R.A.P.: Do you write commercials and promos?
Dave: Actually, no. As far as promos go, I have to give a lot of credit to Steve Kingston. He's a terrific writer. He'll run into writer's block from time to time, and he'll solicit the aid of others; but he knows a good phrase when he hears it, and he writes 99.9% of all the promos that go on the air.
When it comes to commercials, I'd say that about thirty percent of the time I end up re-writing what other people have done. Not because what they have done is particularly bad, but I can see ways that I can make it a little bit better. At Z100, the sales staff basically writes their own spots. There are a couple of the salespeople who will come to me and say, "I'm stuck. I don't know what to do. I don't know how to do this." I'll give them some pointers, send them on their way, and they'll come back with a pretty decent little spot.
R.A.P.: As far as the spots you do write, do you have much creative freedom?
Dave: Loew's Theatres is opening a new complex with seven theatres in one building. They're having a grand opening next week, and I got the order. [The copy] was really short. It was supposed to be a sixty second commercial. So I got really creative with the music. I used music from Batman and a couple of other film scores. I used these big crashing crescendos, tension where it was needed, and a cute little waltz from Batman towards the end. The overall effect of the spot was like it was a little movie for sixty seconds. So I find ways to be creative, even when I'm not always allowed to be. I get a fair amount of freedom, enough to keep me satisfied anyway.
R.A.P.: What about the salespeople that don't "get stuck" writing copy? Are they writing some creative copy?
Dave: Some of them are writing very creative spots, some of them too creative. Some of them ask me to do things I can't do. "You can't do that in radio. I'm sorry." Or they'll have this big idea that has fifty people in it, and I don't have fifty people around here. Some of their spots are very creative, but a lot of it is pretty much straight sell. With the volume of work we do here, a lot of times I can't always fix that. That makes me sad because I'd like to be able to make sure that every commercial is just so. But sometimes you just have to do the work and get on with the next one.
R.A.P.: A lot of people might be surprised to find that Z100 doesn't have a copywriter. Why isn't there one?
Dave: I guess it's because at Z100, their philosophy is that everybody involved in the process should be able to do every part of the process. They may specialize in one area, but they should know how to do the rest. In other words, the salesperson might specialize in actually selling the client on buying time. I specialize in putting it all together, but any one person in the chain should at least have an understanding of what the next person in the chain does, if not be able to actually do it. They have rather high expectations of the staff at Z100.
Lonnie Gronek, our Sales Manager, requires his salespeople to be able to fully service the client as well as be able to sell them. That's one of the things we pride ourselves on. We are a full-service station. We do commercials that are of a national quality. In fact, a few times we did commercials that ended up going national from our studios. This happens on a regional basis a lot.
Basically, we don't take anybody on as a salesperson. All of our salespeople, for the most part, have either sales experience or they've worked as a buyer of radio time. So they really understand the process. They all have an understanding of what it takes to put a commercial together, the time involved and the creativity needed in order to do the job.
R.A.P.: Are you suggesting that your salespeople also need to be copywriters before they come on board?
Dave: For the most part, yes. If they are particularly strong in another area, he might take them on without the copywriting skills. I know in one case he took on a person who had been a buyer at a couple of the big houses in New York for a number of years. She didn't really know how to write copy, but she was bright enough that she figured it out quickly.
R.A.P.: There's a lot to be said for salespeople writing their own copy. It gets them really involved with the client's advertising, and they'll sit at home and pay a lot of attention to that copy if they want the client to get some good results.
Dave: Exactly. And they're also the one person who is closest to the client. They're not having to explain things to somebody else to have that person sit down and write the commercial. I wouldn't be against having a copywriter at the radio station, but the way things are set up right now, I don't know if we really need one.
R.A.P.: Well, we can't get past this interview without talking about Scott Shannon and Mojo Radio a little bit. What has Steve Kingston done since the Mojos moved in?
Dave: The only thing we've really done is tighten up a little bit. We've made the promos a little leaner. We're not quite as self-indulgent as we might have been. Where we used to take forty-five seconds to do a promo, we're now doing it in twenty-five or thirty seconds. We're getting a little more direct and to the point. It's the way Steve has always operated. I mean, we didn't like to fool around in our promos or anything like that, but we don't spend as much time sampling, for instance. We keep it down to one sample, maybe two during the promo, and only for emphasis. Whereas before, we'd do it for fun and because it sounded neat. It's more of a take care of business first attitude, and we let the jock on the air have fun with it.
We've streamlined the station a little bit, and we're all more conscious of the fact that we have some competition now. For years, WPLJ was a doormat. It was through no fault of their own. They had some good people working there from time to time. I happen to think Larry Burger was a fine Program Director. Everybody who worked for him really liked him, but he never could make a dent in what we were doing. Gary Bryan we obviously liked because now he's doing mornings at Z100. But again, he could not make a dent in what we were doing [when he was at WPLJ]. I think Scott is going to find the same problem.
Frankly, we don't view WPLJ as competition at this point in anything other than a professional sense. We're not worried so much about our audience going over there, and it's for one simple reason. As good as Gary Bryan was as a Program Director and morning man at WPLJ, when you have a radio station that is as dominant in the market as we have been for almost eight years now, the only reason someone is going to go away to WPLJ is if they have a reason to -- if we give them a reason to, if we screw up, if we don't play their songs or we play the same songs to much. We have to screw up. It's basically out of their control, and until we are willing to relinquish our hold on the audience, they're not going to have a reason to go across the street.
I thought when Scott came in that there probably would be quite a large number of people who would sample the station to see what it was like, and, unfortunately for him, I don't think they found anything worth switching to. Scott died in L.A.. I don't believe in reincarnation, and that's kind of where all of our heads are right now. In fact, we don't really view Scott as our toughest competition. Our competition is with Hot 97 for the bulk of the day. In morning drive, our competition is Howard Stern.
We try not to react. We just do our own job the best way we know how. One of the reasons Steve and I work so well together is because we've been doing it since 1979 and we understand each other. We do the best job we know how, and if we win, we win. If we don't, we won't. But, I'm of the opinion, albeit a prejudiced one, that we're going to win and do it quite nicely.
R.A.P.: Of all the effects used in production, two of the most basic, EQ and compression, are often the most misused. How do you use these effects on your voice and in production?
Dave: It depends on what I'm doing. If it's a commercial, I don't use a lot of compression, just enough to help me get more control. I don't want to flatten out the VU meters on anything I do, but when it comes to a promo, I'll use a lot more compression because I want to pull up all of my effects, my music, and all the other fancy do-dads that I'm doing. I almost have to, to ensure that everybody's going to hear all the words.
I think the problem most producers run into is that they forget that compression and equalization are tools to be used, and they very often end up getting used by their tools. They go in with the idea that they've got to compress this and equalize that, but you've got to make it sound good too. You can't just go in and automatically compress everything and equalize everything to a point where it's a real strain to listen to.
On the other hand, I'm not a big believer in that kind of listener "ear strain." Six or seven years ago that got to be a real popular theory, and a lot of radio stations started pulling their compression and on-air processing back because they felt it was too hard to listen to for any length of time. I think the thing that has washed out of that whole era is that most people still listened to the radio about the same amount of time as they did before. So I don't think that's a major concern. It's a matter of using the compression and EQ when it's called for as opposed to compressing and EQ-ing everything exactly the same way.
I don't hear this problem with Rick Allen [Hot 97]. Rick Allen's a great producer, by the way. I really like his work. He tends to do a lot of cookie cutting sometimes, but maybe that's because he has all that neat equipment. I mean, he'll use a lot of the same effects from one promo to the next. But when I'm in another market and I hear a promo or a sweeper, the one thing that always strikes me is that they've put so much compression and equalization into it -- they've pushed up the high end and maybe a little on the bottom end -- that they've lost the middle ground, and it's not something that's pleasant to listen to. I think that sends a very subtle message they may not want to be sending if they realized they were sending it.
While you want the promo to stand out from everything else you're doing -- that is the purpose of doing a little more compression and a little more EQ work on it as I do - you don't want to go too far because it makes it stick out like a sore thumb. It makes the rest of your commercials sound flat and lifeless. It makes the rest of the station sound that way. You've got a disc jockey who is live and should sound as alive as he can, and he'll play a sweeper that is just so brilliant and so bright and so piercing that you're sending mixed messages. There's no sense of continuity at the radio station.
I think the problem most people have with it is that they do go overboard. What I've found to be very helpful is instead of compressing the hell out of something the first time around, or even the last time around, I'll compress it two or three times on different passes. For instance, when I get a voice track from Mitch Craig, I'll compress it as I load it onto my multi-track. Then I'll bounce all the tracks up to one track so I've got one continuous vocal track, but I'll do that flat. Then I'll compress it again. Each time it's just a little bit -- 5, maybe 7.5 dB. Not a ton, just enough to know that it's there. Then I'll compress it as it comes off the 8-track onto my master tape when I'm doing my mixdown with all my other goodies. And then, if the promo warrants it, I'll add just a touch more to the overall production as it goes on to a cart to go on the air.
Compression is not cumulative, so to speak. In other words, if you compress at 5 dB each time, after three times it doesn't end up at 15 dB. It just nudges it up a little bit more, flattens it out a little bit, and gives it a stronger impact.
R.A.P.: When you are laying your voice down for a commercial, let's say, do you record it flat or do you add EQ at that point?
Dave: I'll keep it flat to begin with when I'm laying down the original track to multi-track because I find that it's easier for me to hear what I'm doing to it on speakers rather than headphones. Then I might boost it a little bit around 125 Hz and again around 3.5 or 4 kHz.
As far as compression goes, I don't like to put a lot of it on my voice, but every voice is different. Some voices work better with it, and some don't. I don't put more than 5 or 6 dB on my particular voice.
R.A.P.: What are you using for production libraries?
Dave: I've got Firstcom's Maximum Impact which I like a lot, although with the amount of production we do, it gets kind of thin sometimes. I don't really have any other libraries that I can put a handle on and say, "This is what I'm using." I do the time honored tradition of scouting through CD's and records trying to find tracks that I like. I also produce a lot of my own. I've got a library of probably eighty or ninety tunes that I've put down on tape at one time or another. When I can't find anything in Maximum Impact, when I can't find anything on a CD or album, I'll just pull something out that I've produced before because I know that stuff. I don't have to search through it. I know what I've got.
In terms of [promo material].... It's one of the ironies of life. I bought Chainsaw last year when it first came out. Of course, M.J. Kelli [co-producer of the library] was then working at Pirate Radio with Scott Shannon. Now he's working at WPLJ with Scott Shannon and hating it because he can't use his own material. I hold the license for New York. I like Chainsaw a lot, and I like the effects on Maximum Impact as well. Those are basically the only library effects that I use. Everything else is home grown. In fact, I'm hoping to put out my own CD in about three months. I get calls from time to time from people saying, "I heard a great promo. You had the neatest effect on there. Where did it come from?" Most of the time, it's something I grew at the station. So I've been saving that stuff, and I'm going to put together a CD. It's not that I want to make a ton of money on it or anything. The main thing is that I've gotten so much from this business that sometimes I feel I need to give it back. Though I'm sure nobody is going to accuse me of being totally humanistic in my efforts to sell these effects, it is a motivator. It is part of it.
R.A.P.: How about another tip for our readers before we bring this to a close?
Dave: Well, here's a technical tip that I thought would be common sense, but I've been running into more and more people in this business who have never thought of it before. I'm constantly amazed when watching someone cart something up. They'll roll their tape, and when the mark rolls around they'll hit the start button. I think to myself, "How accurate can that be?" I went and had our engineer spend about thirteen dollars in parts and put a remote switch on each one of my pieces of gear. I turn the remote switches on and then hit a master switch that starts all the machines simultaneously. Then I've gone through and made marks on my tape decks. I back the tape up exactly the same amount every time, so I know that every cart at my radio station has a 250 millisecond delay. I found that 250 is good for us. We're using ITC cart decks, and 250 works perfect. It never burps at the end, it's always tight, and it's consistent, I mean dead bang consistent. So when the jock hits the button, he knows exactly how long it's going to take before the sound comes on. I've worked in some stations where different people cart things up, and it's all over the place. One cart might have a half second delay and the next one a full second. Others are instantaneous.
The biggest tip I could offer is what we talked about earlier. Don't look at commercials as being "commercials." They're part of your programming, folks. That's eight minutes of time every hour that belongs to your clients, but it's still your radio station. You've got to produce the commercials like they are a part of your radio station. Make them fit in. And if you get a hayseed reading furniture items and price/item stuff on the spot, where you can get away with it, add some music. If you can make it a little faster or a little tighter, don't be afraid to edit up a spot. Don't take any words out, but take out some obvious gaps and make it smoother. Do what you can to improve their spot so that your station sound is always a hundred percent. When you do that, your cume is gonna go up, and your share will go up. Things really start to happen when you start doing things like that and take that kind of care with each and every commercial.
Production is the canvas, the paint, the frame that the radio station exists on. The DJ's will come along and dabble in the corner with the paint, and maybe the jingles on your station are the signature at the bottom corner. If you're a Production Director, you should realize that your job description should say that you are in charge of everything that goes on the air that is not live. When you realize that, you realize that ninety-eight percent of what's going on the air is yours. Granted, you're not picking the music, but you're making sure the technical aspects of the carted songs are perfect. You're producing the sweepers. You're producing the promos, the commercials, everything. Even the bits. Hey, that's a heavy job responsibility, and you've got to take it very seriously on every level. The commercial level is the one I think gets shorted the most.
R.A.P.: Thanks for your time for a great interview and thanks for the insight into great production and Z100.
Dave: I love your publication and I particularly enjoy The Cassette. In fact, on the last Cassette I heard a bit that I really liked, and we called Mark Mitchell down in Norfolk and asked him if we could just rip it off. He said, "Yea, that's what it's there for." It's a great bit. It's the one about the Joy of Sax. It was produced very well and we wanted to embellish it a little bit. We came up with a few more "sax" things that we wanted to include. Being in New York, you've got to include Saks Fifth Avenue. We're still in the process of doing it. We haven't produced it yet.
R.A.P.: Well, when you do, we want it for The Cassette!