R.A.P. Interview: Matt Kelley

Matt Kelley, Creative Services Director, KQQK/KXTJ/KOND/KEYH/KLZL, Houston, Texas

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by Jerry Vigil

If you've been keeping up with the trends in U.S. radio, you're aware that formats targeting Hispanic audiences are the fastest growing. In Texas and other southern states, Tejano is the format that's rapidly climbing the ratings ladder. In Houston, the Tejano leader is El Dorado Communication's KQQK-FM. They also own Super Tejano 108, KXTJ, another Houston Tejano station. And there are three more Hispanic targeted stations under the El Dorado umbrella in Houston. At the production helm is Creative Services Director, Matt Kelley. Matt talks about this new, red hot format and about managing production in a five-station facility. He started as a part-time DJ in the small town of Texas City, Texas, and to become the Creative Services Director for five Houston stations, he never had to leave his first station. His first station moved to Houston.

RAP: What's your background in radio?
Matt: I started in 1987 when I was seventeen years old at KQQK-FM which is where I am now, but when I started here it was quite a different place. The format was dance music, and the station was located in my home town of Texas City, which is about thirty miles south of Houston. That's where the transmitter and studio were. The station was relatively new, and they were trying something really different. They were playing English dance music, and their announcers were speaking in Spanish. They were trying to capture this Hispanic audience that liked the dance music but didn't speak English. It really didn't work, and within the next three years they slowly and ultimately changed their format to Tejano. By 1989, it was completely Tejano.

With that, I was introduced into the Tejano format and stayed for a short time before I left and got out of radio for about three years. Then I came back to KQQK in 1993 and have been here since. It's much different now. The station is taken a lot more seriously. They're starting to pay people better salaries, and they're getting better quality people into this format. It's been interesting to see it change from what it was to where it is now.

RAP: So your whole career to this point has been with KQQK?
Matt: Exactly. I did some interning first, but that wasn't much more than answering a phone. That was at 93Q here in town when they were CHR, and I was able to pick up a lot of what the jocks were doing. Then, when I started with KQQK, I did a part-time air shift and was introduced to production. When you're new, you're real hungry, and you spend your days and nights at the radio station. That's how I taught myself to do everything.

RAP: When you came back to KQQK, after your three-year hiatus, did you come back as a jock or did you come back to do production?
Matt: I came back for production. Right before I left I had been pretty heavily involved in production. I was not the Production Director at that time, but when I came back, they were really in need of somebody who could put spots together, so it worked out for both of us.

RAP: For those who are not as close to the Texas/Mexico border as we are, describe the Tejano format.
Matt: The word Tejano comes from the word Tejas, which is Texas is Spanish, and Mexicano, which is Mexican. I guess the music started in either northern Mexico or southern Texas. People have described it as country music with an accordion. The accordion is a very popular instrument in the Tejano format. I wouldn't say all songs, but most songs have an accordion in them. And they do polkas or cumbias. Those are the different types of Tejano songs, besides your ballads which wouldn't necessarily have an accordion. But nowadays it's changing. A lot of the songs don't even have the accordion in them. Before Selena passed away, she recorded several different songs. Some of them are very hip hop or dance sounding and don't have any accordion to them at all. We still play her music because she's a Tejano artist. Now, Emilio is big in the country scene, and we'll play some of his music because he's a Tejano artist. And we might also play some of his ballads that might work on the country stations. The format is changing every day, but the basic Tejano music is the accordion-style polka or cumbia.

RAP: Did this Tejano style of music exist nine years ago when you started at the station?
Matt: Yes. It has been around for quite a while. Little Joe has been doing it for a long time. He is like the godfather of Tejano music, but he's not real popular these days. It's really odd because you would think of him as being like a Frank Sinatra of Tejano music, and Frank Sinatra is still very popular. Little Joe doesn't pull a big crowd much anymore, but he did break open a lot of doors for Tejano music. He's done a lot for the format, and he might not be given credit for that all the time. Tejano has been around for a long time, but it's probably just now becoming known to the general market.

RAP: There was just one station, KQQK-FM, when you started with them. Now there are five stations in the group. How did this come about?
Matt: KQQK was the first Tejano FM in the city. Then in 1993 another company came in with Super Tejano 108, and for the first time KQQK had direct FM competition. About a year later, the company that owned them, El Dorado Communications, ended up buying KQQK. After El Dorado Communications bought KQQK, we came over to this new building which is very upscale, on Post Oak Boulevard which is in the Galleria in Houston. We moved from this shack into a beautiful, plush building where we had two Tejano stations. We have since acquired one more FM, KOND, and two AMs, KEYH and KLZL, through LMAs, I believe. I'm not sure about all the deals.

So we've got two Tejano FMs, KXTJ which is Super Tejano 108 and KQQK. They are competitors, but we try to skew KXTJ to a younger demo and KQQK to a more mature one. KXTJ has a really young sound, and they might play some of the Selena dance-type songs I mentioned. They would play that type of music where KQQK would stay with the traditional Tejano hits.

RAP: What is the format on the third FM?
Matt: KOND is not Tejano music. It's more international. They've been playing around with it so much, I don't even know what to call it anymore. But it's still Hispanic. All of our stations are Hispanic formats.

RAP: Are all five stations in the same facility?
Matt: Yes.

RAP: How are the ratings?
Matt: KQQK is our highest rated station right now. I believe in this last book it had a 3.2 twelve-plus, which is the highest it has hit, and hopefully we'll keep going higher. It has beat some of the other stations like The Buzz, which is an alternative station that had a 3.1, I believe. We're in the top fifteen and getting closer and closer to the top ten. But we also have a new competitor. There are now three Tejano stations in the market, counting our two.

RAP: Are you familiar with how the Tejano format is doing in other cities or states?
Matt: It's popular in Texas, and I know a lot of our Tejano artists are touring in other states. So it's got to be popular in other states, as well. One thing that's weird about this format is that if you go to San Antonio, the format is different than it is here in Houston. And I believe the Tejano station in San Antonio is number one or two. It's at least in the top five. But the Tejano audience in San Antonio is different from the Tejano audience in Houston. A promotion that would work in San Antonio wouldn't necessarily work here. And if we had a station in San Antonio, we couldn't just duplicate it here in Houston and have the high ratings that it might have in San Antonio. They're just two totally different audiences. Some say that Hispanics in Houston are more of the immigrant Hispanics, and in San Antonio they are more of the assimilated Hispanics. But I've heard it both ways, so it's really hard to say. It's popular in south Texas. It's getting popular in Dallas, and it is reaching into other states.

RAP: The Tejano music itself is virtually all sung in Spanish, but the Tejano jocks and many of the commercials in the format use English. Tell us a bit more about the bilingual aspect of your Tejano stations.
Matt: Most of the jocks speak more English than Spanish. I guess the Tejano music is more popular with Mexican Americans. They are very assimilated in this culture and speak both languages, and a lot of them don't speak any Spanish at all. We have one or two jocks who can understand Spanish but maybe can't speak it as well as someone else. So, we've got a lot of spots that are totally Spanish on our Tejano stations. We have some that are bilingual, and we also have a lot of them that are all English. On our production order, there's one section that probably isn't on any other station's production order that says, "English, Spanish or Bilingual." They circle the one the client requests, and a lot of times it's English.

RAP: Is that because part of the audience doesn't speak Spanish?
Matt: That's a good question. I think a lot of times, with certain clients, a lot of the terms they might use for their products don't translate well. That wouldn't be a reason why they're all English, but sometimes that's why they're bilingual. A lot of times we've had problems with translations where some words just don't translate well, and to make it bilingual, you pretty much just have to read that line in English. I remember we had a problem with the word "closet." There were about four different words that four different people said the word "closet" translated to, and each one of them was sure that's how it was said. One would say, "No, I've never heard that word." The other would say, "Yes, that's how you say it." Maybe some of the clients just feel they can reach all the audience with English because most of our audience, I believe, is bilingual.

On 108, we have a lot of ads that are all English because I think some of the younger kids might be Hispanic but they don't speak much Spanish. Perhaps their parents don't speak Spanish to them at home. But they're still Hispanic and they still like the music or like a certain artist, and they listen for that reason. The younger audience grew up here. They go to English-speaking schools, and when they go home, English is the primary language in their homes. When I've gone to remotes you see a little bit of everybody there. There will be Anglos. There will be Blacks. They might be with Hispanics. Let's say a white guy happens to be married to a Hispanic girl. She likes the Tejano music and speaks Spanish, maybe not to him, and he can feel included by this format because a lot of the talk is in English. Now granted, a lot of the music, most of the music, is all Spanish, but when the announcers come on, there's a lot of English.

RAP: Who's doing what in the production department?
Matt: I have two Production Managers. One handles the three Spanish language stations--we call them that because they speak Spanish only. Those are the two AMs and KOND. Then the other Production Manager helps me with the two Tejano stations. As Creative Services Director, I work mainly with the Tejano stations because they're the busiest, but I oversee the others as well. I'm not voicing anything for the other three stations, but I do put together some of their promos. I try to mainly do the imaging type of stuff for the stations, but I do a lot of commercials as well.

RAP: Do you use outside voices?
Matt: Yes. For Super Tejano 108 KXTJ, we use Mark Driscoll. He helps us generate that young, hip, high energy sound. Whenever I put those together, I use all the effects and whatever to make them real hip for the younger audience. For KQQK, we have a guy named Danny Garcia out of San Antonio. He does a lot of free-lance Spanish language stuff, and we kind of calm those down a little bit. They're not as high energy as KXTJ's. For the other three Spanish speaking stations, we have a guy in-house who voices the drops.

RAP: How many production studios for the three of you?
Matt: We have one right now. It's a very touchy subject. We had two production studios when we owned the two Tejano stations only. When we started acquiring other stations, they took one of our studios and turned it into an on-air studio. But we are in the process of building our second production studio.

RAP: How are the studios equipped?
Matt: We're digital. On the Tejano stations, we use Fidelipac digital cart machines, the ones that use floppy disks. Our commercials are on floppy disk, and the music is on CD. We have a ProTools digital workstation, and we'll be getting a second one with our second room.

RAP: How do you like the ProTools system?
Matt: I love it. We looked at Sonic Solutions, and it was nice, too. But ProTools, especially for the volume of stuff we're doing here, is very quick and very user friendly. With Sonic Solutions you had to know a little bit more, like the hot-keys and the short cuts to doing things. With ProTools it's pretty cut and dried.

RAP: How are the digital cart machines working for you?
Matt: We're unhappy with them right now because of the fact that they've stopped making them and they've stopped servicing them. So, if one dies, we have to bury it. We're looking and exploring different ways of doing things now. We're looking at putting everything on a hard drive. The AM stations are on carts just because we can't buy any more Fidelipac machines to accommodate them. But I like them, and they're very easy to work with. You kind of get spoiled on the Fidelipac digital cart machines because you can erase them in two seconds. You don't have to sit there and wait for the cart to erase. They have a start-on-audio button. So as soon as they hear audio when you're dubbing something, they start immediately. If you have a two second gap in the beginning of your dub, you can easily edit that out. For a Production Director, they're wonderful, but the reliability on them is not too good. The disks do fail a lot of times, and they'll start popping on the air. We've had some problems with them, but I'd rather deal with those problems than go back to cart.

RAP: What are you using in the way of production libraries?
Matt: We have several. We're using a lot of Toby Arnold stuff. We use Techsonics, Primo Promos, some FirstCom items, and we have Network's ShockWaves. We've just added some more Toby Arnold CDs, so we've got a nice little library. But it's hard when you have five stations to keep them all sounding different. Some of the libraries were licensed to all of our stations, so we've got to be very careful and not have the same effect playing at the same time on different stations. That's my toughest challenge, especially with the two Tejanos, to make them sound different and not use the same effects. That's why we have several libraries, and I'm even pushing for more.

RAP: Is your department producing a lot of commercials for the stations?
Matt: Yes. We have our fair share of national spots that come in to us via dubs or DGS or DCI, but we have a lot of local advertisers. And there aren't a lot of advertising agencies that cater to the Spanish, to the Tex-Mex bilingual type of commercial. There are more and more agencies now starting to do Spanish language spots, but we still find ourselves doing a lot of them and a lot of club spots. I have a lot of clubs in town that like to advertise, and they're bringing these Tejano bands to their clubs every week. I've got one client that has a band there two nights a week, and they advertise five days a week on our stations. So they've got a different spot every day. We have a high volume of club spots.

A lot of our car dealership spots we produce in-house because the agencies they have produce them in English only. Occasionally we'll play the English only dubs on KXTJ or KQQK, but a lot of times we have to take that dub, put it to script, translate it, produce it, and throw it on the other stations. There are a lot of steps involved. Translating is a big deal, especially when you get a sixty-second English spot. When you translate it, it adds about five or ten seconds to the spot. So you've got to find ways to cut information. There are several challenges and hurdles to clear, so we try to tell our clients that we need a little more time, especially if we're having to do all the translating and production.

RAP: Do you have some clients who will buy all five stations?
Matt: We don't combo our stations. We do have some clients who are on several, but I don't think there are many who are on all five.

RAP: Are you then having to cut a different version for each station?
Matt: That depends on if we have a jock voice it. If we have a jock from one of our stations voice it, we have to have a jock from each station voice it because we can't play one jock's voice on another station. So sometimes we are cutting three spots for one client.

RAP: How many commercials would you say your production department produces in a week?
Matt: Not counting tags or donuts, I'd say we do about fifty or sixty a week.

RAP: Do you have somebody doing the copywriting?
Matt: The salespeople do the copywriting. If the salesperson doesn't have a good idea, they will come to us with copy points and on occasion we'll write them. That's not an everyday thing, though.

RAP: All this production in one production studio must involve working in shifts.
Matt: Yes. One of the Production Managers, for the Spanish language stations, recently came off the air so he would have more time to spend in the production room. Now we're battling it out for the production room during the day. The Production Manager for the Tejano stations comes in at noon and leaves at about nine. Then we have all of our nighttime jocks doing dubs and tags and the stuff that doesn't require them to do an elaborate production. They're doing that at night, so the room is going twenty-four hours a day. They called me at home last week and woke me up at two o'clock in the morning because they couldn't get into the studio. Somebody else was in there, and they were having to wait at two o'clock in the morning to get in.

RAP: You've never really produced for a format other than the Tejano format. Where do you get your style? Were there some producers who were mentors for you?
Matt: I listen to CHR stations when I'm not here, and I have friends in other cities who send me tapes of CHR stations. And any time I'm out of town, I tape CHR stations, so I'm motivated by a lot of CHR.

Eric Chase was like a mentor for me. He is now a friend here in Houston, but growing up I would listen very intently to him and all his production on KRBE. It really, really influenced me. I don't know if he knows how much he influenced me. He's now doing free-lance stuff on his own, a lot of clubs in other cities and clubs here in town, so I still listen to him every chance I get. Early on I knew I liked the production part of radio.

RAP: What are some of the challenges of overseeing production for five stations?
Matt: When you're Production Director of one station, you pretty much have quality control of the whole station. You can sit there and basically hear every spot that's going to go on and know that it's up to your standard. That's probably one thing that I can't say now. I can't hear every single spot that's produced for every single station. I've got to trust other people to watch the quality. For me, that's kind of tough because I'm very picky and try to be a perfectionist on spots, and not everybody is like that.

I can't be there for every spot because when you're over five stations, you get pulled into a couple more meetings. You get pulled into situations where you've got to go and referee, something between a salesperson and one of your guys. Or perhaps you have to go write some memo or whatever. I can't sit there and stay in the studio seven or eight hours a day and listen to everything that's produced, especially when things are being produced at two o'clock in the morning. I can't hear it before it goes on, and that's been a big issue with me. It's easier when you're over one station. If you've got one jock who's not turning out good production, you can catch it quicker and solve it a lot faster. When you're over five, you've got to wait for somebody to tell you, or you've got to be listening at the right moment. It's frustrating.

RAP: What are some changes you've had to make to accommodate the challenges of five stations?
Matt: I'm demanding. But now I have to be a little patient with five stations, especially having just one studio. You've got to work with other people a little bit better. With just one station, you can pretty much go into your studio, lock the door behind you, and be left alone for the day. Now I'm having to work with and share the responsibility with two other people.

When I have an idea for something and someone else has an idea for it and it's their project, I've had to learn to let them go on with their idea instead of doing it myself. Before, I would get every production order, I would have an idea for everything, and I would produce it that way. Now I've got to let the creativity of other people come out, and I've got to trust them. So it's been interesting for me to sit back and watch and even learn from these guys, to get ideas off of them as well. Everyday I'm learning how to work with them, how to manage them, and how to get the most out of everything and everybody. I don't think I've perfected it yet by any means.

RAP: With 20/20 hindsight, if you could go back three years when these other stations were coming on board, is there anything that you'd do differently?
Matt: Not really, and the reason I say that is because when they acquired us, the equipment we were using was really bad. Them acquiring us was the best thing that could have ever happened to me because I was able to get into a digital workstation. I'm glad it all happened the way it did because I was very fortunate to get into this kind of environment. Before we were acquired, I came from a place that had an old rotary-pot board and two 2-track reel-to-reel machines, and that was basically our production room. Now we're working with digital cart machines, and we master our spots on a DAT machine. What a concept! And now we're exploring the possibility of a hard drive system. We use DGS and DCI. We send audio to our sister stations in Dallas or Los Angeles via DCI. It's been everything I can do to keep up with everything that's changing and with all the new technology that's coming out.

Maybe one thing I would have done differently is learn more about other types of equipment, read a little more of the trade magazines as far as production goes, or even pick up some of the engineering magazines. Back then, I was stupid as to what was available to work with. I was just trying to make two 2-tracks work without trying to keep up with technology. That's why I've been playing catchup for the last three years.

RAP: Well, it sounds like you're sitting in a pretty good gig in a format that is growing very quickly.
Matt: Yeah, very much so. It's exciting to be in it right now, and it's exciting to see where it is now as opposed to where it was three years ago. And it will be interesting to see where it's at three years from now. Obviously, the format is growing. We used to have only one Tejano station in town. Now there are three on the FM dial. It will be interesting to see if all three can survive.

The format has become very popular in the last four years, and a lot of people like to say it has become popular because Selena passed away. I think that's true and I don't think it's true. I think it would have happened eventually because we have a lot of artists crossing over into country music or other more mainstream formats. You hear the word "Tejano" a lot here in Houston now, and before, you didn't hear it much at all. I think everybody is familiar with Tejano music now.

In the summer months, we even have a Tejano party downtown. One night a week it's "Tejano Party on the Plaza." Another night it's "Jazz Night on the Plaza." Tejano is starting to be included in a lot of things. Take our rodeo, for instance. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo now has a Tejano day where Tejano artists perform, and Tejano day usually sells out every year for the rodeo.

RAP: What's down the road for you? Do you think you'll stay in this growing format for a while?
Matt: I'll take it day by day. I'm fortunate enough to be doing this in a top ten market right now, and I would say a goal would be to stay in a top ten market. I think I would like to eventually work in a CHR format just because that's what I've been listening to since I was a kid. But at the same time, I'm very comfortable here because I'm still learning a lot, and I don't feel that I've stopped learning. Once I feel I've gone as far as I can go in the Tejano format, and if something becomes available in CHR, I'd love to do that. I would love to work in a dance format.

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