R.A.P. Interview: Johnny George

Johnny George, Production/Imaging Director, WNAP-FM, Indianapolis, Indiana

johnny-george-feb95by Jerry Vigil

How many successful Production Directors do you know who started out as club jocks? How many club jocks do you know who have released their own record or had their own record pool? Johnny George did these things and a lot more before he wound up as the Production/Imaging Director for WNAP-FM. HotSpots! is Johnny's thriving free-lance business, and Johnny shares some tips on how to successfully market your free-lance business. We also get an inside look at one of the most aggressive broadcasting companies today. Emmis is well known for hiring high quality creative people, and Johnny George is no exception. Most recently, he was sent to China as a representative of Emmis Broadcasting to help investigate a new international venture for Emmis. We hear about that and much more in this month's RAP Interview!

R.A.P.: How did your radio career begin?
Johnny: I was brought up in a good Methodist family, and it seemed as though the places around here weren't offering what my parents thought I needed. So they sent me off to college prep school in Northern Michigan in 1969, and that was where I had my first experience in radio and one experience that I'll probably never forget -- I played the MC Five's not-for-airplay version of "Kick Out the Jams." It was a cable radio station, and besides me and the Program Director and a friend of his, there were probably three people who listened to it. But, when you make a mistake, you sure hear about it the following day. A version of the song came out that started out, "Kick out the jams, mother f-----" and then they reissued it about three weeks later with "Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters." Somebody switched the album cuts, and to this day, I don't know if it was done deliberately or whether it was a mistake. That was my first experience in radio, and that's when I found out there was fun to be had in radio.

After my stay in prep school, it was back to Indy. I finished up high school here and went to college at Vincennes University which has a great radio and TV program. It was there that I got involved in the broadcast class to the fullest extent. I guess you could say I turned into a full broadcast production technology junkie -- never going back to my dorm very much, living at the station, that kind of thing. John Mellencamp was one of my classmates in Broadcast Op 101. We crossed paths again in 1990. He was doing a tour, and he came up to me and said, "Don't I know you?" It really surprised me that he remembered that time years ago.

R.A.P.: Where did your career begin professionally?
Johnny: In 1974 a friend of mine, Jimmy Smulyan, let me know there was an opening at his brother's radio station, his brother being Jeff Smulyan [CEO of Emmis]. I became a production intern for the summer of '74. I was pretty much Jimmy's assistant at that point. We were in charge of making sure the guys that did the talk shows had all the sound effects and anything else they needed as soon as possible. This was a news/talk/sports station, and there was a funny looking guy with a beard and "Doug Clark" headphones working there. The name of his show was The Neon Cornfield, and this guy would sit there and scream on his little intercom, "Hey, quick, I need the sound of a chipmunk cracking nuts and running across a laundry rope spread tree to tree. Give me something quick." -- I mean, really strange requests. That guy has gone on to have some fun at NBC and CBS. He's Dave Letterman. He was also a local weatherman here and an overnight movie host on television. He had a lot of fun. He was very eccentric, pretty much as you see him today.

When I came home from college in '75, I walked into a nightclub that first night. The disco era was just starting in Indianapolis. I was sitting there listening to the guy spin records. The manager carried on about how great this guy was. I said, "I don't mean to be critical, but he doesn't seem to be doing much. He's just saying 'boogie, boogie, boogie.'" And the manager said, "Could you do better?" I said, "Well, I like to entertain, and I was an MC at a lot of concerts and beauty pageants in college and did a lot of public address speaking and that kind of thing. And I'm a radio and TV major." So I tried out and was hired, and that started my night-clubbing career.

I did that for about ten years and won the Best Disco DJ Awards in the local newspaper for '77, '78 and '79. And at this time, because I needed records in the nightclub, I started my own record pool, the Indiana Record Pool. Since I was getting freebie promotional records from some of the record labels for myself, I thought, "Well, instead of asking for one copy, why don't I ask for ten or twenty?" So I did, and I started supplying records to the various disk jockeys of the nightclubs in the city, and that spread to some of the cities outside Indy. Before I knew it, I was doing five states. I competed with Chicago. There were some big pools in Chicago that were the main suppliers of people outside of Chicago. I was the "other" supplier. I think it turned out there were about forty pools at the height of it across the country, and we were one of them. I just jumped on that bandwagon early and got lucky.

We wanted to market the pool, and I was a big public relations oriented kind of person. I made sure I was getting my name out there. I had a manager who was a big marketing hustler, and I learned a lot from him. So I went on to market the record pool through the radio station. WNAP at that time was the hot station in the market. In 1978 it was jumping on the disco wagon, and they wanted to produce a show. They got together with the record pool, and I helped Buster Bodine produce the show, "Studio 93." We produced the show for about a year and a half, and that sort of went by the wayside when Mr. Dahl in Chicago was starting his "disco sucks" campaign. KISS 99 was then turning into competition for 'NAP, and I went over there and started doing weekends after the show was canceled on 'NAP. I was following the "God Squad" on Sundays playing "There But For The Grace of God Go I," if you remember that one.

R.A.P.: You have a record under your belt. Tell us about this.
Johnny: It was in 1980 that I released my first record on the Disconet Records label which was a disk jockey subscription service out of New York. The record was twenty-two songs in eleven minutes mixed together into a medley. In 1975 I had originated the term "Mastermix," using it in the sense of mixing records. Shep Pettibone, who produced a lot of Madonna's stuff, grabbed the title, Mastermix, as one of his generic terms and did a lot of things under than title. It kind of turned into a generic term like Band-Aid is for anything you cover a cut with.

Obviously, in this business of night-clubbing, you go from club to club -- a year here, a year and a half there, two years here. The funny thing about it was that my record came out between gigs, and I went to New York in July of 1980 and won the Billboard Best Regional Disk Jockey Award for nightclubs. So there I was, a record out, an award in my hand, and I didn't have a gig. That was very ironic. It was kind of a high and low point in my career at the same time.

The record pool was still going at this point, and I went on to do some mixes at the local urban station, WTLC. That lasted for only a short time because after I started doing them, they realized the attention it was creating on the street, and they wanted me to work full-time. So they hired me as Production Director. That was my first full-time radio gig, and I started to move away from night-clubbing and the record pool.

R.A.P.: How does one go from nightclub disk jockey to Production Director?
Johnny: Well, I had the drive and the potential from college, and I had the mixing skills. I had my own production studio set up at the record pool for producing some of the shows I was doing either for 'NAP or for 'TLC back in '81. We had a pretty nice studio with the good old variable speed turntables and a nice reel-to-reel that 'NAP bought for me in '78. I was just making these mixes for them, and they asked me to come in and do part-time assistant production work. Well, I overshadowed the guy that was there. I don't want this to sound egotistical, but he just didn't have a clue. He was in there doing dubs and signing out stuff to everybody else. They really never had a Production Director. So I came in and reorganized the department. I started flanging two reel-to-reels together and did stuff that no one had done there before, stuff we had all learned either in college or elsewhere.

R.A.P.: What came next?
Johnny: I went on to the CHR station down the street. By this time, I was through night-clubbing. I hung up my headphones on that end, was full tilt into the radio end, and went on to WZPL, which was a top three station in Indy at that point. The days at 'ZPL were some of my best days as far as creative growth went. The people I worked with were all a very close knit group. It was a good, working crew, and everyone counted on each other to make things work. Anyone who has worked at a radio station where you trust the guy sitting next to you knows what I'm talking about. That's the kind of station it was, but they broke us all apart when they sold us. There was a lot of juggling with the radio station two years ago, and I was fired in '93. I was one of twenty or more people who were fired to eliminate expenses. This took it down to a skeleton crew, which it is today. I had been approached by WKLR, which was the oldies station, and they hired me. They were going to change from "Good Time Oldies" to "Oldies '93." They wanted to start a whole new era, and they wanted it to be very heavily produced. I had always heard the station as a very well produced station anyway considering the people who had worked there before. Marshall Such was there, and Marshall is, in my mind, a creative musical genius. Marshall was more into the musical end than he was the commercial production end of it.

When I got to 'KLR, I found that, after Marshall had left, the tradition of quality work there had continued. A guy by the name of Dan Osborne had carried on behind Marshall and had continued that reputation. He was a former PD from Richmond, Indiana, and he came in to be on the air. He never had any intention of having to take over the production spot, and he kind of got tossed in it. Then I came in and took over the department, and I was supposed to image the station. So, Dan Osborne took charge of the commercial production, and I handled the imaging, and it has stayed the same since Emmis bought us in June of last year.

WNAP was WNAP until about '83. It was the early eighties when it switched to WEAG, Eagle 93. Then they switched the station to WKLR and went with the Good Time Oldies format. Then they changed it into the Oldies '93 format in '93. This past September we went back to the original call letters of WNAP. So it has gone full circle.

R.A.P.: When you started working for Jeff Smulyan in 1974, was the company, Emmis, in existence?
Johnny: Emmis hadn't been started yet. It was just Smulyan Broadcasting at that point. Emmis was formed later down the road when Jeff himself started his first commercial radio station, WENS, in 1981. That's when the partnership came in and Emmis began.

There have been many acquisitions since. There's Power 106 in L.A., KSHE in St. Louis, Chicago 101. Then there's HOT 97 in New York, and we just bought WRKS in New York. They also own the Indianapolis Monthly Magazine and the Atlanta Monthly in Atlanta. That's Emmis Publishing. And then we are twenty-five percent shareholders and are involved in the whole nine yards of Talk Radio UK, which goes on the air in just a few weeks in the United Kingdom.

R.A.P.: Is this the company's first international venture?
Johnny: Yes, and most recently I was sent to China to check into another venture. Jeff, being one of the ambassadors for the International Broadcasting Symposium in Tokyo that he attended in September, found out that China was a very good market to get into. The borders had been opened, and it takes a lot of time for these Communistic countries to get rolling, obviously. Nixon opened the diplomatic roads in the seventies for China, and as far as commerce goes, things have changed drastically in the past few years.

China is desperately seeking Westernization, and when we got wind of it, and the Symposium kind of clinched our feelings, Jeff immediately got his staff moving on it and tried to find out who in the company they could pull together to get over to China. One of our local attorneys knew of an opportunity. He's Chinese, and he's a friend of Jeff's. He brought Jeff up to speed on the opportunity. Then, one trip caused the next trip, and I was pulled in by Jeff's partner, Steve Crain, to be a representative for Emmis and go over and evaluate their television and radio equipment. I went along with Jim Duncan of Duncan's All American Radio, which is another publishing entity of Emmis. He went more as the spokesperson, and I went more as an evaluator. We also had an interpreter.

We went to Shijiazhaung, about three hundred miles southwest of Beijing, to visit the Hebei broadcasting company. They have a couple of television stations, and a couple of radio stations, AM and FM. Their coverage is huge. The entire Hebei province covers the Beijing and Tianjin area all the way from the Great Wall and then south of Beijing. It encompasses over one hundred million listeners. They cover that whole area not only by having a couple of towers there in the mountains that the Great Wall runs through, but they have seventeen towers throughout the province. It's the most incredible thing you've ever seen. They microwave all the signals out to these towers, and it covers an area like you wouldn't believe.

There are three levels of government over there. There's the Central Government which would be like our Federal. Then there's the Provincial which is like our State, and the Municipal which is like our City government. Those are the three levels you have to deal with to get anything done over there. Nothing is done without the government's permission.

I had the opportunity to go because of my experience and education in radio and TV. They just wanted someone who could go over and see if the equipment was up to par. The majority of the equipment over there is from France, Germany and Switzerland. I would say the majority of the equipment was from the mid-eighties, probably just about like anybody else around here. It was well maintained. Musically speaking, they're pretty much involved with traditional Chinese music and are very, very limited on any Western music. But the kids and the listening public over there enjoy it when they can get hold of Western music either through imports or from travel, going over to Tokyo or whatever the case may be. They're very interested in rock and roll from the United States, country music, and the pop culture -- the whole thing just fascinates them. They're just now getting their McDonalds and their Pizza Huts.

We are interested in participating in their radio and television company, as they call it, the Hebei Advertising Company. We are interested in becoming partners with them, and we will probably put some monetary support in, along with technical and programming assistance. As things go right now in China, it's all supported by the government. The stations want to be self-supporting. They want to get their revenue from selling time, and they're just not doing that yet. So this is a whole new adventure for them. We anticipate we should have most of the deal completed by this next summer, and we'll be entertaining them in Indianapolis when they come over to put the final mark on the paper.

Emmis has grown tremendously, and it's a great company. Of course you hear that all the time, about how it's a great company and everyone's so wonderful, but it's true. We've been working for them now since June, and everything that everybody said about them has come true. We have a General Manager who is also Senior Vice President of Programming, Christine Woodward Duncan. She's been with Jeff for eleven years, since the beginning, and is the General Manager of WENS and WNAP. You've never seen anybody who can manage people as well as she does, and she surrounds herself with people of the same caliber. It's a joy to go to work every day. I look forward to it, I really do. They value the people, and, in turn, the people value them and give them a good product. And that's always the bottom line.

R.A.P.: There aren't too many Production Directors being asked to leave their studios to wander off halfway around the world to do some investigating for the company.
Johnny: I was dumbfounded. I thought someone was pulling a fast one on me. I thought it was a joke in the beginning. I couldn't even fathom the idea.

R.A.P.: They obviously have a lot of respect for you. It's unusual that they didn't send an engineer to do the job.
Johnny: Yeah, the engineer still hasn't forgiven me -- all three of them.

R.A.P.: What advice would you give to someone in the creative/production end of the station who wants to gain more respect and trust from management?
Johnny: Learn, learn, learn. You never know it all. Everyone around you is a teacher. I've learned a lot just from reading Radio And Production Magazine. The articles have opened up my eyes to some things around me that I valued, but I didn't realize why I did. Now I value them even more. It's a thing where you need to set your standards and follow them. And, as you go along, don't be afraid to change if something comes along that is going to make your standards better. Digital is a perfect example. If all of us who knew how to use a razor blade ten times better than the guy down the street stood by that and never wavered, and then that guy down the street learned digital, you'd be left in the dust.

I think, especially in this day and age of ever-moving technology, you have to be able to be adaptive. You have to be able to learn. You have to be willing to say, "I don't know it all." And listen to others around you who have come from all different parts of the country, different formats, different PDs, different ways of teaching. Don't be afraid to learn from them, too.

My mentor was Eric Edwards who is the Production Director at Power 106. He used to be the Production Director at WNAP, and I watched that guy for years and was just in awe of the way he did stuff. And to this day there are several things I do which I would have to say, "Hey, that's how Double E would have done it."

And don't be afraid to share your knowledge. On occasion, I go down to my college on career day. I've given talks at local high schools to try and steer these kids who think they want to be rock and roll stars and be the next Howard Stern, the next Mr. Afternoon Drive, make a million dollars and drive a Mercedes. That's not what it's all about, and the people who stay in the business the longest and enjoy it the most are those who are on the creative end of it, not the one out in front grabbing all the glory.

R.A.P.: You have a studio at home. Tell us about it.
Johnny: I'm using the Session 8 from DigiDesign. I'm using two SCSI drives for about 1.44 gig of storage. I have the Mackie sixteen channel console, the Aphex 651 Expressor for my mic, and the DBX 166 for compression. I have the Yamaha SPX-900 for effects along with the Lexicon Alex. I master to DAT, then, when I'm making my dubs, I usually go through the Aphex Aural Exciter. My speakers are JBLs with a Haffler Pro 2400 amp. I have an Otari MX50 2 track. Then I have the full Tascam family, as I call it: the Tascam DA30 DAT, the Tascam 122 Mark II cassette, and the CD-401 Mark II CD player. I'm also on line with the Symetrix hybrid phone patch. I use an AKG 414 mic, and the Equitech 100 is my general, all purpose mic.

R.A.P.: When did you set up the home studio?
Johnny: When they fired all of us in June, 1993, I said, "Damn, I'm not going to let anyone pull the rug out from under me." That's my safety net, being able to service my clients. And that kind of goes with the job when you're a Production Director. So I had no studio even though they were gracious enough to say, "If you need it for a little while before you get another gig, go ahead and use ours." But I wanted my own, and it was time to do it. So I made the jump at that point.

R.A.P.: When did you start developing a free-lance business?
Johnny: I've been doing commercials since 1972 for radio and TV - on camera and just audio. But I would say that probably the majority of my radio production really kicked in probably in '82. At that time, I was just going by JG Productions. I didn't formally name it HotSpots! until the late eighties or early nineties.

R.A.P.: A lot of people name their free-lance business after themselves - Joe Blow Productions. Why did you choose to rename your business, and how did you come up with HotSpots!?
Johnny: The new name was a marketing position. I needed something that was more descriptive of what I did. I feel that if somebody has a really well-known name, the majority of people who know who you are and what you do are people who are in the business, either fellow radio or fellow TV people. The clients you are trying to get, that you're trying to service, who need to know who you are, may not know who you are. And, if they go to Joe Blow Productions, they don't know that Joe Blow is any better than John Smith. So, unless you have something that is descriptive, you're just a recording studio. You don't know the difference between a recording studio that is doing commercial work and one that is producing albums for rock groups if they're just called Something and Something Productions. I decided I needed something that described what I did. Somebody said, "Well, what do you do?" And I said, "Well, I try to make hot spots." "Then call it HotSpots!." That's basically the way it came together. Sometimes the simplest descriptions can be the best because it's not brain surgery. You don't want people to have to figure out what you are, because they won't.

R.A.P.: Is most of your free-lance income from producing commercials?
Johnny: Yes, but I also do programming work. I produce Cat Country 103 out in California. I'm their promo guy. And I've done some for KHOP which is their rock station. I've done work for KVRI in Salt Lake City. I was recently doing some imaging for WAXT and WHBU which are north of us, but they've taken on new ownership and have gone a different direction.

I'm not out there trying to do a "Mitch Craig" or one of those things where it's the only thing I do. I'm so involved at the radio station that it's my main bread and butter. When I come home and I have a job to do here, most of the time it's commercial production for spots that will run within our market. I do banks and car dealers. I do the Indianapolis Colts and Indianapolis Parks Department. I have some pretty nice size clients.

R.A.P.: You also publish a small newsletter called "HotStuff" which is a marketing tool for HotSpots!. How long have you been doing the newsletter?
Johnny: Ever since I got my computer. I needed an outlet for my writing, and I started putting that out maybe a year and a half ago. It's a quarterly. Obviously the people it goes to are my clients, and I try to send it to anyone else I think is a potential client or someone in an affiliated business who might have an opportunity to talk about it or be able to be enlightened by some information in it. Lots of times the information in it has a lot to do with what has just happened at the radio station that crosses paths with my production company. I try to keep everyone informed if I'm bringing in new clients. Someone might say, "Hey, I like what he did with this guy; let's see if he can do that well for me." Word of mouth is how I get the majority of my work, but the newsletter is a chance to put it on paper so that somebody can have it on their desk or use it to wad up and aim for a basket or whatever.

R.A.P.: But the name gets out there.
Johnny: Yeah. It's marketing.

R.A.P.: This is probably not the only way you've marketed yourself. How about a tip on basic marketing techniques you've used to get the free-lance business going?
Johnny: Well, you've got to be in tight with everyone in the media, not just your own back yard. I'm pretty tight with the other Production Directors in town and the other Program Directors in town. There is a lot of work that I do free-lance for the agencies that do not utilize my studio. I just provide voice for them. Lots of times, when you're doing independent free-lance work, it's a perfect time to pitch your own services, provided you're not stepping on the toes of another production house where it's being cut. That's a fine line you have to watch out for. But you've got to be in tight with the right people at the agencies and keep your ears open in your own station.

I would have to say that the majority of the extra opportunities in my radio station itself probably go to Dan Osborne who handles most of the commercial work at the station. Dan is working day to day with other clients who come in to cut commercials. So I'm not as privy to the extra dollars that came to me when I was at my last station handling all the commercial production as well as promos. I was getting all of it then.

And if you get too busy, it gives you the opportunity to start farming some of it out which accomplishes two things. One, it gives the client another avenue of talent. Two, you can act as a broker for your other jocks if you find that is beneficial to you and to them and to the client. There are a lot of double-edged swords when you get into that, so you really have to take each situation one by one. Obviously you don't want to cut your own throat and give away all the extra work. But at some time, you're going to hit the saturation point, and you need to spread it out so that everyone can enjoy a little extra money.

R.A.P.: Any other tips for those with a free-lance business?
Johnny: Well, here's something that came to mind, but realize that this stuff just comes to me. I don't pursue it. But if I went to seek it out, maybe I could find more. What I'm referring to is this: see if you can find some charitable clients. I had two last year. One was Hoosier Alliance Against Drugs. I did their tags and some of their production, and then I sent them a bill so I could put value on it. They sent me a check. Then I sent the check back to them and wrote that off [to charity]. Now, that is a tax advantage for you, but probably the biggest advantage is that it gets your name out there to people who are civic minded. And those civic minded people own big businesses, and that's very helpful. It's not the type of thing I necessarily put in my newsletter and toot my own horn about because I don't think that's necessary. It's something that takes care of itself.

R.A.P.: What's one thing you see Emmis do that you feel contributes to their success?
Johnny: This company listens to everybody. That's the way a company should be, and I've worked for a lot of companies that aren't that way. They even have an incentive program as far as ideas go. If you have an idea you really think is something that could be utilized in the organization, whether it be for on-air or to make the traffic department work better or the administrative work better or enhance the sales department, whatever it is, they encourage the input, and they reward that. We even have a large monetary prize at the end of each year for the best idea. It has been very successful.

R.A.P.: When multiple stations get under one roof, there's always the fear of getting the ax. After all, the whole concept appeals to owners because they can run three stations with one Traffic Director, one receptionist, maybe even one Production Director, rather than one for each station. What are your thoughts on this?
Johnny: Well, it keeps us honest, I think. It doesn't allow you to sit back and wait for stuff to come to you. You've got to really be in there kicking, and you've got to treat your job nowadays like a sponge. You need to learn how your department works and every department around it that you depend on, so that in a fix, you can jump in there and be able to help pull the weight if you need to. And, thus, in the long run, they're going to realize your value. That increases your value.

Any time you feel you should be worrying, it could be too late. I've always heard that. I think if there's anyone out there who's in a position right now where they think there's a chance their job is going to be eliminated because of duopoly, or if they think somebody is going to move into their spot and wear two hats to try and save some money, they need to, before they reach that point, get out and make sure they know what they're doing and what everyone around them is doing so that they can increase their value.

R.A.P.: What's down the road for you?
Johnny: I'm looking forward to the day when I can get up at nine or ten in the morning, sip on a cup of coffee, and get a fax that says I've got to cut a couple of lines. Then I cut them down here in my digital studio, send them out of here FedEx, and get a check for five thousand dollars.

I'll be in this business until the day I die, and I would love to see myself getting more involved in the corporate end. But I would have to have the outlet of creativity with my home studio just to keep my sanity because this is my outlet. I need this.

R.A.P.: What one single thing do you most contribute your success to?
Johnny: Probably my parents. My mother was a very staunch believer in enunciation, and if I ever did anything lazy in speech, she was all over me. For years -- and I would have to say right up to the mid-eighties -- nobody wanted my kind of voice on a spot. It wasn't ballsy enough, or it wasn't demanding or authoritative enough. The reason I get the jobs I get now is because I enunciate. I am clear in what I am saying, usually, and I have kind of a boy-next-door sound. That's what got me my TV gig as booth announcer for the local FOX station, and I've been doing that now for over four years. That's one of my selling points when I'm doing HotSpots! besides my imagery production.

R.A.P.: Tell us something personal about Johnny George.
Johnny: Married, eleven-year-old who wants to be an architect, own my own house.

I've had the opportunity to meet a lot of really neat people in this business, and it's funny because you can put those pictures on your walls -- as many as you want -- but when it comes down to who your real friends are, man, it's the guy you're sitting there sweating with at six thirty at night. You're thinking, "I'd love to go home for dinner, but this spot's gotta be done." Those are your friends, the guys you're gonna share the beer and pizza or chili with while watching the Superbowl. Maybe it's your PD who is going to put the party together for you. Those are your friends. Radio and TV people are really, truly, a second family, and sometimes a first family. No disrespect to the home unit, but when you stop and think that we're spending anywhere from eight to twelve hours a day with this surrogate family, you can become closer to them than you do your own family. You can really count on those people in a fix, so be good to the people around you.

I know more people in this business who go to work and put in their eight and hit the door. I know jocks who come in and do their four and hit the door. I feel sorry for them because they're not getting out of this what the business is really about -- it's a brotherhood.

Comments (0)

There are no comments posted here yet