Bill Flowers, Steve Schneider, Urbanwild Productions, North Bridgton, Maine
by Jerry Vigil
The RAP Interview regularly checks in with people who have left radio stations to start their own production companies. This month, we check in with Bill Flowers, a talented individual who left radio several years ago and eventually became Executive Producer for the American Comedy Network. Recently, Bill left ACN and teamed up with Steve Schneider, Production Director of Portland Radio, WMGX/WGAN/WYNZ/WZAN, to form Urbanwild Productions. So far, Urbanwild Productions has success written all over it. Bill and Steve tell us about working with a partner. We get some tips on starting a business and on writing and producing humorous commercials. And we get some input on how deregulation is affecting the business of radio production. In this day of multiple station ownership, the demand for outside production services seems to be growing, and the time looks right for companies like Urbanwild.
RAP: Let's get some background on each of you.
Bill: A lot of my formative years were in theater, and a lot of family members had grease paint in their veins. My grandfather, an influence in particular, was in theater and vaudeville and such. I spent a lot of time overseas in Switzerland when Dad worked for the UN. By the time we came back stateside, I had enough theater under the belt. I decided that was an unpredictable lifestyle, so I decided to translate the creativity into the radio realm.
I got into radio about fifteen years ago and worked basically small and medium markets. I tinkered away in the various departments and found that production was probably the most gratifying. So I sort of focused the energies there and did a lot of after-hours experimentation in the production room, pulling down the blinds to keep the salespeople away. Of course, in the smaller market stations, it was a lot of cart to cart, take off a shoe and hit a button with your toe type stuff in order to simulate multitracking, until I got into the luxury of working in bigger stations.
Eventually, the big break came in '91 when, through a process of courtship, I managed to interest ACN, the American Comedy Network. I was working at a station up in Maine at the time. I sent ACN some material, and it happened to be the right place, right time, right people. They were interested and asked me to do some more, so I sent them two or three more pieces. They thought the voices, writing and production quality were enough that they wanted to talk to me. After a series of visits, I was hired on as a producer in Bridgeport in 1991 under Cliff Pia. He was the Executive Producer then. Within about a year and a half, I moved up to Executive Producer and oversaw a lot of the production, creative and voice tracking, and had a lot of voice and creative input as well. I stayed out of the writing realm for the most part but oversaw the production entirely when Cliff moved up to the role of president. I was there for about two years, and due to some family complications here in Maine, I wound up pulling up stakes and moving back to Maine. I opened my own shop two and a half years ago, and that's the origin of Urbanwild.
RAP: Steve, where did you get your start?
Steve: I got started in high school like a lot of people do. I'm one of those people who can actually say he started at a little two hundred and fifty watt day-timer. The high school that I went to in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan had an exceptional broadcast program, both radio and television, one that many universities were envious of. I worked through high school and college, then I got a job writing and producing at WPST in Trenton. I was there a couple of years and then moved to Louisville. I was there for four years and then went to Tampa for four years, then on up to Maine.
My wife and I decided that we'd like to live in Portland, so we came here in '88. A few years back, I came over to Saga Communications where I am now, and at that point I met Bill. I remember the day that Bill came into the room. He had a cassette in his hand and asked if he could play something for me to see what I thought of it. He did and I thought a lot of it. We kind of went from there, and for the past two years or so, I've been associated with Urbanwild.
RAP: Bill, you said that while you were at ACN you did not get involved in the writing that much. Did you do much writing prior to ACN?
Bill: I did a lot of Production Director duties which, as we all know, is a matter of wearing all the hats, and writing is very much a part of that. Of course, it's a different animal altogether at ACN in the sense that the nucleus at ACN is more creative comedy--bit oriented, song parody type stuff.
RAP: Are you doing more writing now?
Bill: I'm doing more writing, and I guess I would say that a little bit of the ACN style has rubbed off, although not too much. If I had to say something carried over, it was a lot of the spirit, a lot of the influence as far as selling the concept and using the universal language, which is humor, and essentially offering a message in a relatable way.
One reason why I click so well with Steve is that Steve has a natural knack for taking humor--in his case, a dry sense of humor--and putting it in the every day man's language so that you're actually finding yourself in a scene in commercial copy as opposed to just laying out the information, putting a beginning on it, putting a tag on it, and getting it on the air by three. Fortunately, we have the luxury in the work we're doing that we're not fighting deadlines in that way.
Steve: The style of writing that Bill is talking about...we find that it's something we really have to train stations to accept. We have to wean salespeople away from the usual laundry list and get them more involved with the kind of copy that tells a story and engages a listener so that they pay attention to what you're saying and therefore catch a little bit about what you're trying to get across. It has really been a process with some of the stations we're working with to get to them to understand that and let us do it. We've had a couple of cases where at first they didn't quite get it, but later on, they came around and began to understand what we were trying to do.
Bill: It's reconditioning. Stations and salespeople are sometimes conditioned to believe that you close the sale in the commercial. The clients are especially conditioned to believe that, and that's not the case at all. Essentially, it's a blind date. You're introducing the listener to this business. You're putting your best foot forward by putting the listener into a situation that's kind of like they are eavesdropping on a conversation that puts the client in their best light. That's not only the way we write, but it's the way we produce, too. We try to create a scene that is very real to life, use sound effects as spice, and sometimes a little more than that just to make it a little more interesting.
As Steve said, sometimes the barricades come up because they think, "Hey, I've got a product to push here." And you say, "No. You push the product when they cross your threshold. Trust us. Let us try this." As a result, we've managed to get some recognition and pick up a few awards this year. And sometimes we're wrong because the client is always right. But when we can coerce them into repositioning themselves, they're usually happy with the results.
RAP: Does each of you handle equal amounts of the writing and production, or is one of you more focused on one or the other?
Steve: It's pretty evenly split, as far as the writing goes. As far as production, Bill handles almost all of that. With me working full-time at Saga, there's not a whole lot of time available for doing production for Urbanwild.
Bill: Steve's being too kind to me. I'd say Steve does sixty or even seventy percent of the writing from week to week. It all depends on the production load. The nice thing is that we've got a little bit of a seesaw going. Our backgrounds and skills are comparable enough to where we are able to pass each other the ball depending on what the demands are in a certain week. But when I'm focused on production, generally speaking, Steve's able to pick up the writing slack. I handle most of the production because I've got a complete multitrack studio to work in.
RAP: How many different stations are you working with?
Bill: About thirteen to fifteen stations, and we've got a handful of ad agencies from a small town up here in Maine to an agency in New York City. We really cover the spectrum. There's no real pattern, but we're in about twelve states now. We just picked up a station in England this past month.
RAP: What kind of marketing are you doing?
Bill: We're working with a marketing firm which is selling our services as a part of their service. So, in essence, we're a satellite to their world, and that's a big shot in our arm. We also do a fair amount of advertising in the trades.
RAP: Has this marketing firm been a big help for you?
Bill: Well, actually, we're just getting started with them. We were approached by this firm who saw our ad in Radio Ink, and we talked. We knew a lot of the same people and had similar backgrounds, so we decided to put our heads together and give it a try. So, the plane's just leaving the runway, and we're waiting to see what happens. It's a new adventure for us.
RAP: A lot of people starting their own business forget how important marketing is.
Bill: Absolutely. You definitely have to convince yourself to use money that perhaps you've allocated for paying the bills or buying new equipment. You've got to make a few sacrifices and believe in advertising. We're an advertising company, so we have to believe in advertising outside of our own little circle, too. We've advertised in some publications that kind of sat there and drew flies, and on other occasions we've advertised with some magazines that quintupled our advertising investment. But if we hadn't done it, we'd probably still be faxing out to radio stations on a cold call basis, which, by the way, is how we got started. With a twenty-five cent fax, we made twenty thousand bucks. That was definitely the exception and not the rule, but that's how we got started.
RAP: I get the feeling there was more involved on that deal than just a fax.
Bill: Oh, yes. It was a matter of talking to experienced friends in the business, calling up folks that we knew, calling up folks we had heard of. We put together a press release and were circulating news of our start-up with acquaintances cross-country as well as with friends. So the fax was just one message. Pushing the business itself, to start with, was probably how I spent at least two-thirds of my time with the other third on creative, which is why Steve's involved. His handling a lot of the creative end freed me up to promote the business. Starting up a business is an education, especially when you're a radio guy and you know marketing from one point of view, but you don't know about marketing yourself outside the confines of a radio station situation.
RAP: What are some things you learned along the way that you might have done differently if you had known about them?
Bill: I probably would have taken out a loan and advertised right then and there rather than beginning with the faxes.
Steve: Another thing that really helped us as far as advertising goes was, I hope, the quality of our work. We found that as time went on we began to get phone calls from people who had us referred to them. I think that's one of the primary ways that you can really advertise yourself well, by keeping your quality up.
Bill: That is the ultimate way to advertise because there's no substitute for a good product at a fair price. The other thing that helped is that we got work with chains. In an era when broadcast companies are purchasing radio stations, and you're doing some good copywriting and production under the umbrellas of these companies, you've got one General Manager who wants to help his buddy at station B or C up and down the coast. We're working for a couple of companies in California. They referred us to a General Manager at their sister station. We sent a demo. They were thrilled and we got the business. You can't discount word of mouth, especially when you're trying to be a small company that's quality focused. You definitely want to follow up with their brothers and sisters, especially with this being such an incestuous business, the positive connotation of that word, of course.
RAP: Do you find that stations in general now need more outside production services as a result of deregulation?
Steve: I'm the Production Director for four stations, and we've just purchased two more stations here in town. As far as our needs here go, we find we do need a little bit more help with our writing, especially with spec spots. As far as Urbanwild goes, we find that a number of our clients use us primarily as a spec spot service. But I don't know if that's necessarily a result of deregulation and the combining of staffs.
Bill: I think deregulation has helped us. Stations seem to be quick to acquire but slow to hire. They like to shuffle their personnel around rather than bring in bigger groups of people. As a result, a lot of these stations get backed into a corner. Their continuity departments need some help, and there's an attraction to getting good copy fast. You get some outside help, and you get some good copy, fast. You walk to your fax machine...bang, it's there. You're not paying insurance or benefits. Suddenly, a company like ours is very attractive, and we've often found that copy is our foot in the door to offering production. We're doing a lot of copy, and the production either goes with it right out of the starting gate, or we add it as we go. That's sort of an indirect answer to your question, but I think deregulation offers a bright future for our kind of business. It would seem so at this point anyway.
RAP: Steve, what are the pros and cons of a partnership like you have? How's it working out?
Steve: It's working out well. I haven't found any cons, really. It's been pretty much a win/win deal for both of us. It's a nice thing in your career when somebody comes along that you just kind of click with. I've had it happen maybe twice, this being one of them, and the last time being ten or twelve years ago. To have it happen at all is great. Every once in a while you'll run across someone you have a good time producing something with and maybe that will last for an hour and a half or something, but to have it go on for a couple of years is really nice. It's also working out well because I'm able to stay with Saga, a company that I like being with.
RAP: Bill, tell us about your studio.
Bill: It's great to be in the digital realm because now we can sort of downsize and get all the goodies that we want. I'm working with a Mackie 16-channel 8-buss board. As far as multitrack goes, I have the Tascam DA-88 which I love. It's a workhorse. For processing I use primarily an Eventide H3000 Harmonizer. I have an Alesis power amp and compression. I master to the Panasonic SV-3700 DAT. I picked up a power computing system, and we're in the process now of setting up a workstation. We've got Deck II and Sound Edit 16, the Macromedia version, and we've got Session II which we haven't even cracked into yet. We're still having fun with Deck II right now.
I've got about ten thousand sound effects. A lot of the sound effects I originally auditioned with ACN. I was like a kid in a candy store, just dozens of libraries to work with, to compare, to look at. For the most part we're using Sound Ideas 6000 which has been a big help, and we have used the 4000, 2000 and 1000 series. As far as music is concerned, we use FirstCom and Chappel and have a couple of others which pretty much get dusty.
Talking about sound effects, that's such a big part of the production arsenal, and we do a lot of foleying as well, foleying in the studio and out in the field. We create a lot of our own sound effects. In fact, along with the demo I send you for The Cassette, I'll include an example of mixing foley sound effects with library sound effects. It works real well, and I think a lot of people overlook the opportunity. Spend seven hundred bucks on a portable DAT. They're getting cheaper and cheaper. Or use one of those portable Marantz cassette decks. Grab a microphone and take a lunch break. Go out into the field and record some sounds, or get a box full of toys and just practice dropping them, throwing them, squeezing them, sitting on them. Archive that stuff and mix it with the sound effects you already have. That's a good way to break burnout and show what you can do with a little experimentation.
RAP: Where do you get the voice talent for the spots?
Bill: We're the talent out of default more than anything else, and we've got some terrific talent we work with that really help make us what we are. We'd be lost without them. We've got a couple of female voices, one here in town by the name of Daphne Perkins and another one we use quite regularly, P.J. Knight who is also in state. It's just proof that sometimes you can come across some gems, and you don't have to call New York or L.A. to get them. They are actors as well as broadcast people, and we can't discount the benefits of having people who know how to, not just read, but put themselves into the scene.
We've also got Dale Reeves, whom I worked with in my ACN days. He does work with us on kind of a creative consultancy basis. He has his own fish to fry, but he works with us pretty regularly. For the bigger, "ballsier" voices and for a lot of the impersonation work, we use Dale. We've got about six or seven people we work with and, also, as corny as it may sound, sometimes there's a benefit to using family members. I've used my wife, Julie, and Steve's wife. That may sound like desperation, but it's not. People you have chemistry with can be plugged into certain non-announcer situations. That can really make a spot stand out on its own because it sounds natural. When you know a person, you're better able to establish a natural rapport with them, and that works in spots.
RAP: Steve, what's your approach to writing comedy commercials?
Steve: When I'm starting to write a humorous spot, one of the first things I keep in mind is I'm not trying to sell anything. I always keep in mind that instead what I'm trying to do is to get someone to remember something. So, if I'm going to write something that is humorous, I try to write something that will stand out as being a little bit memorable, and I can do that usually through a situation, some odd situation, a situation that is ridiculous, or a situation that maybe a listener might find himself or herself in. At that point, to be honest, I'm not exactly sure how I go about beginning. Most of the time, I simply start writing. I'll start writing down a recipe or the last sentence I just said or anything that I can think of, anything that comes to mind. Once I have the fingers physically moving, it seems to sort of come out. I'll end up with maybe two pages. I'll get rid of the first page, and the second page will be what I need for the beginning of a spot. Sometimes I'll just sit and stare at the screen for a while and that seems to help. But mainly, what I'm trying to do when I write is write something that someone will remember, and selling something is way down the list. I don't figure that is really our job. Our job is to get people in the door so someone else can sell them.
RAP: What is the best advice you ever received about producing and/or writing commercials?
Steve: I guess something I picked up was from my dad. He's a retired professor of writing, and even though I wasn't especially interested in writing while I was living at home and he was working, later on I reread the first chapter of a textbook he wrote. Basically, what it amounted to was that writing is a skill that can be learned. It is something you rehearse like riding a bike or anything else. And there's a method to it. Once you have mastered that, you can apply it to a lot of different things. One of the main things I got from that was simplicity, learning how to write things that are simple to understand, learning the difference between writing something you understand and something someone else understands, and also making sure that the writing is clear enough so that your intent is actually what the reader perceives. A lot of what I learned that I think is most important is just how to simplify and be as direct and as clean with writing as possible.
Bill: The advice I was given was to listen with my own ears. Do a lot more listening and a lot less asking. It was a matter, really, of not forcing comedy, not forcing a concept, but instead, sitting down with it, taking an intangible and experimenting--build, tear apart, work on the creative and then, distill. I found from listening to Cliff Pia's work that although it could sound bigger than life, it was really more than that. I think it was a matter of making the material sound comical, but at the same time natural and believable. The best comedy is believable because it's relatable. Fuse those together and put your own signature on it. Like any good painting, you know who painted it. If you're just mimicking or parroting somebody else, then you've essentially missed the mark.
I would add to that, too, something I heard Dan O'Day say a while back which was really important. The TV generation is influenced by television, and I think a lot of the earlier comedians were influenced by reading and observing. I think they were better able to develop their own creative style because they weren't having an approach dictated to them through a certain medium. I found that just getting away from studios and influences and just looking, listening, and living produces a lot of the best results.
RAP: Bill, after putting your studio together, what advice would you give somebody doing the same thing?
Bill: I would say, look back on the equipment that's worked best for you. Add to the stuff, even if someone tells you it's old, it's outdated, it's analog. If it works for you, it works for you. Try to incorporate that into your studio. I would also say get a chance to work on the equipment before you go out and buy it, especially with the newer digital stuff. Each has its quirks and idiosyncrasies, and the more time you have to experiment, the less likely you'll end up hating your investment. You've gotta get something that is less "techy" and more "creative-friendly." That's definitely what I went with. The DA-88 is a perfect example. You've got the digital realm, but it's set up like an analog machine. I can stay in the producer's mind-set and continue. That was a big determining factor in the way I built the studio.
Also, the advice of people better experienced than myself was very valuable. For instance, with mixing boards, I'd always used them but I hadn't thought about them as much as a lot of people. I have a tendency to be suspicious of equipment salespeople, especially when they're trying to sell me a product, but the fellow who sold me this board gave me some convincing reasons why the Mackie was a good board to go with. The EQ is terrific. The board has great head room. It's flexible, and every little bit of sonic splendor that comes out of that thing is something I'm able to get onto tape. I thank my lucky stars that I was able to get talked into that choice as opposed to the other umpteen zillion options that were out there.
Steve: I think it's real tempting for production people to want the latest and greatest and newest toy and to surround themselves with as many toys as possible, but I agree with Bill. That is something you have to watch out for. It's amazing how much you can do with very little.
RAP: Steve, you've got a pretty hectic situation on your hands with your radio gig, Production Director for four stations. How's that going?
Steve: It's going fine. I've got some good support from the folks here. I mean, everyone here knows that Bill and I are working together, and it's been a real good situation that way. Also, I have some help here which is great. We have an Assistant Production Director, Stu Schwartz, who does a good job, and he helps relieve a lot of the burden as far as promo and sweeper production goes. That allows me to spend a little more time working with the salespeople, working with scripts and advertising, which is something that I think is a little more my forte.
RAP: You wrote an article for us a couple of years ago about copyright infringement ["Pay The Piper" November 1994 RAP]. Have you kept your fingers on the pulse of this subject? What's new?
Steve: I have kind of kept up with it. I found that since that article was published, at least a couple of other stations here in town have set a policy of not using unlicensed music, and I'm finding that's happening more and more around the country. More and more people are being careful about it. I've had quite a few clients ask about how to get music clearance so they can use it in commercials. We've had a few clients try to do it. As far as I know, none of them have actually followed through for a number of reasons. One, because they found it wasn't worth it, due to the time and expense involved. Their projects were simply not big enough to warrant it. I had one client who found it just unbelievably difficult to find the right person to talk to. We spent days trying to find the right person and never did, so we gave up. As far as it becoming easier to find who you need to talk to in order to get clearance from a publisher, I don't see that that's really become much easier over the last couple of years. Broadcasters, even though they're faced with the obligation to get clearance to use unlicensed music, really are not given much more help than they ever have been as far as I can tell. One exception to that might be ASCAP. ASCAP has set up a service accessible via modem which allows you to access their database of publishers, titles and such. You can type in a tune title and have it give back the publisher, the composer and so on.
RAP: Bill, any parting advice to producers who want to expand their horizons and improve their skills?
Bill: Take up or continue work on a musical instrument. The best producers I've ever known have been musicians. There's a certain sensitivity and sensibility that comes with playing a musical instrument. One is that you're more discerning as far as your music choices and textures go. As a writer and a musician, you think in terms of what kind of music would better support the copy and act as an embellishment without overpowering it. You're also better at crossfades as opposed to going through the "techy" aspect of getting the blade or moving regions with the workstation. You're able to really listen and move music around without doing cuts and splices. A good crossfade is like taking two pieces and making it one piece. It's as if it was born that way.
Also, don't plug the holes of a script with sound effects. Layer sound effects with the music underneath so that it moves with the scene. I think that's a mistake that we as producers tend to do sometimes. We look for holes and gaps in copy which would be better left alone and think, "Boy, there's a space there. I've got to fill that." Fight that temptation and maybe swell the music a little bit instead of filling it with a sound effect, and think of layering a scene that harmonizes with the copy. Avoid being gratuitous. It makes it a lot more realistic and the results are more satisfying.
I'd also like to say that my wife is a tolerant woman and I love her. She forgives my absence daily. She's a great contributor to my work. She's also in radio and she's a terrific help. If you can get a wife with a great voice, tell her you love her for all the right reasons. Tell her you love her for her voice because then she'll appreciate you when you love her for her body.
Be sure to check out Urbanwild's demo on The Cassette. The demo contains a bit that Bill refers to in the interview regarding merging two sound effects into one. Bill notes that the "ACN bit was produced by Bill Flowers and written/voiced by ACN's writing staff. It is the property of the American Comedy Network; rebroadcast without ACN's written permission is strictly forbidden."