R.A.P. Interview: Bill Young

Bill Young, President, Bill Young Productions, Houston, Texas

by Jerry Vigil

Chances are you've dubbed a multitude of spots bearing his name on the box. Those of you who are veterans in the industry may well remember him as the winner of several Program Director of the Year awards during his lengthy and successful PD stint at the 70's powerhouse, KILT in Houston, Texas. Join us as we visit with Bill Young and get the story about how he built a multi-million dollar business from what started as a few free-lance concert spots on the side.

R.A.P.: Where did your career start and how did Bill Young Productions come into existence?
Bill: I started in high school in Lufkin, Texas when I was sixteen years old. I wound up attending Baylor University, as a ministerial student of all things, and working nights at WACO in Waco, Texas. Eventually, I was offered the job of Production Director at WACO. At that time, I didn't even know what that meant. I assumed that I would direct disc-jockeys to do good production on the air. I didn't know what the Production Director did, but very quickly I learned that it meant recording commercials. This was back in the fifties, and back then we didn't have commercial limits like we do today. We were running thirty to thirty-five commercials per hour, and I had to record all of those. There was no one else there to do it. It was a full-time job and quite an education.

Then I went to Omaha, Nebraska as the morning man at KOIL. Bill Western was my air name there, but I didn't know that would be my air name until after I got to the station. I remember driving into Omaha, listening to this station I was going to work for. The promos all said, "KOIL goes western Monday morning!" I thought, "Oh, my God! What have I done?" I walked in Monday morning, and they said, "Hi. Your name is Bill Western."

I moved back to Texas in the early sixties and became a Program Director in Tyler. It was then that I quickly learned that the true way to paint the sound of a radio station is with what comes out of the production room. All the commercials that came in from outside were predetermined -- all the national and regional commercials -- and I had no control over the sound of these spots. As Program Director, I had no control over the music other than the order and the selection of the songs. As far as the sound of them, I had no control over that. Again, the commercial limits were not what they are today, so I had to do lots of commercials. Doing that volume, you not only learn how to record them, but you learn how to write them, too. In some cases you learn how to schedule them, also. And all these commercials had to be done quickly, so I learned how to be fast. I also learned some basic engineering skills at that point. Probably, most of my learning years were those five years in Tyler, Texas, in a very small operation where you had to do everything. You could not be a specialist because you didn't have that luxury. You just had to learn to do it all -- then go out and sell it sometimes.

I left Tyler and went back to WACO for a couple of years and was then offered the Program Director's position here in Houston at KILT which at that time was a major top-40 station owned by the Gordon McClendon chain. In the fifties and sixties, that group was at the top of our industry. So the chance to come down and program KILT under Gordon McClendon was quite an opportunity. I served as Program Director of that station for fifteen years, both the AM and the FM. But even though my area was programming, I still loved to spend a lot of time in the production studio. I felt, and still do today, that this is where the true sound of the radio station can most be influenced on a local basis. It's something shared, I think, by most successful stations; you usually find real good production techniques and skills somewhere in that facility.

At the end of that tenure as Program Director, I discovered that most of my headaches were coming out of radio, and by that time two-thirds of my income was coming from doing commercials on the side. So I left in 1981 and formed what had just been the name of a company. Bill Young Productions was nothing more than a bank account. When I left, I was doing most of the commercials for Pace Concerts here in Houston and Beaver Productions out of New Orleans. I kept those clients when I left KILT. I had a number of offers to stay in radio, but I had pretty much made the decision that radio programming, for me at least, had ceased to be something that I wanted to continue to do. Being a rock-and-roll Program Director at forty-plus years of age is not the greatest place to be. I felt I wanted to do something on my own for myself, and something that had a more realistic future. My parents had always said I needed to get a real job, so it was time to get a real job.

I had no intention at that point of building a studio. I found myself going to recording studios to do the kind of production that I did, and that was unheard of. Here were these engineers I couldn't even communicate with. I was trying to do broadcast production, and they were doing high-end recording. The two never meshed. So I thought, "Why couldn't you do a recording studio environment from a quality standpoint, and yet use many of the techniques that I had learned in broadcasting?" So we built our own studio, and by that time people were beginning to contact us about national tours. I actually did the first national tour ever done, to my knowledge, in 1973 when I did commercials for the ZZ Top World Wide Texas Tour, but I had never pursued the national tours as a true business until 1981 when I went into it full time. By that time, Joe Kelly was pretty well entrenched in the concert field with a company called SuperSpots. We pretty much went directly into competition with Joe and in time achieved a certain degree of dominance in that area.

R.A.P.: What was that first studio like, and how did the studios develop over the years?
Bill: We built the first studio in a little office strip which was all we could afford at that time. We put some rather neat things on the wall to deaden the sound and that sort of thing. It looked good for a studio, but it was not a studio; it was a glorified office. We were always fighting grounding problems and the kinds of things we all have to deal with. I eventually added a secretary and someone who could do the billing and that sort of thing. Then we added a second production man who built tracks and would take care of the dubs at the end of the day. That's how it took place the first couple of years.

As it grew, we added two true radio production men/voice talents. It was my dream to someday be in the position to really do it right. We eventually bought the building. The offices were in good shape, and all we had to do was put some paint on the walls for the offices. For the studios, there was this big twelve-thousand square foot warehouse in the back. It didn't even have air conditioning in it. It was just open space. We were able to go in and build studios that were independently isolated. We had Russ Burger, who's the leading studio designer in the business, come in and do the acoustical design. Then we hired technical designers who came in and did the wiring schematics -- I mean really first class. It was done the right way. Now we have some twenty-five employees in our own sixteen-thousand square foot facility with six audio suites, three one-inch video edit suites, and a sound stage. I'm a production man first and foremost -- always was and always will be, and this is kind of a production man's dream come true.

I always felt there was a commitment I, as a production man, had. I don't know if your readers would share this, but I bet it's a chord that we all felt at one time or another. There we are working til two o'clock in the morning to get a certain sound right, and I think good production people do that not for any other reason than that thing inside of you that says, "I can make this better." Then you have the manager and the Sales Manager pulling up in new cars and getting the benefit of that while we're doing it for the joy of doing it. That joy was really the only reward for many of those years. So it became an obsession to do the company just for production people. Production people run our company.

One of the things that concerned me the most, and one of the things that was most disappointing to me was that, as a production man, you're alone in radio. There's usually not more than one or two production people at any one facility. So there are not a lot of people to bounce things off of, and you find your work being critiqued or judged by people who really do not understand what it took to get it done. You're sometimes judged by people who don't know, if you will. Now, it's good to be in an environment where there's a bunch of us, and we're all kind of pushing each other. When someone makes a comment, you know they bring a wealth of experience to the table to be able to make that judgement and that suggestion to you. It's very exciting to be able to creatively feed off of other production people.

R.A.P.: How did the video work come around?
Bill: About four years into our company, we would get requests from people to do audio tracks for television commercials. We would simply supply a thirty-second radio commercial, and they would edit that to whatever music videos they had to do an "MTV version" of the spots we were doing. That was fine until I started seeing some of those commercials. I thought that some of them were rather cheesy, and I was not necessarily interested in even having my voice on them. I thought they were a quality statement that we shouldn't be making.

I believe that radio production men, or at least the better ones, think visually anyway. When I got into radio, I got into it because of the theatre of the mind. I'm old enough to remember the Lone Ranger and programs of that type where you painted your own mental pictures. Early music radio had a lot of exotic kinds of promos that allowed you to be very visual. Thinking that way anyway, it was very easy to transfer this into "well, all you have to do now is paint that picture realistically." So, we finally put in our own edit suite, and that mushroomed and put us into overdrive. Now we have a rather large film and video commitment. The only difference is that the dollars are incredibly different and the technology is extremely costly. Our investment in video equipment alone is literally in the millions. Today, I couldn't go into video work, but doing it a piece at a time like I did, we were able to grow into it.

R.A.P.: Is the video work mostly concert related?
Bill: Primarily. It's music related. We do a lot of commercials for record companies and Broadway tours, and we do some music videos. So I'd say it's primarily music and entertainment related; however we also have our "legitimate" advertisers too. We do newspapers and banks and car dealers and grocery chains, both on the audio and video end.