R.A.P. Interview: Georgann John

Georgann John, General Production Director, WHAM/WVOR/WHRR/WHTK, Rochester, New York

georgann-john-jan96by Jerry Vigil

It's happening everywhere. Stations are being bought and sold like shares of Internet stocks, and the major players in each market are gathering as many stations as the law allows. You've heard about the "production nightmare" this can bring on, and many of you are living it. Many of you who aren't living it had better get ready for it. Georgann John found herself happily planted as Production Director of one station in Rochester, New York, WHAM-AM. It was a great gig. Then, within a six month period...wham! The one station became five. There's WHAM-AM, a News/Talk station, there's WVOR-FM, an A/C station, there's Classic Rock WHRR-FM, The River, and there's Hot Talk WHTK-AM. The fifth station is CHR formatted WPXY-FM. This is The Lincoln Group's most recent acquisition, and at this time, Goergann has been spared the duties of handing the production tasks for this station. Each situation is going to be different, but there are many things we can learn from a Production Director who has been through these drastic changes in responsibilities. We will regularly check in with those who have survived the changes, and maybe some who didn't. Hopefully, we can pick up some tips that will help those of you about to take on more stations, and those of you who already have.

R.A.P: Where did you start in radio and how did you wind up in Rochester?
Georgann: I started in radio in November of 1977. I got a degree in Radio, TV and Film from Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. I lost track of how many stations I've worked for. I think it's somewhere around ten or twelve. There are those you leave off your resume because it gets to be too many. That was during the seventies and late eighties. I spent a year around 1985 in New York City doing free lance voice-over work. I did some Arby's and Krazy Glue radio and TV campaigns. But I missed radio, so I went back to Texas and did some more radio there. I've always been a Production Director. I think my first seven years in radio I was on air and did production. Then there was that point where you have to start doing one or the other, and I became an off-air Production Director. I did a little TV also. I was a TV weather forecaster for two years in Texas. Then I wanted to come back to the Northeast, so in 1987 I applied for two jobs, one in Baltimore at WLIF and one here in Rochester at WHAM. I liked Rochester so I took the WHAM job as Production Director.

R.A.P.: Was it just WHAM-AM or was there an FM involved at this point?
Georgann: Yes, they had an FM, but it was at a different facility. I wasn't involved with it at all. I was hired solely for WHAM.

R.A.P.: When did the one station become two?
Georgann: In 1990 they decided to move both stations into the same building. They wanted to start combining services at that point. Now, at that time, there was a Production Director for WVOR, the FM station, and I was the Production Director for WHAM. His name is Dave Roberts. When we merged the two facilities, Dave was really heavily into the creative, and management wasn't his strong suit. So they made me General Production Director, and they made Dave Creative Director. I would run the departments, as far as getting things on the air, and he wrote for the FM. I still wrote for the AM, but I managed both sides. We were grooming another guy, Kurt Schenk, who was featured in last month's Radio And Production for a Tent City commercial he did. We were grooming Kurt as our third production person.

R.A.P.: Kurt was brought in while it was still a two station deal?
Georgann: Yes, it was still just a two station deal. But the company also owned a couple of stations in Ohio and WBUF in Buffalo. Shortly after we merged into our new facility in 1990, they began combining some services with the Buffalo station, and we began doing a lot of their production out of our station. So, at that point, I guess we had a two and a half station deal working. This is primarily why Kurt was brought in. There was more and more work, and the Lincoln Group, the company we work for, is very heavy into direct sales. Our General Sales Manager, Ernie Rothchild, is a keynote speaker for NAB and does a lot of seminars on marketing. He's like the marketing guru of the nineties, and he's really into direct sales. So we do a huge amount of direct selling.

Eventually, around 1991, Dave left the company for greener pastures. I remained as General Production Director and Kurt just kind of remained as an assistant. I don't know if they titled him or not, but it was just the two of us running the department. I would produce everything for both stations and still do a little bit for WBUF. He and I would write everything for both stations, and the jocks would lay down voice tracks and do dubs here and there. Basically, we did it all.

R.A.P.: When did the other stations come on board?
Georgann: Several things happened in about a six-month period in 1993. Kurt was still there when we acquired the third station, WEZO-FM, and when were on the verge of getting the fourth station, WHTK-AM, Kurt was in the process of leaving to go to work for WMAX. When he left, I was all alone, and I told management that just one or two people could not bear the responsibilities. There just wasn't enough of us to go around to keep doing things the way we had done them. At that point, I told the bosses we needed to go to a team concept of production.

R.A.P.: Were there production people already at the two new stations before you took them over?
Georgann: When we took it over, the FM was fully automated. So physically there was never anyone there. We just input the ads to hard drive from one of our production studios, and that was it. Same with the music. The AM, which was Hot Talk, was just a bunch of board operators. These are high school and college guys at virtually their first jobs in radio. So they had no production experience or voices, and they really couldn't help.

R.A.P.: Was your "team approach" basically a way to get the jocks involved in production?
Georgann: Not really. As a Production Director back in the eighties I always wrote all the ads and managed the whole department. But jocks, around their air shift, would pull about an hour in the production studio throwing ads together or doing a couple of dubs. That's not what I considered the team approach we needed for the nineties. I needed people who would be real producers. For example, right now I have three producers working three shifts: a nine to noon, a noon to three, and a three to six p.m. shift. All they do is sit in the studios and work with clients, produce ads, gather voice tracks, and put everything together. I needed people to have at least three hours of dedicated production every day, and I needed the best we had to offer because of the volume we were dealing with. There were a lot of spec spots and on-air spots. The AM is doing huge direct business and requires lots of testimonial type spots because of its news/talk format. The volume was huge and so was the amount of time spent producing the ads. So I needed people who were veterans and were really good, people who could do multiple voices, who could edit and voice and produce and take care of clients.

R.A.P.: Where did you find these people?
Georgann: Well, they were within our facility. The guy doing the nine to noon production shift actually does our on-air traffic in the mornings. He does traffic for all of the stations. When he gets off the air doing traffic at nine, he's my producer from nine until noon. His name is Vern Roberts. I used to take the midday shift from noon until three, but right now we have a new guy we are grooming. He's been at it a couple of years now. He's my young blood. His name is Jason Palvino. He's the youngest of the team, but he's the next generation. He was one of the board operators on WHTK, and he also inputs all the logs into the automation for WHTK. Our three to seven shift producer is Tom Keller. He does a midday shift for WVOR, then he comes in and does production in the afternoons for me.

Now at night, we have the seven to midnight guy on WVOR who does more than just a normal jock does. He actually does a lot of producing himself. His name is Chris Caufmann, and he'll probably do two to three hours of production every night either before or after his air shift. Then my midnight to six guy is another strong anchor for me. John Anthony does midnight to six on WVOR-FM, and he takes all the commercials that come down on the DGS box. He handles and maintains all that, wraps up everything at the end of the day, and gets everything ready for the next day. He's my detail guy, my loose end man.

As a team, it's pretty intense, and the good thing is that I can write an ad in the morning, Vern can get the voice-track from someone and do the digital editing, and then he hands the voice track off to Jason who then mixes it with music. Then, if it needs some finishing touches or special effects, Tom can do that in the afternoon. So we all work on everything.

R.A.P.: Tell us how the fifth station came about?
Georgann: Our fifth station is an LMA with WEZO which has changed formats to The River with new call letters, WHRR. This is our fifth station because we just bought WPXY this year, another FM in the market, so we had to sell WEZO to attain WPXY. Under the rules and regulations, we can only have two FMs and two AMs, so we do not legally own WHRR, the River, which was WEZO.

Now, 'PXY is the only one that came to us with a full staff. I am director over all the other four stations, and I write for all the other four. Because we just acquired WPXY, it still has its own Production Director and writer, and we're just starting to integrate. It's a real hot CHR, and it's very promo intensive. So their Production Director, Joe Kaus, is still handling all that. The jocks come in and do just a little bit here and a little bit there, but Joe does ninety percent of the producing. It's a promo intensive station and it's a CHR format, so they do a ton of bar spots and a ton of promos. Joe's time is completely eaten up by that.

R.A.P.: How many spots is your department writing and producing each day?
Georgann: I write five to ten ads a day, and the department produces ten to fifteen ads a day. We dub from fifteen to twenty-five ads a day.

R.A.P.: Are all stations in one facility at this point?
Georgann: Yes.

R.A.P.: How many production studios are there?
Georgann: We have two 8-track studios, one 4-track, and two 2-track rooms. The two 8-tracks are strictly production rooms for commercial production with the exception being Joe's studio, the 'PXY studio. We call it the 'PXY studio because he's in there most of the time. He does promos and commercials out of there. The other 8-track is where I work with the team concept. Ninety percent of all the commercials produced for the four stations I manage are all done out of that one 8-track facility.

R.A.P.: Who's handling promos for these four stations?
Georgann: Tom Keller will do some mixing of promos for WVOR. Brad Smith writes and produces all the AM promos. He runs a one-hour five o'clock news shift on WHAM, but he's the promo guy for both WHAM and WHTK. He does all that out of the 4-track room.

R.A.P.: What 8-track machines are you using in these two rooms? Are you digital or analog?
Georgann: Everything's analog. We are planning to upgrade to digital within the next year. We do have a digital editor in one of the 2-track rooms. It's a computer based thing running off of Windows. It's just a 2-track, but we do a huge amount of testimonial advertising, and it's perfect for that. Actually, we had to get it two years ago because we were doing so much cutting and splicing that the time spent was not worth it.

We've previewed a lot of systems, including ProTools which I have a fondness for. But things can change within the next year. The market just keeps getting bigger and bigger and the prices keep getting better and better.

R.A.P.: How many hours are you working a week?
Georgann: Sometimes, quite honestly, fifty-five to sixty because I love to write, I love to produce, and I love to voice. I love all three equally, and there's nothing I can really give up. So I just kind of weave my production time in and around the open slots. I'm better utilized managing the sales staff. With twenty salespeople and four different formats to write for, I'm interrupted every five minutes no matter what I'm doing.

R.A.P.: Is there a Continuity Director?
Georgann: No. Our traffic department contacts the agencies when they need specifics on traffic instructions or if they're waiting on a tape. That's part of our traffic department. We have two people handling that. We have an AM traffic lady and an FM traffic lady. We do have another person who works on the LMA in addition to her other duties, so The River is trafficked separately.

R.A.P.: Is the sales staff one large staff for all stations?
Georgann: No. We have a separate staff for each station. There's very little cross-selling.

R.A.P.: Do these twenty salespeople office in the same building with you?
Georgann: Yes, we're all together.

R.A.P.: What kind of relationship would you say you have with them?
Georgann: Well, I have my good days and my bad days but, you know, you're dealing with twenty different personalities. They're all hungry, and they're all at different levels of being in the broadcast business. A lot of my job is training the new ones.

R.A.P.: What other departments were affected with the added stations? What about the engineering? Did that grow?
Georgann: Yes, we pretty much doubled our engineering department. We have a Chief Engineer for the Lincoln Group and we have a head engineer at the station. Then we have three full-timers under him and another part-timer. That's four and a half people in engineering.

Our programming department has one Program Director for 'PXY. We have one for 'VOR, and the AMs are program managed by the Station Manager for the AMs. Jeff Howlett's the Station Manager for WHAM and Hot Talk. Ken Spitzer is the manager for the FMs.

R.A.P.: Well, there you are with these stations being added all at once, and during the same time you lose Kurt who was your only help. What were some of the first problems you encountered?
Georgann: Tonnage. I think it's important that an individual know their strengths, and I do know about mine. There are few things that I really, really, really know, but I am one incredible time manager. I work on multi-tracks in my brain. I just do a lot of juggling. I have a lot of airplanes that are circling the airport, that are coming in, that are taking off, all at different times. I have to be able to keep all that straight in my head. I have to be able to make sure that my team gets things done when they need to get things done. I have to have the ability to prioritize. So, when we added more stations, for me more planes just came into the airport, and it wasn't that difficult. As a manager, I had to focus more on utilizing the strengths of my team, realizing who was better at what and just making sure I get the most out of them during those three hours they spend in the studio.

R.A.P.: It sounds like what has enabled you to pull this off more than anything else is your ability to manage people and time. This would probably hold true for anyone in your position.
Georgann: I think so. I think that's the key. We have a lot of talent. The guys who work in my team are extremely talented. But if they don't have someone to tell them when it needs to be done or juggle their time schedules.... And don't forget, we have agencies coming in and out of the station using the facilities also, so I have to micro-manage their time, too. However, I don't ever have to check the work my producers do. These are guys who have been around and they know how to do the job. I don't have to manage them getting the job done. I just have to manage their time to make sure I get the most out of what they do.

R.A.P.: You said earlier that there was not that much cross selling or combo buys. That means you're not producing very many commercials, if any, that will run on more than one of your stations.
Georgann: Well, our commercials are very targeted to the audiences of each station. The way I talk to someone on WHAM is very different than the way I talk to someone on The River.

R.A.P.: Then you don't often get an order that says Joe Blow's restaurant needs a spot for the FM and another one for the AM.
Georgann: No, but I'll sometimes get two or more salespeople from different sales staffs both pitching the same account. If I feel like there is a conflict, like maybe I've already come up with the best idea, I'll hand the second order off to Brad Smith. He backs me up when I have an overflow of commercial writing or when I feel there is a conflict with something I'm already up to my eyeballs in. There are some accounts I'm just married to. It's not in the client's interest for me to try and redo it for another one of our stations. I will hand that off to Brad. If I have two salespeople who are pitching the same client, I'll let Brad take one approach and I'll take the other.

R.A.P.: So the sales departments are so separate that two people in the same company could be pitching the same client and not know it.
Georgann: More often than not. They all have the same General Sales Manager, but they all have separate cubes. They're all like in a huge sales facility.

R.A.P.: What about the client? The client is getting pitched by two different salespeople from the same company. The client doesn't know?
Georgann: That is correct, unless the client just happens to know that both those stations are owned by The Lincoln Group.

R.A.P.: Would you do anything differently than you did now that you've got twenty-twenty vision looking back?
Georgann: I think I would have done a team concept earlier. I think you just get a better product, and we can get a lot of work done very efficiently.

R.A.P.: What seems to be the downside of this team approach, if there is any?
Georgann: When someone goes on vacation or someone gets sick, we're lean. We're very lean. Right now, Tom is on vacation and Vern got a little sick this morning with the flu, so Jason and I pulled the slack all day.

R.A.P.: Do you have any deadlines for the salespeople?
Georgann: With twenty salespeople there's always an emergency. I try to get them to do a three-day turnaround: one day to write, one day to produce, and one day to revise. In a perfect world, I have a three day turnaround. But with twenty salespeople, and if they all have an emergency, then I have a day of nothing but emergencies. When I used to have a staff of six salespeople, so what if there are six emergencies a day? I'd love that. But when there are twenty, that's a real pain. We try to get everything turned around within forty-eight to seventy-two hours.

R.A.P.: Are there any plans in the works to further develop this production team of yours?
Georgann: We're talking about additionally compensating the production team with a percentage of the company's direct sales. I think a lot of stations are going towards compensating their production people. You know, the harder you work, the more sales you bring in. You get a little more bump for that. We are also looking at getting, hopefully, a nighttime producer, a seven to midnight guy, just production, five days a week, seven to midnight. In radio we are an around-the-clock facility anyway. The shop is always open. Why do we have to keep trying to cram more into daylight hours? Why don't we go twenty-four hours? Especially in cases like ours where you do have a lot of people who are working really hard without much slack in there. I think you have to have the foresight to go twenty-four hours. If you can get competent people to do a seven to midnight or a midnight to six, I think that's the way to go.

R.A.P.: What are some other things this experience has taught you?
Georgann: When you have a staff of people that you manage, I think sometimes you can have too many meetings. When I was having regular meetings, it always felt very counter productive, though we have to get the basics down together. Aside from that, we are all in such constant contact with one another that if a problem arises or a policy changes within the organization or the way we do business, I can just talk to them one on one or memo them about it. Stopping the department and sitting in a room for two hours a week is too much. I used to have weekly staff meetings with the guys and it's like we felt our time was just better spent in the studio. When I need to communicate with them, I see them throughout the course of the day. A lot of our work overlaps, and we critique one another; we hand off to one another. We really work as a team. I think synergy is what we have in our production department. The sum of the parts is bigger than the whole.

R.A.P.: So when a big project comes down the line, it's not like, "Here, this is your huge project, your headache. Go away and don't bother us until it's done."
Georgann: No. We all work together. We all help each other. We all back each other up and watch out for one another. It's just a terrific group of people. I feel so fortunate at this stage of my career to be working with such a group of really, really talented individuals at all stages of their careers. None of them are prima donnas, and none of them are ego driven. It's really a very unique situation, I think.

R.A.P.: What advice would you pass on to someone who is about to get into the situation you're in with new stations being added to an existing one?
Georgann: I think you've got to make yourself the pinpoint. I have a lot of salespeople who feed me, and in turn, I feed the team. But I still think you've got to have one person that everything comes through, one central person. It can go anywhere it wants after that, but you've got to really make yourself the point person, and you've got to be available to all sides--all salespeople, all production members, all air staff. And if you divide that up between too many people, there's just so much going on, and you're going to miss an airplane. You're going to crash. You've got to have one central control point overseeing it all.

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