R.A.P. Interview: Rob Naughton

Rob Naughton, Asst. Production Director, KSHE-FM, St. Louis, Missouri

by Jerry Vigil 

The ideal commercials produced at a radio station are those that work for the client, entertain the audience, and come together quickly. Writing and producing commercials of this caliber on a regular basis is no easy feat, but it comes naturally to Rob Naughton. With the eminent Ed Brown handling the imaging and Rob perfectly complimenting this with his commercial work, Emmis-owned KSHE-FM in St. Louis has captured an on-air sound any major market programmer would kill for. Rob gives up some of his secrets in this months RAP Interview, and we spotlight some of Rob’s great work on this month’s RAP Cassette.

KSHEJV: How did your radio career begin?
Rob: I really wanted to get into rock and roll, but instead, I went to a little trade school in Minneapolis and just learned radio. Radio was the closest thing to being in the industry without being in a band.

JV: Are you a musician?
Rob: Yeah, but I found out pretty quick that I didn't have what it takes. So I stuck with radio. It was close enough, and it seemed like a good job to me. But I really didn't have a love for it. It was more like, "Well, sounds like a cool job, and it beats painting houses."

My first gig was down in Lawton, Oklahoma in 1983 or 1984. I went to a station there and did every single job in the station, of course. I forget what it paid, but it was a good burn-in. I jocked and did news and production, and it was there that I saw production as being of value to the station. They really perked their ears up for somebody who did a commercial for them. I got a little attention with that, so I said, "Fine, this is cool" and kept doing that for about four years. There was a guy there who was a sales consultant for a station in St. Louis. It was just a matter of time, and then I came to St. Louis.

JV: Did you go to KSHE directly from Lawton?
Rob: No. First, it was KLTH, an AC station here in St. Louis. I did production there. Then there was a time when I went back on the air for a while. This was at KSD. Then I left radio for a while and worked at a couple of small ad agencies doing everything from radio to print to television. But in that time, I'd always been calling Ed Brown because I'd wanted to work at a rock station. When I first came to town, I wanted to work at KSHE. Ed remembered me from eight years before, and when the job opened up at KSHE, he called. I’ve been with KSHE for about four years now.

JV: So you were at an agency before taking the gig at KSHE. How did the agency business treat you? What did you like and dislike about it?
Rob: This was a small agency, what we call a Third World agency, a couple of guys and a desk. We did okay. What did I like about it? The difference between radio and television and print. That ability to create in different mediums. What I didn't like was that I was at small agencies, so it was very unstable. Accounts here today, gone tomorrow. It was basically a learning experience for me. I thought I was going to go more for the marketing and the suit and tie, but I guess that's what I didn't like, the whole stiff suit and tie thing.

But it was good to learn television, and TV has its points. And print was fun. I learned how to typeset my own stuff and to work with designers. You work with more people on a project instead of it being just you producing an ad in the studio. And up until then, in the radio stations, it was always just me and a couple of my character voices.

JV: What major thing did you learn in the agency business that you feel you're applying now?
Rob: I guess a sense of marketing for a client. There are different needs taken into account--what else they're doing advertising-wise, where their positioning is--things that are more than just another cute idea. If it's not what they're doing at the time, maybe it’s what they've done in the past, where their company is in the marketplace competitively. This really plays a major role in coming up with something that's going to really work for them.

And working with both smaller, direct clients and larger advertisers, you find that both have different needs. Somebody may have a lot of support in other mediums. Coke, for example, has plenty of support in other places. Well, in that case, your commercial can tend to go further out. You're basically doing a lot of imaging at that point. But, if you get a direct client who's in stiff competition with somebody, it’s different, like a little hardware store that is competing against a major retailer.

And there’s other important information: the dollars spent, scheduling, media placement. Where are their spots airing? What times are they buying? Are they afternoon drive? Are they seven to midnight? When you’re working so closely with accounts like that, where they give you their budget, you have to make the campaign successful. It's much like when they give you their budget in radio. You've got to make it work. So each client takes on a different thing creatively, depending on the scheduling. I'm sure that's nothing new to anybody.

JV: Well, it may not be new to anybody with an agency background, but in the “spot factory” atmosphere of radio, this approach to a client’s radio campaign is probably overlooked in too many cases.
Rob: Well, I would recommend for anyone to really understand the differences between direct mail, television, and radio, and where their client is in that mix. When they come to you, they're obviously going to use radio somewhere in that mix. It's up to you, not only to incorporate the same copy lines and the same image they're projecting, but then to use your medium effectively to reach that goal.

JV: What are your responsibilities as Assistant Production Director?
Rob: Basically, I handle the day-to-day commercials. I guess you could call me a Commercial Production Director, but we've never really worried about titles here. I came basically to work under Ed and take the commercial load off him so he could do imaging. That's pretty much what it was, and that's what I do.

JV: Are there any other stations involved here, or are you just doing commercials for KSHE?
Rob: Since I was hired, we have purchased a couple of other radio stations, WKKX 106.5 and Extreme 104, and my duties have started to include commercials for those stations as well.

JV: How has this affected you?
Rob: It's given me a chance to hit three entirely different audiences, which can open up some doors for unique production. With Extreme 104 being a younger demo, you can really take it all the way to the edge. They each have their own audience. You get to do a lot of different styles, and in that way I've enjoyed it.

JV: Do you have many clients buying time on two or all three of the stations with you having to cut a different commercial for each one?
Rob: No, and I really wouldn't recommend that. Some of our clients do run on all the stations. In that case, I tailor the ad to run on all three, just like an agency would. And in other cases, if it's just on a certain station, then I can really target it exactly to that market.

JV: You’re doing a great job of making those commercials stand out on the air. Have you been able to gauge the results of your efforts in some way? Obviously, you want listeners to be entertained during commercial sets and not tune away, and that results in better ratings. But are there other signals that tell you how well you’re doing, like clients commenting on how well the spots work?
Rob: I would say clients are a definite gauge. I've also actually had listeners comment on commercials, which is weird for a commercial, but that’s something I go after. If I were doing promos, I would want the same response. My first focus is the listener, to entertain them, to pull them in. The client is obviously important, but I'm trying to reach the other people. I'm not trying to reach the client. So, when they comment on it, that's something. You've made a move there. Obviously, a client telling you that they’ve had results is great. But the instant measure is usually people at the station or sometimes listeners who will actually say something to me.

JV: It takes time to be creative. Are you given time? Do you have deadlines?
Rob: I have the luxury of a company that really cares about the quality of production, and that stems from Ed Brown throughout the company. That's kind of a philosophy here. So they do allow me the equipment and the time, but not too much time. They don't get ridiculous about it, but they give me the room to move.

JV: What's the process you go through to create one of those commercials that's going to really stand out? Do you meet with the clients first or does somebody else do that for you?
Rob: The sales reps usually do that. It's very rare that I need to go with a rep, unless I'm just not getting it. I find with some of the newer reps, if they aren't able to translate what I need in terms of client focus or positioning, then I might go out and see the client. And a lot of times, I just go by myself. I’m always looking around at stuff, and I’m always looking at what other companies are doing.

JV: Anonymously, you’ll go and check out the place?
Rob: Sure. Who doesn’t? It’s like a promo guy checking out other radio stations. I’ve usually got my eyes and ears open to what the marketplace is doing. I think it’s important to be educated about anything from insurance to auto repair.

JV: So, the sales rep brings you the copy facts. What’s next?
Rob: If it's a new client, I like to sit down with them at least for a couple of minutes and get a feel for where this person is. What do they like to do? Do they golf?  Do they boat? Are they young, older, conservative? Where are they? Because a lot of times, the business reflects the owner, and in there you'll find ideas. And then I take into account what they're buying. Before I even try creating something, I like to know what they're buying and where they're placing it. Again, I bring that up, but it's kind of important. If they're buying five commercials, you don't have much room to go really wacky with the spot. And if you do, you're not doing the client much service.

JV: In that case, do you do more of an informational spot, something more direct and less flashy?
Rob: Yeah, more direct, but I still find a way to focus in on that consumer, the listener. It's all going to depend on what the situation is. And if I don’t have an idea right off the top of my head, I go to my little file. I think a lot of guys keep these--all your napkins and little notes where you've written down weird things. For example, for some reason today, a hairy Russian woman shot putter just came to my mind as being funny. I don't know how I'll use her, but she'll show up eventually. A lot of times I'll go back to that file because there are days when you're just more creative than others, so I always try to grab those moments and write those things down, whatever struck me funny right then.

JV: What other sources for creative input do you use?
Rob: People. I go around to a lot of the people at the radio station. Everything that I consider good is really the product of several people, whether it’s just a spark of an idea that they provide by saying something they didn't even know they said, or an interest they might have. If somebody is interested in backpacking, and maybe that's not something I do on a regular basis, there are stories they tell about their experiences that may be an idea for an outdoor spot some day. Drawing on other people's experiences tends to help me creatively. The TV is good for that, too, but I find that people are great sources. I especially find young interns—and this isn't a Clinton-esque thing--just full of life, full of ideas, full of bullshit, and somewhere in there, there's always something. I use them for voice talents, too, because I find them sometimes more honest and real than an announcer trying to be honest and real.

That's pretty much my creative process. It's just trying to pull from all around you. In the beginning, I would usually come in here and think, “This is my idea. I'm going to do it this way. This is the way it's going to end, and here's my joke.” Now, after several years of doing it, I find that other people are funny, and I draw on that. And radio is just a big melting pot of funny, entertaining people. That's what we all are--from sales to promotions to the jocks--and it's a good resource.

JV: Do you have some set deadlines for these creative spots? What’s the turnaround time? What do you tell the rep who comes in saying, “I’ve got this client who wants to start right away”?
Rob: One or two days, usually. I'm lucky if I get a week. But it’s funny--and I've heard recording artists say the same thing--some of your best stuff just falls out. Then you'll spend two years working on some epic commercial, and it ends up nothing. The best stuff seems to come quickly and get wrapped up. With other stuff, if you're just banging away at it, sometimes you're just polishing a turd. At some point I always ask myself, "Am I polishing a turd?" Because it just keeps getting smaller, and that helps the deadlines.

If it entertained you and made you laugh, leave it the way it is. Over-perfecting, sometimes, can just slow down a process and take away the magic that was there. In some of my stuff, I'm sure you can tear it apart and find some rough edges, and maybe a performance wasn't as good as it could have been. But if it made you laugh or did something, that's all it was really meant to do.

JV: About how many commercials are you cranking out in the course of a day?
Rob: From script to finished product, I'd say one to two a day. Then there are a lot of scripts that are provided from the agencies, a lot of the straight-forward stuff.

JV: What hours do you work?
Rob: Nine to six, usually. I'm a late starter.

JV: You also do some imaging for the station, right?
Rob: Ed handles all the promos and produces sweepers and stuff, but I get to do some fun stuff every now and then. A unique thing about KSHE is that we do these creative sweepers, things that are either timely or just funny in some way. I kind of liken them to a cartoon that you'd see in a newspaper. It's just there for a day or so to make you laugh, and then it’s moved on. We like to throw those in every now and then. They're usually topical or just something that's a funny thing.

JV: I’ll bet Clinton has provided plenty of input for these sweepers!
Rob: Oh, yeah. Maybe I’ll throw one of those on the tape [RAP Cassette]. "Did you touch said knob?" We have a lot of fun with those, and everybody's kind of a part of them. We even have contests to come up with new ones. It's part of the flavor of KSHE. Ed started doing them when he first moved here, and they have always been a fun outlet. A lot of times, if an idea is a little over the edge or just doesn't work in a commercial, I will adapt it to a sweeper. We have a good time with those.

JV: Which DAW are you working with?
Rob: I have SAW32. It's simple, and it's laid out smart for radio production. We've only been digital for maybe six months. We were analog up until then, and what a world of difference for me. You can really get your timing down when you're trying to get dialogue just right. With analog, you had to keep retaking the performance and consuming a bunch of time. With digital, you can cut it up and make your timing work better. It’s great how it can both elevate the spot and at the same time really be efficient. Timing is so important in dialogue. I've always been a fan of really good dialogue. Obviously, Dick and Bert and guys like that were masters of it, and what they would do in natural, live performance, I can now kind of cheat on. I can move things around and help my performance a little.

JV: Does Ed work out of his own studio, or do you two share?
Rob: I have the luxury of having a studio at my disposal all day long. I'm not kicked out, and that is really by Emmis' design. Every one of the production guys at our other Emmis stations has their own studio to work out of.

JV: Is Ed imaging other Emmis stations yet?
Rob: No. He's imaging KSHE. We have an Image Director for each radio station.

JV: That's encouraging.
Rob: In a time of consolidation, it's very encouraging that they believe in quality work, that they put that first. And I'm not hearing that a lot. I'm hearing a lot of guys are very tired and getting beat up. That's why I'm here and why I stay. They take care of their people. It's real important to them.

JV: Is the station still on cart?
Rob: No, we have Scott Studios, which has just cut the dubbing time to zero. It makes the whole dubbing process, the nuts and bolts of radio, no longer a time issue. It gets done so quickly. It's a whole other world as opposed to carts. It was well worth it, and I've been waiting a long time for it. We just installed it a month ago.

JV: How did the changeover go?
Rob: Fine. No problems. Like I said, all it did was cut the time that it takes to do that stuff. Now the jocks can be used in other areas. Instead of having a jock spend a bunch of time doing four dubs that night, I can now have him do a commercial or get some tracks that I need. I don't know much about all the different systems out there, but ours has been very good.

JV: What are you using for production music?
Rob:  We've got Sound Designer from FirstCom, a lot of FirstCom stuff. We have some smaller libraries, too. I just can't think of all the names of them. We have some great sound effects, and a lot of times, if I'm really lost for an idea, I put on a sound effects disc, just any obscure sound effect, and there's an idea there. There's a setup, a place, something going on that can be used in some way. We have Sound Ideas and a couple of those Hollywood Edge samplers that have really clean, good stuff.

JV: Do you surf the Internet for sound effects or other creative?
Rob: I go there for ideas. I’ll visit websites of people who are interested in power lifting, for example. What the heck are these people talking about? There's a website for everything, and somewhere in there, there's always a new setup or a new idea, either to make fun of somebody or just to set up a scene, and I draw from that a lot. Also, if I get a client that sells skateboards or something I'm really not familiar with, and I need some jargon or lingo, and nobody around the station is really into it, you can go to a website and pick up all the words and get the feel for where they're coming from. It's very easy. You can pick up lots of things from these websites about products and people.

JV: Down the road, do you see yourself doing imaging? Is that a goal for you, or are you pretty happy with the commercials?
Rob: I like doing production and I like working for Emmis. The commercial director job is what I have now, but I enjoy both. There are some things you can do with a promo that you just can't do with a commercial because, for a lot of reasons, the client just will not go that far. That would be nice sometimes, to be able to go that direction, and that's where the creative sweepers come in. They give me that outlet. And Emmis has a very open-door creative-sharing type setup. If I have an idea for another station, I'll pass it on. We share a lot between us, and it's just a nice creative pool. I think every station needs that. I don't know what a lot of the other people are like out there, but in the day and age of consolidation, instead of competing against each other, I really like the idea of us all creating together like one big production house. When you're having a creative day and the other guy isn't, you're there with the input that he needs. I think that's what I'm looking forward to in the future of radio. It's fun to have other production guys around you, and I welcome the buying of multiple stations to have other production guys around. I think it has elevated me and made me better.

JV: Any parting tips for those people out there looking for a way to make their commercials better?
Rob: What entertains you? Use that. If it's not entertaining you, then what the hell are you doing? And try not to be put in a box with commercials. A lot of taboos have been broken recently. It used to be you wouldn't see a monk in an ad doing a dance, but they'll do it now. I think there's a newer openness to going a little more on the edge on a commercial. Obviously, cable TV has been a part of that with FOX, The Simpsons, MTV, and things like that. It's made people a little desensitized, and you can push commercials farther than we have in the past. And in there is the entertainment.