D. Peter Maus, Maus Productions, Chicago, IL
I’ve lost count of the number of interviews I’ve done that were “long overdue”, and this one just adds to the number. Peter Maus has been flying solo for the past 15 years after a very successful run in radio. Maus Productions provides radio, TV and multimedia production, field recording, live radio production, as well as services in the area of studio engineering, equipment selection and installation, and acoustic space treatment and design. Other services include mixing live bands, producing corporate events, set up and hosting of indoor and outdoor events on site for gatherings as simple as church picnics, to vintage auto races, to full blown corporate gatherings and broadcasts. While that list is quite impressive and loaded with great topics for discussion, this interview focuses more on the unique and talented individual that Peter is, his 11 year run at Chicago’s US99, his amazing knack for the engineering side of things, what made him a great morning personality, what makes great imaging, how close calls with death can wake you up… and flying helicopters. Strap in again, we’re going for another ride.
JV:Checking your profile, it looks like you might have started in radio in ’76 at WEW in St. Louis. That’s a pretty big market to get started in.
Peter:It was actually a lot earlier than that. 1957. They weren’t doing morning television then. TV stations were signing on at 9:00, sometimes noon. NBC was experimenting with the Today Show and had been for a number of years, and local television decided that it was probably a good idea to try to capitalize on that because there was a huge audience that was simply not being served. So at the time it was KWK-TV then KMOX-TV. It’s now KMOV, a CBS affiliate. They came to all of the kindergartens in the St. Louis area, figuring if they were going to get adults to watch TV, the best way to do that is put their kids on television.
So they auditioned several kids in my kindergarten class – and they did this for kindergartens all over the St. Louis area. I was one of the only ones you could actually understand. They wound up putting me in a suit and having me stand up in front of an easel, and I would point to the easel and recite this piece of whatever it was on camera. People from my family came in from all over the area, all over the country, to sit in our living room in front of this 19-inch Zenith and watch me on television on Channel 4 in St. Louis. Well, that led to other TV appearances and it led to radio, and I was on and off of radio for many years as kind of a kid performer.
My idol on radio was Buddy Moreno, and he was on KWK radio 1380 before the big scandal that wound up taking the radio station off the air. I was six years old and decided I wanted to do that for a living. I wanted to build a radio station in my bedroom in high school. We were within the signature on a couple of documents of actually getting one of the first suburban licenses in the United States until we realized that $550,000 for the grant fee was just a wee bit outside of our pocket range. So we wound up surrendering that idea.
But that led to me and a couple of friends working my radio station out of my bedroom, and each of us wound up getting into the radio business. In fact, I was the last one to get full-time in the radio business, and that was at WEW working, ironically, for Buddy Moreno.
JV: Tell us about this radio station in your bedroom.
Peter: It was an FM stereo station. It was just shy of 150 milliwatts, just a little over the legal limit. I was using a really big battery. And we had elevation, considerably more elevation than was originally designed into the device. It was an FM wireless microphone kit made by Radio Shack that was modified for lower noise and for frequency agility. Rather than having a fixed frequency, I could tune it to an open frequency on the dial and lock it in, and then I modified it for FM stereo. I built my own stereo generator.
JV: Wow, you were into engineering long before you got into radio full time.
Peter: Oh, yeah. That actually started with a tape recorder kit that somebody gave me, and when I built that, instead of saying, “Testing 1, 2, 3,” like every normal human being, I started off with, “Hi, there. We’re at the scene of a huge chocolate spill in Hershey, Pennsylvania,” and it was a two-and-a-half minute monologue that actually got me my first radio appearance, and that was in St. Louis as kid. I want to say it was KSD, but I’m not sure. That was a long time ago.
Anyway, I actually put the transmitter up in a weatherproof box on the roof so that I could get the elevation that I needed without having to worry about losses from cable. I just put the transmitter up there, and it had the antenna built into it, and I had a counterpoise on the other side. That got me just shy of a mile.
JV: That’s pretty young to have that kind of engineering knowledge. Where did you start picking that up?
Peter: That was almost by accident. When I was really small I broke the UHF TV tuner on the television in the living room – we were living in Milwaukee at the time – and I had to repair it before my parents found out or they would have beaten me to a smooth paste. And under that kind of pressure I did. I actually made that repair. It was shortly thereafter that I met my grandfather. He was a ham [operator], and he introduced me to the actual nuts and bolts, through books that he gave me. I got all of his old radio engineering books, and I still have many of them. I started to learn the technology, not just practical technology, but I started to learn electronic theory and basically taught myself engineering.
JV: At 12, 13 years of age, thereabouts?
JV:Did you get into ham radio?
Peter: You know, I always thought about it, and the reason I didn’t… and it’s the same reason I didn’t get a first phone. In those days, when you started at a radio station, if you had a license of any kind, they would push you to a first phone, and if you had a first phone, you’d wind up doing a night show at a transmitter somewhere. It was actually a liability to your career. So I kind of avoided that and didn’t get my ham license for the same reason, although I always tinkered with it.
I got my grandfather’s radio sets when he got out of ham radio. It was an E.F. Johnson Viking Ranger, which I think was 75 watts. He used it as an exciter for a kilowatt amplifier with plate modulation. It was all built into the wall in his basement. It was really impressive. When he turned it on, the mercury vapor rectifiers would light up the room, and he would talk all over the world. But I got all of his receivers as well, and that got me into shortwave radio where I started listening to international broadcasts and would start to hear how they did things in other countries, and especially paying attention to how the radio stations sounded.
You could hear different acoustic qualities with international radio stations. The Germans and the British had absolutely perfect acoustics in their studios. The Swiss did not. The Indians did not. The South Africans were really pretty terrible – they sounded like they were doing it on somebody’s kitchen table – which led me to studio engineering where I started to actually work with acoustics. And that led me to studying acoustics and quickly adding that to my already oppressive repertoire of technical knowledge that would usually get me thrown out of dinner table conversations.
JV: You went to a station in Texas in 1980, KTFS in Texarkana. The station was number six out of six stations in the market, but you guys did something and turned the station around to quickly put it on top. What did you do?
Peter: The radio station had been like a lot of small-town radio stations where you had a group of people who got together and thought they were playing radio, but really didn’t know what they were doing. They brought me down there and put me on the morning show, and I did radio the way I was exposed to radio, and that was in St. Louis and Chicago and other big cities around the country. I started doing big-city radio and it caught on. I was – and still am to a large degree – just two fries short of a Happy Meal most of the time anyway on the air, and I was – and still am – largely fearless in what I said. I got into local politics and I took on the city government.
Texarkana is a really interesting town because it’s divided. It’s right on the state line between Texas and Arkansas, so there are two city governments. There’s the Texarkana, Texas government and the Texarkana, Arkansas government. The Texarkana, Arkansas government was wildly corrupt. The Texarkana, Texas government was corrupt, but they kept that quiet so that I didn’t find out. But the Texarkana, Arkansas government was pretty blatant, and I took them on, and within about four months I managed to change the entire government in the state of Arkansas just simply by going after each individual example of corruption and doing it in kind of a Mark Twain way. Rather than get on the air like Rush Limbaugh and just rant and rave and say, “This is wrong,” and “That’s terrible,” I went after it with humor, and sometimes really incisive humor. I mean, the one guy on the Arkansas side city government who was actually clean was a huge fan of mine. He would get up in the morning and would laugh his way into the office. He laughed so hard one day when I went after the city manager that he actually slipped and fell in the shower and went through the glass door and wound up in the laceration ward in one of the local hospitals.
It’s that kind of local fearlessness that got attention to the radio station. I ran a really good, tight board and it was technically very proficient. I knew what I was doing and I was doing radio that was very tightly organized and very tightly programmed, but it was also extraordinarily local. And when the ratings came back, we blew everybody off the dial to the degree that Coca-Cola, who was one of our big sponsors, didn’t believe that the numbers were, in fact, correct. So they commissioned their own survey people to come in and measure the market, and they came back with even higher numbers than Arbitron.
JV: Real, local radio. It works.
Peter: There was a guy who came to me when I was in Shreveport. I was doing some part-time work at a studio there, and it was a slow day. We were all sitting around in the lobby shooting the breeze. This kid walks in and he’s got a tape. He says, “I wonder if somebody would listen to my tape and give me some pointers.” I’m kind of looking around. The guy that owns the studio is rolling his eyes like, “Oh yeah, this is what I need.” So I took the tape and we went back in the studio. He was actually from Texarkana. He actually had spent a lot of time listening to me, and that’s one of the reasons he walked into the studio where he knew I was working, so that I would give him some of my expertise.
The kid’s name was Danny Fox, and he had a really, really thick Texas accent. He was a very rural good ol’ boy. I racked up the tape and started listening to it, and I had to listen to it three or four times just to try to find something to say nice about it because so much of it was so backwoods and so small town. He sat very patiently while I listened to this tape, and about three quarters of the way through the fourth pass, something occurred to me. I stopped the tape and I backed up and listened to it again with a fresh ear. What I realized was that what he was doing was absolutely right for the market that he was trying to serve.
He grew up with these people. These people were his friends. These people were the ones that were sitting at the bar with him when he cracked a longneck on Friday after work. These are people he played softball with. These are people he played pool with. These are people that he had known his entire life, so he’s speaking to them in a very personal, very intimate way about things that were important in their lives. And when I realized what he was doing, a light went on. I went through and I gave him all the pointers, things that I thought he could improve on, things that he was doing absolutely right. He thanked me for my time and took the tape and left. He went and got a job in Shreveport and became a legend there.
And everything that he became, he gave me credit for having taught him in that session to advance his career. What he didn’t find out until 30 years later was that that single experience taught me the things that I needed to know that got me to Chicago. I probably learned more from listening to that tape by Danny Fox than he learned from me.
JV: You’ve been in Chicago now for 25 years, and you spent 10 or 11 of those years at US99.
Peter: Yes, through four different companies and my desk never moved.
JV: You also were a staff announcer, imaging voice and on-camera personality for WGBO-TV there, and also standby for the chief engineer, and you had an air shift as well. Production Director, air shift, standby for the chief and working for the television station. Where did you spend most of your time?
Peter: I spent most of my time in the production studio.
We had a promo contest when the station was owned by Cook Inlet Radio Partners, which was a native corporation owned by the Inuits and Athabascans around Anchorage, Alaska. The real cool thing about them is the money that we made as a radio station did not go into limousines and leather chairs and expensive paintings and parties and all the things that radio stations kind of wasted a whole lot of money on. All of the money that we made, all of the profits, went back to the native corporation and improved the lives of the stockholders around Anchorage. We funded college scholarships. We mortgaged homes. We built properties. We built businesses. We offered small business loans for people who wanted to improve their lives. So we didn’t have a lot of the luxuries that a lot of other radio people did. In fact, my Christmas bonus one year was just a T-shirt that had all of the call letters of the company on it. That’s probably the best Christmas bonus I ever got because I knew that what I was doing was something that was far more than just making a pile of money that went into a stockholder’s portfolio. This was a pile of money that was actually improving the lives of the people who were funding this company, who actually owned stock in the company.
My work was to do primarily the promos, the imaging pieces for the radio station, but I also did some commercial work. But as I was saying, we had a contest in the company for Production Directors, and we would compete by submitting two promos every month, and the prize was always a couple hundred bucks or a gift certificate or something. But one day the president of the company, who is now president of CBS, Dan Mason, increased the prize to $1,000, and I won all the promo contests. I just took them all.
So I wound up doing a lot of really interesting material. And I got to write them. I got to create them. I got to create them out of whole cloth, so it wasn’t like using the standard templates that every other radio station in the country was using. We were actually creating our own. We were reaching into our own creative quiver and pulling out whatever arrows we thought were appropriate at the time. Some of the promos that hit the air were like things you’d never heard before. It wasn’t true just of US99, but it was true in Boston and Phoenix and other stations in other areas where we had radio stations.
So most of what I did was in the production studio, but they were determined to put me on the air and they did. I had an immediate ratings success there as well doing all the things that they told me that you can’t do in a smaller market. If I heard one time in my career, “You can’t do that on the radio,” I heard it everywhere. And everything they told me I couldn’t do I did on the air in Chicago and just blew holes in the dial. I beat the radio station to number one by five years.
JV: Were you doing a lot of produced bits and such on the air that helped you with the ratings, or was this pretty much just a personality driven success?
Peter: It was pretty much personality and music driven. We focused a lot on the music itself. It was country music, and we focused on the music. We did some personality bits, but the personality was basically in how you presented the information about the music. Our job was to focus on the music and enhance that experience for the listeners. That was one of the underpinnings of the radio station’s values. You had to like country music. A lot of people like country music, but not really. They do it because it’s a good paycheck. And I actually learned a long time ago that people in country music were having a lot more fun than I ever did in rock and roll. It took me about 20 seconds to realize that this is something that I should probably embrace. I learned that at KWKH.
When I got to US99 we blew up the radio station and started basically from scratch. We started playing the hits and we started presenting the radio station as a major market, but country music radio station, minus all of the negativities, all of the artifacts that really have dogged country radio for years that have come out of smaller markets. The biggest problem with country music has always been country radio. When we started doing big city country music radio, playing the hits and focusing on the things that were important, which were the music and the music and the music, we started to grow and we started to do amazing things in the market that caught everybody’s attention. We scared radio stations off the dial. The personality aspect of my performance was in how I did that, how I phrased things, how I would talk about things about the music.
So yeah, it was a combination of personality, it was a combination of music, formatics and some contesting -- there wasn’t a lot, not under Cook Inlet anyway. When we were purchased by Infinity and then later CBS, the actual culture of the radio station changed and we became more like the generic radio station that most radio stations are today in large corporations. But under Cook Inlet, it was a very creative operation, and you could be a creative personality while still working within the context of the format.
JV: That sounds like a dream these days.
Peter: It was a dream job for a very long time because I was able to literally do anything I wanted in the production studio. When I was creating promos, I could do 60 seconds of radio theater, and I could start with a clean sheet of paper, and whatever madness came out went on the radio. Under Infinity, things changed dramatically because there were simply things they didn’t want to hear on the radio. They wanted to be more sales oriented. They wanted to be more uniform in their presentation, and it got to be kind of tedious. But under Cook Inlet, it was a magnificent experience because you got the chance to express your creativity in whatever fashion that works for you, as long as you were doing the one thing that was important and that was enhancing the music listening experience.
JV: When did Infinity come in?
Peter: We were Cook Inlet when I got there in ’88, and Infinity came in, I want to say in ’94 or ’95 and then in ’96 we were bought by CBS, and I worked for CBS until I walked out under my own steam in 1999.
JV: Sounds like some drastic changes in the way things were done over your time there.
Peter: Yeah, and it was unique because we had started with the Cook Inlet concept, and they didn’t spend a lot of money on stuff. If I needed something I pretty much had to go acquire it on my own. They didn’t have a budgetary process for improving the production studio. They built the production studio of my dreams in order to entice me to take the job. I had a Harrison console and a perfectly acoustically-tight room. I had custom-made furniture and just all of the candy that they could afford at the time. But if I needed something… for example, I didn’t have a reverb for the production studio. John Doremus, one of the legendary voiceover guys of the universe, had a studio upstairs in the Hancock Center. When he got out of the business and they were liquidating his studio, I went up there and actually bought the reverb out of John Doremus’ studio and put it in my studio, but it was still mine. It was not property of the radio station. The radio station couldn’t afford that.
I could, in that way, basically build absolutely anything that I wanted. If I needed a special effect or if I needed a piece of equipment or if I needed a different microphone, I could just simply acquire it, plug it in and go. Under Infinity there was a lot less of that, and there was a lot more kind of generic “we do it this way at Infinity” sort of thinking. The capital budgets were larger, but the equipment choices were fewer. Under Cook Inlet I was actually digital before anybody in the city of Chicago. I was using digital recorders and digital processors. Under Infinity we were kind of genericized into what became the Audicy – the first digital recording environment with a control surface. It behaved sort of like a control board and an analog console. I found that to be very limiting because digital technology was very rudimentary at the time and digital environments were focusing more on the digital than they were on the actual recordings. The features that I was using in the analog room with my digital recorder were not available to me in the Audicy, so I wound up using kind of a hybrid facility that I cobbled together out of both the analog room and the digital recording environment that they provided for me. I still managed to do all of the really creative stuff that I was doing, but it was becoming more and more difficult.
And when CBS acquired us a lot of that went away, and it became almost a chore to try to continue to evolve and develop and do new things that were so much fun when I was at Cook Inlet. I could experiment. I could try things that I’d never done before. I could build facilities that I had never had available to me before. I couldn’t do that so much under Infinity and CBS.
JV: About imaging a radio station, what would you say to a class of imaging students on that first day about what good radio imaging is, or maybe what it’s not?
Peter: First of all, I would tell them to do something else for a living because they’re never going to be satisfied doing this.
What most imaging producers coming up today focus on are the technological enhancements – the gimmicks, the sound effects, the laser bursts, the reverb effects, the digital crap that they put on their pieces. All of that should be a spice. You’re trying to actually create something that’s kind of like a recipe. You want something with substance in it. You want something with multi flavors, and you want a little bit of spice to kind of stand out. And you want all of that to present a face for your radio station. You need to focus on the things that are important. You need to focus on the radio station. You need to focus on the tone of your imaging so that it matches the tone of your radio station.
If the radio station is very strong and very powerful, your imaging should be very strong and very powerful. If your radio station is very warm and very personal, your imaging should be very warm and very personal. You use sound effects, sounders, digital effects, reverb, whatever – all the special crap that you put on it – you use that sparingly. If you’re going to be really, really good at what you’re trying to accomplish as an imaging person, as an imaging producer or an imaging talent, you want to focus on the things that really matter. One of the great pieces of advice I got when I was in St. Louis was from Brad Harrison, who was actually a friend of Jackson Beck. Jackson Beck was the announcer on The Amazing Adventures of Superman on the radio and he’d been around for hundreds of years. One of the things that he used to say to upcoming students, to upcoming broadcasters who were focused more on finding the right equalizers in the studio… one of the things he used to say is you can’t fix talent with equalizers. Focus on your talent. Get the words out. Get the words out right. Focus on communicating. Make sure that everything that you do in that seven, eight, nine, 10 seconds of an imaging piece communicates the intent of your radio station. Anything that doesn’t do that, remove. Focus on the things that matter. Don’t focus on the things that make it spectacular.
A really great stew is not a bowl of cayenne pepper. Cayenne pepper will get your attention really, really fast, but you can’t live on it. You have to have the substance as well, and a light dusting of cayenne pepper will make that pop. But you have to have something to pop, so you have to have the substance.
JV: In what direction would you point a radio production person who wanted to follow your footsteps on the engineering stuff, because that is super valuable for a production guy to know? Did you ever take any classes or did you just immerse yourself in it and hang around the engineers?
Peter: Well, it’s not just hanging around the engineers. It started, like I said, when I was five years old, just a fascination with all the little things that did stuff. I took things apart when I was a kid. That’s usually the first thing that happened on Christmas Day. I’d take something apart to see how it worked, which really did not sit well with my parents. But when you start taking things apart and you start understanding how they work, you understand how they actually produce the result that they produce.
One of the greatest pieces of advice came from Tom Scholz, the founder and guitarist for the group Boston. He was an electrical engineer, and one of the things that he said in one of his first interviews was that most people who get into the music business do not understand where sound comes from, so they don’t really know what to do with it. If you understand where sound comes from, you understand how you can manipulate it, you understand how it’s produced, you understand where it can be emotionally evocative, you can understand how it’s manipulated and how it’s shaped.
And if you look at his application of this theory, every Boston album has won awards for its recording quality. They’re some of the best recorded pieces of music on the planet, and it’s because he knows and he understands exactly how the music is generated and how it’s handled throughout the entire audio chain so he can maximize its integrity in the finished product. If a production person is going to get a sense of the engineering values in the production studio, they need to start understanding how sound works.
JV: Where do they go for that?
Peter: There are a lot of places you can go for that. Unfortunately, most all of them will tell you that it starts with a computer and ends with a digital receiver someplace, and that’s not even close to being true. It starts with a sound. It starts with a wave form. It starts with an acoustical property. One of the best arguments that I ever got into was with a young turk down state who wanted my advice on the computers that he was going to put in his studio, the processors that he was going to put in his air chain, and he only had a budget of $10,000. I said, why don’t you just take about a hundred bucks and treat the acoustics of your room before you do anything, and he wasn’t willing to do that. He didn’t have that in the budget, he said. He didn’t think twice about spending $6,000 on a box to bang, squeeze, whip and saw his audio to death, but he didn’t have a hundred bucks to treat the acoustics.
If you properly treat the acoustics in the room, you can do away with about all of the processing. You don’t need gates. You need very few equalizers. You almost never need an equalizer anyway, but try to tell that to somebody today. But if you treat the acoustics of the room, you can do away with all of those sources of noise and distortion, and you get a more pure sound that then, once you put that on the air and it goes through all the necessary processing, will produce such a unique quality, your competitors will never figure out what you’re doing.
Start with music, live music, listening to actual instruments being played. Go to a coffee house. Listen to what a guitar really sounds like without an electric amplifier. Take a music course. Learn to play an instrument. Start to immerse yourself in the magic sound. Then go into the toys. Experiment with microphones. The choice of microphone on a talent is like choosing a spouse. It’s got to be a right marriage for the sound of your voice, for the intent of the work. The microphone and the talent work together as a unit, and that’s one of the reasons why really good voiceover guys bring their own microphones to the studio. A lot of guys don’t get that, but I’ve worked with two or three studios where talent walks in, he opens up his briefcase and hands me a microphone and says, “Here, hang this.” That’s his microphone, that’s what he sounds like and that’s part of his sound.
JV: Are you still doing a lot of voice work?
Peter: Oh, yeah. In fact, I did about three pages of imaging material yesterday for KEEL.
JV: You have that classic ballsy voice of God that used to prevail over all the airwaves back in the day. How easy is it to find work with that voice in this day of everyone looking for the younger guy next door?
Peter: Brutal. It really is. Everybody says that they want a really good, deep, rich voice, and when you present one they say, “Well, no. We’re looking for something like a ‘tweener.” You say okay, well ‘tweeners have got deep, rich voices too. “Yeah, but we want somebody who sounds like a ‘tweener.” Great. So you want somebody that sounds adenoidal and pretty much like they’re still dripping behind the ears. “Yeah, exactly.” Okay, that’s good. So you learn to perform and that’s what a lot of it is today. I mean, I get auditions every single day where they’re asking for voice acting rather than announcing. Even the announcer part is a voice-acted kind of a performance.
For somebody who is getting into the business today, it really doesn’t matter what voice you have because ultimately it’s going to be the producer’s choice based on how he’s feeling that day – whether he got laid, if there’s enough cream in his coffee, or if he had a bad day on the freeway getting in to work. You need to maximize whatever it is that you have, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to make a higher voice deeper, a deeper voice higher, or you need to add grit. Although one of my colleagues in Ireland told me about a surgical procedure where they actually shoot a laser into your throat, nick your vocal chords, and it gives you that rasp of being a 30-year smoker. What the hell would you want to do that for? You can do the same thing with vocal exercises if you’re really determined to do that.
But if I was going to talk to somebody, sit down somebody who’s wet behind the ears and I’m going to be his sensei for the day, I would tell him maximize what you’re doing. Learn to perform vocally, not just read. Bring more to the copy than the words on the page as Ernie Anderson used to say. Take an acting class. That would get you a lot farther than anything else today, even in voiceover. Take an acting class – a good one. Join a theater program. Get out of the studio. More importantly than anything, get out of the studio.
The pressures on an imaging director and a production person in today’s radio environment where you’re serving eight radio stations in a market will keep you sitting in that chair for 10-12 hours a day. Dan Mason said this to me in my first face-to-face with him when I started at Cook Inlet: “You’re sitting in that chair for more than eight hours a day. You’re no good to anybody because you’re not getting out into the market and enjoying the things that the city has to offer. You’re doing nothing that can allow you to relate to your audience.” Do things. Take an acting class. Learn to develop your performance skills. Enjoy live music. Learn about sound.
I had a colleague who was building a studio, and he was asking me for all of this advice, and I’m giving him point-by-point, you know, this type of setup and this kind of amplifier and these kind of speakers and this kind of microphone and preamp and all that kind of nonsense. And I said, the most important thing is – and you have to do this frequently – is just reset your hearing. Your ear is the weakest link in the audio chain, and it changes. Its effectiveness changes from minute to minute, and the more you use it, the more tired it gets. That’s one of the reasons why a lot of audio and radio tends to be overhyped on the top end and overhyped on the bottom end and compressed. It’s because the ear simply gets fatigued. Go reset your hearing. Go outside. Sit down in a nice, quiet area and just listen. Listen to the wind across the grass. Listen to the wind in the leaves in the trees, the dog barking three blocks away, the squad car that you can hear a quarter of a mile down the road. See if you can actually hear the train passing in the next town. You should be able to. Reset your hearing and do that at least a couple of times a day. It may take 10 or 15 minutes, but it will make a dramatic difference in the way you mix your audio.
JV: You had a life-threatening traffic accident back in the 80’s. Having survived that, how did that experience change your attitude about your work, your career?
Peter: Well, that’s not the first time I faced death. I’ve faced death three times so far. That one was probably the least traumatic of the three. One of the things that facing death will do for you is it will pretty much electrify you with clarity about what’s really important. It won’t make necessarily a dramatic change in your life long term because the effects of that kind of wear off, so you have to face death regularly. [Laughs] That’s not a strategy that I recommend because eventually it’s going to win. You can only face down the Reaper a couple of times!
But I found that parts of me did not survive, that I had far less tolerance for bullshit. That I had a lot more willingness to stand up and say no, I’m not going to do this because this is a stupid idea. That I wasn’t willing to do some things any more for my career; that I was more focused on the things that really matter and less focused on the trivia that most people hold to because they don’t understand the things that matter.
One of the things you’ll experience in radio, if you’ve been in radio any length of time, is that everybody has prejudices that they’re absolutely married to, and those are their biggest limitations. Things are done in a certain way because they’re done in a certain way because somebody said so; not because they work, not because they’re necessarily more functional than anything else. It’s because this is the way it’s done. This is the way we want to sound. You have to have an optimizer. You have to have a maximizer, a squashinator or whatever the hell it is on your mic chain because that’s what somebody does in Los Angeles. That’s fine for them. It’s not necessarily fine for you. It’s not necessarily fine for radio. It’s just what somebody else does.
You get to a point where you start to find your own way. When you face a life-threatening circumstance you find that your own path is different than other people’s… and that’s okay. So you tend to go in a way that is more satisfying for you, at least in the short term. If you don’t reset the clocks fairly often you’ll wind up drifting back into old habits fairly quickly, but you’ll find that you will soon end up in a place where you didn’t expect to find yourself. You will find that you are now into the road less traveled by, that you are hacking away at underbrush that you didn’t expect to see. And that’s kind of clarifying. It’s kind of illuminating. It’s kind of refreshing. You get out of McDonald’s and you start going into home-cooked Creole, or you stop buying Fords and Chevys and you start buying Tatras -- just anything that’s different, anything that’s unique, anything that you haven’t tried before. At least in the short term, you find that you’re trying new things.
One of the things that I always wanted to do was fly. My grandfather was a pilot, and I became enamored of aviation. He would take us up for rides, and I would fly wherever I could and hang out at airports and talk to pilots. One day I just started my training. I was married at the time and my wife just about had a fit. At one point we had to move and during the move she threw out all my log books, so I had to start over. Just about the time I was ready to solo again, I had to move again because we got another radio job someplace else and she threw out my log books again. Eventually I got rid of her and things kind of settled down and I had the money and I had the time and I wasn’t going anywhere. I was coming back from a session in the city and I literally made a U-turn on the Dan Ryan Expressway. I rode down to the Lansing Airport and walked into Sun Aero Helicopters and said, “Let’s start on Tuesday. Here’s a check.” And I learned to fly helicopters.
JV: Why helicopters?
Peter: I’ve always wanted to fly, and I’ve always liked helicopters. I never missed Sky King when I was a kid because I mean first of all, the T-50 Bobcat was a really interesting airplane. It was way underpowered and it literally was tissue paper and balsa wood, but it was a really interesting-looking airplane, those big radial engines and that big brown snub nose. It just looked like a classic airplane.
But I never missed an episode of The Whirlybirds when that came out. Something about that device that could take off vertically and back up that just caught my imagination. I had an erector set and I built a cockpit out of my erector set of a helicopter and flew my bedroom all over the world when I was a kid. And when I started to actually train, flying a helicopter is such a unique experience that it will freak you out the first time. If you’ve flown in an airplane and you’re used to it and you think flying is a really cool thing, get into a helicopter. The pucker mark will never come out of that seat. And the first time they do a high hover, you’ll be curling your toes for fear that your shoes are going to fall off through the floor of that aircraft all the way down to the highway below. But man, there is just nothing like it. And launching a helicopter…
I also do aerial photography, and it’s not uncommon for me to be sitting in a harness outside the aircraft on the skid with my camera taking pictures at 80 knots. And that is a really good day.
JV: Any parting words of inspiration for the production folks in those rooms?
Peter: If you’re going to do something, commit to it. Don’t do anything halfway. It doesn’t matter what it is. If you’re producing a promo and you’re under a deadline and you just want to get something out fast and dirty, don’t. Commit to it. Put the best elements, put the best of yourself into a project. Put the best of your polish on the project so that when that thing hits the air you probably won’t recognize it, and that’s when you know you’re really doing something right. When you can walk through a room of radios playing your voice and you don’t recognize it, you know you’re doing it right.
Peter welcomes your correspondence at