R.A.P. Interview: Brian Kelsey

Brian Kelsey, JBK Productions, New York

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By Jerry Vigil

Almost six years ago we interviewed Brian Kelsey when he had quickly, and at a young age, found himself as the Creative Director at the #1 station in the #1 market. Brian’s pace hasn’t let up since then. After three short years at K-Rock, Brian was able to start his own production company, JBK Productions, which from the start has been met with nothing but success. This month’s RAP Interview gets a look at how Brian made the transition from radio, and how he has managed to establish himself as an in-demand producer and voice-over talent for radio, television and more.

JV: How did you exit K-Rock and start your own production company?
Brian: I started working at K-Rock in the fall of ’96 and was going 100 miles an hour. It was great. And like any other kind of business, you meet different people. In that position at K-Rock, you’re exposed to a lot of other radio stations, especially working for Howard Stern. I was doing a lot of his stuff, and a lot of stations heard my stuff on Howard and started calling me wanting me to do their production and their voice-over work. So I started doing that. I made sure it was cleared with the Program Director at the time, Steve Kingston. Obviously these were things on the side, and K-Rock was, of course, first and foremost. And he was fine with it as long as I let him know what was going on. If you’re in that position you might want to be up front with your PD about it because most times they won’t really care. They just want to be in the loop. And that’s all he wanted. And he, too, got me a lot of extra work because he owned several stations. So I just kind of started building up these stations as I was going along. And since 1994 I’ve had a voice-over agent in New York who got me the bigger auditions and the TV voice-overs and all that stuff.

So I was about to get married, and my dream, like a lot of production and voice-over guys, is to have a studio at home and work at home. I’ve been planning that for years and hoping I could do it. As the years at K-Rock went on and my contract neared its close, I just decided to go for it. So far, it’s been great. It’s all I’ve ever wanted and more. You’re in so much more control of what you do.

JV: How did you acquire the voice-over agent back in ’94?
Brian: In New York City there’s a small publication that comes out every month called the Ross Reports, and that’s a listing of every single agent, every single casting director… it’s like every kind of director and agent and manager in New York, and it comes out every month. I got it and just picked the top five all-around agents and sent my demo to them and sat and waited. They called back and I met with different ones and settled on one. I’ve actually been with that agent for seven years, but I just recently changed agents this past spring. I’m with the Atlas Talent Agency in New York. An agent is so helpful and important because you’ll never get these big voice-over auditions unless you have an agent.

JV: Do you feel being in New York played a major role in your ability to get the agent and land the big voice-over gigs?
Brian: Well at that time it was very important because at that time there was not much MP3-ing going on. Not many people had home studios with ISDN lines and stuff like that. So it was very important because all day every day I would sneak out and go to auditions. I was right in Manhattan so I would sneak out and go to auditions and bookings. My agent happened to be in the same building as K-Rock, which was a total coincidence. I would run upstairs to their office on the seventeenth floor and do auditions and then come back down. It got me into trouble a couple of times because some ran long and people were looking for me.

Nowadays, so many people are doing everything from home, MP3-ing stuff and using ISDN lines. It’s really becoming less and less a situation of people running around Manhattan for auditions. I still do just because you have an edge because you’re face to face with these casting directors. They know you and get to know your voice and how you work and can coach you, as opposed to just getting copy, reading it, and MP3-ing it somewhere. So it still definitely helps but it’s totally possible to do it from wherever you are. I’m about an hour outside of New York, and it’s kind of a pain to go to New York. Most of the auditions I can do from home here, but the big ones I’ll go into New York for. Like today I went in for one, did it and came home.

JV: What did you do to develop your voice-over skills? Any special training or seminars, a voice coach perhaps?
Brian: The only thing I did is listen. I’d listen, listen, listen. I love watching TV from anywhere and just listening to the big boys doing real kick ass stuff and learning from them. Hearing how they articulate, hearing how they deliver. Delivery is so important. I mean, you could have the biggest, ballsy voice in the world, but if you can’t deliver it properly, if you can’t take direction from ten different people in one second and then go, then you really don’t have a good edge. I still feel I can always do better. You never can be good enough. You’ve got to keep going. But for me, my training has been mostly just listening to others.

JV: Some of your TV voice-over clients include HBO, Showtime, Comedy Central, MTV, ESPN. Were these accounts you had prior to leaving K-Rock?
Brian: Yeah, those were through my agent. And some of those are clients that got to know me over the years. They get to know you, know what you can do, your range or whatever, and they’ll just call you in whenever they need you. These would never have been possible if my agent hadn’t talked to them and got me the auditions. There’s a big wall between the networks and voice-over people, and the connection is a good agent.

JV: A big obstacle we hear about all the time is how it’s tough to get an agent in the voice-over business coming from radio. How did you overcome that?
Brian: That’s in huge thing. I don’t think I’ve ever gone on anything where they said, “Try to sound like a radio announcer.” When I was first sending out my tapes and stuff, I did not even let them know I was in radio. Everything on my demo, I completely made up. I watched TV and just taped commercials I thought I could read and transcribed them and did them with my voice. I did it that way because I didn’t want to discourage them and have them thinking this is just another radio guy.

And if you have a range, which is really important, then you need to show that. So I kind of slid under the wire. You really don’t want to hide the fact that you’re in radio, but let them know that you’re versatile, that you can do more. If you can do many different voices or different styles, then you’re opening yourself up to many more things. And that’s what agents look for. They look for a lot of range because they can send you out to more things, and everyone can make more money.

JV: So a radio promo was probably not on the demo you sent to the agents.
Brian: Exactly. It was not. In fact I even made up a couple of things on the demo. I actually wrote copy with words that I could pronounce. There are certain words, still to this day, I just cannot pronounce. And so I wrote copy that I thought made me sound good.

JV: When we talked with you last you had already established a studio in your home and were doing a lot of work for Howard out of there. You were using Cakewalk Pro Audio at the time. Are you still using Cakewalk?
Brian: Yes, but I have an Orban Audicy now, and I do most everything on that. I use Cakewalk just to do voice tracks to email out. If someone faxes me some copy, I’ll read it into Cakewalk and turn it into a MP3 and send it out. I write music and do-remixes and electronic music, and I use Cakewalk for that also, but all my other production is done on the Audicy.

JV: JBK Productions is voice-over and production, correct?
Brian: Right.

JV: In terms of revenues, which is the bigger part of your business, the voice-over or the production?
Brian: It’s mostly voice-over because production takes time. I have to make sure I don’t get myself in too deep with production and get over my head because I still have Howard. I do all his stuff exclusively, all their bumpers and voice work. So I’m constantly making stuff and sending bumpers to them every week. I also have some stations that I do packages for. Maybe a couple times a year they’ll call and say, “Can you give me twenty/twenty five sweepers,” or whatever. And now and again I’ll take on a station, kind of as a Creative Production Director, an out of the house kind of thing with a retainer. I’m not doing that right now because it’s a little crazy, but I have done them in the past. I think a lot of stations are doing that. I’ve gotten a lot of inquires about that because people are trying to save money, and they don’t have to pay insurance and all that other stuff. So they’ll farm it out to different people.

JV: Are you finding this more and more to be the case, stations farming out their work?
Brian: Yeah. And they’re also farming out because the guy who’s doing production is doing production for like ten different stations in the company in the one building, and he’s pulling his hair out trying to do everything.

JV: How many stations are you doing production for?
Brian: About three. Not on a regular basis, but three throughout the year. Like a couple packages here, a couple packages there, depending on who needs it.

JV: And about how many radio stations are you doing voice-over for?
Brian: I think I’ve got about twenty, and these are on a regular basis.

JV: That sounds like full-time work.
Brian: Yes it is. But it’s great working from home because I really think I get more done. When you go to work, you have to get in your car, the train, or whatever and go to work. There’s the time you spend going to and from work, the time you spend at the water cooler, in meetings, and this and the other thing, and the actual time you spend working sometimes doesn’t add up to a whole lot. When you work at home you can really condense that. The time is used more wisely. I can really focus and work without a lot of people coming in or meetings or whatever. I feel you really get a better job done. Plus you can do it in your underwear.

JV: What’s a typical day like for you?
Brian: I usually get started early, like 7:30 or 8:00, if the baby’s not crying that is. We just had a little baby boy. I mainly work in the morning and try to get stuff all done in the morning. Then during the day there will be some stations that want me to do live sessions. So I’ll have different sessions dispersed throughout the day. And then if there’s anything I need to do production-wise at the end of the day I’ll do that like after dinner. Or I might go in to New York like I did today for most of the day to go to auditions. It kind of varies day to day.

JV: Do you think there’s enough work out there for more people to get into what you’re doing?
Brian: Absolutely. Tons. I mean, think of all the cable channels that are coming out. I have like 200 channels, and every one of those channels needs a voice-over guy. And every one of those channels changes their voice-over guy every couple months it seems like. And the Internet…so many stations are on-line now. And on top of that, satellite radio may be a taboo word in the radio industry, but if that takes off, there are two big companies out there that have a couple hundred stations each, and each one of those stations needs voice-over and production. And there’s so many people that get bored with the voices. If I’m at a station three years doing the voice-over, I’m like wow, I’m surprised I’m not out of here! The turnover rate is so fast. Definitely, definitely, there’s enough work for everybody.

JV: Practically everyone who is considering breaking away from radio and starting their own business has to consider if they’re going to at least make what they were making at the radio station, or come close. Did you cross that barrier after you left K-Rock, or did you build up your client list large enough before you left so you were able to pay the bills?
Brian: I had built it up and kind of crunched numbers, and between that and telling my agents, “Let’s go; I’m full-time now,” I anticipated just making what I made at K-Rock. It actually turned out I’m steadily making double. The first year I doubled what I made, which blew my mind. Big things came along. Big projects through advertising agencies kind of fell on my lap. Those pushed me over the edge, and it’s been like that ever since. It’s really been doing great.

JV: That’s just the kind of thing you pray happens.
Brian: I know. And the thing is, you can really hustle and make it work for you. You can make calls, you can do stuff. Whereas at a regular job, you’re up for your review every year and you tell them how great you are and how you need a raise. When you’re on your own, you can do it anytime you want and get out there and make some stuff happen. And you can write everything off. I save every receipt. You can even write off a portion of your house bills. My whole studio up here is all written off.

JV: What else is in your studio? You have the Audicy and Cakewalk as you mentioned.
Brian: I have an RE20 microphone that I’ve used forever. I love it. I’ve got a Mackie 24-channel board, a couple of CD players, and a voice processor, the Rane VP12, which has a preamp, EQ and a compressor. We used that at K-Rock and I really liked it, so I bought one for home. And that’s really about everything. I’ve got a couple other compressors, a DAT machine, a Vocoder, and ISDN lines. I don’t do a lot with effects and stuff. There are a lot of internal effects in the Audicy, and I’ll use those, but not a whole lot. It’s usually just dry or my standard “filter guy” sound.

JV: What about production elements, libraries and things like that?
Brian: I have a couple of different ones that I use. The one I really like is Organism III from Alien Imaging. And then I have AVdeli’s King Pins, which I like a lot. A lot stuff I just grab off of movie trailers. Their sound designing is great. You can take the stuff, twist it around, mix it all up and make it sound good.

JV: So it’s not like you’re really dependent on libraries for the sound you create.
Brian: No. I’m really not. I go out and buy weird music for beds and stuff – a lot of electronic music. Every month I order a bunch of records from this place out in Seattle that specializes in weird records. I’ll order several cool, spoken word records that I can chop up and use for production. And then there’s the Cornerstone Player. They’re a music promotion company in New York. They put out a CD every month and it goes to thousands of people all over — people in TV, record executives, record companies and radio stations all over the world. It showcases new music. In between the cuts there’s production, and I do all the production for them. They like to have weird drops, and it’s fun because I can do longer stuff than I can on regular radio. I can get away with a 35 second drop about how to equalize your stereo. So I order these records and go through them. I have stacks of them now and should save them all to DAT one day.

JV: No copyright issues here?
Brian: No. The only time in my whole life I’ve ever gotten in trouble was when I used a Frank Purdue clip, and somebody in New York called, a manager or someone, and said, “You’ve got to take that off.” So I took it off. Other than that, I steal everything, off of TV, off the Internet, everywhere. And everyone steals everything from me. That’s one of the good things about the Cornerstone Player; I make the production so people can take it and steal it. We leave gaps in between so you can just drop your call letters in or do whatever.

JV: So you take and give.
Brian: Exactly. It’s taken and moved around. I have no problem. People steal things off demos and websites. It’s all good.

JV: Well it sounds like the transition from radio to your own company went better than expected. Did you have any difficult challenges along the way?
Brian: Not, not really. I’m pretty fortunate. A lot of the work came with just the phone ringing. I guess the only challenge is realizing that you really go year to year. You’ve got a mortgage, a child and marriage and all that, and things are very much up and down, at least with radio. You can have thirty clients one day, and the next year it could all go away for one reason or another. The only challenge is just maintaining and making sure you’re always getting new clients or stations or jobs or projects, whatever. Just keep it going.

JV: How do you market yourself? Or do you leave that up to your agent?
Brian: My agent knows people and sends out my CDs and stuff like that. On my own, I’ve put a couple of ads in RAP and one in R&R for a while, and that’s about it. The Cornerstone Player goes out to so many radio stations, and I’ve gotten a lot of work through that, and through Howard from people hearing my stuff on the show. A lot of it is word of mouth. I really don’t do too much with publicity or marketing.

JV: What do you miss about radio, if anything?
Brian: I miss the office atmosphere. That’s one bummer about being on your own; there’s no Christmas party. There are no scandals going on at the office. No drinks after work and that kind of thing. I really, really miss that. I definitely don’t miss the office politics. When I was at K-Rock and the other radio stations, I would always lock myself in the studio anyway, but you know how people pop in and stuff. I really miss that. But you kind of make up for that when you can go to the beach in the middle of the day and work in the afternoon.

JV: What’s down the road for you?
Brian: I’m really trying to work more with advertising agencies. I’m networked with a couple and that’s really where a lot of the money is. Again, with the technology you can do everything from home. Advertising agencies spend a lot of time in studios ordering sushi and whatnot doing these huge sessions they have to deal with. I’ve kind of tapped into a couple of agencies where they’ll call me and say we’re doing this campaign or whatever can you give us these spots, and I’ll write them and voice them and produce and email them off to all the people that need to hear them. They’ll email me with the changes, and we’ll email back and forth. It saves them a lot time and a lot of money because they don’t have to pay for studio time, which in New York is just ridiculous. And I make out good on my end because it’s my studio and it’s just my time. That’s something I’m trying to tap more into. And you do that through contacts. You really can’t just call an advertising agency and get this kind of deal. It’s the kind of situation where you have to build up relationships. I think more companies and agencies are going to look towards doing stuff that way instead of the old fashion way, in the studios with fifteen people in there all day long. Cutting costs, saving money.

JV: Did I read on your website that you’re a pilot?
Brian: Yes. It’s one of my favorite things in the world to do. I love it. I’m actually a skydiver also, but I kind of had to give that up when I got married and had a baby. My wife hates when I fly and I really couldn’t ask her to let me fly and still keep skydiving.

I love flying. I go every week and go just wherever. My favorite place is Nantucket Island off Cape Cod. You just hop in the plane, fly out there, land, have lunch, and fly back home.

JV: You have an optimistic outlook on the amount of work out there. Sounds like your advice to someone who wants to start his or her own production business would be to just go for it.
Brian: There’s a lot of work out there. There really is. I talk to a lot of Program Directors that are frustrated with what’s out there talent-wise. Do you know anybody that can do production? Do you know anybody who can do this, that and the other thing? There are people looking and there’s always a lot of work.

And getting a home studio going is not a big cost anymore. When I first started out it was a big deal. Now if you’ve got a fairly fast computer and a couple of other pieces of equipment you can really get going.

JV: It sounds like you’re talking about those stations that replaced their high-dollar production people with guys fresh out of school who knew how to run Cool Edit. They bring them in for $25,000 and find out later that they’re going to have to find somebody who really knows what they’re doing if their station is going to shine.
Brian: Yeah. It’s all about saving money, and the suits don’t generally think production is an important place to spend money. Whereas the Program Directors and the jocks and everyone else realize how important it is to make a station sound different than the one down the street because we’re all playing the same music. So yeah, I think that’s kind of what they’re doing, realizing that they might need to spend more money on production people.

JV: What would you say to producers out there with regards to the style of production, the kind of production that is required to get hired by these stations on a farm-out basis?
Brian: Well again, the big word, versatility. Being able to change your style to fit whatever that Program Director wants, and Program Directors as you know are notorious for saying, “You know, I just need something new. Let’s change the whole station. Let’s change the whole sound. Let’s do something different.” And usually what happens is you change it then end up going back to the way it was originally.

But you just have to be able to be versatile. If all of sudden you’ve got to make everything so simple and smooth that it’s just a voice and a little music behind it, then you’ve got to do that. I have so many times gone through that, where the Program Director would just say, “Okay, enough with the bells and whistles. Just make it simple. Real simple.” Of course it’s so boring for us production guys because it’s like anybody can do that, but there is an art to making things simple. You can still make it interesting and get the message across and keep it simple. There are many different ways of imaging a station. And these days it seems things are starting to get a little more on the mellower side.

JV: Would you say that’s because stations are realizing they need to get the message across rather than just sound highly produced?
Brian: Yeah. I’m so guilty of that, of losing the message, not realizing what the message is and just making the thing sound cool. And that’s a real hard thing for a production guy to overcome because you’re thinking of it as an art form when everyone else is thinking of it as a message. When do I call to win? Will I win? Whereas I’m thinking, how can I make this line real cool, and I lose sight of the message.

But the key is to be able to be versatile.

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