John Dodge, Program Director, WCRB-FM, Boston, MA
This month, we give R.A.P. columnist John Dodge a break from his "Steal This Script!" column to let us pick his brain. Last September, with no prior PD experience, John became a Program Director in the nation's ninth market at Classical Radio Boston, WCRB 102.5 FM -- yet another Production Director that has moved into the PD's chair. We get some interesting insights into classical radio, programming, production, and copywriting. If you've never given classical radio a second thought, you'll have one after reading this interview; and it won't be like any thoughts about classical radio you've had before.
R.A.P.: Tell us how you got into radio.
John: Radio is actually my second career, even though I got a Radio and TV/Film degree from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, in 1973. Ever since I was seven years old, I've been a musician, a guitar player. Through high school and college I started writing songs and working in bands, and toward the latter part of my college career, some tunes I had written got the attention of an A&R guy at Columbia Records in New York. They expressed an interest in doing a deal. So, I thought, "Okay, I got a shot at being a rock star." So instead of going out and doing something directly in my field, I moved to New York City. I got a little studio apartment on the upper west side and started playing the circuit. At the same time, I enrolled in the Juliard School of Music just so I could bone up on theory. However, very quickly the touring schedule got in the way of my secondary schooling, and I'm proud to say I'm a Juliard dropout because I ran out of time.
So, I banged around for a couple of years on the solo coffee-house circuit, I guess you could call it, in the northeast. I ended up joining forces with a singer/songwriter named Don Cooper. He and I formed the nucleus for the Cooper/Dodge band. We started off with two singer/songwriter/guitar players and slowly but surely went up to five pieces, electrified, and we home-based out of New York for awhile, then out of Los Angeles, all through the 70s, touring back and forth through the lucrative college areas in the midwest. We made an independent album, eventually had a deal with Atco Records in New York, and put out a record that hit the charts. Everything looked fine, and as so often happens, just when it looks like things are really going to work out, the band breaks up. That happened in our case.
As I was casting about my next move, I got a telephone call from Bob Rivers. This is the one and same legendary Bob Rivers of Twisted Tune fame. Bob said, "You're sorta knocking around down in southern Vermont looking for your next big move, aren't you?" And I said, "Yeah." He said, "Do me a favor; my morning man just quit." I knew Bob because the band had stopped by his radio station for interviews and such. They were playing our records, too. Bob said, "Why don't you come up here and, just for the hell of it, do the morning show? You like to talk to people. You can push buttons. You know the music." And on a complete lark -- and it was exactly that -- I said, "Okay."
That was an interesting time, but I soon learned that I really liked the radio business. I had a lot of creative freedom in radio. It was a place that had fewer rules and restrictions on it, creatively and structurally, than a lot of other businesses I had observed. And while I loved being on the air, because that's where the fame part of radio comes from, I very soon realized that it was in the production studio that I was going to get the most satisfaction because I was able to laterally transfer the skills I had as a songwriter, the writing and recording skills, into radio production. I was able to pick up recording very easily because I learned to record by looking over producers' and engineers' shoulders in 24-track studios from coast-to-coast. And I began to take the writing that I had done as a songwriter and apply it to radio advertising.
I decided I liked this business, and I decided I had better take the next jump so I could see how far up this ladder I could go. I was fortunate enough to be hired at KISS in San Antonio. At that time, it was one of the harder rocking stations on the planet. I was there for four and a half years. I probably stayed longer than I should have from a career development point of view, but it was such a wonderful place to live. But in the end, when the Texas economy started to wobble, I got lucky again. I answered an ad for a Production Director for WROR in Boston. I knew that WROR had something to do with RKO, but I didn't know anything about them. I saw that it said 8-track studio, all the bells and whistles, so I banged out a tape right away, even before I knew what it was that I was exactly applying for. After the fact, I called the Program Director, Lorna Osmonde, and she took my call. I said, "I just sent you a sort of a wild and crazy left-field AOR production demo. What kind of station do you have, by the way?" She goes, "Oh, we're a full service AC." I thought to myself, "That was a waste of postage." But she got the tape and was able to see through the formatics of it and into the imagination.
So, I started doing full service AC, sort of an oldies thing, middle of the road. I stayed with them for three years or so. Then when WBOS in Boston switched from country to this AOR/AC hybrid, they came at me because I was the perfect guy for the job. They needed somebody with both AOR and AC experience, and those people don't exist because of this typecasting that goes on in the business. They came to me and said, "Would you produce this station?" I said, "When do you want me to start?"
The station happened to debut smack into what was a genuine depression, at least in the advertising-related business here in New England. And the station was a classic case of too many cooks in the kitchen. Take a look at any successful company and it's almost always ruled by the vision of one person. Yes, there's a lot of discussion and give and take, but somebody is in charge of implementing the final thing. And you take a look at companies that by and large fail, and behind the scenes you'll see a committee. A committee ran this station for awhile and, unfortunately, ran it right down. In the end, the accountants had to come through with their red pens. They took out people, and I was among them.
I applied for a lot of radio jobs during this bench time which was 1991, early 1992. I came close to getting several jobs, but I didn't take any of them because I felt intuitively that there was something else right around the corner that I needed to hold out for. During that time, I began to freelance for Boston's 24-hour classical station, WCRB. This is a station that has been here since 1948, so they are nothing if not a legend. I began to write for them in all aspects and be, in effect, a creative consultant.
The president of this company saw in me somebody who had sort of been around the block and done a few different things and said, "Okay, report to me from the outside. What's happening out there? What are people doing? Why are people doing it?" So I acted as a consultant, and slowly but surely, a relationship that was based on trust and mutual respect built up to the point where when they decided that they needed a new Program Director, they were willing to take a chance on me. Now, I've done this and done that, but one thing I have never been is a Program Director. I don't think I ever really had it in mind as a career goal to become a Program Director. But, I decided this was such an incredible opportunity that if I don't take this and see just how far I can go with it, for the rest of my life I'd be going, "What if?" And that is the essence of pitiful, somebody who sits there and goes, "What if? If I'd only...woulda, coulda, shoulda." So, with my knees knocking a bit, I accepted the position.
R.A.P.: What are your thoughts on Production Directors becoming Program Directors?
John: Before I took this job, I had to very seriously think about my own qualifications. I didn't want to go so far out on a limb that if I failed, I brought down a whole organization with me. So I had to develop some base of confidence, confidence that was not based on prior experience. So I took a really solid look at the role of the Production Director in the radio station, a job I had been doing for more than a decade. I realized in the end that the Production Director is like the hub in the center of the wheel with spokes going out equally in all directions. You work with salespeople, clients, air talent, the Program Director, the engineers, and the General Manager. If that doesn't teach you how to be a completely flexible guy, I don't know what does. I found that I knew more than I was giving myself credit for. Still, there were certain things I didn't know and so many things to learn and mistakes to make along the way. But between the musical background and the media background in different formats and markets, the marketing background that you pick up by writing and recording radio advertising for a decade, you learn to see what works and what doesn't work and why, and you combine all that with what I think is probably a pretty good sense of people. This is why I think they should make more Production Directors, who have a sense of the big picture and don't fear venturing outside of the recording studio, programmers. I think we'd have a much more interesting bunch of radio stations to listen to.
R.A.P.: What's the biggest programming challenge for you in this new position as PD of a classical station?
John: The biggest challenge here is to take what is nationally, at least in the top ten markets, a sort of 2.5 format, and break out of the box through the glass ceiling. There's no station in the world that can really thrive on a 2.5, and the ratings have been essentially flat for a long time. So we had to figure out the strategy that would grow a broader, deeper, and slightly younger base of listeners without shocking the older, more established, highly loyal core audience. So you sort of run that ridge line between the two all the time. You stray too far in a contemporary sounding direction and it shocks the core people. If you go anywhere into what I call "tuxedo junction" for any period of time -- I mean that more sedate, quiet, The Church of Classical sound -- if you stay in that zone for any period of time, then the younger, contemporary audience is going to say, "You know, this just doesn't sound like the kind of radio station I like to listen to, even though I like the music." So we did a lot of research and found that we had quite a bit of room to grow here in Boston. It's a very European city. It already supports a couple of public radio stations that are playing classical part-time, and we're the third but the only 24-hour station. I thought, "If you can't do this in Boston and succeed, you can't do it anywhere." So, the idea is to fit the radio station and the music into people's lives rather than the other way around. Toward the end, we came up with maybe a half-dozen new programs. We have a Sunday brunch program. I host a kid's classical hour on Saturday morning which is a lot of fun. It's my only time on the air, and I just goof around and play good music and laugh and have a good time. We do a lot of lifestyle-oriented things.
For a lot of people, classical music comes out of the museum. That certainly wasn't where it was when it was made; it was made to be entertainment. So, we're trying to figure out how to get back to the essential, original spirit of this stuff, knowing full well it's never going to be AOR; it's never going to be as big as country. But, we need to have enough quantity of numbers to get into the range where we can have a place at the table to tell our qualitative story. So, that's my big challenge, to bust out of the 2.5s and into the high 3s somewhere. That's what I would love. If you go much beyond that, you become a red flag for somebody else who will say, "Hey, I'm going to come in here and buy a radio station. I could live on half what they're making!" Then it's radio wars, and I've been there, too. They come in and take half your lunch away, and it takes you eighteen months to come back to kill them. In the meantime, there's blood everywhere.
R.A.P.: Give us an example of how you're riding the edge of the contemporary listener vs. the core audience of the classical music. Are you changing some of the music the station plays?
John: Oh, yeah. The music is your primary offer. If you don't change that, everything else is just going to be window dressing. But, it's a matter of what you play when. If you've got a Beethoven symphony which lasts forty-five minutes, what good does it do you to play that during drive time when people are entering and exiting your radio station at a higher frequency than that. In the meantime, they're not hearing the call letters. They're not getting the entire piece. It's the worst of both worlds. So, I'll take longer length pieces, even live and recorded live symphonies that we have every night of the week, and I'll program them during times when there is naturally a longer time to spend listening. During the day and during drive times I'll offer generally brighter, shorter pieces, perhaps more popular. I don't want to say less challenging, but certainly more familiar pieces.
After hours, certainly beginning at 8 p.m. and beyond, when you've got more of your core listeners involved, we pull out the big stuff, the Mahlers, the Shostakoviches, the weighty things, the challenging things. I think a music presentation is like dinner; broccoli is great food, but you don't want to eat a whole plate of it. You want to eat from the four food groups the same way you want to experience a variety of music. A little bit from this, then a little bit from that. I don't want to eliminate any particular kind of work because there is an audience out there for all of it.
My biggest role now as Program Director is as a surrogate listener. I'm sort of their advocate. To the best of my ability, I try to stop being an insider and be an outsider so that I can experience the radio station more like a listener would. With that in mind, I'm the first one to go up to the sales department and say, "I hate to tell you this. I love the revenue these commercials are generating, but 25% of them are driving people away. Let's see if we can have any creative control whatsoever. I would much rather go back to an advertiser and say, 'Listen, I think it's in everybody's best interest -- yours, mine and ours -- that we make something for you that's going to be equally as effective as the ad you're running now, if not more so, but that is really tailored for this particular audience.'" In other words, I'm willing to expend the time and energy to do that rather than let the thing that's on run and be an annoyance. And more often than not, if it isn't some committee job that comes out of an agency in New York over which I could have no possible control, the advertiser will let us recut the ad. They realize, "Okay, I know my business, and he's the radio guy so he should know his business and his audience." If it isn't right for the audience, it isn't going to be right for anybody. There's this three-legged thing that goes on between the radio station, the audience and the advertisers. And if it doesn't all link up in a real nice, strong triangle, then it's just going to fall down.
R.A.P.: Give us some of your thoughts on writing.
John: I think that's probably the single skill that I place the highest value on. It's way in front of all the other specific skills like, "I'm a great tape editor" or "I know how to get a wicked reverse echo out of a new gizmitron." A good writer is in touch with their imagination, and whatever business they're in, great writing skills can get you farther than any other single skill. They interview all these top CEOs and executives, and they say, "Okay, what's wrong with your work force today?" And these executives are coming back saying, "These guys can't write their way out of a paper bag!" It's as though these skills got frozen at the junior high or high school level.
I had the opportunity while I was freelancing to teach copyrighting for awhile, and like everything else, when you become a teacher of something, you yourself are retaught. I had to go back into this zone and figure out all the things I had been doing intuitively and figure out how they worked logically so I could then teach those mechanisms to other people. It was a great awakening process. I went to the library and took out every book on writing. I sucked them up for about a month before this job. If you counted all the hours I put into prepping for this job, I probably made less than somebody would have made flipping burgers at McDonald's. But I relearned part of my craft. And I found that the best writing is brief, it's clear, and it's witty. I don't mean jokes; I don't mean vaudeville. There is some twinkle in the eye that's happening and that's what I look for in the people I work with. A sales person who can't write their own proposal is handicapped. Certainly anybody in the creative end of the radio station, not that sales isn't creative, has got to be able to go into that part of their imagination where the playground is and come up with new and different combinations of things on a daily basis, almost an instant basis...ideas in volume. Not every one of those ideas is going to be a great idea, but the more you go into that well, the more you'll pull up great ideas. The well is inexhaustible. People think, "I'm running out of ideas." There's no such thing as running out of ideas. What you run out of is motivation, access to the well. It's like the rope that's connected to the bucket has gone wango on you. The well is always there.
R.A.P.: Let's go back to programming the music for a moment. In a classical format, is there new product coming in daily, or are you basically playing new versions of old classics?
John: Yes is the answer to both questions. You were asking me how I make the classical format here more contemporary. Here is one way. We've got a show that's called, "What's New?" It's a two-hour show, and it's like the "new music file." In that show, you're going to hear new recordings of classical masterpieces because each orchestra at each hall and each conductor will put a different sound onto a main work. I can line up several versions of the same symphony, and they would sound familiar to you. But it's like cover versions of a song -- they're all a little different and some of them are going to be more to your liking than others.
On the show "What's New" you'll hear new versions of older masterpieces. You'll hear new groups that are coming out. The Kronos Quartet is a perfect example. These are people who are pushing at the boundaries of what we consider to be the classical form. They're a string quartet in the classical sense -- a cello, a viola, and two violins. But they're all over the place stylistically. And this is also the show where you'll hear a lot of rising stars. There's a young Asian violinist named Sarah Cheng. I think Sarah's probably twelve years old, but she's a giant. You listen to her and it's like the old soul in a young body sort of thing. You know that this is a person who is going to, for as long as they live, be at the forefront of their instrument. So, rising stars will go into this show, and there is a lot of new stuff all the time. And keep in mind, this is a very interesting phenomena that is going on. All of these artists that are maturing into their middle age are, if they're still seekers at heart, starting to push their own boundary. Bobby McFarrin has a classical background, but he's a popster. So he's got all this stuff inside him, and he goes out and finds different people to bounce off of. He finds Yo Yo Ma, the cellist, and they make a mega-selling album. It's been on the classical charts for a year and a half at this point. Yo-Yo-Ma and Bobby McFarrin make an album called "Hush" that's got a little bit of Bobby's extemporaneous stuff. It's got him doing classical things. It's got him trading riffs with the cello. In other words -- I hate to use the word crossover because crossover sounds like sellout to the extremist in both camps -- you've got a classic guy and you've got a pop guy. The pop people aren't going to understand why their pop guy went classical and the classical people are going to say "that's not classical." But musically adventurous people are going to say, "Hey, this is interesting." We're blurring the distinctions now. All of this hybrid stuff is going on, and I think it's interesting as hell.
R.A.P.: And you play it?
John: I play it. But, again, I'm very careful where I play it.
R.A.P.: Are there new classical pieces being written, more traditional stuff?
John: Yes, but to a lesser extent. Brand new twentieth century music has gotten a bad reputation because earlier in the century. the lead guys in the field started going off into this atonal zone. And for some people, particularly somebody who has a pop radio background, you're sort of weaned on the basics. That is, melody, harmony and rhythm. When you start getting into twelve tone atonal dissonance stuff, it's like a novel that's a classic but, dammit, I can't understand it! It might be fine for somebody else, but it doesn't work for me. You have to be very, very selective in what you play from those extreme sections of the musical repertoire, what you play and when you play it. But there's a space for the best of all of it. That's the idea, to get this well-rounded musical diet happening so you're not chopping out things. "Okay, we're only playing classical hits." That's a very narrow thing. The classical audience is smarter than the average bear, and intelligence and love of variety usually go hand in hand.
R.A.P.: Tell us a little more about some of these special programs you've introduced.
John: There's no day of the week more naturally attuned to classical radio listening than Sunday. So, we made a Sunday brunch program filled with stuff that you would play for yourself if you had a classical CD library of ten-thousand titles. As the day goes on, these things get maybe a little longer, a little less light and airy, just the same way your brain does as it wakes up and goes through the day. I've lived all day with this program, and I know that we're successful when at no point during the day, or at least at relatively few points, do I ever want to reach over and get into something else. I'm just like everybody else; I like variety, too. I want some jazz. I want some rock. I want the whole pallet. But I know that if my hand goes over to the dial, then I'm not coming back to classical for awhile. This is just to say that what I'm trying to do is line this up with the way people live rather than try to get them to fit into the Church of Classical, the Museum of Classical. I'd sooner go where they are. I think that's a smarter way to work it.
We've got another program in the same vein, as long as we're talking about food and music, my two great loves. We have a dinner classics program from seven to eight, by and large people's dinner hour. I promote it like, "Yeah, you can listen to Peter Jennings while you eat dinner, but what you're going to get is another Bosnian massacre. Does that go well with your digestion? How about a cheap and easy way to get more quality of life?" Take an hour a day, switch off the TV, and add classical music to dinner. It's a way to make meatloaf into something more than meatloaf. The show is really working. Not that we're playing radically different music in those times, but we're playing music that you yourself would probably pick out to accompany your meal if you had the extensive library.
R.A.P.: It sounds like WCRB is offering variety in a lot of ways.
John: All our research -- and more important than that, our intuition -- told us we could offer more news and information and features and services to expand our horizons. So, I went with things that are of broad interest, that affect absolutely everyone, not just classical people. We've got a personal finance feature done by Jonathan Pond who is the NBC Today Show money guy and a best-selling author. He must have fifteen books in the stores. He's based here in Boston. We have a movie review and interview feature with a local movie-meister and television guy named Dana Hersey. We call the show, "Lights, Camera, Action."
These are little three minute features that are entertaining, they're brief, they're witty and they give you some news you can use. It's not ethereal stuff; it's real, practical, down-to-earth stuff. We've got another guy named Randy Sheahan who does a wine show for us. Randy is extremely knowledgeable. Randy writes for a wine journal here in New England and has appeared on talk radio quite a bit. What I wanted was somebody who really knew the ins and outs of their field, and I wanted a field that had broad appeal. And, yeah, with the talent that's on the inside of the radio station, I could have made up these features myself, but there's something to the name value of these guys. You mention these names in Boston and people go, "Yeah, I know him." Well, now they've got a show on WCRB.
We're looking at some other things, travel, food, books. Once again, these are things that a slightly older audience -- by older I don't mean ancient, I mean early 30s and beyond -- is interested in. Each one of these things is like a special section of a newspaper. You've got your health and science section that's an insert to the Monday newspaper. You've got your travel and leisure section that's an insert to the Sunday paper. The features come and go really quickly; they're not much of an interruption to the music, but they're a very entertaining and informative break from the music. They give the radio station a depth and a dimension that it lacked before, as a strictly classical music utility.
R.A.P.: And these are all additions you've made since you took the PD's chair?
John: Yes, but the biggest one, the one that's getting the most universal comment, a positive comment, is the WCRB Kid's Classical Hour. I just looked around and saw the major record labels all starting kids divisions just because they saw what was happening demographically. They saw that there was a baby boomlet happening and they knew that this generation was going to be more musical than the last, because they're our kids. They come out of a generation of the 60s and 70s, people for whom music is a very personal, valuable thing. If you're a parent, you're going to want to translate that feeling of value that you have down to your kids. You're going to buy more kids music and make sure they have a musically rich childhood. And timing is everything, man. You always have to have a good idea, but I've seen good ideas die on the vine because the time wasn't right. The time was right for this one. It's being done at other stations across the country, but I'd like to think it isn't done with quite as much good humor and joy as I do it on Saturday morning.
R.A.P.: I'm having trouble connecting kids to classical music. Are you actually talking about very young children listening to classical music?
John: Yes, I'm talking elementary school kids. You would be amazed at the amount of music for kids. Now don't think of classical as strictly written in 1792. There's a lot of symphonic music. John Williams and the Boston Pops for example. John Williams has sold maybe two or three billion CDs at this point because he scored all of the popular films, the mega-successful films in the last two decades: ET, Star Wars, Jaws. That's popular classical music. So, I use that music, but there's a lot of other little things you realize. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star -- you thought it was a folk song, but it's a Mozart piece! You realize the Warner Brothers cartoons were all scored from classical pieces, so you use that stuff. And there's a way to present this music and make it very entertaining and very fun, very nonthreatening and casual. It's a perfect way to introduce kids to classical music, to be enthusiastic about it yourself. But the last thing it is like, is class. We're just clowning around, using sound effects, using funny stores, acting little plays. A little later in the season as this thing develops more fully, I'm going to have guests come in from the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra. These people are going to come in, bring in their instruments, and we're going to talk. It's like kids talking to other kids. "Hey, I play a french horn; here's how it sounds. Did you know that if you stretched out the pipe on a french horn the thing would be 18 feet long? Oh, you didn't know that?" Goofy stuff. It's just exactly the kind of thing a kid wants to hear.
I've always thought public TV, when it was really at its best, blurred the distinction between education and entertainment. It was both, and you couldn't tell where one started and the other stopped. That's exactly what I want to do with this radio station.
R.A.P.: What kind of production "style" are you using with your promos and commercials?
John: Prior to me coming along, the radio station did a lot of, I'm afraid to say, routine production. By routine I mean, voice over music. The occasional concert spot would have voice over multiple music beds, but it was essentially very straight forward. And it begs the question, "Are we doing it this way because this is the way that it ought to be done in this format? Or are we doing it because this is the way we always have done it?" I think the answer was the latter in WCRB's case. One of the reasons why they have done it this way is that they had no multi-track facilities. Not that you have to have a zillion bells and whistles, but if you want to make three dimensional radio, multi-track machinery helps considerably. So, I'm slowly but surely edging them towards more visual radio, the blending of multiple music beds with sound, with different actors, many movies.
R.A.P.: Do you have plans to go multi-track in the production room?
John: We're in the midst of a remodeling project. It isn't brand new from scratch, ground-floor up, but it's a really serious makeover of the control room, the production studio and the backup studio as well. We're getting new consoles. We're going with digital cart machines. We're at the point technology-wise where if you've got old analog equipment and are going to update, you've got to seriously consider digital and bypassing the next level of analog altogether.
For the production studio, we're looking at Mackie's 24-input 8-bus board. We haven't made the final decision yet, but we're between the Alesis digital 8-track and the new Tascam, both of which use video tape as the medium. One uses super VHS tape and the Tascam unit uses 8mm tape. You get a lot of multi-track recording time on this little bitty cartridge. I would have loved to have had a ProTools system. And I looked at the Roland system, the DM 80 -- a beautiful machine, but not cheap.
R.A.P.: Would you say your musical background played an important part in getting the PD gig at WCRB?
John: Without that musical background, I don't think they would have felt as secure about taking this kind of chance on me. But they knew I had really broad musical sensibilities. In other words, I don't have to be familiar with a piece in the classical repertoire to know how it makes me feel. In that sense, I'm more representative of an average audience member who lacks any real, in-depth knowledge. Of course, a lot of people are experts, but I'm going to make the statement that the average person just sort of hears this sound, and it's this way with all formats. They just hear a sound and they react emotionally to it. That's what music is all about. Music is a no-brainer. Music is from ear directly to heart, and you either react in a positive way or you don't. There are some things in any kind of format that make the hair on the back of my neck and the hairs on my arm stand straight up. That could be Clair de Lune on solo piano, or that could be some old Bob Dylan song. It could be just about anything.
R.A.P.: How do you apply your musical background to your production philosophy?
John: There's a concept of space. If everybody's playing the melody, you end up with cacophony. That's noise. There's only so much space in a musical landscape, and in a production environment, let's say we're talking about a commercial, the lead instrument is the voice-over. That's why I don't go for melodically drenched material to put under the voice-over. It's too busy. It presents the listener with an impossible decision to make: Do I listen to the message, or do I listen to the music? That's why I never put hit music under something unless it's hit music by the artist in a concert spot. That, of course, is another situation. But there's only so much space for a major focus at any given time. That's not to say there can't be interplay between the main voice and the support voices, but by and large, you shine the spotlight on the most important thing that's happening. The best production music I know is fully supportive. It doesn't want the spotlight because it knows that it isn't the star. It's rhythmic because that can play off the rhythms of your vocal line. Doing a voice-over is very similar to singing. You want to hit certain rhythm points. You want to step on the first beat of a bar if you can; it just creates a nice snap. You can hear people who don't have the rhythm when they do spots to music. You can hear their sense of rhythm and how they use it. The people who are musical will find those musical spaces in their support bed and play to them. And the people who aren't will just walk all over everything.
R.A.P.: We've seen some pretty good scripts from you in your Steal This Script! column. Do you have any copywriting tips to pass on?
John: I feel like my strength is boring into people's heads and reading people, figuring out what makes them tick. If it's not a strength, it certainly is a hobby of mine. I'm almost a voyeur of human nature. It just fascinates me. When it comes to writing advertising, I can usually instinctively figure out what somebody's thinking about and feature on that. I make the listener the star of the radio ad, at least in their own mind, rather than the product. The product is usually secondary. Let's face it, your favorite subject in the world is you. So I've got to figure out how to bring you into the movie and make you the star of the movie and then only secondarily associate the goods of the services with you. If I can do that in some sort of brief, clear and clever way, then chances are, if the ad has gotten any frequency whatsoever, it'll stick in your mind. The more cliches I use, the less that's going to happen. The idea is don't do things the same way everybody else does because that's where the traffic jam is. You're stuck in traffic because you tried to go up the middle. Make as many funny little end runs as you can possibly get away with, as your clients will let you get away with.
We had a an antique store, very well-heeled, very long time advertiser here on the classical station, and the guy's business was starting to drop off. His response rate to his radio advertising was starting to drop off. We talked about it, and I realized he's not alone on the station. There are three or four other people, and they're all just talking about their furniture and about their ambiance, and everything was blending into this sameness. When that happens, it's time to do something completely different. So, without going all the way into it, we devised something that was unusual, unpredictable, and unexpected, something that you don't expect to hear from an antique dealer. He bought the concept and stuck with it long enough to see it work. Not only did all his old business come back, but new business came, and a significant number actually mentioned his ad on the radio. That doesn't happen in real life. That's an advertising wet dream, that they will come in and mention your ad. They've got much busier lives, much more important things to do than mention your ad on the radio. But people actually started to do that with him.
R.A.P.: Where do you get some of your copy ideas?
John: I just go to a topic of the month. Sometimes it's arbitrary; sometimes it's very obvious like the candy store on Valentine's day [Feb. '93 R.A.P. - Steal This Script!]. The angle is to figure out how to say something in a way that it hasn't been said before. Make every word in a piece of copy count. I go back through a script and I rewrite. I go back and massage a thing to death, six, seven times. I throw whole things away. That's really tough because if you're a wordster, these things are your little children, but you have to be willing to sacrifice your little children for the greater good. A fish will have 10,000 babies because they know only 17 of them are going to live through the ordeal. That's the way I work as a writer. I write reams of stuff then whack away at it.
The worst thing that you can do is start to edit too soon. Usually, that's what writer's block is all about. They'll sit down, and they'll go, "I can't get a good idea because everything I come up with I automatically shoot down before the first word is down on paper." Better you should have mental diarrhea on the paper and then live with it for awhile. Then come back later and look at it. Then and only then do you have enough objectivity to go, "Oh, that's an interesting phrase; oh, that's a piece of crap; oh, this should go here." People shoot themselves down too soon in the game. A lot of times in the radio business, you need to come up with great ideas fast. Just sit down, and whatever comes into your head, start banging it into the word processor or the typewriter. Write, write, write, write, and don't stop at 60 seconds.
The ad that was written the first time pretty much exactly the way it went on the air? That's a mediocre ad, or that's a Michelangelo, one or the other. There's no middle ground. Either that guy didn't have the time or the brain power to go back and improve that thing, or it's a masterpiece.
So, if you've got the time, take that time. Go back through something. Write it. Leave it alone for awhile. Come back and rewrite it. Leave it alone, and be willing to throw the whole thing away if it just doesn't sit right for you. Bounce ideas off other people. Watch their reactions. Don't necessarily pay attention to their reactions, but definitely watch them across a wide spectrum of people and again be willing to edit. Put down as much as you can possibly think of in the beginning, then throw away as much as you possibly can think of in the end. What you end up with is something that is vigorous and hardworking and hopefully effective.
R.A.P.: Any parting thoughts about being a Program Director?
John: One of the things I did before taking the Program Director job at WCRB was call former PDs. I called Bob Rivers. I called Greg Stevens, my good friend and former PD now at KQLZ in Los Angeles. I called Lorna Osborne. I called Bob Brooks out in Albuquerque. I said, "Holy smokes, now I'm the PD! Tell me everything you know! Do a brain dump on me, would you please?" They all said, "Congratulations, John. I'm very glad this happened to you." I said, "What do I do?" I'll ask advice of anybody. I'm sort of like Bill Clinton. I want to get everybody's opinion, then I'll put it into the brain, sort it out, edit it, and figure out what's right for me. They all took a lot of time, and each of them gave me, in their own individual ways, "Here's what to watch out for. Here's where some of the pitfalls are. Time is your most precious resource, so be very careful how you spend it because there will always be much more to do in this chair than there is time to do it. Be willing to let little brushfires burn for awhile because, face it, not everything is urgent. Tend to the things that are important because something that is urgent doesn't necessarily mean that it's important; it just means that it's sitting there screaming loud in your face."
The thing that I learned more than anything else from these people and from my own brief experience so far is that nothing matters so much as your people. They are the ones that are actually putting out the product. They're in the production studio coming up with the ideas, getting the sound. They're on the air selling your radio station, selling the music. They're the people getting the ratings. That time that I just spoke of as a precious commodity, that's where you put the most of it -- spend time with everybody on a regular basis. Talk to them sincerely. Deeply listen to people. Hear out their concerns. How are things in their department? How do you think things could be better?
One of my favorite questions is to ask people to design their ultimate job. What that person comes back and tells you gives you every bit as much insight as you'll ever get about where they're really at. You'll find out that the midday guy actually doesn't want to be a disk jockey any more; he wants to be a Music Director. You have to give him the freedom to say that by saying, "Okay, tell me, in your perfect world, how would it be?" You have to listen to people complain because sometimes the thing that they're really trying to tell you is a couple of pages behind the front page, and if you're too quick to dismiss something or if you don't let them air and vent, you'll never find out what's really working for them. I get the highest quality work and the most amount of work out of people that are really, really happy and satisfied, not only in their professional lives but in their personal lives. And to the extent that I can contribute to or influence that, that's what I do. It's a job for a cheerleader. It's a job for a psychologist. It's a job for a diplomat. It's a job for a mediator. But most importantly, it's a people job.