R.A.P. Interview: Ron Drew

Ron Drew, Production Director, WGIR-AM/FM, Manchester, New Hampshire

ron-drew-may96by Jerry Vigil

Ron Drew picked up this year's Best Promo trophy for Small Markets and was 1st Runner-up for the same award in last year's Radio And Production Awards. We thought it was time to find out a little more about this production wizard who's hiding in the country's 193rd ranked market. We found out several interesting things about Ron and WGIR-AM/FM. To begin with, award winning production is not new to the group owners of WGIR. Sister station WEZF-FM in Burlington, Vermont and Mary Collins also grabbed an award in this year's RAP Awards competition (not to mention awards in previous years). It seems the owner(s) of the Knight Quality stations know the value of great production and great producers, to the point that they've equipped WGIR and other company stations with Pacific Research & Engineering's high-powered ADX workstations. And they've created an atmosphere at WGIR that keeps a talent like Ron in place for ten comfortable years, the extent of his radio career. After reading this interview, you have to remind yourself it's about small market radio.

RAP: Where and when did you get started in radio?
Ron: I started here in Manchester in '85 and have been here since. I was twenty-one and wanted to be in radio. I didn't have any schooling outside of high school, and I got a lucky break. My sister was in television in the same market at the time. She knew a guy here at the radio station, and she got me in as an intern. I started as a paid intern, just answering phones and driving the van around. I got a chance to do a little bit of board op-ing on our AM station which is a news/talk/sports station. That turned into doing some overnights on the FM station during the weekends and, eventually, full-time overnights during the week. Over the next ten years, that became full-time ten to two, six to ten, and eventually seven to midnight.

A little over two years ago, I became Production Director and kept doing the seven to midnight show. That was a five-hour air shift in the middle of my production day, and I got absolutely nothing done. I was putting in fifty to fifty-five hour weeks. I would get in around three in the afternoon and work until about three in the morning. I said, "Look, I'll be more productive if you take me off the air." Finally, after a couple years of pleading for them to take me off the air, they did. That happened just about three weeks ago.

RAP: Why didn't you get in earlier in the day, so the air shift would be the last thing you did?
Ron: Mainly because we only have one production studio as far as the FM crew goes, and our morning show pretty much has the room until about noon or one o'clock each day. And then I have a copywriter who also spends time in there, mainly recording clients and other commercial stuff. Three o'clock was the best time to come in, and after midnight, the salespeople weren't around, so it was a good time to get things done.

RAP: Are you still sharing the one studio with the morning team?
Ron: Yeah. Right now we've got it set up so that they have it until about noon or one o'clock. Now I usually show up about noon, do any scripts or whatever I've got to take care of, and then I'm in the studio by one and usually hang around the studio until about seven or eight o'clock at night. So I get a good six or seven hours of straight production time now.

RAP: What help do you have in production?
Ron: All the announcers do production. When they get off the air, they'll do some stuff, mainly some reads or some minor production. They also do a lot of sweeps for their own shows, a lot of the image stuff. The morning show is pretty much self contained. They take care of most of their stuff. My biggest responsibilities are taking care of a lot of the overall station imaging and promos, especially when we're in the ratings period, and I handle most of the commercials.

RAP: The Knight Quality Group owns several stations in the New England area, including WEZF in Burlington, Vermont. This is the home of Mary Collins who is no stranger to the RAP Awards either. I get the impression that the owners put a great deal of focus on production at their stations.
Ron: It really has been amazing. I mean, for a market this size, the dedication is there with the equipment. We have the Pacific Recorders ADX digital workstation, and we've also got the board that goes with it, the MixStation. Top ten markets would have this equipment. It's amazing stuff, and they've not only equipped us with it, but WHEB in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and WSRS in Worcester, Massachusetts as well. They went and bought them for everybody, so they're very definitely into their production. They're also very good as far as music libraries go. They've always been very good to me and have given me the tools to work with. For effects, we've got a couple of Eventide Harmonizers, and we're mastering to DAT.

RAP: Are you still dubbing stuff to cart or are you digital in the control rooms yet?
Ron: For now, we're still dubbing to cart, but there are plans for the next year or so to get away from the carts.

RAP: When did you start to develop your production skills?
Ron: When I was doing the overnights on the AM. I was basically just running the board on the AM when I first started back in '85, and I used to run into the production studio and toy around with the stuff. I would have to run back and catch the top of the hour news or whatever, then I'd run back into the production studio and play around some more. It was a chance for me to play around in the production studio without anybody around, and if I broke something, I never touched it, you know?

RAP: Well, congratulations once again on the Best Promo award. The ADX workstation must have been helpful!
Ron: I actually used a reel-to-reel to get some of the effects for that promo, then I dumped that into the ADX. I still end up playing around with the reel every once in a while, just using some of the old techniques. Unfortunately nowadays, some of the people who are just starting out, start right in with the ADX. They know nothing about reel-to-reel. They don't know the old techniques.

There's a contest we're running now with a spinning wheel. We're giving away cash. The wheel will land on a certain number and that will be the amount of money that each song will be worth. The spinning wheel effect I basically created with a reel-to-reel, using my hand to slowly slow down the reel, and then it stops on a certain amount. It could be done with a digital workstation, too, but I like playing around with tape every once in a while.

Some people ask if I were to ever go someplace else, would I go back to using tape. I don't think I would be so afraid of going back to tape. It's fun in its own way, using a 4-track or an 8-track. It has its own little set of techniques, and I kind of enjoyed it. Of course, if I have my option, I'm taking the digital.

RAP: How did you take to the ADX when it arrived?
Ron: Right away, and it's a great piece of equipment when it comes to teaching somebody else, too. The control panel on the ADX makes it so simple. Basically, as long as you put whatever you have in your mind to do into the computer's terms, it's right there in front of you, and nine times out of ten the light on the button you need is lit up. All you've got to do is look for it. It's great. It's better than dealing with a keyboard where you have all these commands you've got to remember. For the most part, everybody picks it up quickly, especially if they have computer experience. It helps just to know how a computer works and understand the idea of opening and closing windows.

The board, the MixStation, takes a little while to get used to. I mean, it freaks people out when they see the pots moving up and down by themselves, like a little player piano. What's difficult now is when someone new comes in--unless they've dealt with it in school or whatever--and they get hit with it all at once. You've got to learn the ADX. You've got to learn the board. You've got to learn DAT. As simple as DAT is, people are still not used to it. With those of us already at the station, it all came in increments. First we got the ADX. Six or seven months later we got the MixStation.

They flew me out to San Diego to train for it for a week. While I was out there, the trainers were getting calls from Chicago, LA, New York City, and Dallas. I was sitting with the trainers, and they were getting these calls from people with problems or questions or whatever. I thought it was kind of strange. I'm thinking, here we are from Manchester, New Hampshire, and these guys are dealing with the bigwigs in the major markets. That's when it hit me how important production was to Knight Quality stations. I was impressed.

RAP: You're very fortunate to be with a station in a small market that will spend the extra bucks to get top-of-the-line gear.
Ron: Well, I think they are well aware of the value of our skills, and they know they're not wasting their money. And the man who owns the company, Norman Knight, is a radio man through and through. He's been a radio man for quite a long time, and he's not like some board member somewhere in a big corporation that doesn't realize the potential of the equipment they are buying for you.

I speak to other people in larger markets. There's a guy in Detroit I was talking to whose station only has one station vehicle...in Detroit! We have four here. They didn't have the same production equipment that we have here, and this was a large station in Detroit. Why? Because the people making the decisions are some big corporation board members that have no idea of the equipment they are buying, whereas Mr. Knight knows exactly what he's buying, and he knows that it's going to be used.

RAP: It sounds like he might have come up through the programming end of the business. You can't beat that kind of ownership.
Ron: Yeah, he was on the air for a while, and he owns a bunch of stations now. It's been tremendous. That's the main reason I've been here for ten years. There's this loyalty to their employees, and it's something I've tried to give back over the past ten years. I don't want to be a gypsy. There are too many gypsies in this business, people just roaming around, a couple of years here, a couple of years there, hip hopping across the country. I would like to spend a little time here, and then, eventually, maybe move on to a larger market and spend a lot of time there. I've spent ten years here, and I'm looking to do another batch of years before I actually leave. It's comfortable. The pressure isn't crazy, and the company is very good to me.

RAP: Do most people who work there find it a pretty comfortable place to work and stay for several years?
Ron: Yeah. Our Music Director has been here for fifteen years. She just moved over to the AM. She's not the Music Director any more, but she's been here for fifteen years. A lot of the salespeople have been here for a number of years. There's a good handful of them, at least five or six of them, who have been here for at least eight or nine years. On air, I think there's about five or six people who have been here at least seven or eight years.

RAP: You said that the pressure "wasn't crazy" there. The first thing I thought of was the sales staff. How do you maintain the kind of control over them to keep the pressure bearable?
Ron: I'm very honest with them and very strict with them. I don't pull any punches. I really don't. I've got fifteen or sixteen different salespeople I'm working with. I don't consider any of them to be more important than the next. And in some ways, I don't consider any of the clients to be more important than the next. Certainly, when I'm working on a spot, that's my main priority, but for other people to come running in and say, "I've got to have this. You've got to do this," I'm like, "Look, if I've got it set up so it looks like a deli in here, take a number." For the most part, they respect that.

If something is wrong, or if something is not working the way it should, I'll go in to them and say, "Look, this isn't working. You've got to straighten this out so that it's easier for us. If we have to turn this commercial into a donut so we don't have to do it every week, then that's the way it's going to be done." It's give and take.

RAP: Apparently you have some support from management on this?
Ron: Yes. Our GM, Jon Erdahl, came up through the ranks, the programming end. It's nice to have a GM from the programming side. Jon's been here for eight years, I believe. He came in here as PD. It's definitely great to have him on my side. Although when it comes to a dispute with the salespeople, it's usually settled between us. It's not too often that we ever actually have to go above us. Like I said, it's give and take. If you want to come at me real fast with something, I've got to let them understand that they're not my only one. Usually they understand. They back off.

RAP: Do you deal with deadlines or just pretty much handle it as it comes in?
Ron: Most of it I try to handle as it comes in. We try to take care of it right then and there. It's the easiest way.

RAP: How busy is your department with the commercials?
Ron: The Knight Quality station group sells the entire chain, so there are a lot of national and regional spots which means there's a lot of dubbing. We're not that far from Boston, and that makes a difference, even though we're in a small market. We're only forty miles from Boston and our listeners are spread out throughout New England. When I was on the air, the calls I was getting were from Vermont and Maine and Massachusetts, even all the way down to the border of Rhode Island. So our listenership is throughout the Boston area and that helps as far as the marketing goes. As a result, there are a lot of national and regional sales. I would say on average I'm producing probably about three to five spots a day, and that's mostly for the AM because the AM has a smaller coverage area, mainly the metro area.

RAP: Does WGIR show up in the Boston book?
Ron: Oh, yeah. It surprises them sometimes. With rock radio in Boston, for a while there weren't many options. You had 'BCN playing Howard Stern at night, so if you wanted rock at night from a mainstream rock station, there weren't any options. You had WAAF in Worcester, which is very heavy. If you're seventeen or eighteen and want to bang your head, that's where you're going to go. But if you're in your mid-twenties, thirties or forties, and you want some mainstream rock, you came to us. And that is true during the day. We've got a morning show on right now that is the most successful morning show we've ever had here, Baxter in the Morning. Things are really going well and the audience just seems to keep on growing.

RAP: Your department runs on the "team approach" we've talked about in these pages before. It seems to be working well for your station.
Ron: Some of it is economic, as far as the payroll goes. I mean, you're taking care of a couple of different jobs by having people doing some production and doing on-air shifts, too. But I never load anybody up. Our midday girl got out of here today fifteen minutes after she got off the air, so it's never loaded up on anybody. The majority of the stuff is still put on my shoulders. But I train the people and I trust them with the production. I don't worry about something going on the air that's going to sound terrible. I even hand out some production for the people on the weekends, mainly just for some variety on the voices, especially if we're doing a lot of tags or donuts.

RAP: That's a good position to be in, having a lot of people who can voice and produce.
Ron: Yeah, and this is something I push, especially when someone new comes in. I explain that there are a lot of people out there who can get on the air and talk, but once you start talking about production, that number starts to drop. There aren't a lot of people out there who can do both, be good on the air and get off the air and do good production. At least I haven't seen it.

RAP: Is that something your station specifically looks for when they're looking to fill an on-air shift?
Ron: I believe so. Now, it's not too often that we're filling shifts, but Jon will come to me and he'll say, "Well, this guy's got some great production skills." We just hired a guy to do weekends. He's got digital experience and a great set of pipes, so, yeah, I think he looks for that.

RAP: Let's get back to your production skills. What's your formula? What makes a good promo?
Ron: The only formula or rule I ever hold to is don't try to be funny if you don't feel it. There are a lot of times when I can't think of anything funny. For some reason, we might feel like we need to have a humorous promo on the air. But if I don't feel funny, then I don't try to push it, which I think is a tough thing for some people to do. If you don't feel funny, don't try to push it because odds are it's not going to be funny.

In the case of the promo that won the award, the Plugged/Unplugged Weekend, it just came to me as I started working on the ADX. I thought, "Well, how would this sound if all of a sudden I just started cutting things out and then cut off the announcer at the end?" It came to me and I thought it was funny. I played it for a couple people who thought it was funny. But a lot of people, even some people on the air, they try to be funny and you feel embarrassed for them when they fall on their face.

RAP: What are you using for production music?
Ron: I've got a couple of libraries from FirstCom which I find to be among the best. I've got Sound Designer II and Maximum Impact from FirstCom. I just got Extreme Cuts, which is pretty good. It's a lot of very nineties-sounding stuff, very heavy hitting. We've got the New Hampshire International Speedway here who wants monster-sounding stuff, and the Extreme Cuts is very good for that. It's from BRG, Broadcast Results Group. It's one of those trade deals. It's an excellent series. They go from sounding like a Soundgarden or Pearl Jam and then they'll switch gears and sound like Gin Blossoms. Very nineties-sounding stuff which helps as far as doing club spots and things like that if you don't want to go and start playing around with little bits of songs and getting someone in trouble with a law suit or something like that.

RAP: You mean small markets worry about copyright infringement, too?
Ron: We do, mainly because the corporate people do. The lawyers come at us and send us the memos and stuff. I try to stay away from it as much as possible. Recently, there was a client in town who wanted to use Don Henley's "Sunset Grill" for their Sunset Grill, and we said no. Basically, it comes down from above that we spent the money for the music libraries, so we shouldn't have to go outside and use other stuff. And you never know. Bruce Springsteen not too long ago sued someone out in western Massachusetts who was stupid enough to use "Born in the USA."

Every once in a while I'll have a salesperson come at me and say, "Well, I heard it on this other station." And I'll say, "Man, do you know how juvenile that sounds? You heard it somewhere else so we should do it. If you want to deal with the lawyers, then I'll do it, but otherwise, no." And it works out. Between sound effects and some of the really high-powered stuff, especially the Extreme Cuts, we can get the same texture without using popular songs. Plus, the popular stuff is going to really distract people, especially in a commercial.

RAP: It's not often one finds someone with your skills in a small market. I'll bet you've had some offers.
Ron: Well, I've had a couple. It's difficult. I keep telling Jon, if I were to leave, it would definitely be a situation where I wouldn't leave the station, I would leave the market because I really enjoy working here. I've been here now for ten years, and it's a security blanket. But I also know, too, that there's a lot of money out there to make, and Manchester's still a small market. Even though it's close to a gigantic one, it's still small. So, eventually, I might. But I also hear the horror stories about the larger markets.

RAP: Having never been in a large market production situation, what's your impression of what it's like?
Ron: I would imagine that the pressure's greater because there's more at stake with spots going for several hundred dollars each. And I guess in some ways that would be the only thing I would be leery of. And I've heard those horror stories about drugs and drink. "So and so? Oh they went through this rehab and blah, blah, blah." Even in Boston, when I meet some of the people that have been in radio down there, it's like they used to be a drunk or they were heavy into drugs. I think, "is this your only way out of all that pressure?" And I've got to believe that those stories, at least some of them, are true.

I eventually see myself moving into a larger market, but I'm willing to take my time and wait for the right one. Someone actually said to me, "Beggars can't be choosers." And I said, "Well, I'm not begging right now." I'm comfortable.

RAP: Give us a bit of your production philosophy?
Ron: My main philosophy and something that I try to teach to everybody else is that if you don't think it's right, even if there's the slightest doubt in your mind, then do it again. If you do a read and for some reason you just don't think it's right, do it again because a lot of people won't. Sometimes they'll toss something down and maybe it's a little long, maybe it's a little more down than it should be or less exciting. It's amazing sometimes the way they just say, "Well, that's good enough." I say, "No, do it again." Even if it takes a little time, do it again. You're going to benefit in the end.

I mean, when I get into the production studio, especially now with the ADX where it gives you so many options, I'll sit there and do a spot and get it all done. Then I'll listen and say, "Well, it could be better." So I start moving things around again. Eventually, you've got to stop yourself because you're never going to get it to be the perfect thing that you want, but you can get it pretty damn close.

RAP: Any advice you'd pass on to beginners in the biz wanting to work their way up to a Production Manager's position?
Ron: Most of the time I just tell them to spend as much time as they can in the production studio, especially the people on the weekends. Just get in there and use it. It's the type of thing nobody can actually teach you. It's something you have to create for yourself, whether or not you have a great piece of equipment or just a reel-to-reel deck. If it's something you've got in you, then the reel-to-reel deck is going to be fine, and you can actually get some great production out of that. You don't need some forty thousand dollar machine to do it. But it's something you've got to work at and something you've got to discover, and eventually you will.

One of the people here who has been here for a while jokes that when I first started, she told me to go down and fool around in the production room, and I said to her, "But I don't know how to use anything in there." I went down eventually, and now I know how to use everything. We've got people here who say, "Well, I'm not too sure about my voice." Well, the only way your voice is ever going to get any better is to use it. Get some old copy, get on the mike, and pretend you're doing a commercial. Do it once. Do it twice. If you do one or two this week, it's a hundred percent more than you did last week.

RAP: How are the stations rated?
Ron: We have just two books, the Spring and Fall. The stations do very well. The AM basically has been here for quite some time and it does okay for an AM with a smaller signal. It's got the heritage and other things helping it depending upon what the season is. The primaries helped and we get help from the Red Sox or the Celtics or the Patriots depending upon how they're doing. With the FM, we're always number one or two.

RAP: Around election time, things must get pretty crazy around there.
Ron: Yes, it does. Pat Buchanan actually came in here a couple of times to use our studios to do his recording in. Yep, they're all coming in here, taking a break from shaking hands and kissing babies. They come in here and do some radio and it goes nuts--ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN--everybody's here. It's a big circus.

RAP: Well, it doesn't sound like small market radio, not from the production you've sent for The Cassette and the RAP Awards, nor from the operation of the station.
Ron: Well, that's what we pride ourself on. We may be ranked 193rd, but the way we position ourself is, "We're not that small," and we don't allow ourselves to be.