Scot Combs, Creative Director, KSTP-AM, St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN
by Jerry Vigil
He was a singer in a rock and roll band. He was an anchor for Metro Traffic Control. He was a drive-time DJ. Not quite the background you'd expect for the Creative Director of a news/talk station, but KSTP isn't your ordinary news/talk station. Neither is Scot Combs your ordinary Creative Director.
Kick back and enjoy this month's interview as we check in with a format we don't check into often and focus on yet another musician who has found a home in the radio production room.
R.A.P.: Let's get your background in the biz and tell us how you wound up at KSTP.
Scot: I started in this market. I've been lucky in that I haven't had to leave this market, though I've worked at several "non-existent" radio stations as far as ratings are concerned. My first job in town was at WAYL, the old beautiful music station here. It's now KLXK. I was the Traffic Manager after I got out of school. I discovered quickly that I detested traffic management. It's really high pressure with absolutely none of the glory. So I meandered off and ended up at this tiny religious station, KUXL, where I eventually became the Operations Manager. From there I moved on to a ten-thousand watt AM in Monticello which is halfway between the twin-cities and St. Cloud. From there I went to Metro Traffic for a few years and worked as midday anchor and did a split shift as morning and after-noon drive anchor on as many as thirty radio stations.
From Metro Traffic I took a couple of years off and away from the business. I was confused. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do with this darned career. So I pursued a couple of things I've always wanted to do, mainly touring in a rock and roll band, writing songs, and being turned down by record companies. Throughout my radio career I had been gigging part-time, but this was a full-time effort I made at this time.
After a couple of years of gigging, I decided it was time to get back into radio, and this time I had a plan. I wanted to be involved heavily in the creative. I wanted to use my musical skills. I wanted to work hard on production. That put me in two places: either as a Production Director or one of the morning guys someplace.
So, I went back to Metro Traffic Control for about two and a half years. I wanted to get my name out there. I worked my way back into the morning anchor spot and anchored morning traffic on television, too. I worked at The Breeze Network part-time, and then I picked up an afternoon drive slot with my best friend back at KMOM in Monticello. We worked afternoon drive as a team for about six months then applied for the morning drive position here at KSTP and we got it! That was just about two years ago.
R.A.P.: How does working for Metro Traffic compare to jocking at a radio station?
Scot: If you want visibility, there's nothing better than a gig like that. That's why I went back to Metro Traffic. I worked my way up to a point where I was on thirty radio stations and television twice a day. You can't buy market penetration like that because you'd go broke. So when my name came up for a job, everybody knew who I was. Also, I'm generally kind of bright and sort of fun. I'm real flexible to work with, and that reputation followed me around. I tried to cultivate that as well. If you're easy to work with, it's easier to get a job and keep a job. How many times do we run into the prima donnas in the business and nobody wants to work with them?
R.A.P.: You started at KSTP as part of a morning team. How did that turn into Creative Director?
Scot: About five months ago, we were fired, and I was re-hired as the Creative Director. I was fired and hired in the same conversation and received an extreme raise in pay. It was the biggest raise I had ever seen. Our new General Manager was very kind. She said, "This has nothing to do with talent or ratings. It has to do with the fact that I need to shake up the market a little bit. So, I'm going to do this," and I said, "Fine." She said she didn't want me to leave, and she handed me the production gig which I had been examining anyway. So here I sit, happy as a clam.
R.A.P.: That's an interesting way to shake up a market. What happened to the morning show?
Scot: She took the afternoon guy, who had been very popular before, and gave him a split shift. He worked in the mornings and the afternoons. All of a sudden, everybody was listening. Our sampling rate went way up. It has worked out very well. There are some day parts that are up almost one hundred percent. We increased, over that one book, what our GM had forecast for three books.
R.A.P.: Who is your GM?
Scot: Her name is Ginny Hubbard-Morris, and she's really sharp.
R.A.P.: Let's talk a little more about your musical background. What was your first gig for money?
Scot: The first paid gig I got? I was in junior high. I played for a junior high dance. After that gig, they immediately came up to the band and signed us up for every dance for the next two years.
R.A.P.: What education in music do you have?
Scot: The standard school stuff. I always took choir, and if they offered any type of guitar club or guitar class, I would take that. When I finally got to high school, I started picking up a little on the keyboards, enough to find my way around them. My mom was my dad's church organist when I was a kid, so it was sort of natural. It was something I picked up around the house. My dad played sax, so I played a little sax and trumpet. I took band in high school, and when I got into college I took some music theory classes and some more keyboard classes. From then on, it was an education gotten primarily in dive bars and strip joints.
R.A.P.: During college, were you working anywhere or just playing with the band?
Scot: I was primarily just gigging and taking my music theory classes, trying to figure out what a tri-tone was! I still can't tell you! That was always one of the big questions from the budding theory students, and it doesn't matter, basically. Most of what you learn when you're doing popular music styles you take right off the recordings, and you learn from those people. The biggest help I got out of theory was the cycle of fifths, or the cycle of fourths if you do it backwards. That helps primarily in chord structure when you're writing a tune.
R.A.P.: You have a pretty solid musical background. When did you first start using your musical skills in radio?
Scot: It was during my second stint with Metro Traffic. I was on in the mornings with Hines and Berglund at WLOL doing their traffic. We got along very well, and I was invited to do more and more bits with the guys on the air. One day I was playing with my home recording gear and came up with a jingle for their "breakfast quiz." I brought the tape to them and said, "What do you think?" John loved it, and I did a few more things for them. That sort of launched it.
R.A.P.: Tell us about this "home recording gear."
Scot: I finally had to quit gigging live because of my commitments to radio and the fact that my back had deteriorated to a point where I couldn't stand up for four hours and play. So, I decided to take some of my "live" gear, trade it in for a 4-track and things like that, and play with recording some more. I set the studio up in the spare bedroom downstairs in the basement. The equipment was pretty primitive, but you learn to work with what you've got. You learn things in steps, which is kind of nice. I learned multi-track recording in steps.
R.A.P.: Do you still have a studio at home?
Scot: No, I don't. I brought my gear to the radio station. It's a better atmosphere for me to produce in in terms of producing musical tracks. I don't have the phones ringing, and I don't have kids screaming and running through the house. All of my gear is here, and this is where I do everything for the station and even stuff that goes outside of the station.
R.A.P.: What gear does KSTP have in the studio?
Scot: KSTP's studio has a board that is ancient. It's an okay board; it's just real old. It's made by the Gotham Company. It's a Quantum something, a brand I had never heard of until I came to work here. The reel-to-reels are real nice. We have a couple of Otaris. There are three cart decks, a compressor, a turntable, a CD player, and a Tascam double-bay cassette.
R.A.P.: Any reverb or effects boxes?
Scot: Nope. All that stuff was gone by the time I got here. As I understand it, a few years ago they had a great setup with a really nice Harmonizer and everything, and some operations guy came in and traded it all, or sold it, or gave it to KSTP-TV or something. The whole studio had been torn to shreds. When I took over as Creative Director, the first thing I did was grab the engineer by the ear, haul him in and say, "Okay, we've got some work to do." We found leads that terminated no place. Other leads that terminated where they shouldn't. The patch bay wasn't functioning properly, so I had him chase that down and make that work. At that time I decided I'd bring in my gear. The station had only a very basic studio, so I dismantled my studio at home and brought everything in.
R.A.P.: Was the studio just a 2-track room when you got there?
Scot: Oh yes, and it's still 2-track because I traded off my 4-track. I brought in a delay and a reverb. The reverb is a Korg. It's a 16-bit machine, as is the delay unit. The delay is an ADA multi-effects unit. I can get flanging and doubling off of it as well as the standard echo. I also get some simultaneous effects. It's an early version of those "all in one" units. It's a 16-bit machine though, so it's fairly clean and plenty good for AM radio. I also brought in my Korg M1 synthesizer and an ADA MT-1 guitar pre-amp for my guitar.
I brought in an AKAI, midi-programmable mix bay. It takes up one rack space, and I can program it so everything comes out of it in stereo. It has seven inputs and six outs, and I can program the inputs to any of the outputs from the front panel. I brought in a stereo 15-band EQ -- not a great one, but an okay one; and I brought in a neat machine from Barcus-Berry. It's a 422: Barcus-Berry Sound Enhancement. This is one of the neatest deals I've ever seen. A lot of machines will add noise when enhancing the highs and clarifying the highs. Very often they'll chorus the upper frequencies to give you better apparent transparency on the high end. You'll hear it a lot on Brian Adams' recordings. The Barcus-Berry unit works on time alignment, and if you're familiar with the way time alignment works and what amplification does to your waveform, you know that if you can advance or retard the high end, the apparent clarity is greatly enhanced by advancing it to where it should be in the spectrum; and you don't add any noise as opposed to chorusing the upper end which is what a lot of the sound processing units do. The Barcus-Berry also has a function on it, a fifty cycle boost, which helps everything musically. It sounds wonderful. As far as sound processing goes, to clean up a sound and make it sound better, that's the best unit I've ever seen. I use the Barcus-Berry on everything that comes out of my music rack which has my keyboards and guitar amp. Everything runs through the box before it goes to the board.
R.A.P.: Is KSTP AM stereo?
Scot: Not yet, but we will be when the new transmitter gets here. I still produce everything in stereo, and if I understand what the Chief Engineer told me today, it could be the turn of the calendar year when we're on line and in stereo.
R.A.P.: No multi-track?
Scot: If you connect my M1 and my Ensoniq EPS together, you've got twenty-four tracks of sequencing which is kind of handy. I've got four megabytes of RAM in the EPS right now. I'm planning on purchasing an outboard hard disk that will give me forty megabytes. You need to buy a SCSI port for the EPS. There are companies that make that sort of stuff, after market gear, that you can get the upgrade from. The SCSI port also gives you eight meg of memory on board, then it'll also connect you to your hard drive. It's a real slick unit. It's about eight hundred bucks, so it's not desperately expensive.
R.A.P.: You have an edge over a lot of production people with your musical background in that you're knowledgeable of a lot of equipment that is out there for musicians. For radio, so much of that gear would apply, but we as "radio" people are not exposed to a lot of it.
Scot: That's true, and that caught me by surprise when I started realizing that. I've talked to some of the other Production Directors that I know around town at the music stations, and the gear they've got is okay but it's not great. The thing they do with it that I think is good is that they use it effectively, whether it's top of the line gear or not, they're using it very effectively. They could be more effective, but that takes time and curiosity.
R.A.P.: It seems that many radio stations will buy "pro" gear and place equipment for musicians in that "semi-pro" category, and who wants semi-pro? Who wants unbalanced ins and outs? It seems, however, that more of today's semi-pro gear is extremely quiet and is becoming more useful in the radio production arena.
Scot: My whole setup, all of my racks, are on unbalanced ¼-inch phone plugs, and we even get into the board that way. I have no problems with noise or ground loops. It's really surprising how quiet the setup is. To help keep things quiet, when recording, I lay music tracks to the Otari at 30 ips. Then I lay the guitar tracks on top of the other tracks simultaneously while recording.
R.A.P.: Ahhh. That's when it's nice to be a musician!
Scot: Oh, is it ever. The fact that I was a lead guitar player as well really helps out. I've done duet and solo guitar gigs. I use my acoustic guitar as well as my electric. I'm glad I played in a lot of different bands, from blues to rock and roll and from country to gospel.
R.A.P.: What advice would you have for someone without your musical background but with the desire to get that synth and sequencer in the studio and begin writing their own music beds?
Scot: Listen really hard to the radio. Most of the licks and riffs, if I didn't pick them up live from a person, I picked up by learning the songs on the radio, by listening to the tapes, records and CD's. Also, most any decent music store that handles synthesizers has a teaching program. They will have a guy that can program those things so fast it'll scare you. It might be worth about a month's worth of lessons to learn how to do things better. Music lessons aren't usually more than ten bucks for a half hour. You're talking about a forty dollar investment that could do real good things for your career.
R.A.P.: What does the position of Creative Director for KSTP entail?
Scot: Being Creative Director for KSTP puts me in charge of the on-air image of the station, primarily. Since I do my own voice work, I'm in charge of making sure all the liners and promos get done for all the different shows and special features. Then I'm in charge of quality control for our commercial production. If I hear spots that aren't up to standards, I take them back and oversee the changes.
If we get involved in a spot that requires some complex editing, then I'm called in for my production expertise. I edit music very well which is something I just learned to do in the past couple of years. I was taught by Bard Lee who's a great production guy around the cities here. Bard is fabulous at cutting music on tape. He showed me his tricks, and it's stunningly simple when you get down to it.
I usually don't voice spots. I'm the exclusive radio voice for KSTP as part of my contract -- promos and sweepers. I'm also the station voice for TV 23 in this market, and I'm pretty well locked up for commercial voice work in this market as well. In fact, I've started looking for work outside the market because of it.
R.A.P.: It sounds like the former rock and roll singer has worked himself into a nice voice-over business in the twin cities.
Scot: Yes, and that came about rather interestingly. It was back when I was still playing live a lot. The band I was in was opening for a lot of interesting acts. In one month we opened for the Guess Who (I should say the re-formed Guess Who), the original Ozark Mountain Daredevils, and a band called Striper. About that time I decided I wanted to improve my voice again, and I found the best voice coach I've ever had in my life, a guy by the name of Mike Foreman, who coaches some of the hottest voice talent for broadcast in the metro area. I got hold of him and went regularly for three or four months, and it was less than six months after I finished up with Mike that I got the job at TV 23 as their exclusive voice. The pay is really good. It's almost half what I make here at KSTP as a department head. It's a really nice gig.
Foreman made a big difference in the way I approach radio voice work as well as the way I approach singing. We improved the texture of my voice as well as my delivery.
R.A.P.: Is there a Production Director there at KSTP?
Scot: No. I would serve in that role. I have a production specialist/copywriter by the name of Jill Roen. Jill is wonderful. She has one of the most naturally sexy voices I've ever heard! The things she can do to a piece of copy are wonderful. She's got a real bright future ahead of her, and she's only about twenty-three or twenty-four right now. She handles the copywriting and does production. She's also a character on our morning drive show, Bob's Radio Basics. She's called Mercedes. Her voice constantly gets male callers with questions like, "Bob, would you describe what Mercedes is wearing, please?" and things along those lines.
R.A.P.: Does anyone else, other than you and Jill, do any production?
Scot: Maybe one other, but it's primarily Jill and I. Before I came on as Creative Director, there were really lax standards in terms of production quality. I'd see sixty-four second spots in the rack which caused problems especially during our network shows. We need things to be sixty and thirty. Those and other standards had to come up, so Jill and I handled most of the work.
I also had to upgrade the production library which was really old and outdated. That's another thing I have to thank Radio And Production for; it got me involved with those guys at Philadelphia Music Works. I love their production beds. We have No Wimps and The Cutting Edge. It's a wonderful package for us and the price is right, that's for sure.
R.A.P.: What else are you using for production music?
Scot: Because of the time I spent on The Breeze Network, I'm pretty familiar with a lot of the new age artists; and because of my own curiosity, I'm pretty familiar with some of the more offbeat music, the stuff IRS Records puts out, the No Speak stuff. It's like Wishbone Ash doing instrumental rock and roll.
I like getting the "space music" CD's. The music tends to be real epic when you want it to be. It's big and bold and has some of the greatest sounds that you don't hear on the radio. The Cinema label has a lot of this music. I can't recall the artists names, I just have several samplers from their label. Cinema, I believe, is a Capitol subsidiary. They make wonderful production beds. The No Speak sampler from IRS records is another great one to have. I found it for six bucks on CD.
I'll go out and get this music to use. I'll also cut up old rock and roll tunes and make music beds out of them. I buy everything: New age artists, old rock and roll, new rock and roll, stuff people have never heard of, and stuff people have heard all their lives. We use a mix of that.
R.A.P.: Does the issue of copyright infringement ever come up?
Scot: We pay. We pay our user fees.
R.A.P.: ASCAP and BMI have told us that the standard fee that radio stations pay does not cover using the music on commercials.
Scot: There's a slightly different rate that we pay that covers our usage. Our Operations Manager is more familiar with it than I am. With one of the licensing companies it is slightly less than what your average music station would pay, but I think it could be better. It would be nice to see a blanket fee for incidental music, which we don't have right now, but it covers our usage right now as it is. I just think it could be more affordable.
R.A.P.: Around the country, several news and talk stations are bringing in CHR Production Directors to do their production. Would you put yourself in that category?
Scot: I don't know if I'm one of those guys. Ginny once said, "It occurs to me as I listen to your show that you do an awful lot of really hot production." Her idea, at this particular talk station, is to hit harder on the male 25-54 demographic. Since I'm coming up to thirty-three years of age, I fit comfortably in that demo. She says, "You all grew up with top 40 radio and all the fun that went on. I think we need that type of creativity on our air." I can only assume from her attitude and what seems to be the attitude of this market, considering that the last book was so good for us, that other news and talk stations around the country are figuring out that it's viable, but you're going to have to be just as hot as anybody else is.
Talk radio hits hard in men, though we're seeing a real strong increase in women in our demo, too, especially in the older side of that demo, 30-54 and around in that area. It's almost like people are getting plenty of music and want more news or talk. If I want hot music, I play it at home on my CD player. When I'm in the car, I need to be informed and entertained. As a musician, I have plenty of music around me. I started listening to talk radio and quickly became addicted to it. There's a lot of fun and information to be had. I can hear music anytime I want in anyway I want. After a while, the same old stuff that's twenty years old isn't all that interesting every day. So, let's go to something that is. Rock and roll isn't just music; it's an attitude, and that's something we're trying to reflect here at the Big AM 1500.
R.A.P.: How has the war affected the radio station?
Scot: You know, as crass as it may sound, it may have been one of the better things to happen to us in a while because people are hungry for information on the war. We have pool reporters "in country" that are able to get us almost immediate updates on what's going on. What it has done for us is increase our sampling by quite a bit. We are the only station right now in the market that has updates every half hour from the ABC Information Network. Plus we take the briefings every day. To date, we get more complaints if we don't cover the briefing than if we do. The thirst for information coming from the front is enormous. WCCO isn't covering it and it's really a coup for us.
R.A.P.: KSTP has a morning show called, "Bob's Radio Basics" which sounds rather light and humorous. Did the attitude of the show change much after the war broke out? Did things get more serious?
Scot: Probably in the first days of the war we were more serious. There was more pro and con commentary going on, etc.. By about a week after the war had begun, things were pretty much getting back to normal, and Bob was making fun of the same sacred cows he was making fun of before the hostilities broke out. Bob has a tendency to be rather irreverent which is just fine. It tends to attract the men. At the same time, if there's war talk to be had, I think he handles it in a very mature fashion. I'm much appreciative of the sign he has up in the studio that says, "Death to Hussein," which is sometimes the way he'll sign off with callers: "Thank you very much. We'll see you later. Death to Hussein. Goodbye." It's a fascinating blend, and I think that's what makes it so interesting. One moment Bob may be discussing some of Miles Davis' history because we used a Miles Davis cut as a bumper, and the next moment he's discussing the pros and cons of the Persian Gulf War. After that he calls the Panty-of-the-Month Line to find out what this month's panty will be. The Panty-of-the-Month! They actually send out underwear! You can order them on a monthly basis.
R.A.P.: How is KSTP doing in the ratings?
Scot: We're number ten, twelve plus. We have a four to a five share in our demo. We're coming up out of obscurity. It's been a long time. We've had a series of let's say, ineffective GM's, to be kind -- nice people, but a few problems. Now, Ginny is here, and she's aggressive. She's talented, and she's got a vision for the future. I'll never forget the time I fell in love with her. She made one comment to me. She said, "That's not really rock and roll enough, is it?" I said, "That's it! She's our GM! This woman is alright!" She really has the attitude and it's being reflected in the response the station is getting.
R.A.P.: Tell us a little about your FM station. Is KSTP-FM in the same building?
Scot: No. We are at our old transmitter site, a building I believe was built in the fifties. The FM resides at our corporate headquarters with KSTP television. We're out in, how shall we say it, "our posh, suburban, Maplewood digs." The FM has the better facility because they've been in the top three to five stations for the past ten or twelve years. They're a big money maker. Our situation isn't bad. I've worked in worse buildings, and this building has attitude which is what I like about it. There's kind of an art deco feel to it, which I dig to begin with. It's kind of funky and fun. I like that. It gives us sort of a hip edge.
R.A.P.: That kind of attitude sounds exactly like what you need to go after the target you're shooting for.
Scot: That's what I'm thinking. If you're familiar with what happened in our Senate race in Minnesota, you'll recall that Paul Wellstone upset incumbent Rudy Boschwitz with an ad campaign that was designed to be, and I quote, "hip, quirky, and self-mocking." It worked. Ginny and I sat down as we were talking about image and she said, "I like that." I agreed and suggested that we use that approach. Be hip.
We have the most dangerous bumper music on the planet. We're talking everything from Miles Davis on the jazz side, to Hendrix. It's real cool because we can use the Beatles, the Stones, and stuff off of hit radio, if it's good.
We also kind of pride ourselves on finding things that other people can't. We'll get a hold of Lonnie Mack doing "Chained Lightning," and we'll put that on because it's cool. And we decide what is cool; our listeners go along with it. Saturday mornings, I do a CD review. I look for cool groups that aren't getting radio airplay, and I'll put them on. I won't play the whole cut, but I'll play part of one. Then I'll get calls from people saying, "Thanks for suggesting that. I bought it. My wife loves it."
I'll use from the Vaughn Brothers Family Style, "Hillbillies From Outer Space," possibly the coolest instrumental cut on there. If you listen carefully, you'll discover that the organ on the first half of the song is not an organ at all. It's a guitar played through a Leslie amplifier. It's just cool. We do a lot of blues, a lot of jazz, early rock and roll, late rock and roll, dance stuff.... It's all over the place. Bob, in the afternoon, uses David Letterman's Late Night theme as his opening music. He'll use James Brown for his opening music in the morning. "We're gonna have a funky good time!"
It's a really creative and eclectic bunch we have here, and our GM is allowing the station, within guidelines, to reflect that. It's attracting a lot of attention because it's more eclectic than anybody else, no matter what they say in their liners.
That reminds me of another fun thing we do. We rip off other station's liners and use them. "Coming up next: Guaranteed, twelve words in a row!" "Nobody plays less music!" In fact, I did a promo the other day. KQRS loves to run, "We Don't Get Fooled Again" as a music bed for their TV spots. They've been doing it for a few years with some guy playing air guitar. Well, I went and got my Who CD, found "We Don't Get Fooled Again," edited it to a thirty second bed, and did a promo rippin' them. It was kinda fun. "C'mon. We all like to pretend nothing has changed in the past twenty years, but we know that's not true, don't we? And it's fun to jump around like an idiot with your air guitar, however, you've got other needs. You're an adult. You need news. You need sports. You need weather. You need traffic..." and that sort of thing. "You wanna hear the Who? Listen to 'em at home on your CD player like I do." We do that sort of stuff with full blessings from the General Manager.
R.A.P.: It sounds like a format that is going to really work for KSTP.
Scot: I feel really good about what Ginny is doing. In the past ten years I've had two General Managers that I trust. Ginny is the second one. That one comment says it all: "It's not really rock and roll enough, is it?" It tells you that she's got attitude or she has a perception of what the attitude should be. The fact that it coincides with mine thrills me. She's going to be considered innovative because of it, I think. She uses very well the talents that are around her. She allows those people to do what they can do, and then she just guides, very gently. She's very good.
R.A.P.: Any parting words for the readers of this tipsheet that are looking for tips?
Scot: Come at it with a plan. Come into this career with a plan. If you don't have a plan for the next few years of your life, for the next few years of your career, that's about as far as you'll get. Have a plan. Look to the future and prepare yourself for that. You'll push yourself where you are, and you'll get to where you're going. I'm living proof. I came back to radio with a plan after two years off. Now I'm a department head doing a job that I only dreamed of doing, and I'm having the time of my life.