R.A.P. Interview: Rich Boerner

Rich Boerner, Creative Director/ Assistant Program Director, WTKS-FM/Real Radio 104.1, Orlando, Florida

rich-boerner-mar95by Jerry Vigil

This month's RAP Interview takes us to the country's 41st market, Orlando, FL, where Rich Boerner takes on a the Creative Director/APD duties at a unique station, or is that stations. WTKS-FM is talk radio during the week, and it's a modern rock music station on Saturdays and Sundays. Rich handles all the creative imaging for "both" stations as well as the music for the weekend "station." He also produces comedy material for the afternoon talk show host and even had his first CD of comedy material released last year. At the local record stores, it was the number one seller in December!

R.A.P.: Where did your radio career begin?
Rich: I went to St. John's in New York and stumbled into an internship at what was then WAPP, a rock station owned by Doubleday. My internship was with the production guy. He sat me down and asked me a few questions. One of them was, "If I asked you to dub something for me, could you do it?" I said, "Sure." I had no clue what "dub" was at that point. He said, "What would you use to do that?" I said, "A dubber." He said, "Alright, you've got the job." His name was Bruce Figler, and he now has his own production company up in Westchester.

This internship turned into my first job. I stayed on for three semesters as an intern. During that time, they went through some format changes and later cleaned out the whole crew that came in for the new format because it was a disaster. Bruce had been fired, but I was still there doing some traffic work and production and other stuff. I graduated from school at about this time, and things just fell into place. I went to the General Manager, Pat McNally, and said, "Look, Pat, I'm doing your production job here. I don't know if you want me to keep doing it, but I know if you paid someone else to do it, you'd have to pay a heck of a lot more than the five dollars an hour I'm getting." So he said, "How'd you like to make fourteen thousand dollars a year?" And I said, "Where do I sign?"

There I was, in the biz doing production. I was doing the basic stuff. The creative production at that time was done by Rufus Hurt, who was their afternoon guy. He took me under his wing and taught me a lot, and I ended up getting a weekend gig. For me, to be on the air in New York at 22 years of age was phenomenal. Doubleday then sold the station to Emmis, and Emmis blew out the entire air staff, myself included. They decided they'd have jocks do production.

I was fired in August of '86 and was on the sidelines for a couple of months. Then they called and asked me to come back because they had lost so much revenue in missed production because their jocks didn't know how to do production. Shortly after I came back, they hired Rick Allen as the Creative Director and made me the Commercial Production Director.

I would say I learned probably the most about creative radio and theater of the mind from Rick. When Rick came in, they built him and 8-track room. I was just in awe as I stood there and watched him work magic. On top of that, Rick was a great guy, which made things even better. So he became my friend as well as my boss, and he stood up for me a lot of times when there were problems with the boss or with my job or whatever. I left WQHT in '89. Bill Schultz, who is the production guy at WYNY, was my assistant there by that time. So we had a production department of Rick as the Creative Director, me as the Commercial Production Director, and Bill Schultz was my assistant--probably the best creative team I ever worked with.

When I left, I was going to get into programming and be on the air. I went to California with a couple of buddies and that turned into a four-week disaster. I came back to New York to work with Bruce Figler part-time in his studio. Then I drifted for about six months wondering if I was going to give up this radio thing and go after an advanced degree and whatnot, and finally I just said, "No. I want it and I love it too much."

So, I started sending stuff out and making trips to other markets trying to get a gig. I got a programming and afternoon gig in Tri Cities, Tennessee. It was a start up station. When I got there they were just finishing building a small station in a double-wide on Route 19 in Coeburn, Virginia, which was kind of a culture shock for me coming from the city and having lived there my whole life. But, I'll tell you, I learned a heck of a lot about putting a station on the air and what it takes because we didn't have a huge staff. I was doing promotions as well as afternoon drive and all the creative production. I was there for nine months.

I was overworked, stressed out, and underpaid, and a job came open down here in Orlando as Production Director for what was then U104, which was a Hot AC and 740 WWNZ which was a news/talk station. I got here, and a month later they sold the stations, which was kind of shocking because I had just gotten married and had just moved down here with my new wife.

So Paxson buys the stations and I'm Production Director for U104 and 740 WWNZ and they changed U104 into "One Hundred Four One, The Waves." It was basically the same station with fifty fewer songs and jingles. They determined that was a mess, and after doing all the new packaging and everything for that, they pulled that off the air and then fired the whole FM staff. Then they put the AM, which was a talk station, on the FM to try and save money. Suddenly, the talk caught fire, especially the afternoon show which is called The Philips Phile, with Jim Philips.

The afternoon show became phenomenally popular. Jim happened to wander into my production studio one day when I was playing something for one of the engineers that I had done with Bill in New York. It was an un-airable spot, one of those phony raceway park spots filled with euphemisms which we couldn't say on the air. He thought that it was a riot and asked if that was the Grease Man. I told him it was me and a friend of mine. He asked if I could do stuff like that for him and I told him I would if I had the time. So I started producing a lot of comedy material for him, on top of what I was doing for the station.

Because of the FCC requirements, Paxson had to sell one of his FM stations because he had two other FM stations in town. Even though we were a rising star, they had consistent revenue and decided to put us on the block. They sold us to Press Broadcasting, and that's who owns us now. They also own TV18, an independent television station here in town.

R.A.P.: How did you acquire the Assistant PD duties?
Rich: When Press took over, our consultant at the time made some changes and brought in a Program Director who had no people skills. He also brought in some talent which was just a disaster. It was so bad that it was an embarrassment to work here the summer of '93. People were jumping off the ship left and right. We sunk to nineteenth place in the ratings. We made it to eighth and we sunk to nineteenth in one book--boom, like a rock. And we had a host of wanna-be talk super stars come through the building who were just either not very talented or not really good humans.

The GM who was running our station was also running Press's stations in New Jersey, and he lived in New Jersey. So, he was only here three days a month. He would say, "Well, I don't see the problems you people are all complaining about." Finally, Press got wise to it, and they put the General Manager of their local TV station in charge of the radio station as well. His name is Mark Lass. Mark, like me, was a thirty-year-old guy who could hear what was wrong with the radio station and then could walk across the parking lot, because we're in two separate buildings, and take care of things. He could see the problems in the building and how people were really mentally destroyed. He fired the PD, fired the morning guy, and basically gave me the interim Operations Manager title and said, "Keep the ship afloat until we can get it straightened out."

I was involved in putting together our current lineup. I was involved with getting Howard Stern here. We hired Jay Clark as our Program Director. I guess they wanted someone with a little more experience to be the front man for the radio operation. In the same respect, they didn't want to lose me, and that's how I got the Assistant PD/Creative Director title.

R.A.P.: The station is pretty unique in that it's a talk station during the week and a music station on the weekend. Describe the weekday lineup on the air.
Rich: We've got Howard Stern on in the morning. Our midday guy is Ed Tyll, and he is a wanna-be generation X thirty-eight year old. He basically talks to the 18-34 audience, but he's got a much wider perspective than that. And if you've ever heard a passionate talk show host, this is him, sometimes overly so in that he can become offensive, but it's apparently working. Our afternoon guy is Jim Philips, and his show, The Philips Phile, has been on top or at least in the top five, ratings-wise, adults, for the last two years. Basically, he was the programming anchor when we went through the storm a year or two ago.

We just started a show at night, seven to nine, called The Russ and Bo Road Show. These are two guys who used to buy time on the weekends a long time ago when we bartered it out. They called it Russ and Bo's Party Time, and they were just two thirty-year-old guys who basically would just have fun on the radio. Now we send them out on the road. They broadcast from the parking lot of a game they can't get into or a concert they can't get into. They give the perspective of the regular man who can't get in. They're about as wild as you can get.

From nine to midnight we have Passion Phones with Erin Somers. We originated that show here, and now she's syndicated. She's on WIOD in Miami and she's on in Tampa. The show is basically about sex and that's it. It's not psychology and everything else, the show is about sex down and dirty. We've taken a lot of flak over that, believe me, but the show's also number one at night. And Erin has a very sultry voice, so when she talks about sex, she talks with this voice, and it's a double whammy.

Overnights, we replay our afternoon show. We replay from midnight to six a.m. what we did from twelve to six in the afternoon which would be Ed Tyll and Jim Philips.

R.A.P.: What happens on the weekend, and how did the weekend format come about?
Rich: On the weekend we are basically an alternative rock station, but we are an alternative rock station aimed at a 25-34 year old, which means we play a lot of older alternative and crossover alternative music. It's easy for me to do this because I'm thirty-one, and I have enjoyed the format for ten plus years now. Being in radio, I'm familiar with what crossed over and what didn't. Being in the clubs, I'm familiar with what was popular and what wasn't. So, basically, when we started, I did it by guts.

When Press took over in '93, our consultant and Doug Silver turned our weekends into what they called "Party Music" or "Party Tunes." The title itself was kind of embarrassing. They had about a hundred tunes, and they were all Madonna, Phil Collins, and everything else which we could get at five other stations in the market. We had a .9 share on the weekend in adults. After they got rid of Silver, I spoke to Mark and told him I wanted to make it an alternative station. The median age of Orlando is thirty. It was prime for such a thing.

So I started bringing things in from home. It was a weird sounding station for a while because I was doing all the other jobs, too. I just couldn't come in and do a massive change-over, so I started building it slowly. I looked for people on the various college stations around who would sound halfway decent and could do a slick presentation. And we built a winner with word-of-mouth. We really hadn't been able to advertise it. We had no support from corporate. Corporate basically put up with it until they hired Jay. When Jay came in, they had a classic rock library ready to put into place, and I had been somewhat chastised by the corporate people. Then the ratings came in the week before the change was to take place, and we went from a .9 to a 6 share on the weekends. Suddenly, it became a good idea, and that's how this whole mix was born.

R.A.P.: How do you position yourself on the air when you're basically two different stations?
Rich: It's difficult. The positioners were a lot easier for me to do when we were first starting out with the weekend because we really hadn't established ourselves. We were like a pirate radio station.

Basically, the perception people have of our radio station is, whoever is on the air is in control, whether it's a jock on the weekend or a talk person during the week. That voice I hear on the radio has absolute control--of the phones, the topics, the songs, whatever--and that's what we were trying to build.

Our weekday positioners are still kind of "in your face," kind of like the Power Pig stuff. We try to break all the norms. One of them we use during the week says, "Are you interested in stimulating talk and provoking conversation? Then watch CNN, you moron!" Another one says, "Real radio, one oh four point one. Painful rectal itch. Which would you choose?" And then, to make fun of the American Family Association--the right-wing organization that's been after us for a while--I dubbed us the official party station of the American Family Association.

On the weekend, we started out with positioners similar to that, but now there's a station in town which is playing a lot of new alternative stuff. So now we have to kind of focus on the music. I'll try to mock some of their liners. One of their liners says, "You never have to sit through this," and they play a rap song, "to hear this...." Then they go into one of their songs. So I did a similar thing, except I put in these bogus drops in the middle. MIX 105 is another station we share with, and they ran these drops with women just reading liner cards saying, "I love the variety. I love the music...." So I got the girls around the office to come in and say, "We're the fifty-fifty music mix of Saturday and Sunday. Half the music we play is on Saturday, and the other half is on Sunday." And we call it "real music" to go along with "real radio." If you ask if it really fits an alternative station, the answer is no. But we're not a full-time alternative station.

I did some drops that mock the other stations because they just play a two-hour or three-hour alternative show. The drops say, "We could squeeze our real music into a few hours, but then it would sound like this"--and I took some cuts people would recognize and sped them up unbelievably fast--"and you'd never get to hear this," and that leads right into music.

R.A.P.: How much of your weekday audience listens on the weekend?
Rich: In the summer, we had forty percent of the people who listened during the week listen on the weekend, which was amazing for our kind of combination. I haven't seen the results of the fall book yet, but judging from the word on the street, I've got to imagine it's a pretty decent number.

We've converted a lot of younger people over to talk because we run promos during the weekend talking about what we do during the week. Numerous people call up during the week saying, "Yeah, I had you guys on over the weekend. I left it on your station, and Monday morning I heard you guys had Howard Stern!"

R.A.P.: Are you doing most of the writing of the imaging material for both "stations?"
Rich: Yeah, I do all the writing for the liners and the promos.

R.A.P.: Do you have any help with commercial production?
Rich: We hired a guy from Fresno about six months ago, Rob Frazier, to help with commercial production. I hired him because his demo tape impressed me as something as demented as I would send out. And I wanted someone I could lean on for ideas because the well's going to run dry, and some days it is very dry.

Rob has been extremely helpful because he reeks of creativity. He's our Commercial Production Director, which is probably pretty frustrating for him, being as creative as he is. But Rob is involved in more than just commercials. We have group creative meetings with our Promotions Director, and we sit down and try to figure out how we're going to handle promotions. For example, for President's Day weekend, we're doing one of those virtual reality paint ball games. We calling it Lincoln's Revenge. Everybody gets to wear Lincoln beards and try to track down our guy who is going to be dressed up like John Wilkes Booth. That was an idea that came from Rob. Like I said, I hired him as much for his mind as to take care of the commercial load.

R.A.P.: That sounds like a great setup--two full-time people handling the production for one station. Do you get any other assistance from other people on staff?
Rich: Rob may farm some out to the producer of The Philips Phile, Drew Garabo. Drew will also help me with some of the promos. I use him sometimes for voices and for ideas, too.

R.A.P.: You put out a CD last year of comedy material you produced for The Philips Phile. Tell us about that.
Rich: The CD, which I'm still very proud to mention, was a project that was brought to me, actually. The Leukemia Society had done a similar deal with another guy in town from another station. He had done a lot of comedy songs, and they did something with him last spring through one of the local record dealers here. Well, this record dealer happened to be a fan of the station and heard us on the weekends and heard what we were doing. She came and talked to me and found out that I did all the comedy stuff for the afternoon show. The Philips Phile had been running comedy even before I came on board. That's what inspired me to try and do some for him; I thought I could do better.

There's a particular character I invented two years ago, Vinnie Bombazzi, and that's who this CD is titled after. Vinnie makes daily appearances on the afternoon show with Jim Philips. Vinnie is basically my id. He is the unleashed New Yorker that is still inside of me. Jim has a segment called Snack Time where some of the clients come in and bring food. I don't know what inspired him to start it, but that's what started Vinnie. He asked me for a host for the Snack Time segment. So I came up with this Vinnie guy who gets on and just talks about what a schmuck Jim is and how he doesn't get any free food and complains and complains and complains. Vinnie has become ubiquitous, so he is the host of the CD. It's "Vinnie Bombazzi's Are You Experienced, The Philips Phile Unplugged."

Anyway, the lady from the record store called me and said the Leukemia Society wanted to talk to me. I called them up and the PR Director from the Leukemia Society tells me what he wants to do. He tells me how he likes the stuff and how they will take care of all the marketing and distribution. All we have to do is provide them with the product and be willing to promote it. I told them no problem, and that I'd talk to Jim. Jim says, "Great. Let's go with it." So I start assembling all the "best of"--everything I can find. I get the whole thing ready to go, and the day before we send it off to get it mastered, one of the higher ups at the Leukemia Society pulls the plug on the project. They say, "We don't want our organization involved with that radio station." They never gave us an official reason why.

So Jim went on the air that afternoon and just went nuts. He went wild screaming about the Leukemia Society: "I can't believe it! How can they do this to people who are contributing! This CD is going to raise at least ten thousand dollars, and they're turning it down!" We went on the air and said, "If you have an organization that wants to make some money, we've got a product for you." We got almost two hundred responses by fax from organizations in the area and outside the area. Word spread like wildfire.

We picked the Mustard Seed because they were a small organization based right here in Orlando that helps homeless people. Their truck had just broken down, and they were really in dire straits. What they do is supply a lot of needed household items to homeless families when they just get reestablished. People may not have furniture, clothes, toilet paper, and things like that. They give them the basics, just give it to them.

So I had to go back in the studio and re-master everything, plus I had to change the beginning of the CD. The revised first cut is actually something we ran on the air which was the story of the CD. It's a mock thing I did about the Leukemia Society calling and saying, "Hey, we want to use your stuff," then calling us back and saying, "Hey, we can't be involved with you." It was kind of neat, though, because it inspired another character. Mr. Pendleton is sort of a Gilbert Godfreid screaming type character who was born right there, and he's now made his way into promos and comedy.

So we got the CDs made, and we put them on sale from Thanksgiving to Christmas last year. I think the final number was $27,000 in just four weeks. We had cassettes made, too. Everything went to the Mustard Seed with the exception of our costs for making it. The Mustard Seed hadn't seen money like that, and they were very happy. I was pretty happy, too. Peaches is the big record retailer down here in Florida, and I got the stats on the CD from them. The CD was the number one seller for the month of December. It outsold the brand new Pearl Jam, and that made my month.

R.A.P.: That's a great story. Did you write and produce everything on the CD?
Rich: The vast majority of it. I believe there are two cuts on the whole thing that I did not write. I wrote everything else on there and voiced and produced the majority of it. The only thing I didn't do on there was the music. The music was done by a local guy who has been a fanatic of the afternoon show for years. His name is Disco Scotty, and he's got his own little free-lance company. He did the music and recruited the vocalists for the parody songs that are on there. I wrote the words for them, but he did the most difficult part. There are parodies of "YMCA," a parody of "Jack and Diane," a parody of "Longview," and a parody of Jimi Hendrix' "Fire." We did those specifically for the CD because I wanted something longer than just thirty or sixty second cuts on the CD.

R.A.P.: Have you considered marketing your comedy bits?
Rich: Actually, I was going to use this CD to kick the whole thing off. I've sent a couple of copies out now and actually sat down and started thinking about costs and everything else, should I want to try and market this. Ultimately, as do 99% of the production people in America, I'd like to end up working for myself. The CD is an excellent demo to have to send out to anyone, whether it's for a job or some free-lance work or whatever. In my vocabulary, free-lance is a good word. But for right now, the only thing I'm doing is for the station.

R.A.P.: What are some of your sources for creativity?
Rich: I have no idea why I see things as bizarrely as I do, or why I have such a bent sense of humor. If I could explain that, I probably wouldn't be able to do it. Basically, I get a lot of ideas just bantering around the office with the people I just mentioned. We'll talk about things. I'll come in and say something one way, and someone else will say it another way. All of a sudden a light bulb will go on in my head, and I'll go, "We can do this and that. This is the way to do it."

An example of something that came from just talking is a comedy piece I'm producing for the afternoon show. I thought the O. J. Simpson thing was becoming a circus. Remember Family Feud? Well, I'm turning the O.J. thing into "Felony Feud" hosted by Judge Ito where wacky prosecutors take on accused criminals.

I also get a lot of material from real life situations. Some things are born from conversations with my wife or things I experience with my one-year-old daughter. I did some stuff with Lamb Chop as a highway patrolman which was pretty humorous. And I've got to thank my wife and daughter both for putting up with me because the hours I put in are tremendous. But you've got to be a special kind of person to put up with a lunatic like me who loves the job, but not quite as much as he loves his family. I get inspired when driving to work and I see real life situations. I see things and think, "How can I make this humorous? How can I take this frustrating situation and make people laugh at it?" It comes from being an only child and a latchkey child being left home alone with a creative imagination.

R.A.P.: What kind of studio are you working out of?
Rich: We just have a 4-track studio. There are a couple of 2-tracks, and then we have two effects boxes, a Yamaha Rev 5 and a DigiTech TSR24. I have enough toys to make it sound good, but it's not a state of the art studio by any means. Rob and I share the same studio. I get in there at about eight-thirty and he gets in at about two. The studio's ablaze almost twenty-four hours a day.

I was producing a sales demo today for the weekends, and I would have killed for another two tracks because any time I've got to put stereo music and voice together, I'm basically screwed. It's going to take me about three times as long as it would if I had just an extra two tracks or a digital system.

They promised me this year that I would have a digital system before the summertime. We're going out to the NAB convention to take a look and see exactly what we want to get.

R.A.P.: Give us a bit of your philosophy with regards to creative promos and creative imaging of the station.
Rich: Basically, what I tell people in my department is to try to think of the wildest idea you can, and then try to mold it into something that would please your grandfather. I don't limit the way anybody thinks; everything can work. It's just a matter of molding it the right way.

You have to learn how to package your product--your music, your liners, everything. The whole thing is a package. What a lot of people don't see is that they try to sell their product because they love it so much, rather than look at it from the outside objectively and say, "Does that package work? Would I pay attention to that? Would I like that?" Comedy and wild things grab people's attention, but it doesn't if it's amateurish or if it's produced poorly.

R.A.P.: What kind of radio market is Orlando?
Rich: The "in your face" stuff we do here works because this radio market has changed. When I came here three years ago, Orlando was a very sleepy sounding radio market--nice music, nice liners, everything is well tested. All of a sudden, we have radio stations now using Jerky Boys drops and just being real, grabbing people and throwing them to the ground and saying, "Hey, listen to us!" And that's nice to hear because this town is growing so fast, it needs to have a personality of it's own rather than, "Oh, yeah...that's just a place where people pass through. Disneyworld's down there. There are a couple of beaches nearby, and people stay there for six months and leave." That's not the way this place is anymore. During the week, Jim and Ed get on the air and just say what's on their mind, whether the people like it or not. And they talk about how this city is changing. And we've stirred up as much pride in this town, I think, as we have controversy, which is kind of neat.

R.A.P.: It sounds like your midday show and afternoon show probably mix well with Howard Stern in the morning.
Rich: Yeah, we talk about anything. Howard Stern fits perfectly. The problem with Howard Stern is that he's got a stigma that all he does is lesbian dating games, and that's not what he does. I mean, sure, there's some of that on there, but we don't do that on our other shows. Our other shows are more phone interactive with the people right here in town. We don't have guests on, and we don't have lesbian dial-a-date. On our afternoon show, our comedy is recorded. So it's part of a spot set. It happens and it smacks you in the face. Then we go back to Jim, the people in the studio working with him, and the people on the phone.

That's what has made us successful; we touch the people right here. We're not a canned show from somewhere else. Howard's show works in the morning because it's so good, because he is so real and it fits in perfectly. And in the morning, there's not as much time for people to get on the phone and talk about what ails them anyway. In the afternoon or the midday, they can talk about how they're sick of watching the O.J. trial.

Two weeks ago Jim did a show where he just had this wild hair and got to talking about what would happen if aliens came down and stole all the women and it was just us guys left. "What guy would you want to be with? What guy would you want to marry? Not that there's anything wrong with that," he kept saying. "I'm not gay, but what guy?" He spent four hours on that. The next day he had to tell people to stop calling about it. "Stop it. I don't want to do it anymore!"

R.A.P.: It sounds pretty much like a no holds barred station.
Rich: Basically, the only limits we have are that we don't want to offend advertisers, and we can't say what the FCC won't allow us to. Those are the limits. When we get offensive, we do it with tongue in cheek. If you're going to do something shocking, you have to do it like, "Oops, I can't believe I said that" as opposed to, "Listen to this again! Listen to this again!" If you trip somebody and it's an accident, it can be a funny scene. But if you trip somebody and kick them while they're laying there, that can be a problem.

R.A.P.: Congrats on your success. It sounds like you're having a lot of fun at a fun station to work at.
Rich: It is fun to work here. But like any radio station, it has its ups and downs. But as far as being creative and getting to do what I want to do, I get to have fun. You know, if you can get rid of all the rest of the baggage that comes around it, for a radio guy, this place would be like heaven. But then it wouldn't be reality. And I'd never come home and I'd end up divorced; and I cherish my wife and daughter too much for that.

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