Brian Kelsey, Creative Services Director, WXRK-FM - 92.3 K-Rock, New York, New York
We’ve read interviews and articles in these pages that ask the question, “Where is the great young production talent of today?” Though it may seem sometimes that radio isn’t cultivating its production talent like it used to, it’s good to know great production talent hasn’t stopped sprouting altogether. This month, RAP visits with Brian Kelsey, a young man of 28, only in his fifth year in the biz, who has managed to land the prestigious position of Creative Services Director at the hottest rocker in the nations number one market. Not only is he the Creative Services Director for K-Rock, but Brian also does creative voice and production for the morning man down the hall, Howard Stern. If you’re in a market that broadcasts the Howard Stern Show, you’ve probably heard some of Brian’s work. If not, be sure to check out this month’s RAP Cassette!
RAP: Tell us about your start in the business and how you wound up at K-Rock.
Brian: I started out about four or five years ago at a station in Norwalk, Connecticut, 95.9 The Fox. It was a Classic Rock station, and I started interning there right out of college. I was in college for about a year and a half, and I knew I wanted to do something in audio. I was majoring in music, but I really didn’t want to do that when it came right down to it. So I just dropped out. I also interned at a recording studio and did little stuff, not much of anything.
I was living at home with my parents and started interning at the station near my home town of Darien, Connecticut and did small things there. I went out in the van and did beach reports and started kind of messing around in the production studio, which kind of got me in trouble. I was always in the production studio, and the Production Director at the time got really mad and tired of it. So, he put out a big memo about how no interns are allowed in the studios. I saved the memo, which actually is pretty funny, and I have it hanging up here.
Eventually he got fired and they hired another guy for about two weeks. He like freaked out--was throwing carts at the salespeople and stuff--so they hired me in the interim and ended up just staying with me. I messed around and did every part of the radio station--answered phones, got coffee, and did whatever. I was a DJ for about a year, but I really liked production. I was here about two years.
Then Q104.3 in New York City started. They were a classical station and had switched formats to Pure Rock. The day they changed, I actually sent them a balloon with my tape in the balloon. They had to pop the balloon to get the tape. They liked it, and they hired me as the Production Director doing the creative and the commercial production. That was my first taste of real big-time New York stuff. I did that for two years.
Then Viacom bought the company, and they ended up firing everybody. We all got the axe except for a couple of people whom I think are still there, but they pretty much fired everybody. At that time, once we heard the rumor that we would all be fired, there was a job I saw in Radio And Production, as a matter of fact, for a Creative Director for K-Rock. I flipped out because that was my dream job, to be strictly a Creative Director and to be at K-Rock. I had actually talked to the Production Director at K-Rock when I was in Connecticut about maybe being a part-timer there, but there were no positions open. So this was a total act of God that, as I was being fired, this job was opening. It took a long time though. I got fired in July, and I worked the whole summer on getting this job. In September of last year, I got the job, and I’ve been here for just over a year.
For the first three months, I did everything out of my apartment where I have a computer and a little studio. They were in the midst of moving studios, and there was no room for me. There was basically one studio at the old place, and the Stern people had that until 2:00 p.m.. Then the commercial Production Director had it from 2:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m.. I had no place to work, so I did everything at home on my computer and ran back and forth to the station. I’d do stuff on DAT, mix it, bring it to the station, cart it up, then go back home, do something else, and run back and forth. It was kinda crazy, but once they finally moved to where we are now, I got my own studio at the station.
RAP: You were hired as Creative Director for K-Rock, but you’re doing stuff for Howard’s show now. Is that all you’re doing these days?
Brian: No. Basically what happened is Howard pretty much called me from his house after I’d been here for about six months. I’d never even met him. He said, “I love all your stuff, and I want you to do stuff for me.” Of course, I was thrilled because I’d been listening to Howard forever. So the next day he came in and introduced himself, and we talked for about an hour about what he wanted.
Now there’s just tons of stuff. We have a weekly meeting every Wednesday where he says what he wants to have done for that week. I get stuff pretty much every day now. There’s at least a couple of hours of work I do for Howard alone. The days definitely have gotten longer because of Howard’s material on top of the normal K-Rock tonnage of stuff. But I love it because I love the show and I always have, and to be a part of it is just great. I’m doing song parodies or sometimes just voice liners. The voice work is now pretty much half me and half Paul Turner, who has been doing the voice work for Howard. Like today, they gave me a bumper to do. It said, “You’re listening to a man who hates Canada” or something like that. I voice it and twist it around and make it into a bumper. Or they’ll ask me to make a song parody about something. Like yesterday, Howard was giving breast exams, so he wanted me to do a song parody for that.
RAP: Working there has got to be pretty wild.
Brian: It is. Every morning I come in and there’s midgets or lesbians or someone else walking down the hall. We’re all in the same kind of long hallway here, so you just run into everybody. It’s funny.
RAP: Is this the same hallway many of us have seen on E! TV?
Brian: Exactly. I’m at the very end. Scott, the engineer, and I are at the opposite end of Howard’s studio. Scott Salem is Howard’s production guy, but they call him an engineer, Scott the Engineer.
RAP: Is Scott on the show at all?
Brian: Yeah, they bring him on a lot. They always make fun of him.
RAP: Who is in the studio with Howard during show time?
Brian: During the show, full-time, there’s Jackie, who is the head writer who writes Howard’s jokes and things during the show. Then there’s Fred, who plays all the sound effects and runs the commercials, and then Robin, obviously.
RAP: There’s another guy you see a lot on E!.
Brian: That’s probably Gary. Gary is the producer of the show. His office is right outside the door, and he is always running in and out. He’s the one who pretty much comes in and gives me the work. “Howard needs this done. Howard needs that done.”
RAP: So, your responsibilities include doing all the imaging for K-Rock, but you split production for Howard with Scott Salem, right?
Brian: Scott does, and has been doing, pretty much all the production for the show. Scott gets in about four in the morning and just does anything needed--anything that needs to be carted up, any bits that need to be produced. When I came into the picture, we just sort of split the duties, I guess. I do any kind of the creative stuff that he needs, any of the bumpers and stuff like that. I really don’t do bits that much. Scott is a genius at bits because he’s been doing that forever, and he knows exactly how Howard wants them. I still haven’t gotten quite the knack to do that yet. They have a really certain style that you have to get, and Scott’s got it.
So I handle the weird, crazy bumpers, or the song parodies, or any kind of weird, funny things that need to be done. I might take Marv Albert drops and make them into some funny thing, talk around it or maybe mix it in with other clips so it sounds like Marv is talking to Kathie Lee Gifford or something like that. And I kind of just do this stuff on my own. If I have an idea, I’ll do it. Usually they’re okay, and they play it. If I have an idea for a song parody, I’ll record it and just leave it there for the next morning. Usually they play it. It’s funny to get up the next morning and hear it and think, “Oh, good, they liked it!”
RAP: Was it Steve Kingston, the Program Director, who brought you in?
Brian: Well, that’s kind of a weird story because Steve was at Z100 here in New York, and he had a non-compete contract. He was hired a year ago this past May, but when he left Z100, because of his contract, he was not allowed to start on the job here until a year ago this November. I was hired in September, and he was not here at the station until a couple of months later. The Operations Manager, Sam Milkman, worked with Steve very closely at Z100. Sam and Steve were hired together, but Sam didn’t have the non-compete in his contract. So Sam could be here, and Steve could not. Sam was pretty much running the show at the time, and I was pretty much hired by a combination of Sam, Kevin Weatherly, who is the Program Director at KROQ in Los Angeles, and John Frost, because the station was molded after KROQ when it first came on.
All the production was being done by John Frost. He did everything and sent it all over here. So when I got here, it was all John’s production. And John is the nicest guy in the world, and has been the biggest help to me ever. I cannot say enough about him. He’s a great guy. I talk to him probably once a week. I send him stuff to use, and he sends me stuff. We chop each other’s stuff up and use it. I’ll send him stuff, and he’ll either use the whole thing on KROQ, or he’ll take bits and pieces of it. He might use the different ways that I say “K-Rock” or whatever, and I’ll kind of do the same thing here. So it’s a really good relationship, and he’s really been a big help getting me started here.
RAP: John’s quite a guy to have helping you out. The interview we did with him a couple of years ago [Sept. ’95 RAP] was pretty amazing, as was his demo for The Cassette.
Brian: Yeah. My whole life he’s been like my idol. In fact, I remember when K-Rock first signed on, I was sitting at Q104 listening, and I remember hearing Howard saying, “Listen to this production.” He played it, and my stomach just dropped. I just felt like quitting. I was like, “How in the world can I even compete with this?” I was just so taken back and so upset and thought, “This just sucks.” So I just went on and did my thing at Q104. Then the position came up at K-Rock, and I was just so totally psyched. It was like a dream. I mean, it really is an absolute dream job, working for one of the top, if not the top Program Director in the country, and with Howard Stern. It’s just great.
RAP: Has John Frost been your only major influence?
Brian: I guess when I first started, I listened to Keith Eubanks and the whole Z100 crew, and that was pretty much what I was going after when I first started producing four or five years ago. I’d never even heard of John Frost back then. I didn’t hear of John until I got to New York and my boss at the time said, “You’ve really got to listen to KROQ. You’ve really got to listen to John Frost. He’s great, and I really want our station to sound like him.” I listened to it, and I was like, “Wow! This is great!” I always thought he had fifteen people there, this whole creative department doing things with all these different voices. When I found out it was just him by himself in his studio, I was amazed. That’s now what I model myself after. I’m the only one here, and people come to me now and say, “Who are all the voices?” And it’s just me. I flew out to LA last summer for the KROQ Weeny Roast and finally met John in person after talking to him for a thousand hours on the phone.
RAP: What’s your approach when you are given the task of producing a promo for K-Rock? Do you write it? Does the PD write it? Is there a brain-storming session?
Brian: It’s usually pretty fast and furious. Steve says, “Green Day. We need a promo. We’re giving away tickets. Grand prize is you get to fly out and see and meet the band in LA.” That’s it. Then I have to run back here and sit and think. Sometimes they throw out an idea to get me started. Then I basically come back here in the studio and sit down with a lot of cookies and think of something. I usually do it line by line, whatever it takes to just do it. There’s so much stuff to be done here that I don’t have that much time to think and be totally creative. I don’t like that too much because I like to be able to think out ideas, but most of it is a matter of just banging it out and hoping that it’s funny, hoping that it makes sense. And a lot of times it doesn’t make sense, and Steve will say, “You know, this doesn’t print. Do it again or do some other idea.” I have a lot of ideas stockpiled in my head that I can convert to anything.
RAP: Does the fact that Howard’s show is syndicated affect your promo production?
Brian: It can make things a little time consuming because any promo that runs in Howard has to be under thirty seconds and say, “Listen after Howard...” or whatever. So each promo becomes two promos really, and it will just keep multiplying if I’m dealing with multiple promos. And most of the promos have to run in Howard, so it’s a little hard if you have a whole concept going, the promo’s forty seconds long, and you have to chop ten seconds out somewhere. It kind of doesn’t make sense after a while. Sometimes I have to start over and do a totally new, simpler idea for the Howard version. There are a lot of versions to produce.
RAP: You started working for K-Rock out of a studio in your apartment. How is this studio equipped?
Brian: Basically, it’s just my computer. I bought a newer computer last summer when, obviously, I knew I needed a better and faster computer. I use Cakewalk Pro Audio which is really for music. It’s a MIDI-based software program, and a couple of years ago they added audio. I have an RE20 microphone, a Samson 24-channel four-buss mixing console, a stereo dbx compressor, an effects box, a DAT machine, a keyboard, and other instruments. It’s just a little studio in my house. But I’m getting more memory and faster stuff, so it’s really cooking.
RAP: What kind of computer are you running Cakewalk on?
Brian: I have a Packard Bell Pentium 166. It has 32 megs of RAM now, but I’m just about to upgrade to 64 megs. It has a one and a half gig hard drive with an internal Jaz drive which is a removable one gig hard drive. It’s great because you can’t keep everything on the main hard drive. So you just dump it onto these one gig drives and save them. My audio card is a Turtle Beach Tahiti card which lets you playback and record at the same time.
RAP: That had to be a unique experience, producing promos and liners for K-Rock in New York, as their full-time Creative Director, from an apartment.
Brian: Yes. One time they wanted a promo for one of the DJs, Stuttering John. So, literally, what I had to do was tape his show at the apartment, take portions of him saying stuff, and make that into a promo at home. I did everything at home, and yes, it was kind of weird. I was on the first floor right on the street level next to a police station. So I would voice a line then stop for a few seconds for the next siren, or the next car going by, or the garbage truck. I’ve moved to Connecticut now, so it’s a little more quiet.
And they wanted a lot of man on the street stuff, and a lot of ideas I had required another voice. Well, I was at home alone, and I remember a couple of times I would try to get the pizza delivery guy or the Chinese food guy to say a line or two. They would never do it. They were so afraid. I’d even offer them a few extra bucks.
RAP: They were probably wondering what this wacko wanted to do with them with that microphone in the back room!
Brian: Right, exactly. They didn’t understand it. And I had to rig everything. One time I had to get the sound effect of a buzzer buzzing somebody in the door. Nobody’s there during the day to help me, so I had to tape the buzzer down with tape and go outside and tape myself going through the buzzer. It was nutty.
RAP: Tell us about the studio they eventually built for you at the station?
Brian: There I have my baby, the love of my life, my Orban DSE-7000. I used this same machine for two years at Q104, so I know it inside and out. When I found out they were getting that for my studio, I was just totally psyched. And it’s the newer version which has effects in it. It’s also got a DAT backup drive.
The console is a Pacific Recorders AMX-22 Production Console. Basically, my studio is the old production studio they had at the other place. They lifted it up, moved it, and dropped it here. Then they built a brand new studio across the hall for Scott Salem and for the commercial production. Scott comes in at four in the morning and leaves at two in the afternoon. Then Andre comes in at two and leaves at eight in the evening. So I have my studio pretty much all day and all night.
RAP: What kind of hours are you keeping?
Brian: It depends. I definitely get in before ten in the morning. Some days I come in as early as eight just to get stuff done. A normal day is usually around ten to eight.
RAP: That’s a long day, but you’ve got to love what you’re doing. And it’s amazing that in your young career you’ve managed to get at what most people would call “the top.”
Brian: I’m getting there, but I still have so, so, so much to learn it’s not even funny. I’m just trying to soak everything in from John and all the awesome production guys out there.
RAP: What areas do you feel you need to grow in?
Brian: Everything, particularly my voice. My nickname around here is Neck Nuts. I’m never known as Brian, just as Neck Nuts. Steve has a thing about my voice. It’s kind of a joke about how sometimes my voice sounds like my nuts are in my neck. Sometimes I do that just for the effect, for a different voice, or whatever. But that’s an area I’m really trying to hone. And there are more areas, like the way a promo is printing, the way it’s making sense to people. There is just so much I’ve got to learn and take in.
RAP: How do you feel about your work when you hear it?
Brian: There’s a couple of things I’m doing now I actually like. But I’m very picky. I don’t like anything I’ve done in the past. It’s like after a certain shelf life, things just get...well, I’m embarrassed with the stuff I did a year ago, I mean absolutely, hideously embarrassed. I was getting something out of an old DAT from a year ago and was listening and was just so embarrassed that that could have come out of my head, even stuff from a couple of months ago. I don’t know what I was thinking. So it’s like today I love what I did, but I hate the stuff I did two months ago. I go through these stages. I hate everything that’s on the station right now, so I’m redoing all the sweepers and jingles and everything like that just for my own needs.
RAP: Wow, they love you!
Brian: I don’t know.
RAP: How do you know when your drop or promo is good enough for K-Rock’s air waves?
Brian: There are two times. Usually, it’s when I laugh. Sometimes I crack myself up. Maybe some people don’t think it’s funny, but I think it’s funny. The other time is when there’s a definite beat to it, an internal pulse. That’s one thing that Kevin Weatherly and John Frost have always said. You always want a pulse, some kind of internal rhythm that carries throughout the whole promo. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. Sometimes if it’s like a wacky, crazy promo, where there’s some kind of skit or bit going on, that’s not going to happen. But if it’s not that kind, then you really want that pulse, that something that flows along and really makes sense.
One of my problems is that I really don’t listen to the promo; I listen to the production. A lot of times, when I listen to the RAP tapes, I can’t tell you what they’re giving away on the promos because I’m not listening to that. I’m listening to the production, which is really bad because when I’m doing my thing, I’m not listening from the point of view of a listener who’s never heard it before and is trying to figure out what’s going on. They don’t care if your beat mixed sublime with some techno song. They don’t care about that. But I do because I think it’s kind of cool. Getting back to the question, when it’s good is when it really jumps out at you, and has a nice flow, and maybe some humor in it, and is not too long, which to me is under forty seconds. That’s what I try to shoot for. Thirty is best because I don’t have to make another version for Howard. And I like a promo that’s not complicated. For example, I can’t stand it when Steve will come to me and say we have to include ticket information and all these different prizes that you win. I hate that because no one ever remembers that. They only remember one second of the promo where you say you’re giving away Green Day tickets and maybe a trip to California or whatever. That’s the only thing people remember. So if there’s not a lot of information that I have to give, then I think it’s really good because then I can really hit it home and be creative with it and go to town.
RAP: You have a lot to do each day. Do you have any interns helping out with some of the smaller tasks?
Brian: Not now. I’d love to get an intern or something, but it’s kind of hard because there’s only one place to do stuff. Every studio is taken up here. So it’s kind of hard to delegate work. I’m trying to get them to buy a computer with Cakewalk or some kind of simple editing software that interns could be using to chop up stuff for me. For example, if Howard’s got a tape of a show when he was on Entertainment Tonight or something, I could just have an intern go in there and chop up stuff that I need and bring it to me. That would save so much time. I’m actually writing a little proposal right now about why we need that computer and some kind of little editing suite in this closet we have here.
RAP: There are going to be a lot of people who will read this interview and think you’ve got the coolest job in the world. What advice would you give them if they asked you, “What can I do to become good enough to get a gig like yours?”
Brian: Well, the first thing is, you’ve got to connect with your Program Director or whomever it is that you’re dealing with. You’ve got to get to know what they want. It’s been a year, and I’m just now getting into a niche as to what Steve likes and wants and what I want. I’ve got to meld the two together to satisfy him and to satisfy what I think sounds good. So that’s the first thing, really getting to know who your boss is.
The second thing is--and this sounds really bad, but--just watch tons of TV, listen to tons of radio, read as many newspapers as you can, go to every movie, and take in everything. Just absorb everything you can because that’s where all the ideas come from, and that’s one of the things they like here. Steve really likes to be topical. Every day we open up the newspaper and we see stuff that maybe we want to write a quick little breaker about, whether it be John Denver being killed in a plane crash or whatever. To be topical, just absorb everything in the media that you possibly can.
And listen to everybody. Everybody copies. I mean, John and I are copying each other constantly. I just heard something he did and I’m like, “Okay, I’ll just steal that.” And I’ll send him something, and he’ll be like, “Well, I’ll just steal that.” It’s just a matter of making it into your own thing.
Really listen. I really had to sit and listen to how John does things, piece by piece, and really sit down and think about why this is a good promo. Why is it a good breaker or jingle? What is he doing that does that? That’s pretty much how I did it. And there’s singing, too. I’d never even sung before. I mean, I could sing, but now, after hearing John do all the jingles, I was like, “Well, let me try it.” I looked at how he did it, imitating the bands, and now that’s all I do, song parodies and forty second jingles. And that’s one of the most fun things I do. In fact, I think I’m kind of killing it and overplaying it. I’ve got to actually stop doing them. It’s like I use it as a crutch sometimes. For example, for this promo I was doing yesterday, I really was under time constraints and had to do something. I knew the song had a part where I could sing over it, and I could do a good imitation of Green Day, so I just made up a couple of lines that fit with the song about the promotion and boom, that was the beginning of the promo. I keep bringing up Green Day, but that’s what we happen to be doing right now.
RAP: Where do you think your greatest talent lies?
Brian: Probably in the production, putting things together, like the beat mixes. I really need to think more creatively and just expand, even get a little weird. I mean, some of the stuff you’ll hear on my demo for The Cassette sounds pretty weird, but I really want to be just more out there. I want to stretch the envelope, but not to the point where no one knows what’s going on, just being more creative in the way I write things and produce them.
RAP: You listen to a lot of radio, I’m sure, especially during your one-hour commute to and from work. When it comes to the imaging production, what are you tired of hearing? What do you think is old hat now?
Brian: Poor use of movie drops. I just can’t stand the generic announcer, “We’re 90 blah, blah, blah,” and then you hear the most obvious movie drop from like Animal House that everyone’s heard a million times, and then back with the call letters. Anybody can do that, and everybody does that. If I’m going to use a drop, I’m going to use Bob Ross or the “Painting Guy” or some weird drop. I’m constantly taping. The VCR is always running at my house, taping TV just to get drops. I want to get the weirdest drop that almost makes no sense, and a lot of the stuff you hear is just a funny drop, someone saying some random thing that doesn’t have anything to do with anything, but it just kind of makes for a cool little image/attitude sweeper or jingle.
I think if you’re going to use drops, use really out-of-the-box drops that nobody uses. Tape TV. I’ve only gotten in trouble once for using something off of TV. I used a piece from the Frank Perdue “Oven Stuff a Roaster” commercial. I used Frank saying, “Well, they can call themselves anything they want.” I thought it was funny, so I just put it on a drop. A couple of weeks later the advertising company called me and said, “Get that off!” I’m like, “I don’t know where I got it! I didn’t know it was Frank Perdue!” But that’s the only time. I’ve got Martha Stewart I just used on something, and there’s stuff you can get from any weird info-mercial. The TV is just chock-full of entertainment. There’s so much you can use. I mean, technically you can’t use it, but....
RAP: Several years ago when this style of production started to come to the forefront, it was compared a lot to MTV. How many Program Directors have gone to their Creative Directors and said, “I want some MTV stuff,” and the production guy is sitting there going, “Wait a minute. I don’t have all this video, all these visuals to work with! How do you convert that to audio?” Would you agree that this is pretty much where this type of radio production originated?
Brian: Oh, definitely. MTV rules in that respect. I wish I had video because I love to do that stuff. MTV, Nickelodeon, TV Land, all these cable shows have the best production, especially Nickelodeon. They have great stuff, and The Discovery Channel is so inspirational. That’s where a lot of my ideas come from.
RAP: When you were describing going through all these tapes and pulling out just the weirdest little drops you could, those drops are like the little quick shot of a MTV logo or something. These are the little bright blobs that flash and get your attention. In other words, it doesn’t have to be the most commonly used line from Animal House, it just needs to be something weird enough to stand out, right?
Brian: Exactly. I’m kind of lucky that I have the freedom to use those drops and to do that kind of production because we really don’t have positioning statements. We actually do now, but we never had a positioning statement where I had to make anti-jingles as we call them, ten-second sweepers or whatever, that have to say a statement like, “We rock all day and all night.” We don’t have to do that. I can just make these little vignettes. They’re magically delicious and are like little pieces of art work. That’s really what it is, just painting a little picture, and as long as “K-Rock” is in there or “92.3” or whatever, that’s it. A lot of times “K-Rock” is only in there once, and that’s probably bad. I think a big complaint people listening to my stuff will have is that it flies by so fast you don’t understand it, or you don’t get what’s going on. That’s something I’ve got to work on. But when it does happen, when you get it, I think it’s really cool.
At my first station, we had to have all these liners, and you couldn’t be creative. There were all these stupid lines that a Program Director would write and think were so funny, but you really couldn’t do anything with them. I don’t have that. I can do whatever I want. I just made one the other day about cookies. I love cookies. That’s all I eat here is chocolate chip cookies. So I thought I’d make one about cookies. I took a cookie song from the Muppet Show and did my thing. It has nothing to do with anything, but K-Rock was in there, and everyone loved it.
RAP: What a creative heaven! What’s it like?
Brian: It’s great. It’s mayhem. It’s crazy. It’s really big. The Program Director’s office is at the other end of the building. We joke and say we have to take a cab over to programming. Over there it’s really hectic. Steve Kingston’s phone is always ringing, and he’s always on the go. I go in there, get my time and talk to him and do what I have to do, come back here, then run back and forth to play stuff for him down there, or he’ll come down here and listen. It's fast moving, but it’s so fun. It’s really cool.
RAP: Do you even think about what’s down the road for you?
Brian: Yeah. I want to have my own production company. I want to do this, but for other stations. I want to have a studio out of my house, have a Zephyr, and do what I’m doing now but for a lot of other stations, ala Keith Eubanks. That’s what I want to do, but right now it’s great. And Howard is so supportive of me and just loves everything. It’s really going good, so I’m just going to keep on rolling until whatever.