R.A.P. Interview: J.R. Nelson

J.R. Nelson, President, J.R. Nelson Productions, Medina, Ohio

by Jerry Vigil

This month we check in with another of our industry's great veterans, an outstanding producer and voice talent with a name synonymous with great radio. His distinguished career spans nearly thirty years, and success continues to be his partner even today. Join us for an inspiring and entertaining visit with J.R. Nelson.

R.A.P.: Let's start with a rundown of your background in the biz.
J.R.: I started in 1965. I was 15 or 16 years old and worked at a little station in Fostoria, Ohio, WFOB. I did everything the usual kid does, run the gospel tapes and all that kind of stuff. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was hired to do mornings at a station in Toledo.

After high school, I played in a lot of bands. One of the bands I played with was the opening act for Vanilla Fudge for about six months of their tour. We had the same management as Joe Walsh and Eric Carmen. It was kinda neat back then, and I was very lucky to be brought up in that era when nobody knew what the hell was going on. So, I got all that crap out of my system early.

I got sick of playing and went to college in Montreal. Then I worked at CKGM in Montreal, both stations, AM and FM. This was in 1970 and '71. The AM was Top Forty, and the FM was the first progressive station in Canada. I did the all nights on the AM, and weekends on the FM. This is where I got interested in production. The FM was totally free form radio, and back then, they believed in equipping the stations. There was a sixteen-track sitting in there, and there was a bunch of us who would just sit around in there, play radio, and discover what we could do. I was also doing a lot of session work at Andre Perry studios in Montreal. I did some keyboard work and learned a little bit about producing, real producing. I was also hanging around there while Frank Zappa was mixing down that live album he did.

Then I went to work for KAKC in Tulsa. This is where I started my production company. I did novelty songs for a car dealer, and these songs ended up being his advertising campaign. I did that same package for about ten car dealers across the country. I think the first station I ever did sweepers for was a little station in Clyde, Ohio -- one of those where the guy says, "Here's ten bucks. Read this."

After Tulsa, a guy named Chris Bailey and I set up KBEQ in Kansas City. Chris was the PD and I was the APD and Music Director and morning guy. Then, a year after that, Chris and I both moved back to Cleveland and set up WGCL. After that, I went to WGAR. From there, I pretty much stayed in Cleveland. I was at WHK/WMMS from '78 until '80 doing creative for both stations.

In '80, I wanted to program again, so I got involved with this PD at WBBG in Cleveland. Then I went back with Malrite and helped them set up KNEW in San Francisco, and by this time, I was your basic, full-fledged cocaine addict. Then I had a mild heart attack. My parents had a little winter home down in Tampa, Florida, so I went down there, dried out, and went to work for a little recording studio there.

After a while, I got a call from an old boss of mine, Gil Rosenwald, saying they were buying this station in Livingston, New Jersey. The studios were in Livingston, New Jersey, but the transmitter was in Newark, and they were going to move to the Empire State Building. He wanted to know if I wanted to go work for them. I said, "Who's your PD?" He said, "Scott Shannon." Well, I knew Scott from Tampa, and Scott and I were two people just alike -- two stubborn, bull-headed people. The station was Z100, and we had a lot of fun.

We were there for about three months before we actually signed the thing on, going through tapes, building the studios, etc.. I didn't want to be on the air. I was just going to do creative for them. Then, about a week before we were going to sign on Scott said, "Well, did you ever read news?" And I said, "I've never read news in my life!" and he said, "Well, you're going to start now." Oh, it was nice. It's your first time trying to be a news person, and where are you? In New York City. It's a humbling experience, but I only had to do news until we hired someone. Anyway, everybody did everything they had to do in the beginning. The production part to me was the most fun because we had a ball at that station. The industry was changing so much back then and so was the technology. After five years, my contract was up, and I said, "Hey, that's enough." I decided I needed a total change of lifestyle. So, I moved to San Diego and started raising horses.

R.A.P.: You got out of radio and your voice-over business to raise horses?
J.R.: Oh, no. I kept my side business. By this time, my side business was doing great. Actually, my ex-wife was running my business. In 1988 we had 250 active stations around the world. I've got two reps in Europe. We've been involved in Europe since 1978. I've got maybe 65 active stations now, but most of them are European. Back when I started doing the stuff, it was me, Driscoll, Bobby Ocean, and a few others. Now it's everybody and his brother, or sister, and because of that, the prices are down. The economy's bad here, but the economy is great in Europe. It's just like New Zealand. I'm trying to set up an office in New Zealand right now because they privatized the broadcast industry a few years ago, and that's just a wide open market. In fact, I would move to New Zealand in a second. It's beautiful, absolutely beautiful.

R.A.P.: What else are you doing besides voice work?
J.R.: I also do a lot of original music. In fact, I just finished my first jingle package that we're selling now which is a bizarre package. It's called Image Mix One. The radio stuff I'd say is fifty percent of the business right now, and I do a lot of music scores. I do music for everything -- a lot of commercials, stuff for Busch Gardens. I've done a lot of stuff for MTV -- stabs, a lot of weird effects, stuff like that. I just did a thing for GM Motors Cadillac dealers. We did a bunch of sound tracks for PBS specials on the Sonora Desert. I would love to score films because the type of music that I do is quite off the wall.

R.A.P.: Didn't you do a couple of production libraries?
J.R.: Yeah, I've had a couple. In fact, I'm just finishing up another one now. It's a television news themes package. It's called News Source. It's been out for about six months, and it's going real slow because the TV music market is pretty much locked up by three people. We've sold a few packages in Europe, but here in the States it's pretty slow.

There was also a forty cut promo bed I did a long time ago, Bubba's Big Time Beds. That was back in the '80s in New York. The whole time I was in New York, I also had a recording studio down in Florida. My partner, Mark Rose, was down there. I would go down there twice a month on the weekends, and I did that for three years. We also did a lot of industrial work.

I've also done a lot of syndication stuff. I was the producer for Rockin' America, the show Scott had on Westwood for a long time. The syndication stuff is really what I'm getting more into as far as the day to day business. I've still got a lot of stations on monthly retainers, and the new jingle package is doing pretty good, too. But what I really love to do is syndication. That's what we're trying to set up in Europe because services in Europe are just wide open, and they're crazy enough to buy anything.