Lowell Christensen, SpotWorks, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
By Jerry Vigil
So you want to make that break from radio and start your own business. You don’t have tons of money in the bank. You don’t have a rich dad. You don’t have enough equity in your home to get a fat business loan, and furthermore, you really don’t want to risk losing your home quite like that. But you still have that dream. What do you do? Sometimes the break isn’t as smooth as you’d like. Sometimes you simply can’t generate enough business on the side unless you devote yourself to it fulltime first. Sometimes that first year is very scary. Sometimes that dismal word “failure” just won’t leave you alone. Lowell Christensen’s story isn’t about instant success and lucrative, national VO deals. But his is a success story. Perhaps a story closer to what you can imagine for yourself. If you’re one of the many with “the dream”, read on. You’ll find Lowell’s story both informative and inspiring. Be sure to check this month’s RAP CD for a sampler of excellent voice, copy, and production work coming from Lowell and SpotWorks.
JV: Tell us how you started in radio and how that side of your career began.
Lowell: Well, I was a musician, and like most musicians, I was wanting to make it in the music business, but it was not to be. When I got married in 1987, I got the itch to get a 9-5 job and thought, I need to figure out something to do that’s still kind of on the creative side but brings in a regular paycheck. Radio was one of those things that came to mind. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in radio, but by going to a two-year technical school, radio and television arts, you get a well-rounded introduction to it, and then you can choose what you want to do. So that was the first step, not really knowing where it would lead me when I first started.
JV: What was the first gig? Had you done some on-air work with the school, or did you jump into production right off the bat?
Lowell: Shortly after getting into the program where you kind of dabble in all the different areas, it wasn’t long before I knew I wouldn’t really make it as an on-air personality. I was a little bit more of a behind-the-scenes kind of guy, and I really liked writing too. I knew that before I went in. Writing and production and voice and commercials… I was kind of fascinated by the advertising side of things, not so much in the sales aspect but the creative side of it. So it wasn’t long before I said the job that I want to pursue is a copywriter. I was advised wisely to go to a smaller market, so you could dabble in the other things and kind of get experience there. So my first radio gig in 1989 was in Grand Prairie, Alberta, Canada, a smaller market where I got a job as a copywriter. And copywriters usually start at a little better pay than your midnight announcers, so that was a little bit of a plus.
But in the first couple years of radio, because it was more of a small market, I was able to do some of the voicing of my own commercials and some of the production. The station didn’t really have a producer, and a lot of the announcers did their own production. And it really always turned out better if we, the writers, could work on it ourselves. That’s how I developed the voiceover side of things. You just put yourself out there. It’s trial and error. The first three years as the voiceover talent for some of the spots that I was writing were pretty green, pretty rough stuff, but the small market allows you to be able to do that.
JV: Were you able then to move on to some larger markets as a copywriter?
Lowell: Actually, I moved into management as the Creative Director in Grand Prairie, and I ended up being there for ten years. The closest larger market to us was Edmonton, and around the mid ‘90s, I did get the itch and I applied all over the place. I applied to Radio Disney in Dallas and a station in St. Louis, and I also applied in the major markets in Canada as a copywriter. But nothing came of it.
I was dabbling in so many things those first ten years. Of course, I was always writing, and I was hiring and rehiring writers because most writers only stayed for a short period when they came out of school or were fairly green. They’d only stay for a year. So I hired about 11 writers in 10 years, and it was a good management experience just dealing with people and training them. I dabbled in being Assistant Program Director. I did do some on-air shifts on the side just to see – okay, maybe I could try this. So I was working some good hours.
But at the same time, I was developing my voiceover skill, and I just knew that if I went to a large market too early, before I’d reached that stage where I felt like I could compete, that my voiceover work would kind of be shut off. So I stayed the full ten years in Grand Prairie, but the last two years there was more of a “get me out of this place” frame of mind.
Eventually, I moved to Edmonton and became the Creative Director/Production Manager of the Edmonton radio group, which was a three-station group. This was in January of 2000. By that time, I was able to handle the voiceover side of it, so that I was able to voice my commercials for the station as well as write and manage the writers. And by that time, I’d set up my home studio and was able to produce some things for work at home, but also for my side business, SpotWorks.
JV: How long were you with the stations in Edmonton before going full-time with SpotWorks?
Lowell: I was there for four years. I’ve been on my own now for five years.
JV: When did thoughts of doing your own business full-time first emerge? Was that something that you had planned on for some time?
Lowell: Well, I started the business in 1997 by basically throwing a production studio webpage online, which featured strictly my own work. I’d done some imaging for our station in Grand Prairie, so I kind of had an imaging style and voice for that. I basically presented myself as a voice talent. But one of the advantages I had was I was also a writer, a voice talent, and a producer, so I could do everything at once. I presented the company as an ad agency online, but of course, it was one guy in his basement, able to do anything. Clients would say, “Can you write?” “Yeah, sure, we can write that for you.” “Can you voice?” “Yeah, we can voice that for you.” “Production?” “Yep, no problem.” But it was all me.
In about ’96, I said, “You know, I’ve got to make a little bit of extra money.” By that time, I had three kids, and in a small market, you reach your maximum salary. If you’re not going to move, you’ve got to make a little extra. So the business was formed out of a necessity to make some extra income, but also there was the bigger dream that I really would like to do this full-time and not put up with all the radio rat race stuff that you have to put up with. Plus, you get a little bit bigger piece of the creative dollar when you’re dealing directly with the client.
So I put up the webpage with demos — radio imaging, commercial production, and narration for video or multimedia presentations was part of that as well. I just threw it out there and then started to learn a little bit more about how to get listed on the web, on the search engines, and it was a good time to get into it because at that time, there wasn’t a whole lot of production studios online. There were a few voice talents, but there weren’t really agencies pushing themselves as full agencies.
So my website was fairly crude. It was very basic, for lack of a better word. I posted it up there, and my first year, 1997, I made $1200 the whole year. It was a start, and at that time, it was a buzz to even get that. There were a lot of overseas people looking for liners too, for English radio stations in Italy and Greece and you name it. And because of the U.S. dollar’s value back then, I was able to be competitive because you could make $0.50 on the U.S. dollar back then. That attracted some of the business as well.
JV: So when you finally made the break from the full-time job at the radio station, had you accumulated enough clients to make the break smoothly? Is that how it went down?
Lowell: I guess anybody that’s done it will tell you, and I don’t know if it’s ever different than this, but yeah, you generate your income up to a certain level. They say, write your goals on paper, so in 1999 I had written down my goal. By then I was writing, managing writers, and doing a couple air shifts to fill in to kind of feel that out. I was doing production, Assistant Program Director, plus doing my side business, and it was a little hairy. So I’d written on a piece of paper to quit my day job by December 31, 1999.
JV: So you didn’t set a dollar amount to be making on the side; rather, you set a date.
Lowell: That’s right. And so, of course, I’ve got a job in Edmonton, and I hadn’t built up the income enough yet, so you just kind of rewrite that goal: “Okay, December 31, 2000.” I kept doing that for four years as I built the business up, but each year it just wasn’t realistic. But in 2004, I’d built the business up to about the same as my annual income from the station. So it was kind of like a double income, and I had built up to a fairly decent living with the two jobs. But I could never break that hump to make up what I was making in my day job. Those last two years before I did eventually quit were 80-hour weeks, just working like a madman. Then in September of 2003, one of my big clients — which had a financial program I was producing for him, and it was fairly steady income for a good two years — decided not to do his show anymore. That really pulled the rug out from under my hopes and dreams, and I went into a time there, the last two months, where I was very discouraged. It’s like, “Okay, that’s it. There’s no way I can do it.”
But, it came to a point in my personal life that I had to do it, or I was going to have a breakdown because it was very discouraging to lose that. So it came to a no choice situation. I told my wife, “I have to pull the plug — even though we’re not ready to do it — because I can’t keep doing both.” I’d gotten advice from a few people, and anybody and everybody that knew me, basically gave the same advice: make the jump because unless you take that leap you’re never, ever going to do it.
My goal, which had by that time been rewritten to quit my job December 31, 2004, was finally achieved. I did resign. I was trying to get fired the last six months, to tell you the truth, but they just wouldn’t. It had gotten to the point where I had two e-mail programs at work. I had my work e-mail program, and I had my business e-mail program. I was managing both during the day. I was managing six writers. I’d sometimes zip home, which was a 20-minute drive one way, to do production at noon, and then come back. It was like 80 hours of insanity every single week and on the weekends. I had no choice. I had to pull the plug somewhere.
I had read some business books the last two or three years before leaving, entrepreneurial-type books, and there was one writer who talked about the same type of thing, whether to make the break or not. He was a financial advisor, so it was totally unrelated to my business, but I’d gotten that same sense from him, that I had to pull the plug. What he had said was – and this was three years before I quit my day job — he had written that you’ve got to hang in there. You have to be financially stable in your side business for two to three years. I remember when I read that, I was just so discouraged. It was like, I can’t do this for another two years, and then I did end up doing it for another two years.
But it did become a reality. And unless you come from money, it’s never going to be easy. You can never make on your own, the income of both jobs, while you’re doing both. You reach a hump. You reach the peak, and you can’t get over the hump unless you go full-time with your own thing.
JV: What was it that you felt you could offer customers that gave you the confidence to be able to make this break?
Lowell: The one thing that was great back then was the disparity between the Canadian dollar and the U.S. dollar. It was quite large. So I could be competitive in the U.S. market because for every dollar you made, you got an extra $0.50. In the peak, you got an extra $0.55. So a $1,000 bill was worth $1,550 back in that day. So I could be competitive but still make that extra bit to make it a little bit more lucrative.
The other thing too was – and I still find this now — there are very few people that are competent in all three elements. I can present myself as a writer, or I can present myself as a voice talent, or I can present myself as a producer, or all three. So, again, I positioned my company as a full service ad agency. Quite often, when I was working with clients, I was writing it, I was voicing it, and I was producing it. Only in the last two or three years did I really develop more of a network using other voice talents. The business is about 11 years old now, and the first six or seven years, it was really all me. I had a variety of voicing styles, so I could do the radio imaging, soft sell, hard sell, screamers, I could do a lot of different things. So that was one advantage, the overhead for me was quite low because I didn’t have to pay any talent. I could do it all myself. I don’t say that boastfully; it’s just that it was an advantage.
JV: What was that first year like?
Lowell: The first year was horrendous. I was making about the same at my day job as I was making on the side. So, obviously, on day one, January 1, 2005, our income was cut in half. They always say, “Have six month’s salary saved up in advance.” We were probably minus six months like most people. So the first ten months were quite scary because I was continuing on with my regular clients, but I was trying to build it beyond that. I spent a lot of time on web development. All of a sudden, I’ve got all this time because before, I was having to work a day job. Now I could get all my work done, and I had time left over. So I spent a lot of time on web development, just trying to figure out how to promote myself online without spending a whole lot of money. I learned that one of the keys to success is to have different sites and web pages that focus on different things. I had a radio creative site. I had a radio production site. I developed a voiceover site, and they all linked together just to get listed.
So I was starting to get more and more traffic, but by that tenth month, it was kind of a make or break time. I was getting to that point of desperation, for lack of a better word, and my philosophy had always been, invoicing per job for a decent rate. As an ad agency, for each job, you’re charging a decent rate for your work. But in that tenth month, I was contacted by this automotive ad agency – actually two different ad agencies. One was on the creative side. They just needed a writer. The other was on the production side. But the one on the production side who first came to me said, “We want to find a voice talent/producer that can go on a monthly retainer and basically do unlimited work, within reason, throughout the month. How much do you charge per spot?” I had quoted him my regular rate, and he said, “Well, we were kind of thinking that maybe you could work for X amount of dollars this month and just do like 20 spots for us.” Now when you take the X amount of dollars per month, and divide it by the 20 spots, your spot per rate goes way down, but I was at a point where, “What choice do I have? I’ve got to make some extra income.”
It actually turned out to be kind of a new thinking process, a new philosophy of how to generate regular income. It was basically the philosophy of having clients on retainers where you’re not looking at the price per unit, you’re just looking at the fact that I have this check every month. It basically saved me because in that tenth month, I got a retainer from that client. Then an automotive ad agency, also from the U.S., needed a writer, and they wanted to pay on retainer. So now, I just sit by the computer and wait for them to give me work, while still being able to keep up with the regular piecemeal stuff and fit it in throughout the day.
I don’t know what would have happened beyond that tenth month of that first year otherwise, because when both those clients came on, both with retainers, plus my existing clients, that pushed us into the next phase of being able to make a go of it.
JV: So where are you now? How has the company grown?
Lowell: We had a pretty good year in 2007, and I say we because by then I’d employed a producer who has a day job still with radio, but was eager to kind of make some extra on the side. I got quite busy where I couldn’t do it all myself anymore, so in 2007, I had a producer doing stuff for me on the side. I also had a couple of different writers I drew from for work, freelance as well. They were all freelance, so it’s basically a pay-per-job type thing, which is easy to manage instead of having to pay them a retainer. And the U.S. dollar was quite good back then. Ninety percent of my business is in the States, and the challenge in the last two years has been the parity of the Canadian and U.S. dollar. So there was a little bit of an adjustment there because basically now that extra exchange rate disappeared, and it’s been that way for about 16 months now. But we’ve adjusted.
So right now, it’s still the same old battle where some clients drop off and new clients come on, but you have to keep on top of it to generate new business. The change of years, the change of the seasons, when January comes along, some clients decide to move on. You pick up new ones. We have not moved to that stage where I have full-time employees. It’s still me working out of my home studio with freelance writers and a producer and voice talent that I draw on. The journey continues.
JV: What’s a typical day like? Are you staying busy for the whole day?
Lowell: A typical day for me is very motivated by deadlines. I like to get up fairly early, like at 5:00 am. I find writing to be very difficult during the regular office hours because you’ve got the e-mails coming in, you’ve got production that comes in, and it’s hard to get in the zone. So I do most of my writing in the early morning — get up at 5:00, work for a couple of hours, and it’s totally uninterrupted time with a clear mind. And a lot of times, I have to have it done by 7:00 because if I’m dealing with a client in the east, two hours later, I’ve promised it to them by 9:00. So if by the end of the day the day before, I’m just too fried to write, I just say, “Well, it looks like I’m getting up at 5:00.” And it seems to be that way every day. It forces me out of bed, forces me to get it written. Then I help get my kids off to school, and then I take a coffee break from about 8:30 to 9:30 at the local Tim Horton’s, which is a big coffee chain here in Canada. That’s kind of my lunch break because I’ve been up since 5:00 and I eat breakfast there.
Then the rest of the day is just responding to what comes in, and with an online type of business, virtually all of it is e-mail. Clients who are looking for creative voice and/or production online tend to be a little bit more plugged into the e-mail side of things, which I like. So they’re e-mailing, and I respond with quotes; or with my retainer clients, I do the work that needs to be done, or manage that with my producer or my other writer if I’m voicing myself. Then I’ll try to take a quick break for lunch. I keep fairly busy.
How many hours are dollar-making hours changes from day to day. Some days you just run and manage things all day and don’t make a cent. But then later, when the jobs come to fruition a day or two later, you’re making your money, and you try to find some time in there to continue to develop new clients. Most of it comes without me soliciting except for the time spent positioning myself on the web.
And one of the keys to success that I’ve found is instant response via e-mail. Nobody wants to send an e-mail and wait five hours for a response. I usually get right on that within an hour or two with quotes or confirmation or with work. And one of the benefits of being full-time on your own is being able to provide clients with quick turnaround. With my retainer clients, it’s like we need it same day or overnight. So if they all e-mail you in one day, you’re swamped. Then the next day comes around and maybe nothing’s coming in. So you take it as a development day to get new business or just take a break.
JV: Tell us a little bit about your studio.
Lowell: Well, it’s fairly basic. I’ve got an AKG mic that goes through a tube preamp, which warms it up a little bit. Then I go directly into the computer from that. I don’t go through a mixing board. I like to do everything with software — the EQ, the processing of the voice and whatnot – I like to do it digitally. I use Adobe Audition 3.0. I’m a PC-based guy who’s never made the jump to Mac.
I tested my studio sound by trial and error when I was working my day job. When I was upgrading my system in the early 2000’s, I would take commercials home and produce them. Then I’d put them on the air and listen to them, and I would tweak my sound according to that. I would produce a spot at home with my own voice, and I’d adjust the EQ, and now I have these presets that have worked for me that I know will provide a good sound wherever the audio is going. Once they hit the airwaves, it’s going to sound fairly good.
In the digital age, anybody and everybody is setting up a studio, and you get great sound out of some voice talents, and you get some mediocre sound from others. But with the digital side of it, even if I get a mediocre track, I’m able to work with it a bit with EQ and dynamic processing to get a good sound -- as long as it’s clean to begin with, of course
JV: The past decade has brought a lot more media to compete with radio and television. All these other media need production, copywriting, voiceover services. Over your ten years with SpotWorks, have you noticed a lot more companies needing services like what you provide? Is there a growth in the demand from your perspective?
Lowell: I don’t know if the need is increased, but certainly the awareness of the Internet has increased, so that there are more and more individual business owners looking for online agencies because it’s a lot easier than having to deal with a local agency. It’s probably a lot more cost effective than dealing with a local agency. But what I’ve seen more of an increase in is the actual individual smaller ad agencies and marketing firms who are providing, particularly to the U.S. market, an alternative to the old school big ad agency where you had to spend $3,000 for a 30-second commercial. There’s an increase of those smaller ad agencies who are dealing with clients individually, and I get a lot of e-mails from those types of clients where they are only providing the creative but don’t have the production facilities to serve their client. And a lot of times, they’re challenged on the creative side, and they want some input. So some of my clients are that exactly, ad agencies who need creative or help with their creative. They’re still dealing with the client and doing all the research and then just passing it on to someone like me. So in many ways, there’s a greater increase of those agencies who don’t have production facilities, who don’t have local arrangements with studios like the larger agencies do to facilitate production and voiceover.
There hasn’t been a huge increase of competition on the full online ad agency side. There’s been a massive increase of voice talents who are presenting their voice. That’s probably the most competitive thing to get into, but it’s still an open market. There are plenty of ad agencies out there who have web sites, but there are not a whole lot of agencies that are strictly online to service other agencies or production. I consider myself to be an ad agency as well as a production house, and I can put on either hat depending on who I’m dealing with, I think.
JV: What advice would you offer someone in radio production trying to make that break and do what you’ve done?
Lowell: You really have to get plugged into the online side of things. I guess that has been one more advantage that I’ve had is the fact that I develop all my own web pages. I’m kind of a computer nerd that way, which has benefitted me because I can write my own content. I can develop my own web pages. I’ve taken the time to get inside Google’s head. How do you get listed on the top of Google, for example, if you type “Radio creative” on Google? I come up number one, but a lot of that has to do with just being able to work with the algorithms, as they call them, which they rewrite every year — which is good for some people and bad for others. But that would be the biggest piece of advice. You have to be accessible online. You have to be able to get your stuff out there online without hiring web developers. You can get a web page developed by somebody; you’ll spend $1,000 to $1,500 if you want to, or find a friend who does do it for $500. But once it’s on, you have to be able to work with it and build extra pages and put the content on there and continually tweak it to promote it. And keep it simple. Keep it accessible. These big flashy sites with Flash and zooms, to me, they’re very impersonal, and they have very little content on them, generic, “We can serve your clients. Click here.” I put good content online, and that’s another key. It doesn’t take much to do that.
And the second thing is accessibility; you have to be on your e-mail. If you get an e-mail, it can’t sit there for 24 hours before they hear back from you because there are guys like me that are responding within two hours. If I leave my office, I’ve got my PDA. If I’m sitting at Tim Horton’s, I’ll check my e-mail. If one of my regular clients e-mails and says, “I need this within an hour,” I can respond and say, “No problem.” It builds a confidence with them, but it’s also that there are so many last minute production needs out there. Somebody will call me, or mostly e-mail me, and say, “I need this produced, and I need it fast.” It still may be a two or three-day turnaround, but they have to know within the next hour or two that, yeah, we can do that – let me know… by e-mail.
And if on the other side of it they say, “We need a specific voice talent for this. I’m looking for an impersonator. I’m looking for a Sean Connery voice for this,” and maybe I don’t have a Sean Connery in my arsenal, then I have to find a Sean Connery. So I go online, and I’m dealing with voice talents. And, again, if that voice talent doesn’t respond to me within an hour or two, then I just move on to the next guy until I find somebody. I can’t sit overnight and wait for somebody the next day to get back to me. So that is the secret. You have to be able to instantly respond to people via e-mail and/or phone call. Or else the business goes away.
Lowell updates us 10 years later on how his business is doing in this article from September 2018: From Rat Race to Roller Coaster: The Ups and Down of the Home-Based Radio Production Business!