R.A.P. Interview: Matt Rawlings

Matt Rawlings, Production Director, WFMS-FM/WGRL-FM, Indianapolis, Indiana

matt-rawlilngs-nov96

by Jerry Vigil

Indianapolis is the 36th ranked market in the U.S.. WFMS and WGRL are two FMs in this market, both playing Country music, and both in the top five Arbitron rankings, a rare feat for two stations in the same market with competing formats owned by the same company. Once again we come across a successful operation, and to no surprise we find an organization that invests in its production department, both in the individual that heads the department and the tools given to him to work with. This month's RAP Interview checks in with Matt Rawlings, a name familiar to anyone who listens to The Cassette regularly. We get a close look at production at a very successful duopoly and get some tips from one of the industry's young and very talented Production Directors.

RAP: What is your background in radio?
Matt: I started in Lafayette, Indiana where I went to high school. The high school had a great radio and TV program, and it was my senior year in high school when I started working weekends at the local CHR station which was Z96 at the time. The Production Director there, Fred Stewart, who is still there, was pretty much my mentor. From that point on, I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do, and I never looked back. I went to Vincennes University and got a two-year degree in broadcasting then came back home to Lafayette and started working at my uncle's factory because I couldn't get a radio job right off the bat. A month or so later, I got a weekend job at a country station in Lafayette. Then a few months after that I got my first full-time Production Director's job at an easy listening station in Lafayette. I did that for probably five or six months and did some TV stuff at the same time, running camera and teleprompter at the local TV station.

Then I caught wind of a new alternative station that was coming to Lafayette, The WIIZ. I got in as a weekender, and before I knew it, I was doing middays. Shortly after that, I became Production Director and started doing the afternoon air shift. I was there for probably seven or eight months before the station just couldn't hold on any more. Some management things didn't work out and they went off the air. Prior to them going off the air, I started working part-time at WFMS here in Indianapolis just hoping sooner or later something would break.

In June of '94, the station in Lafayette finally went off the air, and at about the same time, the two country stations here, WGRL, The Bear and WFMS, needed somebody. The Bear needed a midday jock who would split the Production Director duties. So I slid right into that at the perfect time. A year later, the Production Director for 'FMS, David Straub, moved on to Detroit. I learned a lot from him the year or two I worked for him. I had no 8-track experience prior to this, so I learned a lot of new tricks. Eventually, I was getting pretty burned with production plus being on the air and doing appearances and remotes. So I asked to go off the air and said I could handle the Production Director duties for both stations. I did that for a while, then we decided to let me work more on the imaging of the two stations, doing all the writing for both stations promo-wise, and just kind of overseeing production duties for each station commercial-wise. We got two jocks from each station who were interested in production and moved them into an Assistant Production Director's job for each station. For The Bear, it's Guy Forrest, and for 'FMS, it's C.K. Webb. They both do a real good job of the day-to-day commercial production, and they also do some promo stuff, updating appearance promos and stuff like that. And that's pretty much where we are now.

RAP: What's a typical day for you like?
Matt: Well, I was working eight to five, then I talked to a Production Director in Chicago who told me how he comes in at six or seven in the morning and works until noon or so. Of course, he just does imaging, but I thought that was a pretty good gig. So I looked at the way the day was outlined, when I did most of my work, and when I could really get most of my work done. Now I come in at seven and take care of paperwork, organize the day, update any promos that need updating for the next day, and get that stuff out of the way. On Mondays and Tuesdays, it's a lot of writing promos in the morning as well as meetings with both Program Directors to see what their promos will be for the next week. Then, throughout the rest of the day, I work on assigning production with C.K. and Guy. We take turns. If it piles up, we dish it out or grab a couple of pieces of it ourselves. I normally try to start wrapping up the day around four-thirty or five, then hopefully miss the traffic as I pick up my son on the way home.

RAP: Are you living in Indianapolis?
Matt: I work in Indianapolis, but I bought a house about thirty-five miles north of here in a little bitty town called Arcadia. On the weekends I just kind of wanted to get away from all the mess in the city. It makes it a lot nicer.

RAP: Are you also writing the promos for both stations?
Matt: Yes, and both of these stations are very promo intensive. I've talked to some people who have worked here in the past, and they've said it's just amazing the amount of promos we do here compared to a lot of other stations. I'm writing at least four to five promos for each station each week. Now some of the big promos, for a month-long contest or whatever, those won't change dramatically, but we will freshen them up weekly. Pretty much all day Thursday and Friday I spend in the production room cranking out promos for both stations.

RAP: How do you manage to keep the style of the promos different with both stations being country?
Matt: It's kind of tough to come up with two totally different sounds, but I guess the two Program Directors each know where to direct me. The Bear has a real in your face attitude approach to it. The voice talent we use is a pretty new guy out there. His name is Zeus. He's got a great, cool, laid back sound that is really different from anyone else out there doing voice work. He really gives The Bear its attitude and really stands out. It almost has an old seventies or early eighties CHR feel to it. It's very hot.

Probably what I like about The Bear the most is that there really are no rules. A couple of months ago, I used some Nine Inch Nails instrumental music in the background of a promo with some Depeche Mode as well. There aren't too many country stations out there putting that in their promos. But no one notices it and no one minds, and it gives the promo a real cool feel. Sometimes we'll give it an urban feel with some dance music or whatever. So I can go really anywhere with it, and it doesn't surprise anyone anymore. They just say, "Hey, that was cool. That was different." So that's The Bear, and a lot of people seem to really enjoy that sound because it's different. It gives country a totally different mood rather than that old Hee Haw sound.

On 'FMS we use Randy Reeves as our voice talent. Randy does a great job for us as well, and we're not necessarily laid back on 'FMS. It's the twentieth year celebration of 'FMS being "The Country Station for Indianapolis," so this will be a pretty big year for us. We've got some great events throughout the year that keep getting bigger and bigger each year, and it's a station that has really put its footprint in Indianapolis. It's very strong and doesn't change much, and it has a great following. Of course, most country stations do.

RAP: What do the latest ratings look like?
Matt: WFMS has a 12.6 and The Bear a 5.8. Both stations have really been strong. I think 'FMS had its first number one book in 1993. That, of course, was when country was really making its boom, and it hasn't really stepped back since then, although I know in a lot of other markets, country has dropped in the last year or so. But here in this area, it's just that much stronger. And we're battling some big stations, some legendary stations like Q95 with Bob and Tom, and we're staying right up there with them.

As for The Bear, ever since it's been on, it hasn't had a down book yet. It just keeps going up. I think I heard yesterday that these are the only two stations owned by the same company running the same format in the same market that are in the top five. And it's not like The Bear is taking any numbers or any listeners from the legendary station at all. The Bear keeps taking a little bit from the top forty station or a little bit from the alternative station.

RAP: Those kinds of numbers must put a heavy commercial load on the two Assistant Production Directors. Are they dealing mostly with national spots or are you getting a lot of local stuff?
Matt: Well, on 'FMS there are a lot of national buys. The Bear still gets a lot of the local, smaller businesses. They're sending the sales reps out to knock on doors and get new business, so there's that, plus there are a lot of bars and such on The Bear. The workload is large.

We've got five jocks between the two stations who do production as well. I just worked on a twenty-four day production assignment flow chart and did a pie chart and graph because I was concerned there was an uneven amount of production being sent out to some people. Of course, jocks often will let you know, "Hey man, you're giving me way too much stuff," and it's kind of superstitious knowledge until you really sit down and look at it. So for twenty-four days I mapped out who got what. A dub is five minutes. A tag is ten minutes, and a voicer twenty or thirty minutes. Using those times it came out that people were spending 1500 and 1600 minutes in twenty-four days' time. That's around twenty-four to twenty-five hours total production time, and that averaged out to about an hour a day, which isn't really too bad. In the past, the workload was really bad on Fridays. I remember when I wouldn't get home until ten or eleven on a Friday night because of all the commercials and promos. Somewhere along the line, things have really smoothed out.

The first load of production comes from Traffic around nine-thirty or ten, so we're able to dish that stuff out to the midday jocks to do in the afternoon. Everyone probably spends a good hour or so on production a day, and a lot of national stuff does come on DGS and DCI which helps speed up the process a lot.

RAP: How many commercials would you say your guys are writing and producing in a week's time?
Matt: There doesn't seem to be too much writing around here. But every now and then several will come up all at once. I'll go down and kind of snoop around in the sales area and find out that the Sales Managers are pushing the salespeople out to get some new business. But on an average, I would say we probably write two to three scripts a week. A lot of the stuff that comes in anymore seems to be produced, so that really helps get the stuff out and on the air.

RAP: Judging from the promos you've sent in the past for The Cassette, it sounds like you have a lot of creative freedom with your promos.
Matt: Yes. With both Program Directors, when I sit down with them, they kind of give me their vision of where the promos should head and pretty much let me do with it what I want. It's nice that we get to sit together. They'll give me their key points and who needs mentions and stuff like that, and I go from there. Normally, I'll type up the scripts and e-mail them to the PDs to let them look over and make changes. Then I'll fax them to the voice talent. But I think it makes a difference when the Production Director gets to write the promos opposed to a Program Director writing them. When the Program Director writes them, all of a sudden you can get a tape on Thursday or Friday from the voice talent, and you've got to put something together where the person who wrote it had a totally different idea than what you have in mind. It's hard to work with then. When I'm writing, I can think of what I'm going to do in the promo before I even sit down to start producing it. That allows me a lot of freedom right as I start writing to know what I'm going to do with it.

The 'FMS Program Director has a real creative mind, and he's come from a couple of stations where he plays a big part in the production and imaging of the station and really thinks that's important. Of course, that makes it great for a Production Director. Sometimes PDs look over that aspect of it. So he gives me a lot of pointers and uses tricks that he did at other places. He's changed the way I think about producing just in the last six months he's been here. We did some stuff where we sat down and watched a sitcom one night as we taped it, then came in and took audio clips out of context and built a promo around them. This has really added a different feel to 'FMS.

RAP: What's an example of this?
Matt: We've sent in a couple of promos for The Cassette that featured this approach. One was for our Love Your Country At Work promotion, and another for our Dateline. On the Dateline promo, I can remember that I sat down and watched Married With Children and then brought the tape in and copied some good pieces of Al or Peg pretty much slamming the opposite sex. When I wrote the promo, I said something like, "Here's what you won't hear on the WFMS Dateline," and then you hear Peg nagging some man because he stinks or whatever. Then you come back and say, "Here's what you will hear," and then I'll take an actual phone piece from a listener who has called in saying they found their soul mate on the Dateline. They'll be talking about getting married or whatever.

We did a big thing with our Love Your Country At Work promotion using clips from the show Wings. We watched the show then took pieces of it and mixed it into the promo story line. One of the characters in the promo was listening to WFMS at work and wanted to win the cash. Then he accidently drops the radio, and the rest of his coworkers come in and start blaming him and telling him he's fired. It just so happened that the show had a lot of voice clips like that, so we were able to fit that into the copy as we went along. You have to go home and sit down and watch a program and really think about it, then come back to work and sit down and write the script. There is more time invested in it, but once you're finished, you'll definitely be proud of what you did, and it sounds really neat on the air.

RAP: What's your basic approach to a good promo? What do you try to achieve?
Matt: It's different for both stations I'm working with. On the 'FMS side, I go for a smooth flow to the promo. I go for very clever writing--this is definitely a great start--but not too busy because I am dealing with an older audience, and I don't want them to freak out when I do something crazy. On The Bear side it's definitely got more of an edge. It's harder. The music is definitely up louder, and there are more effects flying in and out.

On both stations, I'm working hard on going deeper into the promos and layering sound effects to create a realistic environment. The more layers I can get in an area without it getting too muddy or too busy, the better. If the script calls for someone walking through a door and stepping outside, I try to create the feeling of that happening, so when you listen, you really feel like you just stepped outside. The door squeaks. You step down on the steps, and all of a sudden there's a totally different sound around you. That's the kind of thing I look for in my promos. When I can sit back and listen in my room and close my eyes and actually feel the mood inside me, whether it's happy or dramatic or changing from one to the other, then I know it's a pretty strong promo.

RAP: How many production studios, and how are they equipped?
Matt: We've got three production studios right now and each one has a Spectral digital workstation in it. There are three different programs on the Spectral system: Prismatica, PrismaMusic, and Express. The people who use it are using Prismatica. Express is the most recent program they've sent out, and everything is on one screen. There are no pop-up windows and hidden stuff that you've got to find. It's all right in front of you, and you just click on it with the mouse. It gives you straight 8-track production. There are no sends or anything like that on the Express, so it limits you a little bit. The reason they sent that out was for people like the jocks who need to do tags or inserts or just some basic commercials. It would be much easier for them than the other two programs. PrismaMusic, which I haven't used very much, is a lot prettier--blinking lights and all kinds of crazy things on it--and it is more for mixing down a jingle or a band or something like that. It's pretty big and has a lot of toys and features. I've got enough work as it is and I'm used to Prismatica, so I haven't had time to play with PrismaMusic. I'm real happy with Prismatica and everything it does for me, and that's pretty much what everyone at the station is working on.

RAP: Is Prismatica an 8-track workstation?
Matt: Prismatica actually gives me twelve tracks. I've got eight stereo tracks and four mono tracks that I jump around on with my voice tracks. And I just got a new Yamaha 02R digital mixing console in my room. It's being hooked up right now. It's got built-in compression and processing and limiting, forty built-in effects.... Actually, the board is going to become the brain of my studio, whereas for the last year it's been the workstation. That's going to be a different thing for me, and since it is all digital, it's really going to be clean. The rest of the rooms just have regular consoles.

I've got an Eventide 3500 Harmonizer. All the rooms have Tascam cassette decks and Sony DAT machines. We do all of our archiving of commercials and promos onto DAT. We just got some new little things called Jaz drives that allow us to not only back up our sound files on the workstation, but to also back up the projects. So what I'm thinking about doing is this. I'm doing the same promos almost year after year. I want to start saving the entire projects so that next year, when "Fan Jam" comes up or whatever, I'm going to go and grab my Jaz disc that holds about two hours of stereo and plug it into my computer, and my project and my sound files will all come up the way I left them a year ago. Then I can just change some stuff around and be ready to go again in no time. It's going to save me time in the long run.

We've got a Sony Sonic Modulator which is an effects box that is in one of the other digital studios, and then we have another reverb unit. The third studio doesn't have any effects boxes because it's the backup studio for both of the radio stations, and the engineers don't really want any toys in that room. They want to keep it as clean as they can. We've got a TV and a VCR in one of them which allows us to get the audio clips we want. Then we feed them directly into the Spectral. In one room we have the DGS and the DCI, which we get a lot of national stuff from. We like to keep that all in one room because the third studio is going to be pretty much for dubbing and tags and stuff like that, although it will have a workstation in it.

We're hoping to get a fourth studio in a year or so that will be solely for dubs and PA shows, doing interviews and stuff like that. All three rooms are jam packed from around nine in the morning until six at night, so we could definitely use a fourth room. I think the room I'm working in now is the top of the line production studio in town because of the new Yamaha console, but I'm sure it won't be long before people start getting digital boards as well.

RAP: Are you still dubbing stuff to cart?
Matt: Yes, but we're hoping to go cartless in seven or eight months, and when that point comes, that will really make a difference. It's kind of sad when you've got a great sounding promo and you've got to throw it on a cart. But it sounds better than when I had to produce it on an analog 8-track machine and then put it onto cart. Working with it digitally has definitely cleaned up the sound. When we do go with a cartless system, that will really make the two stations sound great, I think.

RAP: Have you worked on any other digital workstations, or is the Spectral the only one you have experience with?
Matt: We had Sonic Solutions for almost a year. One studio had Sonic in it, and David--the Production Director who was here before me--he and I were the only two out of the whole station who could operate it. I think management thought that wasn't very cool, so we ended up switching to Spectral and sold our Sonic to one of our stations in Houston. They had Sonic and they loved it. After I went to a couple of production workshops and saw Sonic being used, I look back on it now and think it wasn't that tough. If we would have known about some hot keys and things to speed the process up, it would have been better. When we were trained on it, we had no clue of the short cuts, so we were doing everything with the mouse and it seemed like it took forever.

When we switched from the 8-track to the Sonic, it was quite a shock because we had so many promos to do. For a while we were both working on the analog 8-track machine, and then we'd try to go down and do a couple of promos on the Sonic every now and then. It took a good two to three months before we were up and running on the Sonic, and then we just couldn't really train any of the jocks on it. It was just too deep.

Since we went with Spectral, we pretty much have everybody up and running on it. But there are still some of the older jocks who just don't want to learn it. They don't want anything to do with the digital technology. However, we have VoxPro, I think it's called, in both of the control rooms for recording phone bits. They're getting rid of the reel-to-reel machines, so the jocks have had to learn some digital recording with that. But there are still four or five out there that I haven't been able to get into the studio. They're still struggling with things on a 2-track machine. But eventually they'll have to come around, and once they do, they'll be happy and they'll look back and say, "Gosh, why was I so stubborn?"

RAP: How's the VoxPro working out?
Matt: It's pretty much a basic digital recording unit for recording phone bits. It's just a 2-track, one with the jock's voice and the other is the listener's voice. But it allows you to really stack up some calls and keep them coming one after another. It really made a difference on both stations, especially on The Bear because they have a lot of phone bits with their younger demo. It made the station sound really busy like there were a lot of people calling. In the old days, if you've got two reel-to-reel machines in there, you can either edit a bunch of calls together which takes you a couple of songs, or just go back and forth from each machine. But with the VoxPro they stack their callers up. You hear six calls in thirty seconds and you're thinking, "Wow, a lot of people calling." It's really been a nice little system.

RAP: Are your stations utilizing the Internet to any degree?
Matt: We have access to the Internet throughout the building, but I don't play with it too much. We've got a network throughout the building where we can e-mail each other and things like that, but I haven't really got into the Internet. I know you can snag some voice clips and audio off the Internet, but I don't have it set up in any of the studios to do that.

RAP: What are you using in the way of production libraries?
Matt: We've got the Network Music library which we bought about two years ago, and that was great for 'FMS. It wasn't as hot as we wanted for The Bear. Then I discovered last year the FirstCom music library. We've added that, and it's got some great hot country tracks on it. We've also got Shock Wave, which came with Network, which has some nice effects with it. The FirstCom library also has several smaller music beds and work parts that I'm able to use in the promos. So Network and FirstCom are the two libraries we have. Then we've got the Sound Ideas 1000 sound effects library which is pretty outdated. It's about ten years old, but it serves its purpose. We're looking to get a newer version of that next year.

RAP: Are you doing any free-lance work or planning to start you own production biz?
Matt: I have started a side voice-over business that I call Pro Voice. I do voice work for a local TV station for their Kids Club which has been pretty exciting, and I try to get some outside commercial work whenever I can. I'm looking forward to some day, like a lot of the Production Directors out there, have an in-home production studio and be able to create commercials and do promos and imaging for other stations. That's kind of a long-term goal, but I really can't beat the equipment and the company that I'm working for right now. They've pretty much given me everything that a Production Director could dream of, I think. It has really been a great place to work.

RAP: What advice would you give young production people trying to scratch their way to a prime production gig?
Matt: It depends on where you start, I guess. I started in a smaller market and worked hard there and tried to get part-time work in a bigger market that was within driving distance. As soon as you can break into a bigger market, do it. Sure, you might have to do an air shift for a couple of years before you get around to being a Production Director, but it would definitely be worth it. The people who start in the medium to large markets, many times it's where they grew up, and they seem to have a better chance of sliding into those positions--they know someone or whatever.

I'm starting to find that the harder I work, the more goals I accomplish, and things just start to happen after a while and start to pay off. It takes a while and it's a lot of work, and sometimes you think the pay isn't that great. But if you're going to be a Production Director, you're more than likely getting into it because that's what you really love and you wouldn't want to do anything else in the world besides that. So you've got to think of it that way. Either I can do something that I love and look forward to getting up every morning, or I can work in a factory or something where I dread getting up every day and going to work. I just couldn't imagine living a life where you've got to get up every day and dread going to work. I think that would be horrible, no matter how much money you make. Stick it out and work on your writing and producing skills and listen to some other guys. I listen to all the stations in town to hear what they're doing. I can't wait sometimes to get into another city and hear what other Production Directors are doing.

Another thing, if you work in a big company, call the other stations, meet the other Production Directors on the phone and get a good talking relationship with them. Start sending each other sound effects and voice clips that you've saved up on DAT. I've just started to do that in the last year or so, and that helps to get some outside friends who work in production. You'll be amazed at some of the stuff you can learn just by talking to other people on the phone or having them send you some of their promos or whatever to give you some different angles and ideas. I do a lot of that.

RAP: What advice would you offer Program Directors on getting the most from their creative production people?
Matt: Let the Production Director play. That's their job and that's what they've worked towards. So let them do what they want for a while. If they get too crazy, then you might have to pull back the leash a little bit. Sit down and meet with the Production Director. I spend an hour or two each week with each of the Program Directors figuring out what they want. Give your Production Directors plenty to go on. I take a tape recorder with me and record the whole meeting because my Program Director rambles stuff off so fast. He'll have a bunch of great ideas and I'll turn around and say, "Okay, now what did you just say?" and he won't have a clue what he said. Sometimes you've got to capture them on tape to get the ideas. Then you can mix them with your own and get a great sound.

The Production Director knows what the station is supposed to sound like, or they should, anyway. The station should have a good aim, a good focus, and everyone should be on the same playing field and know where you're headed. So let the Production Director do what he does, which is be creative, and don't get in the way too much. Give him or her the best tools that you can. Help the Production Director hook up with some outside people. Don't be too critical of them because that can definitely damage a Production Director if you're always saying, "Oh, that's good, but that's not quite what I was thinking." Now they've wasted a lot of time, and if you had told them a little more about what you were thinking at the beginning, you probably would have gotten it. Give the Production Director plenty of information and a good direction to go in, and let them play.

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