Larry Homuth, Owner/Operator, Ad-Lab Creative Chemistry, Fargo, North Dakota
by Jerry Vigil
For many, the idea of leaving the radio station and starting your own production company is but a distant dream. Others hold on to the notion that success lies only in the larger markets. Larry Homuth made the dream a reality, and he did it in his home town, a small market where you wouldn't expect to find such achievement. He is not an exception to the rule, but an example for many.
R.A.P.: Tell us about your background in radio.
Larry: I graduated from high school in '67, and I went right into radio school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I think the school folded after our class graduated. It was one of those things where you either go to Brown in Minneapolis-St. Paul, or you go somewhere else. I wanted to do something different, so I went to Milwaukee to Career Academy of Radio & Television Broadcasting in '68. I wanted to get into radio as quickly as possible. I realized radio was what I wanted to do, and I didn't want to wait. Their course was four months long and cost a thousand bucks -- first loan I ever took out.
I graduated in four months and found my first job fifty miles from town in the lake country of western Minnesota. I worked there for five years at KDLM, Detroit Lakes. The station's power was a thousand watts daytime, two fifty at night. I think I did everything in the five years I was there. I started out as the News Director, if you can imagine that for an eighteen-year-old. I was also copywriter, and I even tried my hand at sales; but that was too much like getting beat up, so I came back into the creative end of it.
By the time I was twenty-one I was made Program Director at an affiliate that we bought into, KCII down in Washington, Iowa. I worked there for about four months. There was something wrong with my new boss. My old boss in Detroit Lakes said I could come back home, so I went back up to Detroit Lakes. It wasn't long after I got back that I heard that this guy in Iowa had hung himself on the eighteenth hole of the golf course, so he did definitely have a problem. But, I was glad to get back up to Detroit Lakes.
I answered an ad in Broadcasting, and, of forty applicants, I landed a job in Eau Claire, Wisconsin at WEAQ as a copywriter. But that only lasted about three months, too, because I realized I missed being on the air. I left there and came back up to North Dakota where I'm from and landed a job in '73 at KFGO in Fargo, a five thousand watt country station. I stayed there until 1987, then I took a short stint at a TV station in town for a year and a half. Then I went to KFGO's major competitor on the AM band which is WDAY. I worked there for a year and a half, then they hired Rush Limbaugh to do mid-days. That meant I would have to come off the air and, again, I didn't want to come off the air. I thought I needed to be on the air, so I made a lateral move back to KFGO and stayed there again until '91.
In January of 1990 I could see the writing on the wall. I could see there weren't any more moves for me to make in radio unless I went to the big city. But I like the quality of life here, so I bought myself an 8-track analog deck, a Tascam 388. I brought it down to my basement, set it on the table, and looked at it for the longest time. And then, I'll never forget the first time I made my first commercial on it. I couldn't believe that I had actually made a commercial at home that I could use on the air. It took me a long time to realize that I could do that. And the more I realized it, the bigger my studio grew, and the more things I was coming home and doing after my air shift. Everyone was fighting for production room time at the station -- I think production room shifts were down to an hour or less. So, I just decided to make it happen for me at home. I let go and spread my wings.
R.A.P.: Did you ever have the Production Director title?
Larry: Yes, I did. I was the Production Director the last three moves I made. Well, they called it Creative Services in television, but it was always just assumed that I was the Production Director because I was the whiz kid who could slam bang those spots together and do prodigious amounts of them, as well as make them sound real and sell. I guess twenty-five years will tell you whether that's your love or not.
R.A.P.: That's a long time in radio, but it's behind you now.
Larry: Well, I found out that I could move my stereo down to my basement and hook it up to a multi-track. In fact, my first experience with multi-track was when I left radio. No one had ever heard of multi-track up here. No one was using multi-track. My first experience with multi-track was in 1991, and when I found out what I could do with it, I was amazed. I haven't used razor blades since I left radio, and now I can offer my clients so much more. It has just been a real boon to me, and the market up here has embraced it. I'm turning out some pretty competitive stuff from my home.
R.A.P.: Do you feel that copywriting is your forte?
Larry: Copywriting has never been something that I've relied heavily on after I left radio's arms. I do proof a lot of the stuff that I get, and I offer to cut the fat. If something doesn't work, I'll make a suggestion on how we can make it work, and it seems they always agree with my suggestions. I think that my copywriting ability is something that has just sweetened it all for me.
R.A.P.: Where do you think your greatest talents lie?
Larry: Well, I guess I owe a lot to my need to have things in order. I need a lot of order in my life. So, all my tapes are labeled, and I know exactly where they are. But stuff like that is just the business end of it. I guess, creatively, my greatest talent would be my interpretation and delivery -- being able to give those words the sincerity they need without sounding like I'm reading.
R.A.P.: When you left the station, were you already making enough in freelance business to replace the station's paycheck?
Larry: No. It took me about three years to get back up to speed as far as what I was earning in radio. Then, I think I doubled my income the first year after that, and I had a fifty percent increase the following year. I just continue to be amazed that I found my niche up here in North Dakota. There are audio/video production outfits here that have the video end covered, and I'd rather not have the overhead anyway, thank you. I'm happy with my analog 8-track. I also have a couple of 2-tracks, and I just added my DAT, my first experience with the digital realm.
All of the major agencies in town are using me. I've got low overhead, and my radio background gives me experience at doing it all. I suppose that allows me to offer my clients affordable copywriting, engineering, and producing. I do voice-overs if they want, although increasingly I'm hiring other outside talent. You just can't voice it all yourself. And I'm a player; I'm in there, you know? People are coming here for dubs, and it's working. I feel real fortunate.
R.A.P.: What made you decide it was time to leave the station?
Larry: Frankly, the station severed the tie, but I knew it was happening. I knew they had hired this outside person with a briefcase to do consulting. A consultant is someone with a briefcase who lives at least five miles from town, right? I got hold of his notes, and I saw the writing on the wall. They were going to take a different direction, so I just let it happen. I wanted to have a little cushion between leaving and absolutely being on my own, so I took my full job insurance. I worked for twenty-five years, and I never took a penny of job insurance, but I took it this time. When I had one week of it left, I landed my first job as the talent for a series of outdoor shows that went to sixty radio stations. That was enough income that I couldn't really take any more job insurance, and that's when I really stepped off on my own.
R.A.P.: How long have you been in Fargo?
Larry: I grew up here, and I'll be forty-five this year. But more and more, I'm doing things out of the market. I've got some TV stations, and I'm doing other things. I'm working with some people out of Washington and Ohio, and more frequently I'm going to the Twin Cities. They always said that Minneapolis was a sewed up market for voice talent, that there was a handful of people who were doing all the voice work there and that you couldn't get in. Well, last year I got in. Persistence paid off. I got hold of an agent in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and the possibilities there are just opening up. There's a whole new vista of possibility for me. Fargo/Moorhead is a pretty small market compared to St. Paul-Minneapolis. I go down the pike about three and a half hours, and all of a sudden I'm in a whole new market. I'm a babe, you know. I'm starting over, but my agent there has been calling me more and more. I'm doing some regional things now, and I did a national thing for Super Eight Motels. It was on The Today Show for the longest time a few months ago. I just met my agent last month for the first time, and she said, "What do you do in Fargo?" I said, "Well, I love to act. I'm an actor." And she said, "Well, why didn't you tell me that?" I said, "Well, you never asked." She said, "Well, do you want to come and audition for some on-camera?" And I said, "Sure." She said, "Do you really want to drive that far?" I said, "You bet I will. I'll just clear away my business, and I'll take that day off. I'll get up there, I'll do the gig at noon, and I'll come home." Just last week I had my first on-camera audition.
I think what's keeping me alive and making me a player and bringing me into new creative possibilities is that first job in radio. That job introduced me to all the different jobs there were in radio -- the writing, the reporting, the on-camera, the production, taking out the garbage, remotes, and all that stuff. I just did it all back then, and I'm still doing it all. I'll do whatever my clients want. If they want me to stand up and be an on-camera spokesman for them, I have a pretty good demo put together of that stuff.
I call my business Ad Lab and the byline is Creative Chemistry. It's an advertising laboratory. I'm putting different components together just like a chemist will put different chemicals together to create whatever substance for whatever reason. I've managed to put many elements together under this umbrella, this advertising laboratory, and it's working.
I can't imagine hiring staff, but more and more clients are saying, "Well, can you do prints? Are you a buyer? Do you know anything about buying?" My wife is a buyer, or was a buyer when I met her, and now she's in marketing and sales in television. I'm just thinking out loud - maybe there's something there that will happen for us in the future. But for now, I can't wait to get down here in the studio every morning. I can't wait to get my boys packed off and get back down here, get the lights turned on, get things humming and hear that fan cooling off my amp.
R.A.P.: Do you find yourself still doing a lot of production and copywriting, or are you now more into just the voice-over end of it?
Larry: Well, looking at my log here, most of the time my voice is on it, but it's material that's been written by one of the agencies in town. So the writing part I haven't been doing, but I am doing a lot of voicing. And I'm doing the production, too; I'm putting the voice with the jingle and adding sound effects and that kind of stuff.
R.A.P.: You've been doing voice work in the same market for a long time. Is your voice getting over-used?
Larry: You know, you want to do a lot of stuff, but there's a fine line there. When you get to the point that you're doing so much stuff that people always greet you with, "Hey, I hear you on everything," that's not a good thing. You don't want them to be hearing you on everything. You want to raise your rates a little bit and be on less stuff because there is a burnout factor there. I'm amazed that I've escaped it after all these years in the same market. You'd think that people would just get tired of hearing you after a while.
R.A.P.: Do you use different voices, different deliveries?
Larry: Well, yes, I can change my voice. And maybe that has helped keep me from burning out. I have any number of character voices I can do, although I don't have to call on them very often.
When I sit down with a piece of copy, I can just kind of feel how I'd want to hear it and what I would believe; and if I don't believe it after I've voiced it, then I do it again. I'm very picky about what I do, and things I send out of here have to measure up to some pretty high standards. I haven't met anyone who would criticize it further. I criticize the heck out of it until it goes on to 2-track and leaves my studio. And it doesn't come back, so I guess that's a good sign. That's an acceptance.
R.A.P.: Are you doing other projects out of your studio other than commercials?
Larry: Yeah. I'm doing lots of different things. I'm doing industrials, and I'm doing phone on hold things. I've got a series I'm doing that just started last week in New York City. It's a health show. I'm the announcer, and I do the commercials in it. I put it all together -- the music and everything -- and ship it out of here. That's kind of an exciting thing.
R.A.P.: How did you get that?
Larry: Well, it was just from being in the biz for twenty-six years and knowing people and having them come to me and say, "Will you help me do this?" Now there's talk about the show going over to Singapore. I understand that's just virgin territory. A five-station market with no commercials. You can imagine there's a lot of new ground to be covered there. And we have people from around here who are over there seeking out these possibilities even now. So, you just can't buy the results of your networking over the years. It's a great, and important thing.
R.A.P.: Do you position yourself in the market there as an advertising agency, a production house, or something else?
Larry: Well, I'm still kind of flexing my wings here. It has been two and a half years since I went out on my own officially, and I want to continue to work with the other production houses in town. But then, again, there's no escaping the fact that I am now their competitor. I'm still working on those relationships. I found that a lot of work I was doing with other production houses has gone away now because of that, and I've had to become that production house. I'm not really an agency, I think, because my realm of expertise is in audio and not in print. Although I did some TV, it is mostly radio that I do, or audio for video. Ad-Lab is a production house.
R.A.P.: Do you get out and knock on doors to attract new clients?
Larry: If there's an area that I lack in, it's that marketing and sales effort. That's my weak point because I like to be in here producing. I don't like the marketing end of it. I guess, in spite of that, I've been successful with this venture, but I think with an element of marketing and a greater awareness of the need to do that, this thing would really bust wide open. I know that is the next area I need to pay attention to, and I think I need to do that this year, for sure.
R.A.P.: Do you think that marketing step is a step towards becoming a full blown advertising agency?
Larry: Oh, I think so. I'm talking about getting a demo together and walking into a store that you have targeted, a store that you want to have on your list. The work that I'm doing and have been doing has just come to me by word of mouth and by satisfied clients. I think if I got out there and marketed this venture, that it would grow into more than what it is. But then, I think I would have to have some staff, somebody who knows print and somebody who knows the video end. I'm rubbing elbows more and more with those people, and I'm finding myself more interested in asking them questions and giving them my card and suggesting that maybe we should work together.
R.A.P.: Knowing what you know now, if you could go back seven, eight or maybe ten years -- as the radio production guy -- what would you do differently? Would you get out sooner?
Larry: I would have left radio after the first stint knowing this opportunity was here and realizing I had something special to offer in this field. I was never really able to fully believe in myself as much as I should have to make the move earlier. I should have seen the writing on the wall when I found that my income was not moving. I don't consider that it was wasted time staying in radio as long as I did, but if I were given a chance to do it over again, I certainly would have gone out on my own sooner.
R.A.P.: If you were to do that, there would be some things that you would not have experienced in radio. Do you think you would have sacrificed some important things by leaving sooner?
Larry: Perhaps. The wisdom that you gain through being out there, how do you put a value on that? If I was able to go to college when I got out of high school, I would have missed those early years, the late sixties in the radio business, and maybe it would have been different then.
It's fun to think about being able to direct how life unfolds for you, but in the end, life unfolds as it will, so I don't know. I'm grateful for the things that have happened, and I would have liked to have gotten a little earlier start at it. When you start thinking about your mortality -- when you're not in your twenties or thirties anymore -- you think differently. Heck, I still feel like there's as much to learn out there as there was before I even started. This is a totally different thing, being on your own and being the one who makes the coffee for the client, being the one who does all the things that make it happen. I love it. I love what I do.
R.A.P.: You mentioned some of the other production houses in the area there. Do you think there are more and more people starting to do what you're doing in that market? Is the competition increasing?
Larry: No, and I can't understand it. Given how easy it has been for me to do this, I wonder. I think there must be a dozen other guys and gals out there who could and would do it, too, but my wife says, no. She gives me the credit, bless her heart, for having all of the elements that need to come together to make it happen. So, I used to worry a little that there would be a lot of competition and I'd have to work too hard, but no one has seen that vision yet. I'm the only one like me here, and I guess I can be thankful for that.
R.A.P.: Tell us a bit more about your studio.
Larry: I've got to share with you that I don't have a lot of overhead here. I've got a Tascam 8-track 388 that became a dinosaur here a few years back. I mean, they started doing everything on cassette 8-track and then, lo and behold, all the direct to disk and optical and all that stuff came in. But, I'm still analog and proud of it. That's the heart of my system. I've also got a Yamaha SPX-900 I use for various things. I've got an Eventide Harmonizer, the old H949. My mikes are vintage Sony condensers. My power is a Harmon-Kardon TM660 amp. It used to be my stereo. I'm not lusting for new equipment all the time either because the things that I have are doing the job. As a matter of fact, I don't know what I would do with one of those fancy direct to disk workstations.
R.A.P.: It's amazing that you're doing all this work on the Tascam 388. That's the one that uses the 7-inch reel format and is a console and 8-track deck in one. What did you pay for that?
Larry: They retailed originally for four grand. I picked mine up a year or two old for twenty-seven hundred dollars. To me, it's a gold mine. I just don't know what I'd do without it. It has dbx and every kind of patch possibility in the back that you can imagine, both balanced and unbalanced. I even bought myself one of those high speed cassette duplicators. I had to buy that when I was producing this sixty station outdoor show, and that was a fairly major investment. I got the Telex ACC 2000. It's wonderful. I also have a Tascam 3030 2-track that is my secondary deck, now that I have my DAT. The DAT is my mastering deck now. I just got it. I bought it from Dat Time, page 13 of your February issue. I called them right up and I said, "Hello. I'll take one of those."
R.A.P.: Well, thanks for supporting our advertisers!
Larry: Oh, you bet, and Richard Bytnar is just a wonderful person. Anyway, I really think if you go in too deep and charge up a bunch of equipment, and things don't happen fast enough for you to keep up with the payments on that, then I think the worry about the finances can really, really hold you back creatively. I really believe that. The income I generate with these paid for machines is mine and the IRS's, and I'm not having to worry that I have to pay for my gear. I can just go ahead and put that money in the bank.
R.A.P.: How much would you say it would cost you to build your studio from scratch?
Larry: I'd say fifteen or sixteen grand.
R.A.P.: What advice would you give to someone who wants to build their own studio?
Larry: I would do just what I did. I would find a good deck and put it in the room you want to call your studio. Put a track light up and shine some lights on it. Then I'd look at it for a while. Then I'd move it to a different spot, and I'd look at it for a while again. And then I'd hook it up so I could dub stuff down. Then maybe I'd get a processor to add a little ambiance. Get a couple of good mikes and just believe in yourself, believe that you can be a player, and then just do it, just roll tape, and you're in business.
R.A.P.: What advice would you give someone in radio about deciding whether they should break away from the radio station and start their own production company?
Larry: Well, you have to accept that the structure of radio is a structure that you either have to understand and be willing to play within its guidelines, or you have another choice, and that's to go on your own. If you stay, you must accept the way radio is run and understand the different problems you encounter politically with staff or whatever it happens to be. I always used to get very upset if someone didn't clean the heads after they were done producing because I wanted to walk into a studio with clean heads. But, after the first couple of years of being upset about that, I realized that you're not going to change people. And if you want your heads cleaned, by golly, get your swab and clean those heads. If you want it done right, you've got to do it yourself.
If people aren't rising to the occasion for you in your radio career, you might want to go out on your own. But, you just have to realize that you have to keep your overhead down. You have to be able to offer good service to people and just believe in yourself. I know that sounds kind of trite, but just believe you can do it. Get out there and start doing it, and the business just comes. It just happens. If you love what you do, I really believe the industry that you're in will rise to support you in that effort if you love it and are doing it with all your heart.
You don't have to have a lot of fancy equipment, and I think that Ad-Lab is a testimony to that. The Ad-Lab has some good pieces that do a good job. You don't have to have a whole lot of fancy processing and everything unless you're doing whiz-bang sweepers and IDs and stuff like that. It's fun to have a lot of different processing gear, but if you're relying on your own voice, you don't need it.
More and more, clients want to hear you. They want to hear you being you, not being someone else. Agencies don't want to know about your radio career because to some agencies that means you talk like a "radio announcer," and they don't want to hear you talking like that. They want to hear you talking like yourself and being believable and sincere because that's what sells. Maybe you have something about yourself that's unique to you, something that you can build on that someone else would want to emulate some day.
R.A.P.: What's a typical day like for you? Do you produce a lot of commercials daily?
Larry: Well, more and more I'm doing larger projects where I'll go out for a client and kind of be their agency in a way. I'll go out and get some raw tape, bring it back here and put together a series of spots for them. Then I'll duplicate them so they can place it on all their stations. Those kinds of jobs I'm doing more instead of a spot here and a spot there. There might be a week where I only do two or three things. On the other hand, the phone might start ringing at any time. You never know when that's going to happen, and you don't want to have procrastinated on other stuff at that point because then you won't be able to say to your client, "Well, yes, I can do that for you, and I will take care of that for you today." I've always been able to say that to my clients. They want to be able to just put it on your desk and then know that it's going to be done. So, there might be days when the phone doesn't ring, but I won't let anything set on my desk. In a typical week, I suppose I'll do a spot a day or a spot every other day, mixed in with the larger projects, the industrials and things like that.
Getting back to giving advice to those who want to go out on their own, you've got to answer those calls. You've got to get back to people. You've got to turn that stuff around because that's what they want. I know what radio's like, and I know that stuff that happens today is needed yesterday. I want to be able to give people service.
R.A.P.: You're doing a lot of production, so you must have some music you're putting under the commercials. Does part of your overhead include some production libraries?
Larry: Yeah. As a matter of fact, River City Sound is another advertiser I've seen in your fine magazine. They're supplying the music for me. I like River City because they turn out a new CD every couple of months, and that's about as fast as I need it. If I was doing a lot more volume, I'd have to have a bigger library, but I've been able to find the music I need from the River City library.
R.A.P.: What about sound effects?
Larry: For sound effects, I just have sound effects that I've either made or saved over the years, and I've got a pretty good library of sound effects. As a matter of fact, I've never had a client ask me for a sound effect that I couldn't come up with. For instance, dinosaur. I had to do a dinosaur the other day, and what I did was dub off a lion growl, slow it down, and then I added some "Canyon" ambiance from my SPX-900. You make them if you don't have them.
R.A.P.: Do you have a musical background?
Larry: Yes, I'm a musician. I've been a keyboard player since I was five years old. I also play guitar, and I sang for many years in a band. So, I've used my voice for singing as well as for voicing things. I have an Ensoniq SQ80 synthesizer, and I do little things now and then. I've done little one-man jingles for people who want to spend a hundred bucks, but never anything bigger than that.
I think my background in music, and especially the theory end of music, has been most important in my other duties. For instance, taking a jingle that has a seven second bed and making that bed into a fourteen second bed by finding the phrasing of the instrumental and just doubling it, or tripling it on the right beat and the right note. My music has definitely been a factor in my production, although not directly.
R.A.P.: Has your style changed over the years?
Larry: It has grown; it has expanded. I have more voices that I can do. I have an old timer I do, or General Patton, or a little Mexican accent. I think my acting helps me with character voices, but I think I would be able to do them anyway.
R.A.P.: What acting background do you have?
Larry: I started acting at the community theater here, and I've done at least a show a year for the past fifteen years. It's excellent experience for anybody in the voice business. Go try out for a play, especially if you've never done it. Just be the person that is on that sheet for those few minutes for the director and let them decide. If you don't get the part, fine. Just go do it. It's an experience.
R.A.P.: If there's one thing you could most contribute your success to, what would that be?
Larry: This may sound funny, but I got my tonsils out when I was a real little kid. I've never told anyone that before, but I really think that if you don't have tonsils, your voice is probably different. It's probably a lot different. They don't take tonsils out anymore, but they used to take them out for no reason at all back when I was a kid. I've always thought that maybe that had something to do with my ability to make the sounds that I needed to make so that my spoken word was as persuasive as it could be. Being able to have a wide vocal range helps you to decipher copy. You have to move your voice up to this realm or come down to that realm.