R.A.P. Interview: Bill Towery

Bill Towery, Production Director, WCKG-FM, Chicago, IL

Bill-Towery-Nov91by Jerry Vigil

This month, the RAP Interview checks in with another radio veteran. With some twenty-five years in radio under his belt, Bill Towery cranks out the production in the nation's number three market at classic rock WCKG-FM. As with many of our interviewees, Bill has a musical background that has played a major role in his success. Join us as we pick Bill's brain and check out production in Chicago radio. A superb sample of Bill's work is featured on The Cassette.

R.A.P.: How did you get into radio?
Bill: I got into the business through music and through television. I grew up with music. I took music lessons as a child and was always playing records.

I was first introduced to radio by a classmate who was also the producer of our junior high band's radio show on the local, home town radio station. For every Sunday night we sang in the manager's church choir, we got a free half-hour on Saturday afternoon the following week. This guy was a radio freak. He built his own radio station at home. He bought all the Heathkit stuff and put it all together. He hung around the local radio station and dubbed off songs. His radio station was only on the air on Saturday afternoons, and it would cover about a block. We even had a weather station out in the tree.

He's the guy who really introduced me to the business. In my senior year he helped put the high school radio station on the air, and he also had an evening job as a switcher/loader at Channel 36 television in Charlotte, North Carolina. We were all operating out of the home town of Concord, North Carolina which was about fifteen miles northeast of Charlotte. This was all taking place back in the sixties. My friend eventually wanted to get back into radio, so I learned his switching/loading job at Channel 36 and worked there for a couple of years. I learned everything because there was nobody else there to do it. On our own, we learned. The station eventually went into receivership, and Ted Turner bought it. Shortly thereafter, I left, and I landed my first radio job.

R.A.P.: How did your first radio gig come about, and how did you wind up at WCKG?
Bill: I was still living at home when I left the television station, and I was washing dishes for spending money. I did that for about a week when my old classmate called me and asked what I was doing. I said, "I'm washing dishes." He said, "Have you ever tried radio?" I said, "Well, it's got to beat washing dishes." He was at WYCL in York, South Carolina. It was a small town daytimer, and I got started there. I started on weekends and went to afternoons when their afternoon guy quit. This was your typical first job -- when you weren't doing production you were on the air, or you were doing news.

I was really spoiled getting into radio at this radio station because all these guys were equipment freaks, including the manager. The production room was fantastic. We're talking about a town of eight thousand people, yet they had quite a production room. This was a 4-track room with full compliment board -- EQ, compression all built in. We had a 4-track, a 2-track, a mono machine, plus an old Roberts just to take telephone feeds. There were four or five cart machines, mood lighting...it was amazing. I learned more in seven months at WYCL than at any other time in my career. I also lived with a couple of the guys from the station, so I lived and breathed the business. I couldn't get away from it.

On top of the job at WYCL, on my day off, I took a Saturday night gig on WIST in Charlotte just to be able to get into the Charlotte market. That was a lot of fun -- hitchhiking back and forth between York and Charlotte.

I was at WYCL for seven months, then I followed the News Director, Thom Barry, to WTMA in Charleston, South Carolina. I was there for two years. I went from all nights to Program Director in about a year. That was pretty scary, and that was my first PD job. It wasn't what I had in mind as a Program Director's job because I wanted to do a lot of different stuff, and that wasn't quite what management had in mind. I enjoyed wearing long hair and top hats to work. I had a great time learning how to fly airplanes and playing in a rock and roll band too; and I was shown the door about a year after that.

After about ten days I got a job doing nine to midnight at WKIX in Raleigh, North Carolina. I was there for nine months when I was called by my former roommate who was also the Chief Engineer at WTMA. He was doing free-lance engineering and was asked to run an FM in town. He said, "Well, there's only one guy I'd run it with," and that was me. So, I went back to Charleston to WKTM. I was Program and Music Director and did afternoons.

My next gig was the Cinderella story of my career so far. The station was WRJZ in Knoxville, Tennessee. I want to call it the last of the red hot AM's in the southeast. The situation in the market had WNOX at 99 FM as pretty much the top dog. Except for a few AM's who were underpowered, WNOX really didn't have any competition for years, and they basically owned the market. The late Bob Kagen hired a staff and had a situation where everything clicked, and the people were just magic together. In one book we went from a six share to an eighteen share. It was like being the Beatles in Knoxville. The station's slug-line, "Who's Got You Now" was on everybody's lips within three weeks after we went on the air. It was amazing. Unfortunately, it didn't last as long as we would have all liked. I guess it was over in about two and a half to three years, but during that time it was just great. There were lots of awards and lots of attention and lots of celebrating. We had a great time.

In the winter of '80, I got a call from Dick Bartley who at the time was the Program Director at WFYR in Chicago. He's currently the host of "American Gold" and "Rock & Roll's Greatest Hits" on ABC Radio Networks. He called me up and said he was interested in finding a Production Director. They had been without one at WFYR for about eleven months. I had tried a major market for about eight days one time, and I realized I made a mistake. I wasn't ready at the time, and I went back to Knoxville. So I took a good look at Dick's offer after that eight day fiasco. Chicago had always been my hero market since I was introduced to Top 40 radio as a teenager. I liked the offer, so I came up here to work for RKO at WFYR for three years. Since March of '84, I've been working for Cox Enterprises here at WCKG.

R.A.P.: What are your responsibilities at WCKG as Production Director?
Bill: I've often described it as three hats: a mechanic, a magician, and a cop. I'm a magician who creates stuff from thin air, a cop who assigns the work out to the jocks and directs the production traffic, and a mechanic who fixes stuff that supposedly can't be fixed. I've always taken a great amount of pride in knowing how to do it all -- to write, to voice, to engineer, mix, tweak -- and the knowledge has served me well. I like being able to do more than one thing. But I do have help. The jocks do some production, and there's a programming and production assistant here, Phil Funari, who helps me and the Program Director. In fact, he's doing the assignments right now and a lot of the dubbing. My former intern, Dave Heppner, has graduated into being the producer of the morning show. He gives me a hand also.

R.A.P.: Are you writing spots and promos?
Bill: Yes, and some of the jocks may write from time to time.

R.A.P.: Do you feel you work more for sales or programming?
Bill: Right now, I'm working more for sales, but that goes in cycles. In my career, over the last ten years, I've worked more for programming, although there's been plenty of work for sales in there. In the last year there has probably been more work for programming.

R.A.P.: Would you credit that to a large amount of promotional activities on the station's part or a lack of sales?
Bill: It wasn't lack of sales. I was involved in creating original sounders here. When I say I got into this business through music, that's exactly what I mean. I started playing musical instruments at an early age, I still play, and I still play in a band. Since I can do that, and since I'm a child of Eisenhower, a sixties rebel, I've got a lot of those sounds of classic rock at my fingertips. I also have some of those original instruments, like a 1968 Les Paul Gibson, a Fender Strat, and a keyboard that recreates the sound of a Hammond B3. Then I've got all those years of experience listening to this stuff. So, on top of Bruce Upchurch's "Classic FX" packages, I created some stuff on my own. Classic FX was originally something I had ordered for the radio station in '87 to '89. One of my assignments was to interject more classic sounds upon those in the package and get some classic sounds on the radio station. There was really nothing else out there that you could buy that sounded like that. Nobody was making sounders like that. I have been involved in a lot of this kind of stuff for a lot of this past year. Bruce likes the work I've done and I'm thrilled that he does. He thinks I've retained the integrity of what he produced, and maybe we'll do something with the new sounds.

R.A.P.: Any plans to market these sounds?
Bill: Yes. That's what I meant when I said maybe we can do something with them. Bill Towery Productions is kicking in once again. I would like to think you're going to hear a lot more from me.

R.A.P.: What all does Bill Towery Productions do?
Bill: If you want it, I can probably do it, whether it's simple voice-overs or fully produced promos or sounders. Mostly, Bill Towery Productions has been local retail spots. I've done some voice-overs for some stations, but never on a consistent basis. I don't have any great aspirations to be a Steve Cassidy or a Bill St. James, but if it comes along, I'll take it. I don't have monster pipes. I have a different kind of delivery. I don't do the "in your face" stuff really well, but I think my stuff has a lot of power behind it. It's bright. It's interesting enough and commanding enough, but it doesn't grab you by the throat.

However, I think it's time for me to branch out more, use all my skills, and really see what all I can do. I don't think you're smart in the nineties to just do one thing. It's not smart to depend on just one source to give you what you want. People are going to be watching their money very carefully these days, and rightly so. It's always prudent to explore all of your options. Do as much as you can. I enjoy it. I like to push the outer edge of the envelope. Radio can be kind of a gypsy's business, but it can still be exciting without having to move all over the country.

R.A.P.: What would you say is your fortè in production?
Bill: Well, my musical skills have been invaluable. I'm able to manipulate any music bed I choose. Punch edits in key-to-key and beat-to-beat I can do in my sleep. I feel really lucky about that. I also do character voices, and original music.

A classic Bill Towery spot would be one that's tastefully busy -- there's a lot of stuff going on, but it's not confusing. When I have interns in or the jocks want to learn more, I always tell them to pretend that the studio is a kitchen. You want to cook up a tasty brew, but you don't want to put in too much spice. Otherwise you're going to ruin it. That's the way I look at it. Plus, having the musical background lets you put your own touch to an existing musical piece, whether it's just a simple edit, or whether it's some other audio source you can put on top of it to enhance it. If you can make it better, then all the better, as long as it's done in good taste. It's easy to go overboard.

R.A.P.: How are the station's studios equipped?
Bill: We have a BMX-14 board from Pacific Recorders, four of their Tomcat cart machines, three Otari reel machines -- an MX-70 multi-track [8-track] and two MTR-10's [2-track]. Some of the tricks include the Eventide H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer, a Yamaha SPX-90 II, and two Orban units. One is a compressor/limiter, the other is an equalizer. The CD players, unlike what's elsewhere in the station, are the Sony CDS-3000 series. There's a rack of dbx 900 processing, and there's a Tascam 122 Mark II cassette deck. I keep some of my music stuff in here including a small Peavy studio-size amp, my Fender Strat, a Washburn six string, and a Korg M1. The room is not overly fancy, but it gets the job done.

There are two other production studios here. One is a 4-track room which is mostly for the jocks, and it's similar to this room I just described. The third one is salvaged gear and some new gear. That room is used mostly for news and public affairs. We have a DAT machine in the second studio which we use for spot mastering just to be able to save some space and tape money.

R.A.P.: How do you like the Korg M1?
Bill: I like it because it has lots of acoustic sounds in it. The sequencer in it is labor intensive, and there's not a whole lot of memory; but keep in mind I also use it as a performance instrument, too. Most of the stuff I'm doing I play live to tape.

R.A.P.: Digital storage/retrieval systems are popping up in stations everywhere. Any thoughts on this trend?
Bill: The only thing I can say is that people in the know of that technology have told me, "It's coming. Get ready." Mike Lee recently had a flyer in R.A.P. that listed twelve things to do in 1991. A couple of the things were get DAT and get familiar with digital. All the old adages are true. Just as soon as you put something down, you're going to have to pick it up again the next day. Just as soon as you're convinced that digital is never going to make it, all of a sudden the Chief Engineer will come in and say, "Well, we're gonna buy one." As difficult as it may seem and as corny and trite, in one way or another, as best as you can, you gotta keep pushing and be ready for it.

R.A.P.: What production libraries are you using?
Bill: Killer Tracks is the main one, and I keep a fairly good supply of innocuous instrumental music around. I have the Sound Ideas Sound Effects library and Cheap Radio Thrills. I also have a couple of Brown Bag libraries -- Flashpoint and Escape. Some of the unearthly sounds they come up with, I mean that stuff just trips all my production triggers. We have Classic FX volumes 1, 2 and 3, plus the BBC Sound Effects library. I also try to keep as many movie soundtracks as I can around.

R.A.P.: What would you say is the greatest problem you're consistently faced with as Production Director at WCKG?
Bill: Complacency. Being complacent is the easiest thing to do. I don't think I do it very often, but once in a while I'll get a wake up call and realize I've been a little too self involved. Isolation is another problem. When you're in a soundproof cage many hours a day, you forget that you need to talk to people. I try to make sure that I'm always, at least a little bit every day, somehow stepping over the edge a little bit; and if I'm not doing that creatively, then I try to stay in touch with people, and they don't necessarily have to be what you would classically consider peers. There's a lot to learn from guys in their twenties because they're looking at the business from an entirely different point of view and are learning things that are part of that digital realm that I need to keep up with. If I had to target complacency, it would be depending too much on tape or tradition. It's not an ongoing, conscious struggle. I'm certainly not the tortured artist, but I don't feel well when I'm not learning some-thing.

R.A.P.: You've held just about all the programming positions there are in radio. What keeps you in the Production Department?
Bill: I feel like I do a lot of it well, and that's very self-satisfying. It's also great in the security department. I work with a great bunch of people here at WCKG. I've been here a long time, I like the company, and I like the town. The job's not boring, and it keeps me close to music which has always been my first love. I just feel like a lot of this I was meant to do. I know that sounds corny, but I really do feel that way. I don't know exactly why it pushes as many hot buttons in me as it does, but I'm not arguing.

My mom told me that at age two or three, I used to play records on one of those little portable turntables on the kitchen table while she took care of the house before I was in pre-school. I would whistle jingles I had heard on the radio for her to identify. I was picking out songs on my bicycle spokes; I mean, it was always there.

I also enjoy that theatre of the mind in radio. I love that stuff. I also love the reactions of people who don't know about the business. You've seen them get stars in their eyes when you tell them what you do. They think, "Hey, that's pretty cool."

When you've persuaded someone to react to what you've produced, you've done a good job. That's the payoff, when it sells. When it sells you know you've done your job.

R.A.P.: Mike Lee has an article in this issue called "The Production Panic" which addresses the crunch many of us are feeling in the production department. Has this affected you?
Bill: Absolutely.

R.A.P.: WCKG has maintained some healthy ratings for quite some time with their classic rock format. What would you attribute the station's success to?
Bill: Well, they're smart from the ground up and from corporate down. They don't forget the basics. They're not afraid to change. They're not afraid to be different, and let's face it, with music that's twenty years old, something had better be different.

R.A.P.: Being a "sixties child" at a classic rock station has to have several benefits.
Bill: Well, any touchstone piece of audio that a baby boomer would recognize is probably going to be beneficial in one way or another unless it has been used until it's burned out. How many times can you hear Richard Nixon say, "I'm not a crook?" Probably far fewer times than you could hear Bugs Bunny say, "What's up Doc?"

It's invaluable if you were born in that era, remember that music, or at least if you're a child of a person of the baby boomer era. A lot of kids out there grew up listening to their parents play the Beatles, the Stones, the Who and Led Zeppelin and are fans of the music in their own right along with the music of their own generation. That's a tremendous benefit -- knowing as much about the music and the era as you can.

R.A.P.: How is your relationship with the sales department?
Bill: Really good. It has gotten better recently since work for them has picked up a little more. I was just called to one of their meetings right before this interview. They had an idea about something and said, "Hey, we need this. Can you do it?" "Well sure, no problem. Anything else you guys need or can tell me?"

I get along great with them. I haven't been working with them that closely because I haven't had to, up until now. Now, that's going to change, and I'll do whatever it takes to get along with them. Take Dennis Daniel. There's another guy who has the right idea about production. You've got to get along with people. You've got to do whatever it takes to get the business. That's really the bottom line.

R.A.P.: Do you have a set of guidelines or deadlines for the sales department?
Bill: Oh yes. Some of the guidelines and deadlines are never followed, others are to the letter. Copy deadlines are the biggest joke in the business because everybody wants to get that dollar in, and that's what it is all about.

R.A.P.: Many people that get into radio as a jock eventually pursue the Program Director's position. Then there are those that move into production. It's safe to assume that our industry places greater value on the PD as opposed to the Production Director. With that in mind, do you feel that a move into production is a dead end move for someone wanting to "go places" in radio?
Bill: It has its limits. I wouldn't call it dead end though. Depending upon where you are and what cycles are in progress, it can be a gold mine or a nightmare and anything in between. I can see how people might see it as a dead end, but let's face it; it's at best a department of one to begin with. It's not an "on the way up" job. It's an "on the way out" job. If you're not eventually going to get out, I guess that's where you could end up staying.

It's really what you make it. It can be a job on the way up, out, or just off an airshift. Even though I was regarded as a terrific format jock, my fickle digestive system oftentimes made live shifts brutal, so I saw being able to do production exclusively as a time management privilege and a promotion to a specialist's position. I think the real pitfall is letting your ambition go unchecked. It's easy to paint yourself into a corner.

But to be totally fair, as closely related as production is to programming -- and it is part of programming -- you could easily step back into programming. A lot of guys who are Production Directors are also assistant PD's. It certainly can be a dead end if you're not paying attention. You gotta watch!

R.A.P.: Let's talk about Production Directors becoming Program Directors. Do we, as Production Directors who have been at least a jock in the past, have the knowledge and skills to be a Program Director? Having learned how to deal with all kinds of people and personalities, from jocks, to management, to sales, to the clients, the Production Director already has a grip on dealing with people. Are there Production Directors out there who are qualified to be PD's?
Bill: Oh, sure, and you bring up a good point. A lot of what it takes to be a real good Production Director, I think, is knowing how to deal with all of these people. You're in the middle. You're the pivot man in a lot of cases. You've got to make a lot of people happy.

R.A.P.: Is that a big part of being a Program Director?
Bill: Well, the position forces you to do that. You don't have a choice. Otherwise, you'd be miserable. That's one of the most valuable things I've learned in the job -- how to deal with all the different types of people.

I can't tell you how many Production Directors I've talked to who at one time or another, played the part of the resident shrink. This is a guy who doesn't have to go see clients and doesn't have to be on the air. The Production Director doesn't have to directly answer to the General Manager, and his Program Director is usually busier than hell. He's the guy with free time on his hands. He's a moving target. And you usually find out all sorts of interesting things about jocks' lives, people in sales, and this that and the other. You would think there's a shingle hanging outside the door. It's pretty funny. It can be a royal pain, too. Once in a while you have to tell people to go away and leave you alone.

Getting back to the topic, I do believe there are some good Program Directors out there sitting in the production room. They may not be masters of Arbitron analysis, but their people skills and their understanding of how things work in the programming "pit" are tremendous. They're back in "nerve central." They're in a complex of studios back there with everybody more than anybody else. They, more times than not, would have an opportunity to be able to put out an immediate fire when the programmer wasn't around or couldn't at the time for some reason.

I think there are plenty of potential Program Directors out there. I think we sell ourselves short a lot. Of course, it's easier to deal with different personalities when they're clients or salespeople because you're not going to see these people as much as you're going to see disk jockeys. As far as the disk jockeys go, as a Program Director, you're not going to be one of "the guys" anymore. You have to get behind the desk and take that programmer's position and start telling these people what to do, and that's a big change. I think a lot of people are afraid of that. I would be, but it hasn't kept me from thinking about doing it again.

R.A.P.: What one thing would you tell the world's salespeople if you had all of them listening?
Bill: Get as much control over your client as you can. That makes it easier for production. Command as much trust and respect as you can. That way, if there's one little word, or a part of a music bed, or something that just rubs the client the wrong way because he got up on the wrong side of the bed or it's not his favorite kind of music, the salesperson can say, "Look, don't worry about it. This Towery guy knows what he's doing. Believe me, it sounds like a great spot." Look the guy in the face, and in one way or another imply, "Hey, you sell the mattresses; we'll make the radio spots." Sure, you want to give the client what he wants, but you lose a lot in needless recuts. Plus, you wind up with a guy you don't have control over who is throwing as much crap at the wall as he can, thinking if he throws enough, something will stick. You need to control somebody like that, and for themselves too. Otherwise, the guy will drive the salesperson nuts, not to mention the Production Director as well. Get as much control over your client as you can.

R.A.P.: You have several years under your belt as a PD. Let's take the same question and change your audience to all the world's Program Directors. What would you say to them?
Bill: Don't forget where you came from. It's not brain surgery. Relax.

R.A.P.: What would you have to say to all managers?
Bill: Nice tie?

R.A.P.: Seriously, what would you say to them about Production Directors?
Bill: I suppose I'd tell them Production Directors are probably a bit more valuable than you think. We're basically talking about two completely different groups of people here -- managers and Production Directors. Lifestyles and everything are different. But that's an old rub, and I don't want to highlight anything that people don't already know. I'd like to be able to give sage advice to the entire world all the time, but anything I could tell a good manager, he probably already knows. If you're a bad manager, you're not going to listen to a production guy anyway. And when I say good and bad, I'm talking about whether you pay attention to your people or not.