R.A.P. Interview: M. J. Kelli

M. J. Kelli, Assistant Program Director/Creative Services Director, Pirate Radio, KQLZ-FM, Los Angeles, CA

He may well be the youngest Assistant Program Director/Creative Services Director in the top two markets. He is also a co-producer with one of the more popular production library companies in the country. At age 23, M.J. Kelli is paving a short road straight to the top. This month, the RAP Interview is back at Pirate Radio in Los Angeles, and this time we visit with the new man at the right hand of Scott Shannon.

R.A.P.: Where did you start, and how did you get to where you are in such a short amount of time?
M.J.: It started when I was 16 and in high school. I was always interested in radio, and one day, while my friends were bagging groceries at the local Piggily Wiggily, I just said, "Wait a minute! I don't want to do this!" I had a friend that worked in radio, and I was able to sit in on some of his shifts. I managed to learn enough to score a part-time job at this little mom and pop, big bands radio station in Chesapeake, Virginia. It was literally mom and pop. Just the owner and his wife ran the station.

My only shift was Sunday mornings from six to ten a.m. which was primarily a big religious block. I used to get there at six, and the local preachers who had bought time would leave their cassettes Scotch taped to the door of the radio station. My job was to collect the cassettes and play them back. Now, we didn't have a cassette deck in the control room, so what I had to do was go to this little teeny production room which had a little 4-channel Radio Shack mixer, a circa 1960 Ampex, and a Radio Shack cassette tape recorder. I had to put the cassette in the machine, take the microphone and put it on the speaker of the cassette deck, patch it into the air studio, and play the tapes. That was my job.

Well, after six months, and under sad circumstances, I left WCPK. My alarm didn't go off one Sunday morning, and I got a call around 8:30 from the General Manager: "Where the hell are you?!!! Don't bother going in. You're fired!!!" That was my first brush with radio. I was six months in, sixteen and a half years old, I overslept and got canned!

They called me back a week later and wanted to hire me back, but within that week, I was able to get a job at a news/talk station using a news tape I had put together in that incredibly sparse little production room at CPK. So I went to this news/talk station, WNIS, and I started working Friday and Saturday overnights doing a board-op thing with news and weather cut-ins about two or three times an hour.

I did weekends there for about a year when I said, "Wait a minute..." I remember growing up in New York listening to Dan Ingram and Cousin Brucie, and I knew deep down that my roots were in top 40 radio. So I decided it was time to take a crack at top 40 -- to try and be a "DJ." I was able to get a job at another mom and pop operation in Virginia Beach. It was WVAB-AM. This was the kind of station where the audio went right from the console to the transmitter with nothing in between -- no processing. I was able to get the job using my news tapes as airchecks. I worked there for three months doing weekends.

Then I sent an aircheck over to Z104, WNVZ in Norfolk. They said, "Yea, we'll take you as our weekend jock!" So I started doing two shifts a week. I did the Saturday night/Sunday morning overnight shift, and the Sunday night/Monday morning shift. I was a senior in high school, so Monday mornings I got off the air at six and went right to school. I did this from January '84 through August of '84. That's when I took off to go to college.

I was accepted at Ithaca College up in New York state. A lot of people will say, "Ohh, that's a good college. It's a big radio and television school. What did you major in, TV and radio?" I'd say, "Nope. I was a business and political science major." I did two and one half years at Ithaca College and worked full time in radio while I was in school at a station called WVBR. I did the night shift for them. It was called the FM93 Nighttime Zoo. I was also the Production Director there. That was my first Production Director gig. There was no outboard gear to speak of, however, they did have an old Ampex 4-track. So, I was able to get a taste of multi-track. We also had those old, old, Ampex half-tracks, the ones with the yellow and red and green buttons, the ones that if your knee is underneath them they'll take your kneecap off.

I got tired of Ithaca, New York; it was blistering cold from November to May, so I said, "Oh, let's go back home." I transferred to ODU, Old Dominion University in Norfolk and immediately got a part-time job at WGH, 97 Star. I started out doing weekends, and within about two weeks, I was Production Director. I arrived there in May of '86 and worked there as Production Director until January of '87. In January I started doing the night shift from ten until two and shared the Production Director's duties. I shared the commercial production with another guy, but I did all the station promos and ID's. In the spring of '87, I moved to the six to ten shift at night and was made Music Director. My days were incredibly long. I went to school at 8 o'clock in the morning and was at work by eleven. I did the music, some Assistant Program Director duties, all the promos and ID's, and the six to ten shift.

After a while, it took its toll on me and I said, "Well, college will have to go on hold." I put it on hold and never went back, so basically, I sit here today with two semesters left to complete my degree.

I was at WGH from May of '86 through August of '88. GH was the number two CHR in the market, and NVZ was the number one CHR. NVZ made me an offer to cross the street and I went. I did six to ten at night and was the Assistant Program Director. As the Assistant Program Director, I scheduled the music everyday, did my shift, and continued to do all sweepers and promos. By then I had found my niche; I was turning out some reasonable stuff. I did this for Z104 from August '88 through November of '89. It was at Z104 that I really found my niche and developed my style of putting together promos and sweepers.

R.A.P.: Were you using your voice on these promos and sweepers?
M.J.: No. At WGH I did some voice work, but primarily, we used Mitch Craig. At NVZ, we used John Young exclusively.

R.A.P.: How did the move to Pirate Radio come about?
M.J.: As soon as Pirate Radio hit the air, I was fascinated by the station. I had always been fascinated by Scott and what he had done at Z100. I also became a big fan of his production guy in New York, J.R. Nelson. Being from New York, I was never more than a couple of months away from visiting relatives and friends in New York City. I would always take my Walkman up there and tape all the Z100 I could get. Production-wise, the biggest influence on me would probably be Scott Shannon, while he was PD there, and J.R. Nelson when he was the Production Director at Z100.

At Pirate, Brian Wilson came on board right away. I had constantly been sending tapes to Pirate, both my aircheck tapes from the night shift and my production work. I probably sent one tape every month. I kind of forgot about trying to get on at Pirate through August and September of '89, but then in October, I guess Brian decided that he wanted to move back to Dallas. I started sending tapes to Scott again, and I had gotten into a little bit of a networking situation with Brian Wilson. I was sending him some effects that I had created and some synthesizer zaps and just talked with him a little bit. I think it was a combination of Brian knowing me, Brian having some of my stuff, and Scott having tapes that put me in line for the job. So, I guess they liked my stuff, and here I am in Hollywood!

R.A.P.: What's it like working with Scott?
M.J.: Scott Shannon, without a doubt, has taught me more in the seven months I've been here, than I've learned in all the years I've been in radio. I know that's hard to believe for some people, but in six months, I've been able to tie up so many loose ends. I still have a long way to go, but the man has absolutely helped me to tighten up my ship. He introduced me to an entirely different way of looking at things -- how to do a promo, how to do a sweeper, how people perceive them on the air.

R.A.P.: What were some of the loose ends that Scott helped you tie up?
M.J.: One of them was how to produce the most effective promo. It must be entertaining, it must get the point across, and it should flow very well. That's what Scott has shown me about producing a promo.

R.A.P.: Are these elements listed in order of priority?
M.J.: Getting the point or the thrust of the promo across is obviously the most important thing, but I think this is very closely paralleled by the entertainment value and the flow of the promo. It's a package, and all three elements have to work together.

R.A.P.: How much creative freedom do you have with promos?
M.J.: Scott gives me pretty reasonable freedom with promos. He'll give me some ideas at times, but he gives me a lot of freedom as far as how to design the promo --what music to use, how to effect the voice, what tricks to use in the promo, and so on. There is a good deal of creative freedom for me here.

R.A.P.: We interviewed Brian Wilson when he was there. He left you a nice toy in the Lexicon 480-L. How do you like it?
M.J.: Oh, what a box! I think it costs ten to twelve thousand dollars, and I want to definitely thank Brian for setting me up. Brian, if you're out there, thank you, buddy! Brian also left me with the Otari MX-70 one-inch 16-track. Since I've been here, I've managed to get a couple of new toys like the Emax II and a Sequential Circuits Prophet VS keyboard, which is an older keyboard but a great one for analog sounds. I also just got an SPX-1000 and a new Tascam 122 MKII cassette deck.

R.A.P.: Any plans to upgrade to a digital studio?
M.J.: Pirate is pretty much committed to analog for now. We're moving into a new facility in the fall and will do some upgrading of the studio then. We'll be getting Dolby SR for the 16-track. Right now, only my cart machines are Dolby SR'd. We'll also be getting rid of the Studer console we have now and get the Pacific Recorders ABX-26 customized for 16-track recording. We already have an H3000B Ultra-Harmonizer and we'll be adding the H3000SE to the new studio.

I might mention that we have some healthy MIDI capabilities in the studio right now. I have a Macintosh Plus with a sequencer program which I use for beds and rhythms and patterns, and I have the Emax hooked up to the keyboards.

R.A.P.: Are you a musician?
M.J.: No, not at all. I can't play a lick. Well, actually, I can play Happy Birthday on the piano. As far as programming the synths and effects, I have definitely moved into that area. I create a lot of patches for sound effects, sweeps and lasers, and I'll run those through outboard gear to create new sounds, and I'll multi-track a lot of sounds.

R.A.P.: Being able to program the synths, and play them as well, might be one pre-requisite of the Production Director of the future. Do you agree?
M.J.: I think so. I know there are a few real strong Production Directors in the country that create a lot of their own sounds [on the synths]. That's an ultimate freedom, being able to create your sounds from scratch like that. Still, there are only a handful of truly "full service" Production Directors out there who not only do the usual commercials, promos and sweepers, but create music beds and sweeper and laser effects themselves. Being this way makes you very marketable.

I think there are only a handful of Program Directors out there that realize the importance of good promos and sweepers and having the flexibility in house to make them, but more and more stations are understanding the importance of creative production. It's starting to explode. The 80's cultivated it, and the 90's is going to open it up. Stations are starting to spend money on production libraries and even money for numerous libraries. They're spending now for the digital systems and tapeless production rooms. They're spending for outboard gear. It's happening with the large broadcast groups all the way down to your smaller stations. Whether you're improving the sound of the sweepers, the promos, the ID's, or the commercials, it is all the packaging of your station and it's so crucial. There are Program Directors out there like Scott who have recognized this for years, and their stations have always sounded like this. Thank goodness, everyone else is starting to catch up.

R.A.P.: You're a co-producer with SP Productions/-Techsonics. How did that come about?
M.J.: Techsonics is based out of the Norfolk area. Back in '85, there was nowhere near the influx of production packages we have now. At that point, I hadn't really started dabbling with my own keyboards yet, but I knew that I needed sounds. So I contacted a local recording studio and, with personal funds, I rented some studio time. My intention was to put out a little 60 or 70 cut "zapper" package on 15ips tape and sell it. I started the package, but I never really got it off the ground. About a year later, I ran into Steve [Peppos]. He liked my idea of doing a package like I had started and said he wanted to do it. So, I suggested we work together on it.

Steve actually owns the company, and I was set up more on the sales end of it. That's how I made my money. It was sort of double edged for me because I was able to make some money plus satisfy my voracious appetite for promo beds and effects.

R.A.P.: Were you involved in the actual production of the packages?
M.J.: As far as Techsonics 1 and Techsonics 2, I was there, but Steve was the brunt of them. Steve is absolutely a musical genius. In the initial package, I came into play mostly in the area of guidance -- what kinds of sounds we needed. I helped formulate Techsonics from a radio viewpoint and helped make it marketable and useable for radio. It wasn't until '88, when Techsonics 2 was started, that my relationship became stronger. I did produce several cuts for Techsonics 2 myself.

R.A.P.: SP Production existed before you, right?
M.J.: Yes. Steve did several things ranging from commercial production to original scores for some television shows. He does a lot of work for CBN, the family channel and still does that. He's even won a couple of Addy's for some of his jingle work.

R.A.P.: Chainsaw, the new package, is being billed as a Scott Shannon and Techsonics production. What's the scoop on that?
M.J.: This package is totally a co-production wherein I was responsible for fifty percent of the package. Chainsaw, which will be available by the time this interview hits the press, is very unique in that, for the most part, this package was created on the fly. By that I mean that the sounds needed to support Pirate Radio and Scott Shannon's huge appetite for sound effects were produced as we needed them, and they became the package. We probably have the highest number of sweepers and ID's in rotation of any station in the country, and we really use up the material making all these sweepers and ID's. Right now, there are probably some fifty ID's to choose from and maybe as much as sixty sweepers.

R.A.P.: You said you were responsible for 50% of the package. What do you mean?
M.J.: I actually produced half of the cuts myself right here in Los Angeles in this studio using this equipment plus a lot of gear that was brought in from the outside. I have four keyboards in here right now and brought in several others along with several different digital samplers to produce the package. The other half of the package was done by Steve. Scott and I conveyed to Steve what we wanted, and Steve created the other fifty percent at the studios in Virginia. It's the most workable package I've ever used. Why wouldn't it be? As we needed sounds, we created them, to exact specifications.

A lot of sounds might be considered "Scott Shannon" types of sounds. If anyone knows Scott, they'll know that the sounds he likes will tend to be very concise, very tight, very effective, and almost recallable -- not the same old laser zap. Each sound has its own fingerprint, so to speak. A lot of the sounds Scott likes are analog type sounds or sounds people would identify as being analog; and, let's face it, even today, analog sounds kick the butt out of digital sounds. The recording industry is even making somewhat of a move back to analog. Keyboards are coming out now with emphasis on the old analog sounds. With analog, you still get the warmest, the punchiest, and the fullest sounds. That's a trademark of Scott Shannon, those real big analog sounds with a recallable value to them. It's a sound that people can almost remember, and that's important because it helps with the recall of the message.

R.A.P.: How has working at Pirate changed your production technique?
M.J.: Pirate is unique, in this respect, in that it has a certain image it must project, therefore, the sweepers and promos have to work together with the station image. I definitely had to rethink the way I did a lot of things. Pirate airchecks have been circulating around the country for about a year now, so I had a pretty good idea of what the station was all about and what it needed. I was able to pretty much just come in and maintain what Brian had already started with Scott. In this kind of situation, you just come in and maintain things and add your own little style to what is already there.

R.A.P.: Do you have a Production Director there?
M.J.: Yes. His name is Jamie Osborne. Jamie does a great job handling all of the commercial production at Pirate.

R.A.P.: How does Pirate Radio use samplers?
M.J.: I think very heavy sampling tends to be more customary at your dance oriented stations. I don't know if that's a fair statement, but that's my perception. I'm talking about the old stutter effect. The stuttering we do is very sparse, and when we do it, it's almost a hip stutter with a bit of that Pirate attitude. It's not the regular, "Dan-Dan-Dan-Dan-DANCE!" and that sort of stuff. When we use it, you almost don't know that it's a sampler stutter. The key is to make it an integral part of the promo without it standing out, and to only use it when you really need it. Don't use the stutter just because you have a keyboard that'll let you do it.

R.A.P.: How do you like to process your promos in terms of compression and EQ?
M.J.: I use both devices heavily. I think EQ is the greatest invention of all time. You can change the mood of a promo with EQ. When I use the EQ on a promo, sweeper, or ID, I'll kick back in the production room, close my eyes, and almost get inside of it and what it sounds like. There are so many levels that you have to listen to. There's the voice, the effects, and the interaction between the two, plus whatever other elements might exist. That's where you're the artist. That's where you decide what to boost, what not to boost, and how to best use the EQ. The tape is the canvas, and the voice track, the sound effects and sweeper effects, the outboard gear, and that EQ are the palette and paintbrush.

As far as the compressor goes, I vary my use of it. There are some effects that are so punchy that if you compress them, you take the bite out of the effect. I don't have any set procedure like compressing the entire mix or compressing only certain elements. I make those decisions as I go, and the choice varies depending upon the elements involved in the promo or sweeper.

R.A.P.: What voice-over talent are you using on the sweepers and promos at Pirate?
M.J.: Right now we've got an incredible combination of voices on the air. Scott does a good number of promos and sweepers. We use Mitch Craig for ID's and sweepers. We also use Vic Caroli, who's best known as the MTV voice guy. We also just picked up Mark Driscoll in the past month or so. We're also using some stuff from J.J. McKay who is now the Assistant PD at Y95 in Dallas, and we have a little bit of Gary Gears on the air. I'll do a sweeper and a promo here and there. We definitely have a wide variety, and it keeps the station fresh.

R.A.P.: Are you doing any freelance work yourself?
M.J.: Yes, and it's growing, especially since my career has developed during my time here at Pirate and my time with Techsonics. I've managed to do a good deal of stuff already. I continue to do work for Z104 in Norfolk as well as for their sister station, Z106 in Sarasota, Florida. I did some sweepers for WDFX in Detroit, some stuff for Jet 107, a new CHR outside of Memphis, and I'm also doing a lot of work for the Japanese. The Japanese love American stuff and they're hungry for it.

R.A.P.: What's in your future? Are you going to stick it out with the Pirates for a few years?
M.J.: Absolutely. I'd love to hang out here for a while and learn from the station and contribute to the team. Pirate is a great team effort and that's something I enjoy, being part of a great team and adding my little piece to the pie.

My long term goals are to be a major market Program Director and possibly get back on the air and do mornings. Granted, I may have to be a small market or medium market Program Director first, so someday, somewhere down the road, I'll head back to a smaller market.

R.A.P.: Any parting words for your peers?
M.J.: I'm a big fan of other production people. I love to go from market to market and just listen up and down the dial to other peoples' work. All I can say is, even if it's just for that visiting production guy and for your own ego, go all out and produce what you think is the best and most spectacular thing you can produce. On every piece, do the best you can and spend the time it takes. Sometimes a sweeper will come together in a half hour. Other times I'll work three hours on one sweeper because I won't have that just right mix. Do everything with a passion. Nothing makes my day more than to hear a great disk-jockey on the air at a great radio station, and to hear him or her fire up a great promo or ID. There's something very magical about hearing a great piece of production. It definitely gives you the tingles.

Our thanks to M.J. for this month's interview. We wish him the best in his pursuits and look forward to catching up with him again in the future. As always, if you've heard of someone or know someone you feel would make an interesting subject for a future interview, drop us a line and let us know who it is. Please include the person's affiliation and a number where he or she can be reached. By the way, don't be shy. If you feel you personally would make for an interesting interview, let us know. Radio And Production is your forum, and you're welcome to get on the soapbox!

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