R.A.P. Interview: Mark Driscoll

Mark Driscoll, Mark Driscoll Productions, Hollywood, California

mark-driscoll-jun99by Jerry Vigil 

Like many, Mark Driscoll started his broadcast career as a teenager. He got his first critique from the great Gordon McLendon over thirty years ago. By his early twenties, he had already worked in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington DC for such giants as ABC, RKO, NBC, Heftel, and Storz as an air talent, promo voice, and more. His programming career started in 1974, and Mark packs a long list of startup stations that debuted in the top five. As an imaging voice, he has colored the airwaves of such powerhouses as Power99/Atlanta, WSTR/Atlanta, Pirate Radio/Los Angeles, Kiss 108/Boston, Mojo Radio/New York, WPLJ/New York, WHYI/Miami, KALC/Denver, WPTT/Pittsburgh, WIOQ/Philadelphia, WEGX/Philadelphia, WRKO/Boston, Mega100/Los Angeles, WBOB/Cincinnati, WKQI/Detroit, KIIS/Los Angeles, and countless others.

Mark has special significance as an interview subject for RAP because Mark was RAP’s very first interview back in 1988. Now, over ten years later, we find the “renegade” still pushing the envelope, still finding new ways to create true excitement on the radio, and still providing stations with that unmistakable Mark Driscoll sound. Join us for a visit with Mark as we get his thoughts on radio imaging today—what’s new, what’s stayed the same, and what’s ahead.

MarcDriscoll Logo BWJV: What are some of your early memories about production?
Mark: I can remember the coming of the cart machine, the coming of some variation of audio processing. I remember back when I was still in high school, and I used to listen to stations like WLS who had that big warm but exciting sound. I wondered how in the world they made their microphones sound so cool. I remember my friend, Buzzy Bennett, saying something that was real interesting to me, and this was back when we were doing 13Q in Pittsburgh. He said something to the effect of, “our goal is to make the listener love us as we speak through a cold hard piece of metal.” I remember trying to figure out how to do that through this microphone in Muskogee, Oklahoma. At the time, they were basically PA mikes unless you were lucky enough to see an RCA 77 ribbon or an Altec. But a lot of times they were kind of what you might see at a baseball game in the announcer booth or at a high school for making the morning announcements. So there were these different kinds of microphones to explore. And certainly there was the difference between a 50,000 watt clear channel radio station that had some processing to it and a 250 watt station that didn’t have anything on it. I remember doing goofy things like wrapping towels around the microphone trying to achieve acoustics and warmth. I didn’t know what I was trying to do at the moment, but now that I think back, that’s what I was trying to do.

I remember working with a reverb that was on the air signal. Many times, they used to put them under the console where the DJs sat. I found out by accident how to develop a boom box, which was a Storz thing, where you had a little button that would increase the volume and the depth of the reverb on the radio station by making this huge hollow emphasis sound. My way of doing it was by kicking the little spring on the reverb unit down there near my left foot. We didn’t have the acoustical and technical knowledge that we have today. The technological knowledge today is so fantastic, but I remember those days like they were yesterday.

JV: How do you see imaging having changed over the years because of technology?
Mark: The technology today has gotten so far out. And if you didn’t experience some of the older stuff that we had, you might think the new stuff just sounds great. But there are problems that have come about with everything being so robotic and electronic, and I think that’s very evident as you see the resurgence of tubes and different kinds of technology that emulate what was existing back in the late sixties or seventies. Now surely there will be people who will say, “Oh, he’s just an old fart. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” But when you get a new reverb, for instance, or a toy box like an Eventide or something like that, you can get too electric. It gets too metallic, and all of a sudden, instead of getting nice, sweet sounds, everything is just boxy and saw toothed, if you would look at it on a scope. But people and manufacturers are realizing the importance of the tube and the warmth of it.

On the other side of the coin, there’s a lot of really good stuff that’s certainly much better than it used to be. Look at equalization, for instance, and the old Pultech. Now you’ve got five or six different kinds of Pultech equalizers because of their tube drive and so forth. I think we’re seeing kind of a swing back because in an array of a toy boxes, you now have the high tech stuff, but you also have the opportunity to use the warmth of the tubes and the earlier type stuff. It’s really fantastic to have the opportunity to go either way.


JV: What you think consolidation has done to the production aspect of radio?
Mark: I’m very, very concerned about it because we’re adding a whole lot of jobs to a lot of people. Let’s just use KIIS for instance. There, all I did was the creative stuff. I was the head of creative services, which wasn’t even a term then. We just came up with it because we didn’t know what else to call it. So there was production, and then there was creative; and I had a wonderful staff that handled the spots and dubs and all that. But what I hear from the people I’m in contact with who are 1999 creative services people is that they are also many times saddled with dubbing spots, copywriting, and so on.

JV: Do you see some positive things for radio in the way of programming or production as a result of the consolidation?
Mark: I think any time people are given an opportunity to be great is good. As far as consolidation itself, let’s say there are ten thousand radio stations licensed to the FCC. Well, if there were ten thousand stations say five or six years ago, ninety percent of them were losing money, and it hasn’t changed. It’s just that fewer owners own them all, and it’s still basically the same number of radio stations that are losing money. Look at markets where big companies like Chancellor or Jacor have a huge cluster in the market. It probably isn’t so important for each of those stations to have the number one rating. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. However, when you’ve got three or five stations in a market, and all of them have a three share, and all of them have a niche, then the positive thing is that they’re making money and certainly not losing as much. It just tightens the belt. And sure, some people may lose jobs, but I think that whenever you can get a team effort and put a whole bunch of people together, that’s very good.

JV: It seems that more stations are farming out their imaging work to people like you, and there seems to be less mentoring going on. Do you think we are getting to the point where there will be very few imaging people within the radio station at all, and the really good imagers will all be independent producers?
Mark: Well, as far as independent vendors in the imaging field, it’s going on and it will continue to go on because there are really good people out there doing this stuff. Whether or not they get all the work is really something that’s based on what “the work” means. There is imaging for radio stations. There’s also doing movie trailers. A lot of the agencies now are looking to find any radio person who isn’t too radio-ized, an upgraded best voice on the station. Can you imagine walking into a movie and seeing six trailers for upcoming movies and hearing Hal Douglas or Don La Fontaine or whoever being phased and flanged and stuttered and so forth? No, because that’s not their deal. Yes, they have powerful dynamic voices, are constantly training with voice coaches, and good copy is extremely important. But the bottom line is telling a story or planting an image or a positioning statement, and if an imaging person doesn’t get it on that level, it’s not going to be extremely beneficial.

Then it goes to how much is a radio station willing to pay to have the best possible work on the station? I look around and see imaging people that I call, with all due respect, dollar ninety-eight imaging people, because they just sort of rip and read. They don’t tell the story, or they heard somebody do it on another station and they try to beat that. That’s not purely directing yourself to the most important listener in the world, and that is John Doe and Jane Doe Public. As far as that goes, consolidation definitely has an impact on a radio station or independent vendors who are trying to provide the best image for a radio station, TV station, or whatever they happen to be reading for.

Also, with the deregulation and consolidation, in 1999 I believe we have some smarter people out there who realize their window of opportunity, whereas in 1969 I don’t think anybody really thought about the fact. I can remember stations that would call me and say, “Hey, would you do some IDs for me?” I was just so delighted that they even thought to ask me that I never thought to charge them. There was a period of time where I did imaging or positioning for free because that’s just how unthoughtful I was. I never thought of it in terms of dollars and cents. It was a matter of, “Well, I’ve got a job. It may not pay very well, but I sure love it, and I want to do the best I can. And gosh, what a nice compliment for somebody to call and say, ‘Hey, can you do that for me’?”

You’d be surprised, or maybe not, at how long that went on before I realized there were people actually charging to do that. I didn’t get completely informed about that because of the small handful of people doing it, and because of the privacy and the lack of communication. I mean, look at our communication today as opposed to say 1969 or 1979. There were no fax machines, no e-mail, no chat rooms available to us. We didn’t have this instant communication to spread the word. And programming conventions didn’t really address that particular thing because the programmers were comfortable with their “in between the records” sound. They just wanted to make sure that the records were all hits. Now today, we’ve got such a phenomenally fast rate of communication, and I think we’ve got some really smart people out there who also know that they can charge for this and make a living, and for some, a very, very good living.

JV: As Program Directors more and more are having to farm out their imaging, they are less in contact with that imaging person than they would be if that person was there in the building with them. How can the PD today, who is farming out their imaging, best duplicate that in-house creative advantage?
Mark: I’ll tell you what I do. I ask every single client that I have, radio or broadcast client, to send me on a frequent basis, an unedited cassette of what their radio station is doing. I love driving around late at night when there’s no traffic, and I pop in that cassette, close the windows, and in a few minutes, all of a sudden you’re in that market. That’s been one of the most important factors for me to get a vibe on what that station’s doing. What’s that morning man doing? What’s the overall attitude of the radio station? That is an amazing way to compensate for not being there.

JV: Another aspect of imaging that’s farmed out is that, in many cases, what the station gets back are simply dry tracks from a voice guy, and it’s up to the station’s producer to really make these tracks shine. What qualities do you like to see in these producers?
Mark: Passion to an unbelievable extent, and copywriting and imagination. The copy is so important, yet I’ve seen some terrible scripts. I’ve talked to some of my peers who say the same thing, that the copy they get is so poor that you’d think either these people are so rushed or they just absolutely have no idea of what they’re saying. And it’s almost as if they don’t know a thing about punctuation. If that script isn’t a good story, I’m sure anybody at Doubleday or whatever will tell you that it’s not going to be a best seller.

JV: Do you do any copywriting for stations?
Mark: Oh, absolutely. Many, many, many rewrites. I’d say on an average week, I could take maybe two or three hours that are spent on rewrites and punctuation. I’ve told Program Directors, “You know, with all the stuff you’ve got going on, the last thing you probably have time for or need to worry about is writing promos and making sure that you’ve really done the best job with that.” And I really don’t mind doing it. There are some days where it seems like one after another after another come up with a little bit less than imaginative dynamics, and that’s really too bad. The copy is more like a bunch copy points kind of hinging together, and you’re sort of expected to make a story out of it. And then there are going to be times when you get scripts that you end up doing the way they’re written to begin with. Sometimes I’ll do them that way then give them outtakes. I get many requests for outtakes and alternates. As a matter of fact, I’ve got people who get really pissed off when I don’t. And I never know what they’re going to do with them. I’m often surprised and impressed.

JV: Do you feel your style, your personality in your promos and IDs, has  changed in the past ten, fifteen years?
Mark: Yeah, I think so. So have I. So has the industry. So has the population. So has just about everything we deal with. Hopefully, it’s better. I’ve been working with a couple of voice coaches, working on style, and I think experience also plays a large role, as does pushing the envelope.

JV: What is one of the most important things that you’ve learned from your voice coaches?
Mark: Don’t fake it. Find the story. Find the sweet spot. If I were to make a recommendation to somebody who does voice-overs or even writing, when you write it, read it back to yourself from the bottom up. Then read it from the middle up or the middle down. Sometimes you’re going to get really lucky and boom, it will be great out of the box.

JV: How many people are producing for you at your facility?
Mark: There’s me, and Derry London who has been with me since January.

JV: So you still get behind the controls every day?
Mark: Not every day. I think that I’d be insulting Derry if I were to say that. Derry has, as well as many other producers whom I’ve been extremely fortunate to have, really good mechanical skills. And they also get to know you really well.

JV: What did you like about Derry? What was it that said to you, this is the guy I want producing my material?
Mark: Well, mostly what I’ve heard him do over the past. I guess I’ve known Derry for about four years. I’ve watched him or heard him get better and better. We have a good situation where we learn from each other, which is a very nice thing.

JV: You must get regular calls from people asking how to get into the side of the industry you’re in. What do you tell them?
Mark: Send me a tape. If they don’t have a tape and they’re in the area, come on by and let’s stick something in your face and see what you do. I may tell them to write me a little thing about their philosophy or have them tell a story. Write a piece of copy, a script. Tell a story as if it were a promo. Voice-over is voice acting. That’s exactly what it is, and you want to put the best stuff out there you can. Then, when you get up to doing movie trailers and that type stuff, you’re at what we call the Olympics of voice-over.

JV: When I was listening to one of your demos, there were some really great sounds and effects being used, not effects from an effects box, but sound effects. Do you make your own sound effects?
Mark: We make our own in some areas, and I suppose that goes back a long time because I watched people do it and learned how to do it myself. It’s like sometimes a lawnmower sound effect doesn’t sound like a lawnmower when you tape it and play it back. Even though it’s real, it doesn’t sound like one. So we try to find a sound that’s going to give us that putter or the cutting sound that creates the lawnmower image in the listener's mind. I remember when I was in Dallas, we were doing gladiators and pirates and needing a sound of the clashing of the swords. It wasn’t my idea. It was Brian Wilson’s who was working there at the time. We found two 3/4-inch metal pipes about a foot long each, and we were running this through something you don’t often find in a radio station, and that’s the very, very expensive Lexicon box which looks like a big, huge computer. So we took the pipes and just kept clashing the two pipes until we got the ring and the feel of two swords meeting and clashing. Then we embellished it further with a particular kind of reverb. I’ll tell you, there was just no finding the sound of the sword doing that at that time. Even most recently, in that movie Zorro, I remember listening to the soundtrack and watching it on television. There were a few whips of the sword, and it sounded okay—and of course, you have the visual aid to help you—but if you take the visual aid out, it was thin and didn’t give the impact and dynamics that you really want to stick out.

JV: Who are some people you look up to in the industry for their creative talents?
Mark: They’re not what you would call radio guys, but Sam Peckinpah, Rod Serling, Alfred Hitchcock, and on the current level, there’s George Lucas without a doubt, and in many cases Spielberg. It’s just amazing, the ability to mix music with what’s going on, to get the interpretation and effects as well as the music to all fit perfectly. Nothing is more horrid to me than to listen to some goofy Mike Post type music. Put that up against somebody like John Williams or some of the newer musicians in the jazz area. Quincy Jones can do some pretty phenomenal stuff. To me, they are more than music makers. They are just so gifted to be able to find the right sound to fit whatever it is they were trying to score. I think the more radio broadcasters think beyond radio, the better they’re going to be.

Last year at the Radio & Records convention, we did a panel. Well, it started off as a panel, but it turned out to be huge show called How to Promote the Radio Station and Not Sink the Titanic or something like that. It was all about promotion, and it got into imaging. Let me back up a little first. About a year ago, I found a musician that I worked with in the studio. We did nothing but work on our own soundtracks. Instead of popping a CD in the machine, tracking a music bed or effect, and then reading over it, we did our own. He would be right in front of me on the keyboard or a couple of them, and I’d explain where we were going or what we were trying to achieve. He had no idea of radio, but he was definitely an excellent musician and understood scoring. So, during the convention, I brought him in, and we set up the whole system. We started doing positioners, IDs and sweepers, all of it by request from the audience, and it was all done live. It was fantastic, and the response was amazing. You just have to go beyond where you think the end is. You have to go beyond thinking that this or that is just what it is. Every time you push your imagination, you’re liable to fall into something really cool. I mean, here we are in 1999, thirty years later, and we’re looking at Star Wars again. I saw Star Wars,bought and paid for, probably seventy times because I was just so bedazzled with both the sight and sound. Then I read Lucas’ research and so forth and was so jealous. He may be just a hair older than I am, but not that much. I thought, “God, I’m sitting here being a PD at a radio station and a disk jerky, and here this guy is creating three decades of a piece that we may never see duplicated.” The same with Spielberg. These guys are just phenomenal.

JV: Do you think that imaging is going to have a big role in webcasting and satellite broadcasting?
Mark: Sure. If you’re going to sell a vacuum cleaner, a coffee pot, or a radio station, you’re going to need imaging. That’s all imaging is; it’s selling, telling stories, compelling the consumer to believe in you more than they believe in somebody else. Absolutely, imaging will have a big roll. Gosh, there are companies that do nothing but  info-on-holds who make lots of money.

JV: Do you think the Internet is going to be as big as radio?
Mark: I think the Internet is huge, and I think that I’ll make a guess. I think that Internet radio will be bigger than radio. I think that satellite radio, Internet radio, and other new forms of radio are poised for success. Just look at the opportunity. The opportunity is fantastic. So, as technology goes on and on and on—unless there’s like some huge crash and computers just don’t work and everybody gets stupid—it seems that the logic would dictate that it’s going to be very big.

JV: For those young production guys and gals, how about some words of wisdom for them and their careers?
Mark: Mirror. Find a mentor or mentors and mirror them. It’s kind of like Tony Robbins has been saying for so many years. Imitate success. But on the other side of the coin, never imitate success to the degree that you don’t stump your own imagination. It’s okay to make mistakes. Just because you make a mistake or just because something doesn’t come off right or perfect or whatever doesn’t make you a bad person. You’re not a bad person just because you didn’t come up with the greatest idea on earth.

Concentrate on writing great stories and then condense them into promos. As far as positioning statements, if you’re given the opportunity to write, think wildly. Constantly be on the lookout for sounds and impressions, and watch lots of TV, listen to lots of things, listen to lots of records and just be completely open to everything. And don’t buy into ego-driven crap because that’ll kill you. Also, if you’re a production person who does voice-over, trust your voice. Trust your heart. Trust your head. Don’t worry about what your voice sounds like. Trust your voice. The people who are looking, they know what they want. Really, really, really concentrate on attitude, and attitude is not a bad thing. Attitude is opinion. Opinion is ownership. If you own the script, then you’re going to do a fabulous job. If you don’t own the script, you’re not going to do a very good job. Somebody else is going to do it better. Somebody else is going to own it.

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