R.A.P. Interview: Terry Phillips

Terry Phillips, WYCD-FM, Detroit, MI

By Jerry Vigil

detroits-995-countryThis month’s RAP Interview stops in the Motor City, the nation’s 7th largest market, where we check in with Terry Phillips, Creative Services Director at Infinity’s Country outlet in Detroit, WYCD. We get an interesting glimpse of the production department at WYCD, and Terry sheds some light on the tough task of imaging Country in these changing times. Be sure to check out Terry’s kickin’ demo on this month’s RAP CD!

JV: Tell us about your background in radio.
Terry: I was one of those idiot kids who always wanted to get into radio, the ones who sat there with portable recorders and made parody commercials, the ones who talked to the jocks so much that they knew the hot lines when they were 12. So, it was a bit predestined. I was also a big computer nerd. My parents moved around a lot and were divorced, so my connection to the outside world a lot of times was the computer. It’s kind of funny how it all ended up being part of the same thing. During my college years, my parents were disappointed I didn’t go into computer programming.

I bought an Amiga computer when they came out in ’86. Back then it was the first computer that could do basic digital recording. It could record 44.1 kHz at 16 bits, and it could do wave form editing. Of course, there was no hard drive, and it only had 256k of RAM, so you were pretty limited with how much you could do with it, but that was the first time I started editing.

I went to college at a branch of Texas A&M in Commerce, Texas. I was Program Director of the college station, and I did a morning show there. They had two stations actually. I trained some of the jocks and did a lot of the production for the big 110-watt station that boomed into Dallas, but I wasn’t Program Director of that one. That was public radio. My original dream was to be the big morning show guy. Anyway, while in college I worked at a whole bunch of little radio stations part-time, then I got an internship at KZPS in Dallas. I started off as the morning show intern and somehow ended up in the production room most of the time, dubbing the comedy bits for the morning show and editing stuff with their Production Director, Aubrey Hayden. I learned a lot of stuff from Aubrey.

From there I got a part-time job in Dallas at Y95, Assistant Morning Show Producer. I did a lot of editing for them, did character voices, and was their phone plebe and one of their stunt people. When Y95 changed to Power 95, I kept my job. When it changed to Oldies 94.9, I kept my job for about a month. Then they let go of the consultant, and about 2 days later, they let go of me. Apparently, he was helping me keep my job there. At this point, I was about 21. When I was let go, I went to Texarkana and did nights there for about 6 months. Then I moved to El Dorado, Arkansas, the middle of nowhere, to do mornings and get the APD title. From there, I ended up doing nights in Tucson, Arizona, at KIIM FM.

About this time I found myself living in the production room, and I slowly ended up doing more and more of the imagery at KIIM, to the point that I was doing all of it. Then the Program Director moved me to mornings, and after finding out that I wasn’t good at waking up early, he told me I could either become a Production Director, in which case I was probably a couple of years and one station away from being a Production Director in a major market. Or I could continue trying to be a morning guy. And he said until I got the loudest alarm on earth, it would be a while before I got to the major leagues. So I left KIIM FM and became Production Director for Leggett Broadcasting, for a group of their stations in mid-Michigan, just a little north of Detroit. I was there for 5 years and handled three of their stations.

JV: Were you doing voice work for Leggett and for KIIM, as far as the imaging, or were you producing someone else’s voice?
Terry: I was producing someone else’s voice for the sweepers. For the commercials and promos, I was using mine.

JV: So how did you wind up WYCD?
Terry: Basically I got hired away from Leggett. J. R. Nelson, who was the Production Director at the time, was retiring to start up his freelance business, so they were looking. When I got there—and no fault of J.R.’s at all—but when I got there in November of 2000, they had had an enormous amount of errors in spots that had cost a large amount of money. The figure quoted to me—I don’t know how accurate it was because salespeople exaggerate—was over $250,000 in that past year, all in production screw ups, which is a pretty hefty figure. Too much of the department was run with sticky notes. You wouldn’t think a major market station would be so disorganized, as far as sales production, but it wasn’t organized at all. So, I basically came in to a situation where there was only one functional production room—the rooms weren’t wired very well—and no organization at all. Hopefully I’ve done a pretty good job of taking care of some of that. In all of 2001, the only production errors that were brought to our attention totaled under $3,000. I’m sure there’s more that wasn’t mentioned to me, but there can’t be much more or they would definitely mention it.

JV: What were one or two of the specific problems that you encountered with regard to the loss of $250,000 and what did you do to fix things?
Terry: For the most part, it basically just boiled down to a paper trail and organization. Dan Masucci was Continuity Director and still is—a very good guy, a very hard worker. He was unfortunately under quite a burden. He was acting as Commercial Production Director, writing most of the spots and producing the lion’s share. Our jocks don’t do any production, so here he was not only doing continuity but the job of a Commercial Production Director as well. J.R. was doing all the imagery. His day started early and he left at noon so he could leave one studio to Dan. Well, I’m a little more hands-on than that, and to make the errors stop, I basically took all the production work off Dan temporarily so we could get the new systems implemented. He then had time to make sure that everything was on the log right, that everything was scheduled right, that everything that was supposed to run ran accordingly. Then we had to wait for production B to become functional, which took a lot longer than I thought because of the economy, corporate stuff, and such. We were hoping for a new editor in the first quarter of 2001. It showed up in October. So, I basically ended up taking over everything for a lot longer than I anticipated, but the mistakes stopped. And it wasn’t because Dan was a screw up at all. It was because he didn’t have the time. He was overloaded. And now it’s much more of a team. He helps me out with a lot of stuff and still does a good amount of production. And when I’m buried, it nice knowing that he can take the workload off me when we’re changing something major in the imagery.

As far as the paper trail goes, I put a production order in place and explained to everybody that you have to fill one of these out and it has to go in this box. There wasn’t really a system before this. People would literally put a sticky note on a tape and give it to Dan. And when you’re shuffling faxes, dealing with different orders for this that and the other, and then a tape shows up with a sticky note on it…that’s just begging for a mistake, especially when you’re overloaded.

JV: Is it up to the salespeople to fill out the production orders?
Terry: They have the sales assistant do it occasionally, but for the most part, they do it and then place it in this one box. That way the Traffic Director knows it exists. I know it exists. Dan knows it exists. No matter who’s producing it, me or Dan, we both know of its existence.

JV: How are promos handled?
Terry: The Program Director and I work together tightly on the promos. She feeds me what she wants. I type up scripts, grab our voice guy, and roll with it. We crank out a lot of promos. It’s no secret that a lot of the Young Country stations have had a real hard time. The branded image of Young Country was so strong, did so well and burned so deeply into the listener’s mind, that changing it to anything else got met with a real resistance from the listeners. On the other hand, every piece of testing on the phrase “Young Country” shows people saying it only means new music and attitude. If you’re the only game in town, you can’t pigeonhole yourself like that. So all of the Young Country stations one by one have gone through their attempt over time to get rid of the word “young.” Because of that, there are many changes. We’ve tweaked the name of our station several times since we’ve lost the “young.” In the past year, I’ve completely re-imaged the station several times.

JV: What is it now?
Terry: Right now it’s Detroit’s Country 99.5. Three months ago, we had it a little bit different. Three months before that it was a little bit different. With tweaks and changes, including changing the voice guy, I’ve re-imaged the station 9 times in the past 12 months. Now, not all of these are complete and total changes, changing the look and feel of the station. A lot of it might have been just inserting a word.

So that’s been the deal—checking the research to see what’s working, what needs changing. Everything shows that Detroit’s Country 99.5 is the way to go. For a while, we toyed with the idea of just Country 99.5. We also toyed with the idea of using the call letters as part of the name. It’s been an evolution rather than just a continuation of a successful station. Even though we’re the only game in town, we’ve made it an evolution, moving forward so we can reach a broader range instead of just flipping a switch and dropping the word young. A lot of stations have tried that and didn’t do very well. The Young Country station in Dallas, which was one of my favorite stations when it signed on, changed to Superstar Country and self destructed. The Young Country in Seattle and the Young Country in Houston have both crumbled. The same thing for San Francisco, San Francisco’s never been a country market. And this isn’t a slam on the PDs at all. It’s just such a powerful brand that when you try to move away from it, it’s like trying to convince someone that the Camero is made by Ford. Even if they like it, they’re resistant to it. It’s a wild thing because how often is a brand that established? Sure, there are stations out there that have that kind of establishment, but just for a second imagine taking this station that everybody knows and changing its name. But you have to. Research tells you that you have to. If you don’t, you’re leaving your backdoor for the competition to come in and whack you in the butt.

JV: Has Country pretty much been your main format throughout your years in radio?
Terry: For the most part, yes.

JV: Do you enjoy country music away from the job?
Terry: I listen to everything. I’m one of the biggest surfers around. Now as far as imaging goes, Country stations in my opinion do the best when their imaged hot, close to a CHR with a twang. When they try to sound like an AC station, if they’re the only game in town, they might do fine, but they don’t do as well as they could. And when competition pops up, they’re vulnerable because they sound lame and old all of a sudden. As I mentioned, that’s what got a lot of country stations in trouble in the early ‘90s.

JV: How’s the station doing?
Terry: In the last year we’ve done really well. Our morning show is the shift that needs the most work. Afternoons are #2. Mid-days are pulling up from the mornings ratings at #5. Mornings are 13th. But we’re still a top 5 station.

JV: With regards to the imaging there, what kind of creative freedom do you have?
Terry: Well I write all of the sweepers, and I write the majority of the promos. I’m given edicts that this or that has to be included, but I write them. I may be told that the station’s name has to bookend it and we have to have “continuous favorites” on every sweeper, but what I do with that is up to me. And I’m given some artistic license. Being a rock town, being a blue-collar town, and having a personal belief that country music as a format does better when it’s imaged like CHR with a twang, we’re a little hotter than some of the country stations out there, as far as imagery. We’re not out on a limb. We’re not blue. We’re not going out into left field, but we’re definitely not sounding like an AC station, which a lot of country stations have become.

JV: There are several Infinity stations in Detroit. Are any of them in the same building with you?
Terry: Currently all of the stations have their own building. However, we do intermingle quite a bit. I have also done a lot of production for the Infinity Promotions Group, which is Infinity’s ad agency that exists in some markets. One of their clients was Comcast, and I handled their spots for quite a while. I’ve also done a lot of spots for their special events and other clients group-wide. There’s a teeny bit of resource sharing, but not very much. Infinity lets you operate pretty much on your own. They let you do your job, and they don’t force too much on you, like running five stations with one staff.

JV: Tell us a bit more about the Infinity Promotions Group.
Terry: It was a project that started in their major markets. Recently they have closed the doors of all these ad agencies except for the biggest billers. They acted as an independent ad agency—why give the 15% to somebody else, when you can take it yourself?—and they did buy as an ad agency would buy, which meant they bought spots on our competition as well. Obviously, knowing and understanding radio, they really pushed radio. But if the client wanted demographic X, they would buy what would be right to reach that demo whether that included my station or not. But they would push radio, which benefited Infinity because the cluster we have here in Detroit is really strong. We have the Smooth Jazz station which is top 5, the Oldies station which is top 5, and our station which bounces in and out of there. We also have a FM talk station, News and Sports. The News station quite often also hits the top 5. So we have a strong cluster that’s pretty spread out. As a result, we get in on the buys.

JV: And then this ad agency outsources the creative, but it outsources it to the creative people at the Infinity stations, is that correct?
Terry: Right. And of course, if it left the company, then I could get a talent fee, but only if it left the company and ran on other stations. I’ve regularly voiced stuff that has run on our other stations without compensation, but you know, that’s part of the age we live in. You don’t get a talent fee for that anymore. One of our Production Directors in our group who was brand new called me up asking about that. That day’s long gone, I said, and don’t bother going to your General Manager.

JV: So although the Infinity stations are in separate buildings, there is still some consolidation here.
Terry: Yeah. And you know, to a certain extent some consolidation is good. There are many resources in production that we could share, but we don’t. We’re looking at moving into a new building and consolidating further, and I’m pushing hard to get all of the production computers networked together. Why on earth, if you have multiple production rooms, would you want to assign a production room to each station? That is pointless. Hand somebody the copy and tell them to go read it somewhere. I don’t care what room you use because I’ll be able to pull it up over the network.

JV: You have a couple of production rooms there now. How were they equipped when you arrived and how are they equipped now?
Terry: When I got there all they had was an AKG DSE 7000, nothing else. The second room was originally a newsroom. It hadn’t been used as a newsroom in forever, and it was basically a voice track room and a dubbing station. While we waited for corporate to come through with some bucks, I got them to buy some less expensive equipment. I picked up an Aardvark sound card. They sound marvelous and they’re inexpensive. It’s 24-bit 96K. I got that and plugged it in the computer that was just used to collect e-mail and play solitaire in my room and did all the editing off that in Cool Edit Pro. That was the first step. That computer is now, with some extra memory and a SCSI drive, the production computer for Studio A. The DSE in Studio A is currently not really in use. We’ve also upgraded software, and now we have Cool Edit Pro, Acid, Vegas and Sound Forge.

JV: Cool Edit and Vegas are both multitrack programs, and Cool Edit includes a 2-track editor as well. Do you use both programs for multitrack work?
Terry: I end up using Cool Edit a little more than anything else. It’s quick, and it does the job really well. It’s like a Swiss army knife. The little bugger will do anything, and once you get to know it, you can really make that program sing. And with some good plug-ins, you really get a lot more out of that little $350 program than a lot of these very expensive editors can dream of doing. I use Vegas quite a bit because it lets you add the effects live, where Cool Edit Pro only does destructive editing. The only reason I really have Sound Forge is because it came with a bundle of software we bought, and it loads up every format known on earth. So, when you need to grab something and clean it up, and it’s an older or odd format, or it’s MP2, which Cool Edit Pro does not handle, you can pull it up. It’s pretty obvious what I use Acid for, when I have time for making my own bits and playing around.

The ironic part is that the original pitch was to get a Pro Tools unit in here. But due to cost, the economy not doing great, and everything else, it looked like we weren’t going to get one, and that’s how we managed to get the new computer and the upgrades for the other computer to have two functional PC editors. At the end of October, a couple of boxes showed up at the door with my name on them. When Comedy World went belly-up, our engineers at corporate went out there and bought their Pro Tools unit. So now I also have a Mac Pro Tools system. I went from total famine—one production room, microphones wired poorly, mic processing going out, faders dying, a kind of antique with the DSE 7000—to feast.

JV: Being into computers as much as you are, if money was no object, and you were going to build a system to run Cool Edit and Vegas and Acid, what kind of computer would you build?
Terry: I would look in the PC world. To be honest, I don’t see a reason for a Mac, and I’m not a Mac hater. I grew up on an Apple II. That was my first computer that I helped my dad put together. I was one of those idiots who owned a Vic-20 as well. But if money were no object, I would buy in the PC world for sure. I would get a Pentium 4. I would get the fastest one I could, and I would get as much DDR memory as I could get. I would load that puppy up. I’d load Windows XP—all the software runs in it. I would definitely be on XP because it’s more stable. And to be honest, as far as audio cards, I have been so impressed with Aardvark’s stuff that I would stay with it. They have a new 10-channel board, and I would pick that up. Aardvark’s the only sound card company that I’m aware of that actually puts a solid metal shield around the DSP processors and the AD/DA converters, and so the computer cross-talk is eliminated. They also have that breakout box and the whole 9 yards, and it has a really good sound to it.

I just basically started poking around and listening to different cards at the local Guitar Center trying to find the cheapest, best sounding card I could get until I could get something from corporate. I’ve listened to cards from MIDI Man, from C Sound, obviously Pro Tools, and even the Paris system. By the way, the Paris system is a really nice system, but with something like Cool Edit Pro, with something like Vegas, a mixing board hooked up to the system almost slows you down. There’s a learning curve for people who aren’t computer idiots like myself, but I would literally trick that computer out and spend money on Direct X plug-ins and hard drive space.

My home system is a little 1.7 GHz Pentium 4, with 512 MB of RAM, 160 gigs of hard drive space, 2 CD burners and a DVD drive, all in the one computer along with an Aardvark card. Short of recording a band, there isn’t anything I can’t do with it—having only 4 inputs, recording a band live might be tough.

JV: Describe your production style or philosophy?
Terry: I grew up in Dallas with a giant CHR war as a child. I grew up hearing tremendous theatre of the mind production. Even when it was a dry ID with the name of the station and a slug line, it was produced big. I would listen to 92.5 KAFM-FM and the Eagle go at it. Then it was the Eagle vs. KISS-FM. Then it was the Eagle vs. Y95. After those battles ended, the Country wars started. KPLX and KSCS heated up their battle as Country grew in popularity. Then the first Young Country station signed on, and nobody thought it could make a dent. Nobody thought that Country should have a wild attitude, and they proved everybody wrong.

So, I grew up in a growing town where everything was made big. There wasn’t “just throw a bed behind it and throw it on the air” kind of production on the airwaves. I almost never take a track from a library and just use it. I’ll cut it apart, flip it around, throw a flange on it, do a reverse echo, hollow it, something. I’m a tinkerer, and I’ll spend forever on a sweeper to try to tune it. And coming from kind of a musical family—everybody on my daddy’s side of the family plays an instrument—I have an ear for how I want things to sound. It’s not so much about being on key or anything, but it needs to flow. It needs to sound cohesive. You can use statics, beeps, and strange music beds in a Country station; you can make it hot and still have the message be loud and clear, not buried, and that’s what I try to do. I don’t want to take away from the voice, and if I want to draw attention to the voice, then I do something to try to bring some attention to that.

Right now with budgets as they are, I don’t have as much money to play with as I would have in the past, so I don’t have the money to go out and buy huge libraries. We don’t subscribe to Rocket Science. We don’t subscribe to Fire Power. I don’t have any Brown Bag. I have some AV Deli libraries and I have some sound effect CDs and some basic Acid loops, and that’s how I make everything. There is no money to go out and spend huge dollars on libraries, and right now, in Country, there aren’t any new libraries out there. The only thing new out there relatively speaking is AV Deli’s All American Country, which I have. And AV Deli stuff is a tool kit. You have the beds, and you have all these little pieces. There’s no road map. It’s not like when you buy something from Brown Bag where you get cuts that are 20 seconds of meat and you just insert what you want in the donut. And I don’t know, but maybe not having the money to do that has forced me to be a little goofier or mess with things a little more. A lot of libraries use sound effects from companies like Sound Ideas and just twist them, so that’s what I end up doing. I’m not trying to copy their stuff; I’m just doing the same thing they are because I have to do it myself.

JV: But you enjoy tweaking on your computer, don’t you?
Terry: Yeah, there’s nothing better. The ironic part is, I always told my mom and my dad that I couldn’t go into the computer industry because I didn’t want to be a programmer and sit in front of the computer 12 hours a day. Now I sit in front of the computer 12 hours a day. But I’m not programming; I’m getting to make weird noises and be goofy and write stupid crap and voice it. So there’s a difference, but it’s still mildly ironic that I’m sitting in front of a computer 12 hours a day.

JV: You come from a family of musicians on your father’s side. Are you a musician?
Terry: No, but I wish I was. I recently went out and bought a MIDI keyboard, and I’m signing up for lessons. That’s my New Year’s resolution. After I learn the keyboard I want to learn the guitar, and so on and so forth. The more I mess with this stuff, the more I take things apart and flip them around and the more I listen to demos of some of these libraries that have these wonderfully large price tags, the more I realize with just a little experience, a lot of time, and a whole bunch of sound effects and a twisted brain, you can do all this yourself.

JV: What’s down the road for you?
Terry: My immediate goal is to help our Program Director get our station into the top 3 and keep it there. This isn’t a traditional Country market. It never has been, so that’s tough enough. And I have to keep my mind set on where the majority of my bread is buttered. Beyond that, I do some freelance. I do have a studio in my house, and there have been some people who have talked to me about producing and/or voicing some of their station stuff, which is something I’m definitely looking into.

JV: What have you learned in imaging Country stations that you would pass on to somebody that has just landed a job imaging a Country station for the first time?
Terry: The main thing about Country is to know the core. You are talking to a woman. You are talking to a woman who has kids more than likely. That’s your main audience. You have to keep it clean. You can’t do the double entendres of a rock station as much as you want to. You can’t get childish like some of the very young CHRs that aim at the really young ages. But don’t be boring. By all means don’t be AC, whatever you do. Music is cyclical. Right now CHR is the hottest format. It doesn’t take long for that trend to switch, and it will. The signs are there. Every time Country music starts crossing over, it’s the beginning of that switch. So look for the format to start growing again. Look for the artists to start standing out in the near future, and look out for yourself if you’re the only country station in the market. Look for the possibility of competition existing. If you sound like an AC station, someone’s going to come up and sound younger and cut into your share. So be hot, not too hot, a little bit of CHR, a little bit of twang. Just remember, you’re talking to an adult. The thing that I try to remember is to take the core and subtract 10 years. You want to sound hip enough for that age. No one wants to think they’re old. No one wants to believe they’re old. Listen to the big stations, they all sound a little younger except for AC. And to me that’s the big key. AC does a fabulous job of taking care of their audience. The country audience is a little bit yahoo. They’re a little bit about kicking their feet up. The #1 sports are things like NASCAR and wrestling, depending upon where you are. Maybe it’s football or basketball. For us it’s hockey. These are everyday people. Don’t try to be too highbrow, and have fun with it.

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