Jeff Schmidt, Creative Director, KFOG, San Francisco, CA
What happens when you take a hard-hitting Alternative imaging producer and stick him in an adult format? If the creative chef is Jeff Schmidt, you get a very cool sounding adult station. For the past five years, Jeff has been molding a fresh approach to AAA imaging at Susquehanna’s KFOG in San Francisco. This month’s RAP Interview gets a close look at the imaging evolution that took place at KFOG, and we get some nice tips from an imaging producer who has a tight grip on imaging from both the conceptual and the technical side of the art. Be sure to check out Jeff’s amazing demo on this month’s RAP CD!
JV: Tell us how you got started in radio and how you wound up at KFOG.
Jeff: I got into the business kind of late. I didn’t even have radio on my radar. I was a frustrated musician a couple of years out of high school back in ‘92, doing sales during the day. But the sales job just wasn’t happening, and I had customers tell me on the phone, “You know, I’m not buying your stuff, but geez, did you ever think about doing radio? You’ve got a nice voice.” And I’m like, “Yeah, whatever.”
The economy was totally tanking at that point, and I’m making no money. This was during the time I think the Russian coup was going on. I’m driving around in my beat up car trying to find business, fumbling around on the AM dial trying to find some news. I was trying to figure out what was going on in Russia. Then all of a sudden I come across this guy screaming, “I told you you couldn’t trust those Commies!” It was really bizarre, and it turned out to be Limbaugh. I had never heard anything like that on radio before. I was kind of stunned because I was anticipating a straight and really buttoned down news approach as I scanned the dial. So I was hung up for a while on this new approach to radio, and at that time Rush was doing a really entertaining show. There were lots of bits and comedy, and it was more of a satirical take on things. I thought that was just fascinating, and I thought that was something I could do—I had no interest in music radio at that point. Being a musician, I was into progressive music, and commercial radio, “the hits” so to speak, had no appeal at all. Now I was naïve at that time I listening to this stuff. I didn’t have any idea what goes into putting on a show like Limbaugh’s, but I’m still thinking I could do this. Then one day, I was sitting there at my desk and an ad comes on the radio for this little school in Albany, New York called the New School of Contemporary Radio. “Yeah, you too can be a disk jockey! You too can get behind the scenes of a great radio career,” and blah blah. I though I might as well check it out. So I went over, and the minute I got into the studios over there, I don’t know if it was the smell of the equipment or just all the little buttons and flashing lights, whatever it was, it was just like, “Yeah! All right. This is it." They had me read some things into a microphone, and said, “You’re in,” and took my 2,000 bucks.
JV: So when did the first paid gig come along?
Jeff: Well, after they taught me what a cart machine was and how to route stuff through a mixer and how to mix things, that led to my first gig, which was in March of ’93. I was doing some stuff for one of the instructors there who ended up playing it for this PD that he worked for at a station in Albany. He was a PD at the talk station in Albany, WQBK-AM. He listened to some of the talk show stuff and some of the production stuff I was doing, and I ended up getting a gig producing the morning show. At first it was pretty much just gofering for the host and screening calls. But as time went on, I started doing little bits. He’d be talking about something like what the mayor of Albany was doing, and I’d get a little brain fart and run down to the production room and create a little bit out of it. And that’s really where I started to develop my production skills.
Eventually it evolved into me getting my own show on the AM station, and that’s when I really took off and produced all my own bumpers. I didn’t even use their station voice; I used another guy who had a little edgier attitude. I wrote all this really crazy stuff. And this was back when radio was so new you hung around the station all day just to absorb it all. It was that kind of time. I had my own show, which was on at night. The PD was the morning guy, so he was sleeping through the whole thing. He never heard a thing that I did, and it was just really far out.
Soon I was sending tapes out trying to get a better talk gig, and PDs were saying, “Yeah, your show’s pretty good, but damn, who’s doing your production?” I’d say, “Well that’s me,” and they’d say, “If you ever wanted to do production full time, let me know.” That happened enough times that I thought maybe I should look into this. Then an opportunity opened up across the street to work for the local Z-Rock affiliate doing production. I thought there was probably no better format to do. I always loved the stuff they were doing on a national level, the stuff that Matt Wolf was doing. It was really far out, and really entertaining. When that format was working, fun was just dripping out of the radio. So I did local production and local imaging for them. I was actually doing both stations at the same time. I was doing a talk show on an AM station and a little bit of production and then some imaging and commercial production across the street at a Z-Rock affiliate.
It was going along pretty good and then the girlfriend I was seeing at the time got this gig in Connecticut and asked me to come with her. So I quit my job, and we moved halfway between Hartford and New Haven, figuring those are the two major cities in Connecticut, and if I get a job in either market we’re cool. Nothing out of Hartford for 6 weeks, nothing out of New Haven for 6 weeks. Then out of nowhere I get a call from a little station down in Fairfield County, WEFX the FOX. The PD, Christine Stone hired me as the Production Director—no air shift, just purely a production gig. I did that for about 11 months and then a gig opened up in Westchester, New York, at X107. Steve Bladder hired me to do imaging production. They were an alternative station, and at the time, everybody in New York City was doing alternative. There were literally 6 stations doing alternative rock at that point.
I landed at X107 in May of ’96, and by December of ’96 they flipped X107 to country. K-Rock in New York had just flipped from classic rock to K-Rock, and they basically had John Frost and Jim Pratt from KOME do all of the imaging. They came out of nowhere, and everybody in the market just stopped doing alternative music when they did that. We were like the last shoe to give up the format when CBS turned that station alternative. So they said, “We’re going Country, but we’d like to keep you.” So, I was kind of bummed out, but I did it, and I did learn a few things doing country.
Then one day in February of ’97, I was just tooling around on the Internet and saw an ad on this website for a creative person for KFOG in San Francisco. I had no idea what this station was. All I saw was San Francisco and creative person and thought, what have I got to lose? So, I put together a tape of literally 9 1/2 minutes of everything that didn’t get approved for air on X107, everything they said no to. I had grown accustomed at that point of doing two promos, the promo I’d do for the PD, and the promo I’d do for the reel. So I sent the tape with this really obnoxious cover letter that was fluorescent orange with 3 big bullet points: On this tape you won’t hear, 1) movie drops, 2) Joe Kelley Pin Ball Machine Sound Effects, and 3) bad Keith Eubanks impressions. Then it said, “If this is the kind of imaging you’re looking for please accept this DAT. Give it to your movie drop laden creative guy to recycle. Have a nice day.”
Three days later I get a call. “Hey, it’s Paul Marszalek from KFOG in San Francisco. I just got your package and I was blown away. We want you to fly out and have a chat.” So, I flew out on the weekend, and Paul and I hit it off. But when I got here and listened to the station, it was so unlike anything I had heard. I mean I was from New York radio, and in New York it’s very presentational; everything is on. No mistakes. There’s nothing genius about New York radio; it’s just that it’s so flawlessly executed. You rarely hear somebody step over something or screw up a phoner. It’s at that level. So when I came out here, KFOG just seemed so sloppy. Everything that New York radio wasn’t, KFOG was. One of the first questions I asked Paul was, “How does this thing get ratings?” And instead of pulling the typical pompous Triple A, “Well, we have a relationship with our listeners…” or whatever, he sat there and looked out for a second and shook his head and said, “You know what? I have no idea.” I thought, all right, here’s a guy I can relate to. Plus, he was probably the only guy in the country who responded to the package I sent out in a positive way. Everybody else probably said I don’t need this asshole working for me and chucked it.
So, we kind of hit it off and worked out a deal, and within 3 weeks I was here. The thing that sold me was when he said, “Don’t think about what KFOG sounds like today.” He basically says, “We want to take it to another level.” Of course he immediately qualified that by saying, “That doesn’t mean you can just take what you were doing and move it over here because that’s not going to work. You’re definitely going to have to modulate both your ideas and the style in which you produce them.” I had grown so accustomed to hearing that kind of thing. It’s like everybody will put out ads: “Wanted: Creative Genius. Send us your most outrageous stuff…” and then you do and they’re like, “oh, not that outrageous.” Everybody kind of comes back down to earth when they hear what “out there” really is.
So, the first couple of months it was tough for the both of us. Paul was, I’m sure, questioning whether he made a good hire. He really took a chance, but he saw something in me that he could mold it into a different approach that focused my energy and creativity into a different area. He saw potential and he did that with a lot of his hires, evolved and developed them into areas they probably wouldn’t have been able to fit into otherwise. I certainly never would have thought of this format as a home. He didn’t sell me on it; he just convinced me that this is a place where you can do something.
JV: Do you miss doing the kind of Alternative production that was on your demo?
Jeff: Actually there was a point where I was ready to walk out, and it wasn’t because I was pissed off or we had bad relations or anything. It was just like it wasn’t growing fast enough, and I was impatient. I was wanting to get back into doing alternative production. That’s what I’m really good at, and that’s where I’m going to make a name for myself. I talked to a lot of people and met with some CBS people and sent them some stuff. Of course, at the time, I had to send everything to Kevin Weatherly and John Frost in LA for them to sign off on before they’d meet with you. And I remember at the meetings they said, “We love your stuff. You do great work. Would you mind spending a week in Los Angeles with John Frost?” And I’m like, “Well sure, I’d love to meet the guy. I totally respect him. He’s great and I’d love to watch over his shoulder for a week and pick his brain. But,” I said, “if I’m going to be going down there to be indoctrinated in how to copy him, I don’t know if I’d be into that.” And the looks on their faces spoke volumes. It was probably the only time they’ve ever heard somebody say something like that. And it wasn’t dissing John. I mean god, it’s hard enough doing good production without ripping the guy off. I don’t need my PD telling me to rip him off. I wasn’t into doing that. Then I began to realize, if I get into alternative, that’s pretty much what it’s going to be. It’s going to be people throwing John Frost tapes on my desk. “Here, do this.” And as great as it is, you still want to do your own thing. And then I thought, well if I go CHR, that’s going to be Jeff Thomas and Dave Foxx tapes thrown on my desk. “Here, sound like this. Sound like that.”
Well that’s the one thing that wasn’t happening here. Nobody was throwing tapes on my desk saying here sound like this. While I couldn’t go into areas where I really wanted to go, I was still given the opportunity to do my own thing, to build it, to develop it. So for me, it looked like a place where I could do stuff without having to be compared to top producers and expected to sound like top producers. And it certainly wasn’t a dis on any of those guys. Those guys are great at what they do, but I didn’t want to make my career out of having to copy somebody. It’s hard enough to do good stuff without copying them, just by accident, because just being aware of their stuff tends to make you copy it to a degree anyway. So to have somebody tell you to copy it is…I didn’t want to go down that road.
JV: So, when you got there, was the imaging pretty conservative?
Jeff: After coming out here and hearing what KFOG was doing, I said to Paul, “Man, you’ve got a long way to go.” At the time, Paul said to me, “You don’t know where we’ve been. We just started putting movie drops on the radio station, doing sweepers and promos with little jokes in them.” That was brand new when Paul came on. That was a new way of doing it. He was here 2 or 3 years before I came on. So by the time I got here, everything was pretty much centered around movie drops. So, for the first 6 months I kind of maintained the status quo. I let everybody know that I wasn’t going to freak out here and start doing weird stuff. And another thing I kept in my mind was that I couldn’t really do a whole lot because the station was winning. It wasn’t like it was a failing station that we needed to turn around. This was a station that had just been #1 25-54. And it was consistently in the top five 25-54. So, that’s why the evolution had to be slow. There was a lot at stake. I wouldn’t say that the production was bad; I would just say it was outdated.
JV: So how did the evolution begin?
Jeff: There weren’t a lot of sweepers on the air at first. They had maybe 3 new music sweepers, a couple of legal IDs, and a couple of generic statements. They were pretty much just variations on the same theme with a few movie drops and stuff like that. There wasn’t a lot of sweeper work to do, so what they ended up doing was focusing more on promotions. Paul was really a big fan of something to hang a promo on. So, at first it was just changing how promos were written. Instead of going with movie drops I would say, “Look, in the amount of time it takes me to hunt down the perfect movie drop, I could probably create a character to say exactly what I want to say.” And that was something Steve Bladder at X107 had actually encouraged me to do. He would say, “Don’t use movie drops. If you want somebody to say a phrase, just make a different voice and do it, even if it sounds dumb.” And that kind of got engrained in my head—stop relying on movie drops.
So, over time it was a little bit here, a little bit there. I still did the movie drop thing because that’s what everybody was comfortable with, but I slowly phased that out to the point where there is maybe only two movie drops on the air now, and there’s five times as much imaging on the air now.
Then there were also some basic radio production principles that we incorporated, like having a set point in the clock where these productions get played. When I came here, the jocks were deciding where production got played. It was literally free form; I mean it was bizarre. You can’t run a radio station like that, but they’re winning like this. So, on one hand, things seem bizarre, but at the same time, I don’t want to be the guy that comes in and messes the whole thing up. Still, I came from a radio station that had a very rigid clock. We had all these elements, and they were all placed in the hour and you knew when they got played. I would get Linker reports every week to tell me this element ran 100 times, you need to replace it, that kind of stuff. They were so far from that mentality here that when I brought this stuff up they were like, “Yeah, we should really do that.”
Paul realized that the format needed to evolve. It had a lot of built in limitations that are based on a lot of false assumptions. It’s like adults don’t like to have fun or that they need a buttoned-down, straight-forward, humorless approach, one where you can’t encroach on the music in any way, shape, manner or form or they’ll get upset. It’s almost to the extent of the NPR style. And I think what backs that up is that a lot of these AAA stations find that one of their largest audience sharing stations in their markets is typically public radio. And it’s true for KFOG as well. We have a huge percent of our audience for which we are the commercial choice. But when they want something else, they’re not tuning over to other commercial stations; they’re turning over to NPR. So that gets in the minds of people, “Oh, our listeners like NPR so we have to keep it serious.” Fighting against that is even a battle today. You still get that, “We don’t do that.” “Well why not?” “Because it’s not what adults want to hear on the radio.”
JV: Are you still evolving?
Jeff: Oh absolutely. In 2000, Paul went to work for VH1 as Vice President of Programming, and they hired Dave Benson who was the PD at KBCO in Boulder. He had taken KBCO, which is also a AAA station, to #1 in the market. So they brought him in, and he had a much more different approach than Paul. Paul was more about content and stuff to hang a promo on, more about the imagery and that kind of stuff. Dave was more into building clocks and putting production elements in the clock. He has much more of that “radio” approach to things, where Paul was a lot less structured. And I think Dave Benson was more open sonically to the way production could sound. So, that opened some doors. But at the same time, the whole thing flipped. Paul was very promo focused, and we did a lot of promos, a lot of promotions, and a lot of bits. Dave was like, “No, we have to get rid of all that clutter so we can do extra long music sweeps.” Now I hardly do many promos at all, but I do a lot of sweepers.
JV: What are some of the artists one can hear on your station?
Jeff: Let’s see, I’ll just pull up a log. Coming out of a stop set, we have Bubble Toes, which is a new song by Jack Johnson. That goes into Beast of Burden by the Stones, Road to Nowhere, Talking Heads, then into Stuck in a Moment by U-2. Then into Dire Maker, into Sweet Judy Blue Eyes, then into the new one from Cheryl Crow. That’s typical.
JV: That’s a nice mix.
Jeff: Yeah, and that’s really what the radio station is about. When we get e-mails, it’s not about, “Wow, your jocks are great. I was so entertained.” We get some like that, but the majority of the people who e-mail say stuff like, “…just love the music you’re playing.” “The mix of music you’re playing is great.” The mix of the music is really the star and everything is kind of built around that.
JV: What is your basic approach to a promo?
Jeff: There’s basically three different styles that I have, and which one I use depends on the message and what the purpose is. One is that very personal, very normal guy, one to one relatable read. For that delivery, I like to use the jocks. When I came here, we didn’t have a station voice. It was the jocks that voiced all the production, and so in a way it had a very homey kind of feel because the morning guy was on a sweeper, and the afternoon girl was doing the music liner. So I like to use them for that kind of, “Hey, I’m talking to you, and you know me cause I’m on the morning show…” and you get that connection. For certain kinds of messages, using the jocks in that way is really effective.
Another approach is when I use my station voice, Jim Conrad. Sometimes I’ll have him do the personal, relatable stuff too, but I mostly find that to be ridiculous because people don’t have a relationship with your imaging guy. With Jim, for promos and stuff, depending on how serious we need to take something, I’ll do what I call the National Geographic style, which is really descriptive. I’ll use it when I’m trying to make something sound special. I imagine how National Geographic would describe this kind of thing, using that kind of word imagery.
And then there’s the goofy kind of wacky character based stuff for promos. That stuff is not as favored in the format as the paint pretty word pictures and make it sound like you’re reading a National Geographic kind of stuff. That’s the more favored approach, even though my tendencies are for the nutty, the goofy, humorous kind of approach.
For sweepers it can be any one of those styles, or a style where I’m spending more time on the sonic signature of the piece. That’s really when you’re delivering some single messages over and over and over again. You really have to change the way they’re stylized because there’s only so many ways you can rearrange the words. So, you have to change the way they’re produced. It may be a simple statement like “World Class Rock Means Variety,” but the focus is really on delivering that message in a highly produced way.
JV: Give us a tip on developing characters for promos?
Jeff: Characters are everywhere. Just watch the people around you. And all characters are exaggerations. Take television. The characters on most sitcoms are people, but they’re people plus. They have that little bit more about them, and that’s why they’re on TV. So, you have to look for that little bit extra. You take a normal kind of person who maybe has this mannerism or whatever, and you just amplify that a little bit. All of a sudden, you’ve got a character.
A lot of times it’s based on your abilities. There are certain characters that I can do and pull off credibly, and there are certain characters that people in the building can do and pull off credibly. If you have characters that our outside of those realms, then you either have to find somebody who can portray that character, or you have to do it yourself and probably exaggerate it extra and make it more of a cartoony type of approach to pull it off. That’s one of the areas that I wish I had more resources in, more voice talents to do credible characters so I wouldn’t have to be so cartoonish with the voice. Especially for this format, I wish I didn’t have to lean on caricatures and could actually build more natural and real sounding characters, but we just don’t have that kind of money to hire that kind of talent. A lot of the ideas I come up with would have more normal sounding people as the characters.
Just the other day, I’m taking the ferry into work and I’m going through the newspaper. Only in California could this happen: Sausalito, a great tourist town. They’re having this big debate about where to put a public safety building. Well they decided that the best way to decide where the building should go is by using Feng Shui, and I’m not kidding. I open up the paper and here this is, and it’s like here’s my promo for this weekend. I’m going to characterize these people debating where to put this building. So sometimes it’s the circumstance too.
I’m doing a promo now for our annual wing ding. We rent out an amusement park for everybody. So, I start thinking, where can we go with this…roller coasters…and I’m like, what’s the antithesis of roller coaster riding for people? Well, what about the elderly? They’re not going to be riding roller coasters. So, I get this scenario where this team of elderly people in a nursing home is playing this radio contest. They have nothing but time because they’re retired, and so they’ve got like 50 seniors lined up ready to be caller 20 to win tickets, even though they can’t possibly ride on a roller coaster. So sometimes the concept leads you to create characters.
JV: What are some of the more outrageous pieces of production you’ve done, at any of the stations you’ve worked at?
Jeff: Well, I did a Real World parody where instead of 8 kids, it was the “true story” of 8 octogenarian strangers dumped in a run down nursing home. It contained a scene where two of the characters were fighting over the Depends ration and did so by removing his used adult diaper and tossing it at the other. It was pretty sick. I’m so ashamed.
Another thing that came close to that was a bit I used to do on my talk show making fun of the Wall Street Journal Radio Report. I did the “Underground Economy Report.” It featured fake actualities from the street by drug dealers reporting that week’s price for Mexican Brown, crack, etc., and hobos reporting where the cheapest Boons Farm and Midnight Dragon was that week.
I also did a fake Special Olympics report during the real Olympics back then that featured Gimpy the Impediment Boy as the “color” announcer. Again, more stuff that I could never get away with had my PD actually listened to my show.
JV: You attend some of the focus groups the station has. That’s a great opportunity for any radio production person. What is your reaction to attending them?
Jeff: I didn’t have a single clue about this format until I sat in one of those meetings and actually heard listeners talking about the radio station, talking about how they feel about the radio stations, how they use the radio station, what they expect from the radio station. For me that was incredibly eye opening because you know we all pull to build this composite; we get in these meetings with our Program Director and the jocks, and they say, “Here’s our listener. He is 35 years old. He makes $100,000 a year. He’s got a house and he’s got 2 kids and he’s got a BMW. This is our audience. This is who you’re talking to when you go on the air.” We’ve all been through that. But it’s amazing to actually see those people and realize that they’re not all like that, especially with KFOG. KFOG is not a pure format. It’s not all Classic Rock, and it’s not all New Rock. It’s not all dance music. It’s really a coalition radio station, and so at any given time there’s like 4 different groups of people who tune in to the radio station, and the one thing they all have in common is KFOG. So there is really no way to create a composite “fog head.” I really needed to see these people and hear them talk about the radio station. Once I got that, once I realized how they used the radio station and the words they used to describe the radio station, that just opened my eyes big time. I think I went home that first night and was up until 4:00 in the morning with notepads, stuff pouring out of my brain. Up to that point, it was all theoretical. It was all numbers on a sheet, and there were no real people attached to it. So, for me, the first one was really profound, and subsequent meetings were more of a reassurance.
We’ve done those surveys where a group of people sit in a room with the little twisty knob, and when they hear something they like they turn the knob one way. When they hear something they don’t like they turn it the other way. We haven’t done it in a few years, but it was interesting to watch how people respond, both to music and to spoken materials—production, jock bits, that kind of stuff. You really see that when the music is turned off, these peoples’ interests start to drop, and it really takes a lot of effort to keep them holding on. That was a real eye opening thing for me. I walked home that night kind of depressed. It was like, “Wow, production is not the most important thing in these peoples’ lives. They just want to hear the Rolling Stones.” And Paul was like, “Look man, the minute somebody starts talking, it’s just a commercial to people. That’s just something you have to realize.” I noticed that with my girlfriend, and I love her for it. She’s just so un-radio that I really get a wholesome normal-person perspective from her. We’ll be in the car listening to radio, and it’s quiet during the song. Then the promo will come on and I’ll reach over to turn the radio up, and she reaches over to turn it down so we can start talking about something. That’s how normal people use radio. Sometimes we lose perspective of that. We have to realize that the music really is the king here.
JV: Does Susquehanna have other stations in the market?
Jeff: Yeah, we have a Classic Rock station called The Bone. Then we have two AM stations that are both Sports/Talk stations. One is KNBR and one is The Ticket. Four stations total.
JV: Are they sharing a facility?
Jeff: Yeah we’re all in the same building, but I don’t work for the other stations. That’s one thing I will say about this place; in the past 5 years I have really been sheltered from all the BS going on in the industry.
JV: What kind of studios are you working in?
Jeff: When I first got here, there were only two stations, KFOG and KNBR. Six months later, they bought the other two stations, and that’s when they started building new studios and making room for everybody. Mine was kind of the first prototype all digital studio. Before, there were tape machines and cart decks around. But we’re on the Enco System for delivery now. Everything is in there now, but it wasn’t always that way. It was a hell of a pain in the ass getting there, too. But now that we’re there, it’s great.
To produce, everything’s done on Pro Tools. I’d never used Pro Tools before I got here. I was on an Orban system back in New York, and I wasn’t really that thrilled with it honestly. I came out here and used Pro Tools and it just made so much sense to me. And I know workstations are a very personal thing; you get to working with something and it’s like you can’t use anything else. But I was so blown away by Pro Tools within two weeks that I made a written goal on my fridge: I will own Pro Tools. I must own Pro Tools, and the reason was that I had no idea how long I was going to be here because I didn’t know if I could deal with it. My fear was if I don’t get Pro Tools then I’m going to end up going to some station and having to work on Cool Edit, and I can’t deal with that. So, it took a while, but I ended up getting it at home. Now I can sleep at night.
JV: Do you do a lot of the station work at home or any freelance work?
Jeff: No, I don’t do station work at home. I haven’t done station work at home, mainly as a matter of principle. I didn’t want to take work home to work 15 hours a day, when I could finish it in seven. But now that I’m actively pursuing freelance work, it’s kind of weird…as I’m walking out on the way to work I’m like, “Why am I going in?” So hopefully there will come a day when I won’t need to come in every single day, but that’s not on the horizon right now.
I’m actually just now hanging my free-lance shingle out. I haven’t really pursued it in the past. I did have a few jobs and some that actually helped me get the Pro Tools system. Then they got Clear Channeled—you know, basically Clear Channel bought them and then they changed directions or did their own thing. They were just small jobs, but they were things that I could tolerate and deal with. They went their own way, and I never really pursued the work again. Now it’s like, “You know what? I’ve got to get back into it, and I’ve got to get back into it seriously.”
JV: You have a “performance room” at the station. Tell us about that room.
Jeff: That’s actually attached to my studio. When we built the production room, we made plans to have a performance area for when bands come in to play. And one of the demands I had was that I wanted to be able to multi-track these recordings into Pro Tools. Up to that point, when bands came in to the studio, we would just stick two mikes up and record straight to DAT, which was fine for some stuff, but it certainly prevented larger ensembles from coming in and prevented us from having an audience in here. It prevented us from really fixing stuff later if we wanted to put it on one of our charity CDs because sometimes we’ll record something and then the artist will say, “You know I didn’t put any vocal on that, or the guitar was too loud,” or whatever, and they won’t let us use the track on the charity CD. So, for all those reasons and because I wanted the recordings to sound right, I wanted to be able to multi-track. So we have a snake that goes into the other room, which is basically a conference room that doubles as a performance area. Everything is on wheels. We can wheel stuff out, and the band comes in and sets up. It’s 8 inputs, and I multi-track it into Pro Tools. And I can do a live mix in Pro Tools to send to air if we need to do that. KFOG doesn’t do that but The Bone has been doing a few broadcasts that I’ve been mixing, and they go right to air. It’s cool to break away from doing promos and sweepers and set up for a band and have them come in and play a few songs and be able to sit with it afterwards and tweak it. It’s fun to get to do that every once in a while.
JV: What production libraries do you use?
Jeff: There are no imaging libraries that we own, so I usually end up having to make that stuff. For music for promos, if I need a certain kind of theme, I’ll go dig into the commercial production library. I think we have a FirstCom library that Mike Fox uses. He does commercial production for all the radio stations. I’ll dig into that to find a certain kind of music to set a mood or something. But for everyday sweeper stuff, I do what a lot of people do; I go through the shit pile. Unfortunately, at a AAA, what we get is a lot of acoustic singer/songwriter female artists that just come in noodling on an acoustic guitar, so it’s painful to go through that pile and usually pretty fruitless.
So a lot of the stuff I use I just go out and buy, especially since I changed the imaging towards a more electronic sound. It’s a softer electronic, not that hard, big beat type stuff. I’m constantly scouring the net for these obscure electronic labels and stuff like that, just sampling their stuff on line and buying stuff on line, and that’s really where I find a lot of material. I hate to say it, but I’ve poured a couple of grand into buying music, but it’s music that I’m going to use and it’s mine. Most of the stuff I use I buy.
The same thing with plug-ins for Pro Tools. If there is a plug-in I want, I usually don’t go to them and say, “Hey, pony up.” I will usually buy it myself, put it on my home machine, and put the back-up installation on my work machine because it’s something that I want. I don’t want work to buy for me and then me have to go replace it some day if I ever should leave or whatever.
JV: What’s one of the more challenging tasks at KFOG?
Jeff: Well every year I produce an 18-minute soundtrack to our fireworks display, and every year it gets harder. The first instinct is to use a lot of color songs and stuff like that, and it’s the obvious stuff. But we try to get more into the vibe and the emotion and the feel and the movement of the song, and you try to build 18 minutes of show where you have peaks you build up. Then you release and you kind of bring it back down. Then you build it up again and release and bring it back down again. And you do that three times and kind of launch the last one with a finale. We try to do it as best we can with the music that we play, which with a pretty wide playlist, there is a lot to choose from, but we’re not afraid to go outside the format either. There are some really cool party tunes that we can build stuff through. I’ve used the theme to Fat Albert and we built up the “Hey, Hey, Hey, Have a Good Time” theme and blew off these fireworks that had these big smiley faces booming out of the sky.
It’s hard and it’s nerve-wracking because 350,000 people show up at the show, and you want it to be the best it can be. I typically spend a month putting it together and sending it to the fireworks guy and having him say, “Well, I need more time there cause this firework’s going to hang in the sky for this amount of time, and we need to let it drop before we fire again…,” and just all that kind of stuff. You have to be conscious of the fact that fireworks are going off to this, and they behave in a somewhat predictable manner. But at the same time, you can’t build it so it just piles up on top of each other. You have to leave room for the smoke to clear.
The first year I had no clue what I was doing. Thankfully, I had Paul here to help, and after I saw this first show it was like, whew, I totally get it. I totally get what we do now. You pound away on it and you pound away, and then you see the show and you’re just blown away. People have actually said in our focus groups that we’ve ruined the 4th of July. It’s like, why even bother going to the 4th of July shows because they all suck compared to what you guys do.
JV: Any parting words for those producers out there who want to get out of the box and expand their production horizons.
Jeff: You have to make your PD scratch his head every once in a while. And by that I don’t mean just purposely go against what he says and try and piss him off or whatever, because after all, it’s their movie and we’re all just bit players in it. But I think if your PD is not scratching his head every once in a while, if you’re not making him do that, you’re just kind of maintaining the status quo. Don’t automatically assume the definitions when people say something is modern, or if it’s contemporary that it has to be loud, aggressive, fast. Those are the things that we assume contemporary and modern mean, and they don’t have to be that way. Don’t listen to your own format. That’s the last thing you should be doing. Listen to other formats. Listen to the way television is produced. Listen to the way NPR does documentaries, the way they use natural sound. Listen to the way movie trailers are produced. Look for clues to different ways of approaching the same thing, and I think ultimately just get your ass out of the studio. I don’t think I’ve ever had a great idea sitting in here surrounded by four bare walls. My ideas come to me at 2:00 in the morning when I’m taking a whiz. Be open to that kind of stuff.