R.A.P. Interview: Don Lawler

Don Lawler, President, Airborne Radio, Memphis, TN

by Jerry Vigil

Don-LawlerIs there life after radio? If you're in production, the answer is yes. This month we visit with former WHBQ Production Director Don Lawler, who has successfully run his own business for over six years since leaving WHBQ. Originally called Sound Ideas, Airborne Radio is Don's expanding business which recently teamed up with three other companies to form The Production Group. This co-op has proven to be beneficial for everyone involved. Join us as we get a glimpse at the road Don has traveled and get a few tips on finding that life after radio.

R.A.P.: What is your radio background?
Don: It all started in Jonesboro, Louisiana at KTOC. I went to a broadcast school in Houston, then worked at KTOC as a disc jockey for about a year and a half. While I was there, I became good friends with the owner of the station who was also the engineer and had built the AM and FM from scratch. That got me interested in engineering, and I started doing a little studying on my own.

From there I went to New Iberia, Louisiana to KNIR for just a few months. I didn't have quite the sound they wanted, I guess, so after a few months they let me go. I called across town and they just happened to have a real nice drive time position open at KANE which was the number one station in town. I got the job and stayed there for about a year and a half. This is where I started getting a love for production. There was a guy there named Charlie Young that had worked in some good sized markets and had come home to roost. I picked up a lot of production tips and skills from him. After the station would sign off at night, I'd hang around till two or three in the morning fooling around in the studios.

I started saving money to put together a little production studio of my own at home. I was making such a small amount of money at the time that I couldn't really afford any fancy gear, but I got a few little pieces to play with. I also got a little more familiar with engineering while I was at KANE.

After moving around to a few stations, I noticed that the engineers ate regularly and ate well, and the disc jockeys didn't. Plus, the disc jockeys travelled an awful lot, so I decided to go back to school and work on the engineering. I called a friend of mine in Memphis and said I wanted to come back home and go to school. He didn't have a job for me at the time, but a few weeks later he called and said he had an opening doing weekend news. I came back and did that for a while, went to school, and ended up working at several stations during that period of time.

In 1976 I got my first real official engineering job at WHBQ. Back then, WHBQ was part of the RKO General chain, and it was number one in the market. It was exciting because I got to work with Rick Dees and the Cast of Idiots and a whole crew of really talented people. I started out as an engineer, and my assignment was to do fill-in while the older engineers were taking their vacations and to be Rick Dees' personal engineer. I did that for a few months, and when Rusty Black, who was the Production Director, went to Houston, they asked me to be the Production Director. They knew I had some production skills, could do voice-overs, and had on-air experience plus the engineering background, so it worked into just a beautiful job. I loved it and stayed there for about six and a half years as Production Director.

R.A.P.: Is this the point at which you began looking at going out on your own?
Don: Right. There were a few agencies that needed to get some work done for their clients. We were running the spots, so they came in to get them produced with me. We built a nice relationship, and they started wanting me to do more work for them. We had some new management come in, and they didn't want me doing all this agency work. They wanted me doing more production of promos and that sort of thing. I had been saving some money while I was doing VO's for people, and each time I did something, I'd put it in a little kitty. I finally bought enough equipment that I could actually produce at home. I had a little 4-track set up with some Tascam gear. I took a bedroom, padded it, and fixed it up to be a studio. I put a voice booth in a closet. I worked out of the house while working at the station for about a year, then it got to a point where I was making enough free-lance money that I thought, "Heck, I'm just going to go for it." So I quit the station and started a full time business. That was Sound Ideas. I incorporated in February of '82.

R.A.P.: Did you have a pretty nice studio at the house by the time you left WHBQ?
Don: Yea, I really did. I probably had more toys than most radio stations did at that time. It was still a 4-track studio, but I could do anything that any of the stations could do.

R.A.P.: How did you get from the bedroom/studio at home to studios in town?
Don: Eventually, I moved the home studio to an office in an area of town where a lot of studios are. Business rocked along, then a year and a half ago, I came up with an idea to start something we're calling The Production Group.

What this group did is move into probably the highest rent district in the city. My philosophy is that when everyone else zigs you zag, and it has paid off for us very well. We moved into one of a couple of skyscrapers out in east Memphis where a lot of the bigger more progressive companies are. There are a lot of major hotels around us plus good shopping, restaurants, and entertainment.

Basically, The Production Group is a co-op. We are independent businesses, and each one of us an individual operator. We share office space. We share the rent, secretarial duties, and that sort of thing. That gives us some nice amenities at an affordable rate.

R.A.P.: How many businesses make up this Production Group?
Don: There are four of us, including myself. As of this week, we've got a gal coming in that's going to be doing desk-top publishing. That doesn't fit in with everything else we're doing which is broadcast oriented, but June's desk-top publishing will allow us to offer to corporate accounts one place to get all their production done -- radio, television and print.

R.A.P.: What do the companies in this co-op do?
Don: My company specializes in radio production and radio advertising. One of the companies handles on-site recording and cassette duplication, and I think he's going to get into reel-to-reel duplication eventually. Of course, that will help me when we start handling accounts that want serious amounts of dubs. One fellow has a MIDI room, and he handles a lot of our jingle work. I do jingle work also, but he's here to handle any kind of overflow that I have in the jingle area. He came from the William B. Tanner Company years ago, so he's got a good background in doing that sort of thing and it's real helpful. Then we've got another fellow in here that's doing video productions. Most of his work is really corporate, but some of my commercial accounts are talking about doing some television. I'll farm that out to Dan. I don't want to water down my position as a radio expert. That's the Production Group.

R.A.P.: How are you marketing yourselves locally?
Don: It's a two phase marketing plan. We have someone that is going out representing The Production Group and primarily calling on corporate accounts. Then, individually, we're going out and selling our own services. Eventually, hopefully by March or April, I'll have a salesperson out there just selling Airborne Radio.

R.A.P.: Does Airborne produce for radio stations or is your work mainly for advertisers?
Don: We mainly produce for advertisers. About eighty percent of our work is with businesses that are large enough to have in-house agencies. About twenty percent of our business is with local ad agencies. So our work is mainly for advertisers, but I do have a couple of radio stations that we have produced for in the past. AE's have had clients that want to get on the air, and they've needed something special in a hurry. They've come to me for that. I'll go out with them, sit down with their client, and basically handle it like an ad agency, developing a campaign that will really get some attention. I really haven't approached that market that much, and that's one of the things I'm going to do next, try and offer that service to the radio stations.

R.A.P.: Hiring a company like yours is a great way for a station to get good spots without adding pressure to their present production staff or hiring someone else full time.
Don: Exactly. It's a win-win situation for everyone.

R.A.P.: Do you think stations will pay as much for production as an advertiser will?
Don: Yes and no. I really charge according to the client. I have done some spots where it was a small station and their clients were not used to paying very much. Within reason, I lowered my rate. I've found that every time I lower my rate too much, it comes back to haunt me. So we've tried to set a standard, and if the client wants to work with us on our rates, as long as it's a reasonable rate, we'll work with them on it. For the most part though, we get our going rate.

R.A.P.: What are those rates?
Don: About the lowest amount we'll do a spot for, where we are actually sitting down with the client, learning something about them and creating a campaign, would be about $250 a spot. That's the low end. The rate card is $375 for that kind of service. When you start adding additional talent and that sort of thing, the rate obviously goes up. If a jingle is involved with the spot, and we're doing voice-over as well, it's going to hit somewhere between fifteen hundred and twenty-five hundred.

R.A.P.: Tell us a little about your jingle production.
Don: We've got a great market for jingle production. When Media General shut down, a lot of people set up their own independent jingle houses. So we've got a lot of good talent around for that. Memphis is known for its musicians, so we've got a real good pool of musicians here. We've done all sorts of jingles, everything from rap to blues to your typical A/C type of jingles.

R.A.P.: Is the jingle production being done there at The Production Group with your partner's MIDI studio?
Don: It's either done in the MIDI studio with Sparrow or right here in my studio.

R.A.P.: What do you have in the way of studios at your new location?
Don: We've got two 8-track studios equipped with the Tascam 238 and 388. The MIDI studio has 256 tracks, and that's all done with an IBM computer running the Cakewalk software. We're getting ready to change over to the Tascam 688 pretty soon. Tom, the fellow that's doing the on location recording, has the 238, but we're both upgrading to 688's so we can have twin studios. That way if one goes down, we've got a backup studio.

I'd like to say we have the AKG DSE-7000, but that's only on Santa's wish list right now. We've got a couple of Tascam DA-30's which replaced the Sony DAT machines that we had. We've got a couple of Proteus 1's which are just incredible. They're the sound chips from the Emulator III. I've got one in my studio and Sparrow has one in his. For sampling we use the Akai S-1000 which is in Sparrow's room and is being run with an IBM computer. Sparrow has a large rack just loaded with synths and samplers and things like that. He triggers the gear with a DX7-2FD. In my studio, I've got a Mirage for my keyboard which is hooked up to the Proteus. I'm using the little Alesis MMT-8 multi-track recorder for recording my sequences. It works nicely for me. It's just a good little unit. I just got a QuadraVerb a couple of weeks ago with the 16-bit sampling chip in it. It's proven to be a nice little unit. I'm using it to do my sampling now instead of the Mirage because the Mirage is just 12-bit. For compression we use the Symetrix A220's. Our amps are also Symetrix. We've got the Yamaha REX-50 which is a multi-effects unit, stereo in, stereo out. It's basically the SPX90 without as many bells and whistles. I use it mainly for my reverb and special effects. We use RE-20's for mikes, and the console is on the Tascam 388 which has the 8-track recorder built in. It's called the Studio 8. I understand Tascam has taken the board off production. If they knew what this board is capable of, they wouldn't have done that. They could have been selling it to the broadcast industry. It has balanced outs on it. It's quick to operate, and there's parametric EQ on it. I think the only short side on it is that it does not have more than eight inputs on it. That's one reason we're going to the 688. It has twenty inputs.

R.A.P.: Tell us a little more about Tom and Sparrow.
Don: Tom Mann has SRS Recording Services and does the on-location recording and duplication work. What's also nice is that Tom, Sparrow and myself are all radio people, or ex-radio people anyway. So I have some extra voices in-house that we can use. Sparrow Holt is our music guy who does the majority of the writing and plays the instruments as well.

R.A.P.: Does Airborne Radio place the radio buys for its clients?
Don: Yes, we've done that with a few of our clients. It has worked out pretty well, but it was a real experiment for me. We were asked by Central Park Hamburgers to place some buys because we had an indirect friendship with them. They asked us to help them out. They needed to do some advertising. I was a little nervous about placing the buys because of the ad agencies in town. I was afraid they might see me as competition, but we've thought that one through, and really, the ad agencies I work with are the larger, better agencies, and I'm certainly not competition for them in the media placement business. They come to me for my creative. Anyway, we handled Central Park Hamburgers and did a nice little campaign for them. They were spending about twenty-five hundred dollars a month with me, and after about three months of being on the air, their sales jumped up about fifty thousand dollars between five stores. They were real excited about that. They've been on the air for a little over a year now, and we've picked up a couple of other little accounts that we're doing time buying and creative for. One is the Putting Green which is out of town, and we've done some work for Chic-Fil-A locally.

R.A.P.: Is the time buying being done on a standard fifteen percent type deal?
Don: Yes, and we tack on production fees.

R.A.P.: How do the radio stations feel about a production house buying time?
Don: They seem to love it. In fact, I see a lot more of the AE's now than I used to. They would come in and pick up tapes, but now they call on me to sell air time. It has gotten busy enough around here that sometime this year, I'm going to have to add another producer so I can have a little more hands off the production and engineering and get more into the administrative roll of things. I still want to have my hands in the creative, however.

R.A.P.: What do you see as the biggest enemy of creative commercials on the radio?
Don: Probably just the time crunch. We have a monthly producers meeting which started about three months ago here in town, and all the producers get together and just kind of talk in general. We don't give away trade secrets and that sort of thing. In the conversations, the one thing I've noticed is -- and it made me remember why I started my own business -- the people just get buried by last minute things from the AE's, and you're cranking the spots out instead of having time to really look at a client's needs and come up with a creative campaign that will help them out. I think it's more of a "we have to write and produce a quick spot to get it on the air" type of mentality around the stations, and I think some of the creativity just gets buried in that.

R.A.P.: Who comes to these production meetings?
Don: The Production Directors for most of the major radio stations here in town. There's probably about ten stations represented. They were kind enough to invite me and a couple of folks from some independent production companies in town who are old radio guys.

R.A.P.: What's your creative process?
Don: The first thing I do is sit down and let them tell me about their business. I ask a lot of questions. Having been in business for a while and having read a lot of books about business, I know what questions to ask. I even took some extra courses at Memphis State University on business just so I would understand how the business process works. So, from being in the trenches, I'm able to ask a lot of questions, and I'm pretty pointed with my questions. I think that gives me a good feel for where they are. Then I try to find out where they want to go, and I try and take what knowledge I have and help them see a realistic goal. Everybody wants to make a million dollars their first year in business, but that's ridiculous for most people.

Then I'll do some research on the industry. Your radio AE's can really help you out with a lot of that. There is just tons of research available through them and the Radio Advertising Bureau. I pick up the trades and look at what's going on trend-wise in Ad Age and in some of the magazines like that. Then I sit down at my word processor and start typing. That's my creative process.

Now, there are also times when I'll go outside for creative. If I know a client needs a certain type of spot, there are several real good writers I've worked with through the years that I'll go to to get that certain type of spot. This has worked well for us, too. However we get the copy together, once it's done we call in the best talent we can find for the spot and produce it.

R.A.P.: Last month, we mentioned your creative press releases announcing your name change which utilized plastic soldiers with parachutes and press releases folded into paper airplanes. Tell us about that creative process and how you came up with the name, Airborne Radio.
Don: Airborne Radio came out of a combination of things. My dad was a Ranger in the Army back in World War II. Of course, later on they became the Airborne Rangers. At one point in time, I think in Viet Nam, they were the Special Forces. I've been fascinated with this, and my dad has never really wanted to talk about it. I respect him for that, and I started doing some research just to kind of find out a little more about him. So the name was a combination of my fascination with my dad's Army days plus the fact that airborne also signifies airwaves.

In addition, over the years I have been studying Reis and Trout with their "Marketing Warfare," Jay Levinson's "Gorilla Marketing," and several other books like that. Marketing really parallels military strategy. All of this gelled together, and I came up with the military type of approach to marketing with the name Airborne Radio. Then I put together a little campaign that sort of looked like a military campaign. I hope this was good timing with us now being at war overseas. I certainly didn't know that was coming.

As far as the toy soldiers and all, I have a good friend who is a good left brain thinker and very funny. He helped formulate some of the strategy and some of the future strategy for Airborne Radio. Then there is another friend that I worked with in radio years ago named Jackie Kelly, and the paper airplane was actually her idea.

R.A.P.: We received two releases from you. The first one was the paper airplane, and the second was the one with the toy soldier enclosed in the envelope. Did you do anything else to get the new name out?
Don: Yes. Actually, there was a third release which was really the first one. It was the Radio Ranger which is our newsletter. It came out looking like the front page of newspapers when you go to war: "Extra! Extra! Airborne Radio Has Landed!" That was all in big letters. Then I had a series of little articles that were tongue in cheek using a lot of military terminology. I'll read one to you. It says, "Secret Weapon Rumor Denied. Dateline Saudi Arabia. Rumors persist that Airborne Radio has devised a secret weapon to cause Saddam Hussein to turn tail and run. Sources at the Pentagon would only say that it had been working closely with Airborne Radio on something big. Our sources say it has something to do with playing lousy radio commercials at high levels. In an effort to quell the rumor, Don Lawler, Airborne's President, said, 'We may be tough, but we aren't heartless.'"

That was the type of thing that first release was, and we also had some serious things in it like one article which was titled, "What's DAT?" Then we went on to explain what DAT was and how it was the hottest thing in audio recording and that we've had it for two years now. We were the first studio in town to go with digital recording.

R.A.P.: This amounted to three mail-outs of what was basically a press release. How far apart were they and who did you send them to?
Don: I timed them a week apart, and mailed them mainly to Memphis radio stations, advertisers that I've done work with, and people that I want to do work with. At the radio stations, I sent the releases to the General Managers and the Production Directors plus a few AE's I knew the names of.

R.A.P.: It sounds like you effectively applied your marketing knowledge to your own business for a change.
Don: Right. And I will say, when we had Sound Ideas we did a lot of mailers through the years, but we were always perceived as being just another studio like the one that has been here for the past fifteen years; and if that one isn't broken, why go to the new one? So we had to come up with something that said we were different from those other folks. Even though they are a wonderful studio, we're doing something very different. That's where Airborne Radio came in. I wanted something that was going to stand out and yell to get some attention.

R.A.P.: How many new clients would you say you got from the three mail-outs?
Don: I'm glad you asked because I wanted to say that with Sound Ideas, we were never able to really track any response to our mailers. It was usually word of mouth clients that came in. With that one little campaign we got four major agencies for Airborne Radio. I'm real excited about that. As far as radio stations go, I had two AE's ask me to get them a rate sheet, and they're talking with their clients now to see if they're willing to pay for outside talent. Plus, I'm waiting to hear from a couple of other AE's who are also interested.

R.A.P.: What are you doing for production music?
Don: Most of it we take off of libraries, but when we do jingle projects, we of course do that here. We've got the Digital Director which was put out originally by Media General. We've got a few of the Century 21 libraries. We've got Generation III and the CD Library. We've got Network and Omni on a needle-drop basis and several small libraries put out by independent producers. Dan Frazier, the guy that's doing video work in the group, uses the needle-drop packages a lot, but as far as the radio market here goes, people are just not used to paying needle-drops. They balk at it, so we just keep other music around that's made for radio.

R.A.P.: So when are you guys coming out with a production library of your own?
Don: If we do, it will be a supplemental type of thing, two or three CD's. There are plenty of large libraries out there already. It would be a specialty library that would fill a niche that nobody has really addressed well, and it would be something that would be affordable.

R.A.P.: Did you, like most people making the break, fear leaving the security of the station to go out on your own, and what was the transition like?
Don: Oh, I was scared to death, but several things helped me make the break. I once actually hated sales people. I thought they were the scum of the earth, very typical of what I see in talking to most Production Directors. All they see is that AE coming in, making all that money and wanting favors at the last minute. Then someone introduced me to Zig Ziglar, and I became a big fan. I started going to seminars and getting a lot of motivational tapes. Eventually, I realized that if you don't have a sale, you don't have any business. So I started studying more about sales and found out that you don't have to be a slime ball to get out there and make a sale. I also discovered that sales is a very, very important part of growing a business. It was an evolutionary process and a combination of things that made me make the break. It was a combination of the sales education along with having my ego reinforced by agencies that were willing to come to my house after hours to get their spots done. Plus, I had also won some awards which helped boost my courage.

I remember telling my wife that I wanted to do it. She was kind of nervous at first, and I had a period of time when I was real nervous about it; but I just thought, "I want to do it. I don't want to wake up and be fifty or sixty years old and wonder if I could have done it. I'd rather go down swinging than just never know." So I just one day decided, "This is it. We're going to try it," and I jumped in.

R.A.P.: Did you make enough right off the bat to make ends meet?
Don: Well, not right off the bat. It was real tight at first, and we've had periods of time where it gets real tight. But I knew that the money I was receiving from the business was about half what I was making at the radio station at the time. I figured if I could put a hundred percent of my efforts into the business, chances were real good that I could make up that other half, and I did. So the first year, we made about the same amount I was making at the station, and it has gone up considerably each year.

R.A.P.: Any tips for anyone wanting to find 'life after radio'?
Don: Just decide that you're going to do it. And I know they say don't burn bridges, but burn them. I don't mean burn bridges in your relationships with people, but don't leave a way to retreat. You've got to go forward. My CPA told me that there's just something about having to put food on the table that is a great motivator to make a sale.

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