Lon Ray, Air Personality/Asst. Production Director, WLRW/WIXY, Champaign, Illinois
by Jerry Vigil
We’ve had several requests over the past few months to take a break from interviews in the major markets to get a glimpse of production in the small markets. So, this month we check in with Lon Ray, winner of the 1997 RAP Awards trophy for Best Commercial/Small Markets. Lon was the Production Director at WLRW/WIXY at the time he produced the winning commercial. Now, he is the midday jock for WLRW but still keeps his talents sharpened in the production studio doing commercials and imaging for the stations. Join us for a close look at production in Champaign, Illinois, market #211 with a population around 135,000. It may be small market by the numbers, but to Saga Communications and Lon Ray, it’s professional radio all the way…all the way to #1 and #2 in the ratings for both stations.
JV: Tell us how you got into radio.
Lon: I’ve always wanted to be in radio, even since I was a teenager. After I graduated high school, I went into the army for four years, and once my four years were up I thought I’d go to college. I looked around in my home state of Indiana for a school with a radio program, and ended up going to Vincennes University. After Vincennes, I moved to Muncie, Indiana to attend Ball State University and ended up getting an on-air shift in Muncie in 1990. I stayed in Muncie for about seven years working at five various stations. Then about a year and a half ago, I was offered a job with Saga Communications here in Champaign. I was hired as the Production Director for both WLRW-FM and WIXY-FM. WLRW, Mix 94.5 FM, is a 50,000 watt Hot AC, and WIXY across the hall is a 25,000 watt Country station.
JV: You started out as a jock. How did you get into production?
Lon: I started as a midday jock on an easy listening station, which was somewhat of a nightmare. That station sold and the new owners threw up a satellite, pumped in oldies music and oldies jocks, and there wasn’t any need for me anymore. But they kept me on as, what they called, the Program Director, although I had no actual programming duties. And since I only had to update the weather once an hour, my entire day was free to do production in our minimal studio. That’s when I started to do production. After I did that for awhile, I actually took a job at another station in town where that was all I was—the Production Director. It was a chance to move up into a little better studio and actually get my hand into more writing. That was a very writing-intensive period. There weren’t too many of the sales reps there that wrote their own spots, so I took over that as well. That’s how I became a production guy—out of necessity.
JV: You’re now also on the air ten to three. Was that part of the job when you started there?
Lon: No. I just recently took over the midday slot on MIX 94.5. I had been doing production over the past eight years—probably a solid five of them have been nothing but production. Whenever I can, I try to get in and keep my feet wet in a live, on-air environment. So, when this opportunity came up to do the midday slot, I thought, “Why not?” They liked what they heard, and I thought I’d do it for awhile.
JV: Well, congratulations on winning the RAP Awards trophy for Best Commercial, Small Markets. Did you think the spot for Convenient Med Center was going to win, especially after you heard the competition on The Cassette?
Lon: Well, you always try to be objective and not think that yours is just the be all end all, but I did think it was a pretty good ad and thought it stood a pretty good chance.
JV: Well, it certainly ended up at the head of the pack. Tell us about the creation of the commercial.
Lon: I was called by a woman I knew over in Muncie. She told me she had this ad in mind for Convenient Med Center. She told me the kind of voice and production she was looking for and faxed me the script. I looked at it then went on the search for the female voice talent, which she ended up finding. The female voice talent was a Ball State University student. She was a paid talent from the University, and I was the other voice. The copywriter, Dawna Kemper, pretty much had the script in the form it was produced in. I may have tweaked a little here and there, but if I remember correctly, I didn’t tweak much. I believe Dawna was actually working for Convenient Med Center at that time. When I got the script, it was a matter of just giving it the once-over and saying, “Yeah, it will work.” She did a really nice job.
JV: How much time did you take to put the spot together?
Lon: The project probably took six hours. Whenever I do anything that’s free-lance, such as this, I work at night because I can use the station’s equipment when nobody’s in there. As a result, I dubbed my little production efforts “Red-Eye Productions.” I did the spot during a couple of overnights, so it was probably about six hours.
JV: The spot was very clean and well produced. What equipment are you working with?
Lon: We have a couple of really nice studios here in Champaign. Our main production studio starts with a Mackie 24 x 48 board. From there, we can go a couple different ways. We have SAW that we work with, just SAW Classic, the old 4-tracker. A lot of people say, “Is that enough?” But we also have in each studio a Tascam DA-88 digital 8-track. So, between the SAW and the Tascam, we have more than enough. Our processing consists mainly of just a BBE Sonic Maximizer, a dbx compressor, and anything the board has to offer. We also have a Yamaha SPX 1000 effects processor for the outboard effects. We master to DAT and dubs still go out on reel-to-reel. Our other studio is similarly equipped except instead of a Mackie, it has an Auditronics board. That studio is also used as a backup studio for our country station, WIXY. All of our studios are equipped with EV RE20 mikes with AirCorp processors on them.
JV: What do you use for production music?
Lon: One of the nice things about working for Saga is that they believe in giving us plenty to work with. We have about five or six different music libraries and three or four different sound effects libraries. We have stuff from FirstCom and Toby Arnold & Associates. For sound effects we have the Digifects library, a Twentieth Century Fox library, as well as a lot of old stuff that we’ve collected throughout the years.
JV: Are you still using carts?
Lon: No. Our delivery system for both stations is the DSS, David Scott Studios system. We can upload for both stations from either production room.
JV: Was that system there when you arrived?
Lon: There was a DSS system on WLRW when I arrived but not on the WIXY side. They had an old Audisk system. It had too many limitations, so they decided to go DSS throughout the building.
JV: What do you like and dislike about the Scott Studios system?
Lon: One of the things I really like about it, as a Production Director, is the fact that it uploads so quickly. Once you’ve dumped the spot into the computer, uploading it to the air computer takes mere seconds. And the quality is there, too. It’s very consistent. I know the way I put that spot in there is the way it’s going to sound when it’s played back. There’s never going to be any discrepancy. It’s a very consistent system. As for dislikes, I don’t think there’s too much I can think of. It’s very easy to operate. I was a little intimidated by it at first because it has so many more features than anything I’d seen prior, but our PD, Mike Blakemore, ran me through it and showed me just how easy it was, and the intimidation factor went away pretty quickly.
JV: As an on-air personality and a Production Director, you get to experience the machine from both sides. What is your perspective from the on-air studio?
Lon: It’s very simple to use. Once the PD loads in his music and everything, the computer takes care of it all. The seams between the elements are flawless, and it’s just very nice and clean. You don’t have to worry about hitting that button and starting the next element. It takes care of everything.
JV: So all the music is in the system, too?
Lon: That’s right. All of our music is in there, as well—no analog, none at all. Our on-air studios are also equipped with the 360 System digital phone editors, the ShortCuts, so we are pretty much digital from top to bottom in all of our studios.
JV: How are the stations doing in the ratings war?
Lon: WIXY is number one by far—always is—and WLRW runs a close second. Saga Communications does a nice job of giving everybody the tools that we need to succeed.
JV: About how many stations are there in the market?
Lon: I think we have nine or ten active FMs in this area. It’s busy, and it’s a very diverse radio market for being a small market. There’s just an unbelievable amount of choices in this area.
JV: Would you say that most of the stations in that market have converted to digital systems in production and/or on the air?
Lon: No. I don’t think by any means any of them are as up to date as we are. Some stations have some good equipment, but for the most part there is still a lot of the old stuff at work. That’s kind of the case, as it always has been, in the small markets that I’ve worked in. I don’t know if people are just reluctant to spend the money to update the technology or what. It’s kind of the unfortunate thing in small markets. You’ve got those small, locally owned stations that are set up more for somebody’s tax write-off than something that’s actually there to spend money to make money, to be a viable force in the marketplace and do good for advertisers. And you get stuck in that rut of old outdated equipment and just have to learn to work with what you have. But the studios here at Mix and WIXY are the nicest ones I’ve ever worked with. They’re probably among the nicest I’ve ever seen at just about any station I’ve ever been to, as well.
JV: What differences do you most notice between markets like Champaign and Muncie and what you hear about in the larger markets?
Lon: One thing you hear about with the large market people—and this is obviously just relative to where they are—is just the amount of talent that is around them. Obviously, there are more people in a large market to choose from, but it always seems to me that there’s such a giant pool of talent there. In a small market, that pool tends to be a little smaller. But I think that probably makes people try a little harder in a small market, too.
Also, I'm amazed at imaging producers in the large markets. To be in charge of nothing but station imaging...what a cool job, especially if your station was WAY into attitude!
JV: Champaign is a larger market than Muncie, where you spent seven years, even though both markets are considered “small” markets. Did you notice much difference between those two markets after you made the move to Champaign?
Lon: Yeah, it was a lot different. It certainly wasn’t as high tech in Muncie, and there certainly seemed to be a lot more of the “this is the way we’ve always done it” sort of attitude that I certainly haven’t found here. There was a lot of that there. There was a lot of the old ideas and the old ways of doing things that were just not going to budge, right or wrong. Then when I came here to Champaign, the first thing I noticed was how streamlined and efficient things were. It seems that the level of efficiency and the way that things are done jumped from Muncie to Champaign. Although we’re considered a small market here in Champaign, it still is very much like night and day.
Also, small market stations don't seem to have very large budgets for production. You're expected to crank out great sounding production, but getting money for basic tools like tape, cassettes, etc. can be like pulling teeth. Fortunately, that's not a problem here.
JV: You were the Production Director for two radio stations, the number one and number two stations in the market, which I imagine would keep you pretty busy. Then you decided to take on a 5-hour air shift? How did you do it all?
Lon: Well, they hired another Production Director. It was really just that simple. When I decided to take on the air shift, they hadn’t hired anybody yet. So, I was covering the air shift and the production load for a couple of weeks, which was mighty, to say the least. It was pretty much up to management to decide whether they wanted me in the production studio or if they thought I would be better on the air. They thought about that and went with the air shift, and it was also something I was really motivated to do as well. So, in keeping with the tradition of keeping employees happy, that’s where they put me.
Although I have an air shift now, I still do production. When I get off the air, I help our new Production Director, Tim Sinclair, with things he needs me to cut. I do regular voice work for him, plus I write commercials for the sales staff. That’s another one of the nice things about the David Scott System; when you’re on the air, it frees up your time. You don’t have to mess with CDs or anything like that. So if I’ve got a little extra time, I can think of an idea for a commercial for one of the sales reps and get a little work done while I’m in there. Then, once I get off the air, it’s a regular production shift. I still help quite a bit in production, as much as I can anyway. I still work with the salespeople, help them out, and work with Tim Sinclair, too. He’s one of those people who came into the situation with some experience, not a lot, and just rapidly took charge of the department. He’s really come a long way in the short time he’s been there. I think it’s only been a couple of months. There were a lot of things I half expected to have to tell him that he either picked up on or had already figured out. So it was a relief that somebody was in there taking charge like that.
JV: Who’s handling the imaging production for the stations?
Lon: Our imaging duties vary from station to station. For example, over on the WIXY side, imaging is split between the Program Director and sometimes Tim, the Production Director. And Flash Flood Productions, an outside group, does a little stuff for us as well. Then, over on the WLRW side, which is the station I’m on, it’s pretty much split up between the Program Director, Tim, and anyone else who wants to put a hand in it. There’s no outside imaging there. However, we do use outside voices for imaging. We use Brian James on WIXY and John Pleisse for WLRW.
We also have an assistant Production Director. His name is Mark Buraglio. Mark handles mostly our national advertising and agency advertising, throwing tags on the ends of agency dubs and making sure that all of our agency stuff is taken care of. It frees up probably a solid three or four hours a day for the on-air staff not to have to mess around and dump in agency stuff and national commercials. That way they can go on to do other things like be Music Directors or whatever.
JV: That’s an interesting twist. I haven’t heard of a station bringing in someone just to handle the national and regional advertising.
Lon: Yeah, and we have a lot of it. It’s definitely a position that eats up twenty hours a week easily. Mark also fills in for the Production Director whenever the Production Director might go on vacation or whatever.
JV: That’s three people handling production, just the commercial production for a small market facility with just two stations involved. It’s worse than that in a lot of medium and major markets. It sounds like Saga is really taking care of business well.
Lon: Yeah, I would agree. It’s funny to think back to the time when I was at other stations, and one person handled everything. To have this kind of flexibility is great. There’s no other word for it. It’s just great.
JV: Are most of the commercials being written by you, Mark, and Tim?
Lon: Most of our commercials are actually written by our Account Executives. They do a lot of writing, but that’s a situation where it’s up to them. If they have the idea and can make it happen, they go for it. And if they get stuck on something, that’s what we’re there for. We’re there to help out and toss ideas around, so it’s definitely a group effort.
JV: How many commercials would you say are being written and produced by the stations per week?
Lon: I would have to say four to five a day per station, so I would venture anywhere between thirty and fifty a week between the two stations. It gets busy. But there are busy times, and then there are not so busy times. Any time there are elections or holidays, it’s non-stop. It’s times like those when it’s really great to have the amount of people we have who can do production and who can be used for a voice. It’s great to have people you can count on that you can go to and say, “Here’s the kind of read I need. Do it.” They do it, and you’re moving on to the next thing. It’s good to have these people.
JV: Do the full-time on-air people, aside from you, do production?
Lon: Yes, all the full-time air people do production. What Tim and I do is delegate production based on shift. The morning shows, we don’t expect them to do their own commercial production because they have morning shows to take care of, and they’ve been there since early in the morning. If we have something for them, we’ll record them as soon as they get off the air. They show up after their shift, we lay their parts down, and then they’re out the door. We never really give the morning shows and Program Directors actual production. Now, the midday and nighttime people, yeah, they get production in their boxes just like I do.
JV: When you were doing production full-time, what things made that job least enjoyable and most enjoyable for you?
Lon: Two things made it least enjoyable: one was when you needed somebody for a voice and you get the “I’ll be there in five minutes” response. Then, two hours later you’re still waiting to get that one spot cut and approved. The other is probably political season because with all of the modern-day political mud slinging, you might get two or three different spots a day to counteract the ones that the other candidate threw at you.
The most enjoyable part about production is that there really isn’t any limit to it. You can do a lot of different things. And people like some of them, and some of them they don’t, but as long as you’re happy and having fun, what’s not to like?
JV: Any plans for the future?
Lon: I’m hoping to have my own home studio set up before too long so I can free-lance in my underwear. For now, I’m just going to hang out with Saga Communications because it seems like a really good place to work.
JV: You’ve had quite a few years in production, which in many ways is no different in a small market than in a large one. What’s your overall view and philosophy on production? What’s it all about?
Lon: Well, it’s all about the stuff in the middle. You’re told that, in radio, people hear the beginnings of things, and they hear the ends of things, and that pertains to ads sometimes. They hear the beginning of your commercial and the end of your commercial. So, you have to make the middle of that commercial stand out and do its thing, too. It has to be every bit as good as the beginning and the end. I think that’s one of the areas where I’ve always done a good job. I try never to let the spot lag in the middle. It has to have the same intensity and energy and the same interest level from front to back. You have to want to listen and know that something else is coming up. I think that’s how I write, and that’s how I produce. That’s probably my big philosophy, make it good all the way through. Don’t let it drag. Keep charging.