-five promos, that's a lot, and it would never be on our call letters either.
R.A.P.: We've included some of your promos on The Cassette for some rather large promotions. Tell us a little about the promotion side of KIIS.
Ron: We definitely have huge contests. Basically every time Rick Dees opens his mouth in the morning and takes a phone call, somebody's winning something. The station is very heavy into promotions, and that makes my job nice, too. You get to put together promos with someone winning fifty thousand dollars just for having a birthday. It's exciting. I've got to tell you that even though it is a job and there are many days when it is work, it's the greatest thing when you go to any of the big promotions such as the "Dash For Cash" where we had a bank vault filled with a million dollars. This girl is running in and has a hundred and two point seven seconds to grab as much money as she can. That's excitement plus. The promotions really help make this job great.
R.A.P.: Fifty thousand dollars all to one person? Tell us more about this promotion.
Ron: In the beginning of this book, the first week we gave away ten thousand. The second week was twenty. The third week was thirty. The fourth week was forty. Then fifty thousand on the fifth week of the Birthday Game. A lot of stations have done this promotion, but I think this is the largest amount of money ever given away in one shot. I haven't heard the details, but that was nothing compared to what's coming up in the new year. I can't wait to find out what the next deal is. They're always topping themselves.
The promotion department here is incredible. They've got three main people and a lot of interns in the department. We do a lot of remotes, too. That's something I really love. I loved it as a kid, being able to see a DJ doing his show, and we're out with at least one remote a week if not two or three.
R.A.P.: Were the "Dash For Cash" and the Birthday Game the two major promotions of the year?
Ron: Actually, the Dash For Cash was in '89, and we did two of those. One of them was tied in with a Jaguar, so they won the car as well as a shot at the million dollars. 1990's big promotions were a giveaway of ten Porches and the big cash giveaway at the beginning of this book. Our Super Sticker promotion was also pretty big. That's our bumper sticker promotion, and I think they gave away ten thousand dollars each to three different people. Then there were cars and trips -- again, another very big promotion.
R.A.P.: How did KIIS give away the Porches?
Ron: With the Porches, we wanted a very simple contest that anybody could easily win. We played three songs, the last song each time being Kiss by Prince, and when you heard those three songs again later that week, and were caller one hundred and two, you would win the car. We would inform the listeners when we would give it away. The day before we'd say, "in the next twenty-four hours," then it would be within the next twelve hours and so on until we had it narrowed down to one particular jock's show. It was so easy, and it was so well received. You didn't have to qualify, you didn't have to have a key, you didn't have to have this or that. It was clean cut and simple and worked very well for us.
When the car was actually being given away, there were a minimum of ten to twenty people in the studio at the time. The Program Director, the Assistant Program Director, and the Promotions Director were there, all making sure that the correct caller won. We recorded every push of the telephone buttons to make sure we had caller number 102. Then, when the person won, everybody in the studio was genuinely excited for this winner. It's the strangest thing here. I thought I would think, "oh yea, another car, big deal," because we do it so often, but it's not that way. The way they do the promotions here are simply exciting, and of course it makes for great promos. Gosh! Giving away ten Porches? It can't get much bigger!
R.A.P.: You have a company of your own. Tell us a little bit about it.
Ron: It's called Solid Gold Communications, and I'm a partner with a couple of people I used to work with at Watermark. We're trying to sell what is basically an AC/gold type show. So if there are any distributors reading this, we're looking for somebody. We're also looking into some other things, but primarily, our efforts have been on this project for the past couple of years. The timing is either right or wrong, and right now the economy is such that the timing is probably wrong, but we're ready to go at any time.
R.A.P.: Are you doing any freelance work on your own?
Ron: I'm still doing a little freelance work at American Top 40 when they need something. I'm also working with Paul Trembley who asked me to produce some sweepers for him to sell. He's got an Ernie Anderson-ish kind of voice. Most of his work has been in movie trailers and things like that.
When I came to KIIS, I was doing a lot more freelance. The amount of work was so overwhelming that I had to give up a lot of it and pass it off to friends around town. Now I'm looking for some more again, although I would rather do a radio program again as opposed to doing spots. I still enjoy putting together a radio pro-gram. I miss that every now and then.
R.A.P.: Well, yours is a rare story of how to get to the top -- no demo tapes and no résumés. You started in LA and never left. What can you offer to the person who isn't as proficient with right-place/right-time procedures?
Ron: Number one: Don't burn any bridges. Number two: If you're asked to do something, just do it with a good attitude. That's what's going to keep you working. Of course, you have to be able to do the job, but do it with an attitude that encourages people to respect and like you. That's why I've been working and why I've been able to move up as well as I have. I've kept good relation-ships with people, and that's really it. You don't have to piss anybody off, and you can still get it done your way. It's a people business, and there are so few people with good people skills out there. So, if you've got it, definitely develop it because that's what's going to keep you working and moving up. Persistence helps too. Getting that first job is definitely the toughest.
R.A.P.: A good attitude is definitely a plus, but it's also nice to hear that a person can do well strictly with their production skills rather than having to have a super voice as well.
Ron: That's something else that helped me get the job at KIIS. I had concentrated all my efforts on production and not really voice, although I was on the air, but not seriously. That I was able to walk into the station and sit down at this board, even thought I had never used this board, and put together a promo was a big plus for me. Having worked at so many different studios really helped me.
Just learn as much as you can. I'm never afraid to learn something new, whether it be a new piece of equipment or a new style. If somebody has a suggestion, take it. Don't say, "I'm doing it. Leave me alone." People are always walking through here with great ideas. Keep your ears open. That makes you look good, too.