Bob Lawson, Production/Creative Services Director, WJMK-FM, Chicago, IL
by Jerry Vigil
This month we visit with 3-time RAP Award winner Bob Lawson. For three years straight, Bob has taken the trophy in the Best Promo category for Small or Medium Markets. However, next year, his competition will be a little tougher because his new home is in the country's third largest market. Bob recently accepted the newly created position of Production/Creative Services Director for Infinity Broadcasting's Chicago oldies outlet, WJMK-FM. He was instrumental in designing the station's new digital production studio, and he's now applying his award winning CHR-style production technique to WJMK's airwaves. Join us as we find out what makes Bob tick, and what makes his production tick!
R.A.P.: Tell us about your background in radio and how you wound up in Chicago.
Bob: Well, I got the radio bug in high school growing up in the Chicago area. My school had a 10-watt student station. We always used to joke that it was "less power than a light bulb!" I got involved there doing a little bit of everything and just fell in love with it all. It was a great place to get some hands-on experience at an early age.
Then, while going to college at Indiana University, I got a job working part-time on the weekends at WTTS and WGTC in Bloomington, Indiana. At the time, it was a full-service AC/Country combo, and I did a variety of things there -- everything from changing automation reels to reading news to jocking. And I'd hang out a lot just trying to learn as much as I could. The person who had the biggest influence on me there was Rick Allen who is now the Production Director of Hot 97 in New York. Rick was Production Director at the time and his passion for production really rubbed off on me. When I graduated from IU, Rick left to go to work at TM in Dallas, so I took his place as Production Director at WTTS and worked there full time for two years doing mostly commercial work.
From there I went to the old Kix-104 in Nashville as Production Director and handled mostly commercial responsibilities -- wrote all the local copy, produced spots, and assisted the PD with some of the promo production. From there, I did a stint jocking full-time at the former Zip-104 in South Bend, Indiana for three years. This was the first station I worked at that had multi-track. It was an Otari 4-track. I'd come in early and stay late after my air-shift just fooling around on the thing. The PD liked what I was doing in the production room and soon had me doing all the promos for the station. It was at this point that I realized this was what I really enjoyed doing most.
From there I had the opportunity to work at WVIC in Lansing, Michigan as Production Director, and this was where my production started to gel. It was the first station I worked at that used an outside voice talent. This made my production a lot more powerful. Although I handled a lot of commercial production, the emphasis of my duties was on promos and sweepers. Kevin Robinson was the PD, and the station did some very creative promotions. It was a lot of fun to work there.
After a year and a half in Lansing I went to WIOG in Saginaw, Michigan as Assistant Program Director. Like WVIC, WIOG is a small market powerhouse which has dominated both revenue and ratings for years. The station has a signal that blankets half the state, and, by far, it was the nicest facility I've ever worked in. Among other things, they had an Otari 8-track and a Roland keyboard, and my production became a little bit more alive. I did all the promos and sweepers there, which was my main responsibility. But, as APD, I also had the chance to work closely with Rick Belcher, the Program Director, and I was able to experience some programming areas I had always wanted to learn more about. I edited all the music on Selector, assisted in dealing with record reps, and performed various functions related to the station's in-house research department. It was a great combination of duties, and I really learned a lot.
Then I left WIOG. A friend of mine who was working as a part-time jock at Oldies 104.3 WJMK in Chicago called me and told me the station was expanding and adding a Production/Creative Services Director position, and he strongly suggested I send a tape. Having had no prior experience with the format, I didn't think I had much of a shot, but I sent a tape anyway. Gary Price, the PD at the time, liked what he heard and hired me over the phone. After taking the job, but before I started there, the station promoted Gary to Operations Manager of WJMK and its AM counterpart, WJJB. They hired a new PD for WJMK, and it turned out to be Kevin Robinson, my old boss at WVIC. We had a great relationship at Lansing, so it was a real pleasure to hook up with him again. It was a strange coincidence that we stumbled into this situation independently of one another, and I guess it provides a good lesson to always be on good terms with the people you work for, if you can, because you might run into them again. It's a surprisingly small business.
R.A.P.: Did you do any air-work at these stations where you were Production Director?
Bob: At every radio station I worked at, I always did a weekend air show with the exception of WIOG. I think it's very important in this business to realize what you do well and don't do well and maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. One of the neat things about the situation at WVIC, and every station I worked at after that, is that we used an outside voice talent. I've worked with a variety of people that I really respected. At WVIC we used Eric Edwards; I actually listened to him when I was going to school in Indiana. He was at WNAP in Indianapolis, and it was a real treat to work with him in Lansing. We used a guy named Sean Caldwell at WIOG who is real young and has a real animated, energetic kind of read. And here in Chicago we're using a guy named Jim Merkel who is extremely versatile and great for the format. All of these people have just made my production so much more powerful.
I think the right voice on a promo can make all the difference in the world, and a lot of people put emphasis on the voice. But the voice is just one aspect that goes into a successful piece of production. Just as important is your writing ability and what you can do in the studio. Look at some of these freelance people that do voice work for a lot of different stations. You hear them on one station and then you hear them on the other. The right touch of production can enhance the voice so much more. I admire people in the business, like Bumper Morgan, who can do it all, that have the production skills and technique and also the great voice. But there aren't that many of those people out there. One PD once told me that he prefers Production Directors that don't do their own voice work because they are a lot more attentive to technique and detail in the studio -- they're not so hung up on "Did I get this read exactly right?" So, I think there is room in this business for people that excel in both areas, and when you combine the people with strengths on both sides, ultimately you're going to get a much better product.
R.A.P.: Looking back on the several voice talents you've worked with, do you find the voice tracks of some guys easier to work with than the voice tracks of another, or are they all pretty consistent with each other?
Bob: I think each person you work with is gonna have a little bit of a different style, and you adapt your technique around that person's style. But, if they're any good at all, they're going to do the basics really well. They're gonna give you several different inflections of the same line so you'll be able to combine the inflections in a way for impact if you want to repeat a line or give a different emphasis to something later in the promo. It's also important how you write your copy and how you instruct the voice talent. If we're writing copy, and we visualize putting a particular effect somewhere, we'll instruct the voice talent -- "Hey, this is what's going to be going here" -- so they can hopefully visualize in their mind the finished product and adjust their read accordingly. The three guys that I worked with on a regular basis, and even a couple of other people that I've done a small amount of freelance work with, have been great.
Sometimes you'll write copy and the voice talent will give it a whole different interpretation than you envisioned, and it's actually better than what you had originally imagined. We've run into that quite a bit here with Merkel, and that adds that much more to the finished product. The more minds that come into play in any one particular project, the more great ideas you'll ultimately take away.
R.A.P.: Do you write the promos for the station?
Bob: Basically, the PD and I will write them together because, obviously, the PD is the one that has the blueprint for the radio station in his head. He knows exactly what he wants it to sound like. Usually, he'll give me the points he wants to include, then I'll write the copy and get it approved by him before I fax it to the voice talent. Sometimes he'll write a promo himself when he wants to have something sound a specific way, and sometimes, if he's too busy, he'll just say, "Here, why don't you take care of it." I think we're at the point where we pretty much trust each other because we've worked with each other now for a good deal of time. I think it's real important to have a real close relationship with your PD and think along the same wavelengths.
The writing process is ultimately one of the most important things in a promo because no matter what you do in the studio, it all starts with the pen. Great promos begin with ideas, and ideas are put down on paper.
R.A.P.: Where do you get your creative ideas from?
Bob: Sometimes we will get away from the radio station to get ideas because we've found we can just think a lot better away from the environment that we're normally in. And ideas come from the strangest places, too. We've gotten ideas for promos and sweeper lines from busses rolling down the street. I've gotten a couple of ideas for sweeper lines by reading greeting cards at Spencer's Gift Shop in the mall. It's just amazing what can trigger a thought if you keep your eyes and ears open. We try to do stuff that's memorable and entertaining but still keys into the ultimate goal of getting a message across.
R.A.P.: You've entered every Radio And Production Awards competition and walked away with trophies in the promo category each time. What's your secret?
Bob: Well, I guess a little bit of it is luck because there's an awful lot of good stuff that I hear on The Cassette every month, and a lot of good stuff was submitted for the awards. I just picked the ones that I was most proud of or happy with as I looked back at them. I just went back through the stuff I had done and picked out the ones that entertained me the most. I don't really have a barometer of why they entertained me. Everything just seemed to come together on them.
I regard promos and sweepers as the soul of the radio station. They represent a common thread heard 'round the clock. They tie together the music, the personalities, and the other programming elements. They give the station a consistent sound and a sense of unity. I've always been of the opinion that great radio stations are not just heard, they're experienced; and nothing contributes to that "stationality" more than the promos and the sweepers.
R.A.P.: What kind of formula or procedure do you follow when producing, for example, a winner promo?
Bob: With all promos, I always write the copy before I look for any outside sources of audio. So, if we're doing a cash giveaway, I write the copy without even knowing what the reactions are. Then I go to all the jocks and get their tapes of winner reactions -- we keep winner tapes for just about every contest we do, large or small. I'll archive the reactions of the winners as well as the jocks' setup lines. Then I'll try to pull out the most exciting reactions that fit around the copy.
I'll also look for pieces of music that tie in to the promo. I've always got my ears open for stuff that ties in to something the radio station is doing. So, I try to write the copy first then add everything else later, and, hopefully, everything comes together.
R.A.P.: You have several years under your belt as a Production Director. What would you say is one of the biggest problems Production Directors deal with regularly?
Bob: Time commitment is probably a big one. There are so many things that need to be done, and you have to pick and choose your projects. When you're working in a situation where you're producing both spots and promos and dealing with clients coming in and recording their own material, you don't have as much time as you'd like to spend on a particular project. You've got to pick the projects that you think are going to get the most mileage for the radio station, but yet keep everybody satisfied and happy.
There are obvious frustrations that every Production Director has, particularly with stuff that has to be redone after you just get it finished -- the client wants to make a change in the copy, or the station needs to make a change in the promo you just cut. But that's the nature of the business. The immediacy factor of radio is one of its biggest strengths, but it can also be one of the biggest sources of frustration to production people. Anybody who has been in this business for awhile has obviously had to learn to cope with that. It's something you just have to deal with.
R.A.P.: What kind of hours are you putting in at the station?
Bob: I live here. It's funny because I'll come in in the morning and work through the day, then I might go home and come back and work a little bit in the evening on something I want to put a little bit more time into -- either something for the radio station or maybe a freelance project. I also come in and mess around with the equipment and try to discover new tricks from time to time, so it's not all actually work. A lot of it is just fun and play, and the time seems to fly by. Anybody who wants to be a Production Director and really do well at it has got to have the kind of lifestyle where you're able to commit to it because there are so many people out there who do good work, and to remain competitive you've got to keep on discovering new things and new avenues.
There are so many people that have jobs they really hate doing, and I really enjoy what I do. I get a big kick out of it, so I don't mind putting in the time. It's not a bad way to make a living. There's no heavy lifting, and you barely break a sweat. I have no complaints.
R.A.P.: What are your responsibilities at the station?
Bob: The majority of my time is spent doing promos and sweepers for WJMK. I assist occasionally with promos for WJJD, our AM sister station, which is an adult standards format. Just by nature of the format, there's not a lot of production needed for it. I'll do an occasional client project, and I handle all the composites and audio presentations for the station. I also do some music scheduling on Selector. But most of the time it's doing the promos and sweepers.
R.A.P.: Who's doing the commercials?
Bob: We've got a guy named Al Urbanski who has been at the station for a long time, and his title is Production Engineer. He handles all the commercial production and does a fantastic job. All our jocks lay down voice lines for him, either before or after their air-shift, on a daily basis. Most of the spots are agency, but there are quite a few tags and inserts to handle along with a fair amount of local stuff. Al puts all that together.
R.A.P.: It seems that having one full-time person doing promos and sweepers and another doing commercials continues to be the trend more and more stations are going to.
Bob: Well, it's interesting because until they hired me they didn't have somebody under the official title of Production Director. They got to the point where they decided they wanted to expand the production image of the radio station, and they created this position. Up until that time, the PD did a lot...actually, I think he did all of the promo production himself. When you are a Program Director, you just don't have the time to do it as extensively as you'd like; and, I think they got to the point where they realized we can bring the station to the next level if we have somebody concentrating on this sort of thing, particularly with an oldies format where the songs are so short that you have a lot more opportunity to identify yourself.
R.A.P.: What production libraries are the stations using?
Bob: We use TM Century. We've got the Digital Director library. Also I have some stuff from the Production Garden, and we've got a couple of effects packages -- Laser Cuts from a company called Power Sound Productions. We've got a little library called TM Power Parts and also Clean Sweepers. All of these were there before I came to the radio station, and we may be looking to upgrade in that department down the road.
R.A.P.: How many production studios are there?
Bob: We have two studios. The studio I work out of was originally the auxiliary production studio. When I came here, they had an Auditronics on-air board in the production room, a couple of old, MCI 2-tracks, a Technics SLP-1300 CD player, an ITC-99 recording cart deck, an Orban compressor/limiter, a graphic equalizer, a little Alesis MicroVerb, and that was pretty much it. The first couple of months I was here, I really sharpened my splicing skills because in order to do any sort of production that combined a lot of different elements, everything had to be spliced together. However, that was all remedied when the company went out and bought the Spectral Synthesis digital workstation.
When I was hired at the radio station, they told me what kind of equipment they had, but they also said they wanted to bring somebody in before they upgraded the studios so this person could be in on the decision process since they were the ones who were going to be using the studio. I kinda liked that idea. After I got here, we looked at three different systems. We looked at the ProTools system from DigiDesign, we looked at the Roland system, and we looked at the Spectral system. I was real impressed with ProTools, but the thing that sold me on Spectral was the fact that it's IBM based, and it works within the Windows environment. Having had prior experience with that, with a computer at home, I just felt I was halfway along the road to learning how to use the new system. I'd say the Spectral is pretty much analogous to the DigiDesign system with the difference that DigiDesign works with Mac and Spectral works with IBM and Windows. I really like the Spectral system. It's very user friendly.
R.A.P.: Tell us a bit more about the Spectral system.
Bob: It's got a great built-in help system. You can buy it as a 4-track, 8-track or 16-track configuration. We got the 8-track. It has 256 virtual tracks which you can assign to any of the playback channels, so you really have unlimited options with it. We also bought the optional Audioscape package that has a built-in patch bay, EQ, reverb, and other effects. We got the unit with two 60-minute scuzzy drives for storage which allows instant retrieval. I've got all the effects -- the jingles and voice parts that I use on a regular basis -- loaded into the system. That's a real time-saver when you're able to call that stuff up instantly. It also has a backup system that archives audio segments onto a DAT tape in its own language. Archiving and un-archiving takes roughly half the time of the total length of the audio segments that you're storing or retrieving. I'm a hundred percent satisfied with the system. One of the great things about the system is that it's software-based, so the technology can be constantly improved upon. You're not locked into hardware that can't be updated.
The store that sold it to us sent a guy to the radio station a couple of times with tutorials, making sure that we were learning it okay. He's been real helpful. You can get rolling on the thing in a day or two. It's really not that difficult to learn.
In addition to the workstation, the station bought a couple other pieces of equipment. We got a Yamaha SPX-1000, a Sony PCM 2300 DAT player, a Nakamichi MR1 cassette deck, an additional Orban compressor, and they also bought a couple of Audiometrics CD players to use in a backup air studio capacity. It's been like Christmas. There's stuff coming in all the time, and it says a lot about the commitment of the station and Infinity Broadcasting. They want to bring the radio station into the 90s from a production standpoint; and they're willing to spend the money, not only on equipment, but also in creating the position that I have.
R.A.P.: What's it like, making the transition from analog multi-track to a digital workstation?
Bob: It's interesting because you have to reorient yourself and the way you think about building a piece of production. When you're using analog, you have to load everything onto tape in the order that it's going to be. When you're using the workstation, you can take your voice track, put it in the system, and then cut it up any way you want -- slide it around and move it to different tracks. After you have the voice track laid out, then you can add any music you're using. Then you can add all the drops, all the listener reactions, whatever else you're using in your piece of production. Once you have everything recorded, then you can edit and manipulate the audio. When you get halfway through a promo and go back and listen to the beginning of it and think, "Well, I don't know if it would be desirable to have this here as opposed to here," you can flip things around very quickly. So, it gives you a lot more flexibility from that standpoint.
It's also extremely easy to loop music beds together. If you have a song that has a ten-second intro that you want to stretch into a sixty-second bed...I mean, that can be done in ten seconds! Also, to match up vocal parts of music with instrumental parts...the beats can be matched very easily by just adding a couple of segment markers and then "snapping" them together. The way you lay your promo out in your mind and the way you actually put it together changes with the use of the workstation because you have that added flexibility.
It has done for production the same thing word processors did for writing. I've got a program on my computer at home called The Designer. It's a Microsoft graphics program that works within Windows. You'll click the mouse and drag a word or a phrase from one point to another. You're doing the exact same thing with audio on the Spectral system. It allows an unbelievable amount of flexibility.
R.A.P.: What's in the studio Al's working out of?
Bob: The other studio has an old Auditronics production board. Al works with an MCI 4-track, a couple of 2-tracks, a Technics CD player, and an old Eventide H949 Harmonizer. He's got a couple of ITC recording cart decks because he does a lot of dubbing for both radio stations, and there are a couple of other odds and ends.
Another great thing about this radio station is that the engineers they have here are absolutely the best I've ever worked with. Whatever you need, they'll be able to rig up for you. They just go out of their way to accommodate, and that really makes it nice.
R.A.P.: Give us a bit of your philosophy about promos, their purpose and how to produce them.
Bob: The top priority of a promo is to convey a message. All that you put into a piece of production should aid in achieving that goal. I try to be real conscious of that. When I go into the production room, I look at it as cranking up the fantasy factory to generate excitement, sizzle, and impact for the radio station. I try to do it in a fun, entertaining, and memorable way using a bunch of different audio sources to hold a listener's attention and captivate their imagination.
You also want to know what you want your promo to accomplish. There are different kinds of promos for different kinds of things you do on your station, from image promos that highlight the music or some other key station benefit, to promos about features or personalities like a request program or the morning show. You have primary cume building promotions like cash giveaways which involve doing explanation promos and winner promos; but you also have secondary, fun, weekend promotions which are the smaller giveaways. These can be a lot of fun to do and sometimes lend themselves to a greater degree of creativity, basically because they run only for a weekend. This is where you can kind of cut loose with your production. My favorite stuff that I've done has been centered around weekend promotions. You'll also be doing promos for events and appearances if your station is broadcasting live from a particular location.
So, I try to keep in mind what we're trying to accomplish within a given promo we're doing, and the same thing goes for sweepers. We can have a variety of different sweepers on the air that do different things, all under the umbrella of trying to promote the radio station. If it's just a call letter only or slogan handle, you're identifying the station; but, if you want to position the station or sell an attribute, you'll be doing sweepers with a listener benefit like "Best Music" or "10 In A Row" or whatever you happen to be doing on a radio station.
Then you can also do these wild, wacky, attitude and image sweepers which are probably the most fun to do, but also need to be updated the most often because they tend to burn out quicker. One of the neat things about working for Kevin is that he's real big on brainstorming sessions and coming up with off-the-wall ideas. During these brainstorming sessions that we have, no idea is a bad idea, and anybody at the radio station that wants to come and contribute is welcome to, no matter what they do. He's a big believer in that when you combine several mediocre ideas you can sometimes generate one great idea.
R.A.P.: What's the main focus of your promos and sweepers for WJMK?
Bob: Everything we do we want to be up and fun. "Good Times and Great Oldies" is one of our main positioning statements. We don't do any mean-spirited promotions or imaging because our audience isn't into that. We just try to tie into what's going on in the community, keying into events and seasonal happenings. We try to tap into the lives of our listeners with our promotions but still center around what we're known for, which is playing lots of oldies.
R.A.P.: You're background is primarily CHR. Is this the first oldies station you've worked for?
Bob: Yeah. Other than where I worked in Bloomington, the other stations have all been CHRs. I didn't know quite what to expect coming in here, but they assured me they wanted the same kind of CHR production minus some of the real hard, electric laser effects, some of the more dancier music beds, and the stuttering effects which they didn't feel were appropriate for the audience of the radio station. I very much agree with that, but I hope the stuff I'm doing here still generates the same amount of excitement as what I did in CHR. Really, when you stop to think about it, oldies is the CHR music of the past. You're appealing to an older demo, but it's a demo that grew up in the 60s and 70s listening to all the great top 40 radio.
I'm still feeling my way through it all. I've made adjustments in my style based a little bit upon feedback from people both in and out of the radio station. One of the neat things about oldies is there is such a broad base of music to choose from when it comes to things like looking for a line from a song that might apply to a particular promotion you're doing. I think that really brightens up a promo. It adds another dimension to your message and also ties your station in more with the sound of the music which is the main thing your radio station has to offer. I don't think there's been a promotion that we've done yet for which I haven't been able to find some kind of song hook that ties into it. I don't think a lot of other formats offer that. But no matter what format you're doing, good production is good production. I think Mike Lee had a good point in an old RAP article ["The Production Convergence" - June 1992 RAP] when he said that good production is really essential to any format. I'm sure you're going to adjust your style depending on your audience, but maybe not as drastically as people had thought before.
R.A.P.: Any parting thoughts?
Bob: Well, I'd like to say it's great to have a publication like Radio And Production, jam packed every month with ideas. And The Cassette, filled with the fantastic work of others, really inspires me.
Chicago is a great radio market. It has always been driven by big personalities in just about every format. But over the past few years, production has really come on strong here. It's such a trip tuning up and down the dial and hearing great promos all over the place, in particular, the stuff at WLUP-AM, B96, WCKG and WPNT. It really knocks me out, and I'm thrilled to have a chance to try to prove myself to a real forward-thinking company like Infinity and be able to contribute in some small way to their success in a city long known for great radio.