R.A.P. Interview: Willy B

Willy B, TVforRadio, Woodbury, CT

Willy-B-2

By Jerry Vigil

To say the least, Willy B has had an interesting career life. When we last checked in with Willy 12 years ago, he had left a 12-year stint in the construction business to jump back into radio, and quickly found himself as the Creative Services Director at a 4-station CBS cluster in Boston, playing in a facility equipped with nine Orban DSE 7000s. Since then, Willy B has left the comfort of those regular checks for yet another daring adventure, TVforRadio. Willy has taken what he knows about radio and radio production, mixed it up with the latest tools in the video production world, added some solid business sense, and he’s now living a production guy’s dream, producing video for radio from his studio in the Connecticut mountains. Check out Willy’s website at TVforRadio.net for lots of video samples, and check out this month’s RAP CD for some audio from Willy featuring some of the biggest voices in the industry.

JV: In our last episode, you were in Boston, Creative Services Director for a four-station cluster there and doing some pretty serious freelance work as well. Tell us how you ended up leaving the radio gig.
Willy: Well, I may have left those stations, but I never have really left radio. Radio is just in my blood as I’m sure it’s in yours and anyone’s reading this article. I was with CBS until just beyond 2000, right after the big Y2K scare. Then I decided to pursue the freelance career full time. So with that in mind, I moved to New York City and spent probably seven years there. Then this past February, after living in New York downtown for seven years or so, and in downtown Boston for the eight years before that, I thought it made sense to move into the country. So now we’re Connecticut hillbillies living up in the mountains of Connecticut about an hour and a half north of New York and a couple hours south of Boston. I’ve set up a video/audio studio here at the house, and with today’s technology we’re able to put together audio imaging and television commercials and ship it all off digitally so it can get disbursed over a network called Vivex or DGS, depending on what the client’s looking for. I get to hang out in my pajamas and drink coffee all day and service my clients until they’re satisfied.

JV: That sounds like every production person’s dream!
Willy: It’s really a lot of fun. However, one of the things about pushing through on your own career, you think, “oh, I can set my own hours now. I’m no longer locked into a clock. But boy, that clock seems to all of a sudden become a 24/7 clock. But you know what? I love it. I love the business. I always have, and God willing we’ll be playing here for quite some time to come.

JV: When did the idea to venture into video come about? 
Willy: Well, I was sitting around with a programmer, a legendary programmer I dare say now, Greg Strassell. He was my boss back in Boston. This was before he grew to the ranks of VP for Programming for CBS nationwide. We were trying to put together an idea for a TV commercial, and had reached out to a few of the people that do the TV. There’s probably half a dozen different companies across the country that make TV commercials for the radio industry. We just couldn’t seem to come up with the one that we really wanted to put it together. So I said, “Hey, give me the weekend. Let me take a couple of promos that I’ve just put together and see if I can throw some images to them,”

And lo and behold a couple days later we had a test group come into the station, and they polled our P1 listeners at the meeting. We threw my commercial in with a half a dozen other commercials, and the one that I had produced was given the highest ratings by the test audience, hands down. So I scratched my head a little bit and thought, “Hmm. This might be an interesting road to take with my radio imaging,” and I haven’t looked back since. That was in 1999 or 2000.

JV: Had you just gone out on your own at this point?
Willy: No. I was burning the midnight oil right around the clock seven days a week. At this point in the late ‘90s, the Mix format was really taking off, and thanks to Greg Strassell he basically gave me the majority of my freelance work. And while I was doing that, I believe it might have been Tony Bristol, at the old 92 PRO-FM in Providence, Rhode Island -- a legendary station that goes way back --Tony needed a commercial done. I said, “Give me four or five days. Let me see what I can come up with, and the only thing that I need to get from you would be the song list that you’d like to use, a list of your top 10 artists so we can feature them in the commercial, and a sense of who we’re really trying to direct this commercial to. What’s the demographic we really want to hit hard so we can cause these viewers of television to turn on your radio station?”

With that information, off I went, and I have been working with Tony Bristol and 92 PRO-FM ever since, and quite a few other Citadel stations, now ABC stations across the country.

So I still find myself starting all of my projects the same way that I did when I was working in radio full time, and that’s with a good audio image 30-second piece. And once we have that nailed down, then I just start putting pictures to the audio portion of it. After a while, I just found a nice little niche in the business and opened up the business “TVForRadio”. Since that, I have used minimal marketing and mostly word of mouth to get the business. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, I’ve been in the business now for so long that I have a long list of friends that are still in the business, so that’s a great asset.

JV: So TVForRadio was officially kicked off in ’99?
Willy: It was officially kicked off in early 2000. It started off with a little company called WillyWood.com to kind of play on the Hollywood thing a little bit. But then I wanted to be more direct. I thought, why not come up with a name that speaks to exactly what I do so it doesn’t leave any questions whatsoever. And TVForRadio was born at that time.

JV: And luckily, the URL was available.
Willy: Yes, it was. I was lucky and I believe that one of them – either the “.net” or the “.com” may have been unavailable, so I played the waiting game, and when it became available I scooped that up too. So now, whether you go to .net or .com, you’ll end up at TVForRadio with probably 100 plus commercials that you can take a look at. And those aren’t even all the work that I’ve done so far.

JV: I take it those first couple of years, you were probably doing better than a lot of people who make that break from radio. You had a lot of clients going for you already to replace that regular check you used to get.
Willy: Well, the breakaway from the regular incoming check was a little nerve wracking. I have to be quite honest with you. At that time, radio was starting to change. We were right around the corner from the introduction of the iPod and that sort of thing. But I had had a short list of clients that I had been doing work for, and it was probably two months of scratching my head thinking, “Okay, let’s see... hopefully the phone’s going to ring sooner or later.”

And lo and behold the phone did ring, and the call came in from Buzz Knight from Greater Media. At that time, they were looking to realign the sound and feel of a station in Philadelphia called WMGK, a legendary classic rock station. Buzz had turned to me for a little bit of help with that. Because we needed to do so much, I actually reached out to another producer by the name of Sal D’Leao who had worked at WNEW and I believe currently works at Sirius. We also teamed up with some great voices, including someone who was brand new the radio voiceover industry but has been around the commercial industry for a long time. That guy’s name is Zac Fine, and we know him from way back: “Three out of four dentists recommend…,” and that sort of thing. You can hear him every day now on commercials. But WMGK was his first foray into radio VO work. We also used a fellow by the name of Beau Roberts out of the West Coast, and the female talent was Lynn Hoffman.

We signed on for a one-month situation until they found themselves a Creative Services Director, and nine months later we were still there imaging WMGK from afar. It was really interesting to know that we had two producers in New York City, both working out of home studios, and VO talent scattered across the country, and were able to put together ‘MGK. The ratings soared, and they’ve been doing great ever since. We relinquished those duties after nine months of service.

Then, shortly after that, Greater Media decided to flip a format in Philadelphia; that was BEN-FM. They were looking to do the entire kit and caboodle for BEN from on-air imaging all the way to television campaigns. So I was fortunate enough to land all of that and worked with the great folks at Greater Media. We launched BEN-FM probably in 2003 or 2004, and they’ve been doing great ever since. Occasionally I’ll get the phone call from them and put together a TV spot. I recently helped them put together a spot for their new station in Philadelphia called 97.5 NOW-FM. We just did a Christmas commercial for them.

I’ve been very, very fortunate. When things seem to be getting lean, the telephone call always seems to come in from somewhere in the country, whether it’s Bakersfield, California or Boston, Massachusetts or somewhere in between. I’ve built a nice little client base, and fortunately they’ve kept me fed and in slippers.

JV: What services do you offer now?
Willy: The primary service that I offer would be television commercials for the radio industry. And above and beyond that I find that in today’s tough times it also helps if a lot of the sales forces have a bit more ammunition. So if someone needs a visual sales presentation, I’m there to do that for them. If an awards banquet is right around the corner and this is something that someone wants to do visually, I’ll either do an awards presentation or I’ll do a montage to kick off the host.

We recently roasted Peter Smyth at the Bayliss roast last year held in New York City, and we did a five-minute piece to kick off the evening’s event. That really went quite well. In addition to that I still find myself doing some radio imaging, though the competitive field of radio imaging seems to be a lot larger than it once was, where a lot of these radio stations now are going out of house. Fortunately for a lot of really great creative guys and gals, there are opportunities out there where they don’t have to be in the station’s facility to still do quite well.

As a matter of fact, I was recently on your website and had noticed, basically, the all stars of radio production on there as the RAP Network. That’s a quite impressive list of names you have on there, and a lot of those folks are now finding that they can work the same way that I am, in my PJs and t-shirt, and get the work taken care of in a timely manner -- sometimes even quicker than someone in-house.

I’ve also started designing websites for other people. I did both my sites at TVforRadio.net and WillyWood.com, and I’ve begun to build sites for VO and production talent. Two I’ve done so far are www.lynnhoffmanvo.com and www.robschuller.com.

JV: Tell us about your creative team.
Willy: At this point, you’re speaking to the team. Everything for TVForRadio and WillyWood.com is all done right through here by me. And when we do need to reach out, I traditionally will use the voice over talent from the station that I’m doing the work for.

But if you’re looking for a list of names of the who’s who, whether dead or alive, I’ve had the fortunate and great luck to work with some of the big ones. On the short list of people that are unfortunately no longer with us, there’s Chuck Reilly and Don LaFontaine. We were mixing in Boston, and I could be corrected on this somewhere, but I believe we were the very first radio station to employ Don LaFontaine as a full-time radio imaging talent. We did that in the late ‘90s when he was really hitting his movie stride. I was quite saddened to hear of his passing a few months ago.

I’ve also had the chance to work with legends like Bill Wendell and Percy Rodriguez. I guess the one fellow I never really did have the chance to work with was Ernie Anderson; there are so many legendary stories about Ernie.

Some of the other VO guys that I work with, and probably on a regular basis simply because I work with their radio stations, are people like John Pleisse, Randy Reeves, Randy Thomas, Vic Caroli, James Justice. And some of the Program Directors now that I find I keep getting the call from include Tony Bristol, Scott Mahalik, who’s out on the West Coast and currently programming a couple of Wolf stations, 95.7 the Wolf in San Francisco and 100.7 the Wolf up in Seattle.

So our voice bank is all over the place, but the production is all me. [phone rings] …and can I ask you just to hold for one second? [Willy takes phone call.]

Willy: You know it’s funny; I have to hearken back to the very first issue of RAP. And if I’m not mistaken, I believe your very first article or the feature article was something along the line of dealing with salespeople, last minute production. [December 1988 RAP – “Dealing With Sales: Last Minute Production”] Not much has changed. That was a phone call that I just got from a client who needs their commercial on half a dozen TV stations tomorrow, and they need to get it out there today. So the second that I hang up with you…. Things do not change. It doesn’t make a difference what market size, large or small. This particular one is a top 10 market and things just don’t change. It’s so funny.

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JV: In our last chat 12 years ago, you talked about how you worked extra hard at organization and had acquired some pretty aggressive business techniques from back in your construction years and applied them to your freelance business. I’m sure those business skills have carried you forward. What insight on this level would you offer the guy or gal that’s thinking about opening up his or her own business?
Willy: That’s a great question, and here’s some of the advice that I seem to have doled out over the years. You can be creative, and everyone is looking for the greatest creative currently available, but without organizational skills, it just isn’t going to come together if you’re looking to do this as a full-time business on your own. As we’re speaking right now, I’m looking at four different computer monitors. On one computer monitor I have a commercial rendering. On the other monitor I’m uploading new files via Dreamweaver to an FTP for a website. And yet on another one I am looking over a final script for a commercial that needs to be done and taken care by the end of this week.

Now, there are many ways to go about this. I have found the most satisfying and easiest way over the years is to have two boxes: an In Box and an Out Box. There’s nothing more satisfying than to see it get all the way down to the bottom of that In Box. But without organizational skills it’s almost impossible.

What I did find when I was working in commercial radio is that if you put a system in place, if it’s a good system, it will run itself and you don’t need to be there to run it. That’s one thing that a lot of people seem to need to let go of is the sense that they have to have complete 100 percent control. Even when you have your own business, you’re never going to have 100 percent control. Your computer’s going to crash. Your electricity’s going to go out. Someone’s going to call and needs it yesterday. They don’t care about your other client list.

So organizational skills play a key role in that. If I’m able to go back three years to a spot that a client would like to run again, I can do that within 30 seconds just by looking into a database and seeing where this particular commercial is archived. I’ve got stacks of hard drives archived in a climate controlled room so that all I need to do is reach over with a USB cord and plug it right into my editing computer right now.

But without the organizational skills, creativity sometimes can just flounder. You’ll also be able to stay a lot more focused too if you know that everything is in good order and you’re keeping a schedule. Whether it’s a BlackBerry or whether it’s an old-fashioned wall calendar, look to those tools to help stay organized.

You’ll find that the more organized you become, oddly enough, the more money will find its way to you because through organization you’re able to service more clients. If you’re servicing more clients and you’re doing the job correctly, organization is vital. And I think that you would find this with any rock solid Production Director that’s out there making a living at doing this.

JV: What are the parallels between audio imaging for radio and video imaging? What things crossed over from the audio realm that you apply to the video side?
Willy: Well, everything starts in my world completely different than where a video editor would start. I would say that if you were to interview 99 video editors, they’re all going to tell you that the first thing they do is lay down picture -- here’s the picture; okay, now let’s go find some stock audio to put to it.

The one thing that you’re going to find on my site, and the one thing that I have continued to do is always start a TV commercial with an audio bed. And if it’s a CHR or an Urban station, boy that’s when I really get to have fun, even in today’s Country, because you get to mix in three or four or five songs with a lot of audio elements; and as you bring that over into the video, you find the job that much easier because really, all you need now is to lay picture over the audio that you’ve already laid down.

And let’s face it; every good Creative Director sees their promo in their audio mind, if you will, and radio has always tried to paint pictures with the audio medium, going way back to Bob Hope and before that. Think of Charlie McCarthy and his dummy. A lot of guys reading this may not even know who I’m talking about, but this is a guy who had the radio show on the night “War of the Worlds” happened some 70 years ago. And because there were so few radio programs on at the time, they were listening to Charlie McCarthy and his wooden dummy on the radio, missed the opening disclaimer for “War of the Worlds” and thought that we were under attack.

So, really good audio is a visual medium. We have to paint pictures, and the whole thing starts with audio production for me.

JV: To what extent are some of your clients using video to image their stations on the web other than simply putting their TV spot online?
Willy: Well, here’s the thing. Because of today’s budget, the first thing to go unfortunately, or at least one of the first things to go, seems to be an advertising budget. So when I saw that coming three or four years ago I decided to reach out to my client base and say, “Hey, you know what? Your website is going to become very visual. You’re going to be getting offers. People are going to be coming to you offering to put their music videos on there. People are going to be coming to you trying to sell their televisions,” and this sort of thing. “Why not market the number one product we have, which is our radio signal? Put it on your website and let’s make a commercial specifically geared for your website.” And if that’s a full-blown video commercial with audio, so be it. If it’s a flash animation just talking about your most recent on-air promotion, let’s do that.

I was just on the phone the other day and had done some work for Scott Maholik out in San Francisco and Seattle. I made him a dancing Santa with a little cowboy hat on because, even though they may not be the official Christmas station in San Francisco, they certainly celebrate Christmas. Scott came up with a terrific idea and said, “Let’s take your dancing Santa and apply a little countdown clock to him: how many days until Christmas?”

So we went and put that together, and now their viewers and listeners are going to be able to go to the website and download this little dancing Santa with a countdown clock on it showing how many days until Christmas. This is something they will be offering to their listeners to download to their MySpace or their Facebook or their Bebo or their desktop. And by clicking on the little dancing Santa it takes them directly to the website. Really it’s almost an invaluable -- and viral seems to be a big word these days -- way to bring listeners back to your radio station that may have never even heard of your radio station. So I think it’s very important that a lot of programmers and operation managers see how visual radio has become.

JV: With audio, both imaging and commercials, we all know that the message is the key. It all starts with the copy. Is that the same or different when it comes to making a video promo? You’ve got the visual there so it’s much more powerful than audio can be sometimes, but is the copy still key?
Willy: Copy is key. Everything starts with the copy. It really does. And with television, the only difference that I can see is that we have a few more copywriters involved. Because of the value and expense of marketing, I find that a lot of stations not only include their Creative Services Director, but now will also be talking with the Program Director, the Operations Manager, the consultant, the consultant’s consultant, and everybody wants to make sure that the copy is exactly right.

It’s not uncommon for me to build a spec spot around copy they may either have on file or something that they’ve asked the talent to do, and return that spec spot and then fine tune the commercial even more. There have been some occasions where I was able to nail it right out of the gate, and then there are other occasions where we’ve had to do as many as six different revisions so that we’re getting the copy and we’re getting the graphics exactly to the client’s needs.

The goal is, after all, to find ourselves in a popular television show… 15, 30 seconds. Up comes a radio station commercial, and we really want to drive that into cumulative listening, and we want our P1s to recognize the fact that we’re on the air.

This may get away from your question a little bit, and certainly sound like a sales pitch on my side, but I think now more than ever it’s such an important time to get your radio station in front of potential new viewers. Everything is so fragmented right now that not only is it good for you to get your logo and message in front of people, but it also reinforces to the people that you’re selling advertising time to, that you’re investing in your investment. We‘re out here letting people know that we’re trying to get the job done, and this is who we are so that we can stretch your advertising dollars even further.

That’s my sales pitch for the day.

But it really is important. You know it and your readers have known that it’s become such a fragmented audience now, from viral to visual to web to HD to satellite. The more ways that we can get our clients’ logos out there – and when I say “we” I’m talking about our clients -- the better opportunity we’re going to have to be recognized, not only in Arbitron but now soon, I understand, the new Nielson Radio Ratings. Even the ratings game has become more fragmented.

JV: When I say success story, what’s one that comes to mind, one that had some unexpected or unusually great results?
Willy: I would have to mention one that dates back now seven or eight years when I first got the phone call saying, “We’re thinking about doing something kind of crazy; we’re thinking about the day after Thanksgiving throwing the switch and going all Christmas.” Well, since that day and since that original phone call, the surprising results that have come in the following Arbitron, to see what this All Christmas does was just remarkable the first time. And the fourth quarter, which was always traditionally a little slower season, has now really turned into a very, very busy season to get those fall numbers.

To see what the Christmas impact has done to the industry over the years, well, it speaks for itself. There are stations now flipping to all Christmas music the day after Halloween. I don’t know if it’s just that we’re in real need of some jolly times these days, or if this Christmas switch really does seem to drive a good revenue. So the biggest surprise has been that.

JV: Do you continue to have clients that you do All Christmas imaging for?
Willy: Oh, absolutely, and in every size market. We have found year in and year out that the Christmas marketing has really been very beneficial. It’s been my goal to attempt to do something similar to the old Christmas stories that we grew up with as kids based around animation.

The one that seems to get everyone’s attention this year that I’ve been quite happy with is this dancing Santa I have dancing around Christmas trees and whatever environment the client would like to put them in. It seems to really work out well, not only for the client but also for me for the following year. “Oh, this is the company that did this commercial. Well, let’s give him a call and see how far we can stretch this.”

And as you had asked a little earlier, for those that don’t have the marketing budget for television, that’s okay. I can still cut a commercial that’s going to fit their budget and that they may only use on their website. But it’s still a great way for them to get out. And in today’s technology I found that sometimes these spots end up on YouTube and other sharing networks as well.

Speaking of that, the biggest surprise I had this year was from a client who made a call and said, “Hmm, you might want to check this commercial out on YouTube,” And sure enough, I went to YouTube and there was one of my commercials word for word, frame for frame, and wouldn’t you know that it wasn’t my commercial? They say imitation is flattery; what is it when they steal your work and post it up as their own? So that was a little shocking, but it was taken care of with a quick phone call.

But other than that, there’s just no way really to lose. I’ve been very fortunate when it comes to television marketing. When radio stations advertise, the numbers reflect the marketing. It happens time and time again. It’s a very, very rare occasion that I see that we’ll go out and put together a full-blown campaign and not see a positive move in the ratings.

JV: Any parting advice for anyone who might be a bit inspired by your story?
Willy: Anyone that’s thinking about doing this, the software is available now to everyone, and the cost of computers and today’s technology is well within reach of anyone. Before you decide to venture out, know that this is a very competitive field right now. The smartest and best way for someone to move forward would be to have at least one or two freelance customers that they could shore up with a contract. What I mean by that is everyone these days in radio signs an annual contract for a service. There is absolutely no reason, if someone is looking forward to starting a new creative services business, why you shouldn’t reach out and sign an annual contract with potential clientele. That way they can secure a bit of their future as they take that first step into what can be a scary situation, especially now.

Now I’m just talking about going out on your own in the audio end of things. As far as video goes, I’d say don’t do it. There are enough of us doing it already. That can be said too for the radio business as well, but there are a lot more radio stations that need Creative Services Directors than there are radio stations looking to put together TV spots. I wish it were the other way around, but that’s not the case.

Whether it’s visual or audio, I think you’re going to see a lot more creative service guys and gals get into a visual medium, whether it’s just for web animation or whatever the case may be. It could be just for their very own website. But you’ll need to be up to date with the latest technology. Be prepared to lock yourself in a closet for many hours with books. I didn’t know the first thing about Flash. I didn’t know the first thing about uploading. I didn’t know anything about FTPs. I didn’t know any of this eight, nine years ago. Now I feel I’m at the point where I could probably write a book about Dreamweaver, how to animate in Flash, how to make the most out of After Effects, how to make the most out of ACID and all of that.

But be prepared to throw some time in to self educate with whatever software you really need to understand, and put a little time in there for marketing as well. You’ll find that the creative will eventually pay off.

JV: That’s something that really changed in the analog to the digital transition. Back in the analog days, you could only push that reel-to-reel so far. A lot of people probably don’t realize how deep you can get into the software these days, and the cost for what you get is just amazing.
Willy: If we’re talking someone who is just starting out in this and they’re new to this because they haven’t had a chance to research this, for less than $1,000 now you can find yourself into a full-fledge recording studio. You may not have the nicest microphone. You may not have the nicest outboard gear. But with $1,000 there’s no reason you can’t go out and get software and get set up. It’s inexpensive. Sony has a line called Sound Forge and Vegas, very similar to the Adobe products, very similar to the old SAW. And you can get into these consumer level software programs now for $69. You can get a computer, a laptop computer or a desktop computer, for $600 to $800.

The only thing you need after that is a short list of clients. Once you start building your client base, the 24-hour clock and the sky are the only limits, all depending on how much time you’re willing to put into that.

♦ 

Our thanks to Willy for this month’s enjoyable return visit. Willy welcomes your correspondence at WillyB1111@aol.com. For more info and demos, check out his websites at www.tvforradio.net and www.willywood.com.  

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