R.A.P. Interview: Dave Lee

Dave Lee, WAMZ-FM, Louisville, Kentucky

Dave-Lee-aug99by Jerry Vigil 

If you’ve been in production for at least a decade, you remember the rapid spread of CHR-type production into other formats. In Country radio, this style of imaging first made a big noise at WAMZ in Louisville, Kentucky. The noise-maker was Dave Lee, who arrived at WAMZ over eleven years ago with a rock and roll resume in one hand and a Brown Bag library in the other. With the legendary Coyote Calhoun in the PD’s chair, Hot Country was born. Dave was and is relentless in his pursuit of perfection, and WAMZ faithfully remains Louisville’s hottest radio station.

JV: Tell us about your beginnings in the business.
Dave: I was going to college, working my way through life at a furniture factory, and one day I just decided I didn’t want to do that anymore. I had done commercials for a chain of restaurants called Burger Queen and for Good Humor Ice Cream when I was seventeen. So at twenty-two, I decided that making a living with my voice would probably be easier than working at a furniture factory. So, I called up a little gospel radio station in New Albany, Indiana, and the guy told me to stop by. I went there and hung out every day for a month. Then one day the afternoon guy didn’t show up, and I became the afternoon guy and the sign-off guy. I worked there for about six months doing that every day, and some Sundays I would work all day.

Then I decided that I had enough experience, so I made me a little air check tape and took it to a bunch of people. I took it to one guy at WTMT in Louisville, and he told me I should look for another line of work. I didn’t. I ended up taking it to a little FM station in St. Matthews, a small suburb of Louisville, and that’s where I ran into Mark Williams and Bryan Christopher, who became very instrumental in my career. Mark gave me my first gig working weekends. At that point, I was working full-time at the furniture factory, doing evenings at WOVS, which was the gospel station, then worked the overnights on the weekends at WJYL. I did that for about six months. Then the overnight girl quit, and Mark gave me my first full-time gig working overnights at WJYL. We were playing syndicated tapes, which played for fifteen minutes, and then you broke. So, I had fifteen minutes there while the tape rolled, and I spent almost every minute of that in the production room. I was digging it, and my production actually came along very well. Mark started letting me do commercials, and I would spend hours on them. That’s when I really got the bug for production.

So after about six more months, I went from overnights to afternoons. We went off the syndicated deal and started playing a CHR-like format, and that’s when I really got in my groove. Then I got another gig, also in Louisville, at what was KJ100, which was the top CHR at the time. Within a couple of months they brought in another guy who switched it to an AC format, which was the coming format at the time, and the opportunity came up for me to be the Production Director. I took that, and it was so cool because they had an 8-track and a really nice board with all the bells and whistles. It had recently been remodeled and even had an announcer booth set up in there.

JV: What year was this?
Dave: That would have been about 1982.

JV: An 8-track in Louisville, a medium market, in ’82. That’s a pretty well-equipped studio for that place and time.
Dave: They went all out on this studio, and I really loved it. It was the first station I had ever worked at that had a Harmonizer. I’m not one of those people who was blessed with the ability to remember all the model numbers. All I knew was that the thing had chorus and flange, and I could make my voice really deep. I was just having a blast there, but that was the first gig, actually the only gig, that I ever got fired from. Within a couple of weeks of my being hired there, the PD who hired me got canned, and the GM who hired me died. When the new GM came in, he immediately took a dislike to me. I lasted two and a half years there.

After I left, I ran into the other guy I had originally met at my first gig at WJYL, Bryan Christopher. He was the PD at WLRS in Louisville which, at the time, was predominately a rock and roll station on the FM. Bryan hired me. I was doing ten at night until two in the morning and production, and I loved it. I’d come in after the staff was gone, so there were no salespeople bugging me. I could come in and do my production then go on the air and just have a blast. It was the most fun I ever had on the radio, and Bryan—who ended up going to Q105 in Tampa and also worked for the Power Pig—gave me a sense of outrageousness. Bryan was real up and energetic; he was like the original madman. So, between him and Mark Williams, they instilled in me this work ethic that I still carry around today. I’m real hard-edged when I get into things, and like Bryan, I’ve got that passion. I’ve got to have passion about what I’m doing. So I always dig in and try to find something about everything that I do that I can grab onto. To me, there’s no “little” commercial. They all mean something to me in some way, and I always have to find something I can grasp onto within each commercial.

JV: How did you end up at WAMZ?
Dave: I worked at ‘LRS for four and a half years when a guy who worked at WAMZ called me one day and said that one of their guys had quit. So I put a tape and resume together that day and went to this balloon place and had this lady fix it to where my package was hooked to these balloons. It would just sit there and hover. Then I had her deliver it. When she did, it just floated right over to the PD, Coyote Calhoun, while he was on the air. He called me that afternoon. I went to see him the next day, and he hired me.

I was the first full-time production guy that WAMZ ever had. Before that, they had their midday guy who also did production. I was able to negotiate a gig with no air shift. By that time, I’d really gotten bored with being on the air. I felt like things in radio had gotten to the point where it was liner driven. I felt the real creative outlet and those things you could bury your teeth into were in production.

JV: Tell us a bit about your imaging style, which definitely leans to the CHR/Rock side.
Dave: I think my experience at WLRS, with what we would now call Classic Rock, is how I approached the imaging at WAMZ in the beginning. I went into WAMZ, and within two months I had a Brown Bag Production Library. Mike Lee at Brown Bag had pitched this at ‘LRS, but they wouldn’t spring for it. So, I had this demo when I went to ‘AMZ. At the time, all we were using for imaging was regular stock production music. It was the old Tanner Library, if you remember Media General. So I go to Coyote and play this demo, and it just blew him away. We call Mike and order it, and when it came in, it just changed the way that station sounded.

For years, we were doing basically what was rock and roll imaging on a country station. And when people heard it, people outside the market who were driving through—country PDs and such—they would call Coyote. They thought it was revolutionary. But what Coyote and I had talked about early on in that period was that country was becoming the rock and roll format for those people who had come out of what we now call the classic rock era. If you took The Eagles, The Charlie Daniels Band, Jimmy Buffet, and brought them into that time period, they would have fit the country format. And those were the people who were now turning to country. So, we just positioned it in a way that appealed to those people. Those listeners were not raised on banjos. That wasn’t what country was. It was on the back end of that urban cowboy thing that had come through a slump and was back on the up-tick. So that’s the direction we took, and I guess we were “Hot Country” before it was cool. In fact, we were using “Hot Country” before anybody else did.

JV: You purchased a Brown Bag library right off the bat. What libraries are you using for imaging right now?
Dave: Right now we’re using Brown Bag’s Red Line. We’ll keep it until our lease expires. Then we’ll buy the next one. Every time I get a Brown Bag Library, I get a new inspiration.

Up until recently, for about the last year, we also subscribed to Radio Today’s Horsepower, but we primarily used Horsepower for the comedy drops and some of the artist drops. The guy who provides the pre-produced stuff does a really good job, but their format tended to have a play list that went back a little farther than ours does, so some of the stuff wasn’t pertinent.

JV: Did you get any kind of feedback from listeners on this new imaging style, or was it mostly radio people who noticed it?
Dave: It was mostly radio people who made comments about it. However, listeners for the first time—on remotes and personal appearances—would begin to actually reference some of the funny things we were doing. Things hadn’t been done like that before. We did things that poked fun at ourselves. Our morning guy one time wrecked our station vehicle. We had a meeting about it because remotes were a very integral part of what we did, both from a sales point of view and the on-air promotion aspect. We wondered what we were going to do, and Coyote and I came up with this idea to have this goofy contest. I put together a promo talking about our morning guy wrecking the vehicle saying, “what are we going to do?” We had all the jocks in it. They did their little bit, and it was pretty funny. And we had a contest where listeners would bring signs they’d made to decorate the new generic station vehicle, and the prize was ten bucks and a bag of White Castles. White Castles are little bitty greasy hamburgers with lots of onions on them that have the unfortunate side effect of causing gas. Everybody knows this, and so it was extremely funny. We ended up having about thirty-five or forty people show up and another twenty or thirty just to see what happened. We actually took the sign, put magnets on it, and put it on the side of the vehicle. That became our vehicle until the other one was fixed.

We’ve always done dumb things like that where we poke fun at ourselves. We’re not real serious about ourselves. Here’s another thing we’ve done: when we give away five thousand or a thousand dollars and the winner’s not excited, we come up with some way of punishing them. We still give them the money; but the last time this happened, we had a “shockometer,” and at the end of the promo with the unexcited winner, we would shock them. People remember that, and we had a blast with it.

It’s stuff that you don’t really expect from a country station, and we don’t really think of ourselves as country in a lot of the ways that people in rock and roll or other formats think of country. It’s not that stereotype. When you go out and actually meet our listeners, they’re not the people you might expect them to be. But then Louisville is a pretty country format dominated market, too.

JV: I take it you have competition there.
Dave: Yes. But we own them. It’s WHKW, also owned by Clear Channel. We just recently moved into a new building where we have eight radio stations. Among them are the dominant rock station, She 93. Then we have The Hawk. We have WAMZ. We have WHAS, which is our 50,000 watt clear channel blow torch. I think it was the first radio station on the air in Louisville, and it’s huge. It’s news/talk. Then we have WWKY which is another news/talk with a slightly younger approach, I would say.

JV: What are your responsibilities for this large group?
Dave: I’m primarily responsible for WAMZ commercials and imaging. I also help coordinate much of the production that goes through The Hawk, although their afternoon guy is also their Production Director and does their imaging. After I go through the production, I will assign it or do some of the duplicate stuff and give the rest to him to assign to his people. Coyote understands the need to keep the imaging separate, so that there are two different minds working on that instead of one. If you have one person working on imaging for more than one station, the tendency is for the stations to start to sound alike because a person has a certain style and approach. They can’t help it; it just tends to flow that way.

JV: How many people are handling production for these eight stations?
Dave: We have five Production Directors working in eight production rooms. There are two Production Directors for the rock network, and they also cover WWKY and coordinate She 93. Then there’s the guy for The Hawk, there’s me, and a guy for WHAS radio. I will use our two midday guys, who split the midday shift and also do production. Then we also are fortunate enough to where WAMZ and WHAS share another full-time guy who is split between the two stations.

One of the things I’ve discovered over the years is that you can fight salespeople about deadlines all you want, but they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do. So, we’ve developed a system to try and handle those deadline problems. We’ve covered ourselves with production people into the evening so those last-minute things can get done with as little stress as possible. Our sales department for WAMZ has been there a long time. Most of them have been there as long or longer than me. There are a couple who are relatively new, but I’ve got to admit, they really are a great bunch of people. I feel very fortunate to have those people to work with, and I don’t really have a lot of complaints about our sales department. Every once in a while we have our little spats, but it’s more like brother-sister or brother-brother type of thing than a major argument. I respect them, they respect me, and we get along pretty good.

JV: Eight production studios! Are they busy all the time?
Dave: In fact, they are. One of the main problems we run into is the conflict between the need for people to get into the production rooms and the schedules we have posted. I’m in my production room all day, so mine’s booked with me all day. At ‘HAS, they’re busy from eight o’clock in the morning until seven or eight at night. For the rock network, which is FOX and WQMF, there are two production rooms for those guys, but WWKY and She 93 also share those. So they’re booked fifteen or sixteen hours a day. We’re cranking out some production. The rock stations, ‘QMF and FOX, have one guy who does their imaging, and he’s in there ten or twelve hours a day. They’re really heavy on that type of stuff.

JV: How are the rooms equipped? Are they all basically identical?
Dave: They are, all except mine. Mine was the first studio to be digital. I got Pro Tools probably eight years ago, and I upgraded until they switched over to the PCI slots because I’m still running it on a Quadra 950, but that’s about to change. ‘HAS wasn’t digital until just about three months ago when I worked out a deal. We had demos on a bunch of different systems, but we didn’t have the capital to go with just anything. So we were looking for some creative ways to get everybody digital, and we ran across this little program called Cool Edit Pro. We brought it in to demo for about three weeks, and it blew us away. The guys on WHAS were scared to death of it because they had no experience whatsoever with computers. We got the computers, loaded them with Gina sound cards and Cool Edit Pro, and hooked them up. The rock guys took to it. You couldn’t pry it out of their hands. They were fighting over it. However, the two guys on WHAS were really tentative. In fact, we left their 4-track in the room just in case. Within three weeks though, Scott took the 4-track out and gave it to the Kentucky Network, and that was the end of that. Now you can’t get him off of Cool Edit Pro. I’m just amazed at what this $400 little program can do. And the plug-ins you get—the time compression is as good as the ProTools plug-in.

I can’t explain the leaps and bounds that the guys, especially on the rock side, have taken, even on WHAS where these two guys had no computer experience. We brought the guys in who sold us the program, and they gave us about three weeks of support where they would come in at a moment’s notice and help us. They were very good about that, and they worked with our guys.

JV: What are some things that you like about ProTools over Cool Edit?
Dave: You know, the hardest part about Cool Edit Pro is learning to save the files. I’ve written their tech people about that. In ProTools, when you go to save your session, it creates a folder with the name of whatever you’re working on, and inside that it saves two separate folders that save your audio and your fade file. Then, the same way Cool Edit does, it creates an information file that tells it what to do with all the other files, but it’s all in one master folder. In Cool Edit Pro, they’re having to fight the Windows saving architecture, and it’s really easy to hit the OK button and save audio in a place you don’t remember where you left it.

The ability to do really fast, accurate cross fades is a little easier with Pro Tools. In order to apply some of the effects you have to go into the edit window with Cool Edit Pro, and in ProTools you can do it straight from the multi-track view. Some of the “snap to” functions in ProTools are a little bit easier. Now all this is from my perspective because I work with Pro Tools eight or nine hours a day. The guys who are using Cool Edit are having no trouble with it, and they love it. So it could just be a matter of being familiar with it.

Before we got Cool Edit for WTFX, they were using one of the old Rolands, the DM80, that had a little bitty screen. That, to me, looked very difficult, but they were zooming through it. In fact, it took one of the guys a long time to give it up because that’s what he was used to. But, for the most part, most of these guys have taken to Cool Edit Pro, and they’ve found things to do with it that I didn’t know it would do. It really excites me to watch them learn this. I remember how it was when I first got ProTools, and I started discovering all these things. I was doing concert spots in twenty minutes that used to take me an hour and a half.

JV: That’s quite a merger you recently witnessed first hand. Was there any one thing that stands out in your mind that caught you by surprise, something you weren’t expecting?
Dave: To tell you the truth, the whole reality of it has just started to hit in the last week. The changes and the new structure have just begun to emerge, and where we are right now is in a state of the unknown. There’s like a mixture of the Clear Channel attitude and the Jacor attitude. And the Jacor attitude…well, they seem to operate within the realm of chaos, and they like it. It just seems—and this is just my observation—that they tend to like things to be off balance. And nobody who has worked for Clear Channel for a long time knows exactly what to make of it. There’s a realm of the unknown and not knowing what tomorrow is going to bring.

JV: What are some of the greatest challenges you face on a regular basis there?
Dave: That’s a difficult question. I think the biggest challenge is pressure—the “under fire” mentality that exists because there’s so much production that comes in. For example, Coyote will give me a list of sweepers to do, and they are the things I really like to do because they are creative. But here I am working on this drip while the faucet over here is filling the glass up. That’s the way I see it, and that’s the most difficult thing for me, that pressure. I’ve learned to live with it and learned to deal with it over the years, but that’s the only thing that really makes me tired about my job.

And there’s the balance between programming and sales. I used to be really impatient with sales, but I’ve changed this over the last five or six years. Those people are under such great pressure that I’ve reworked my system to accommodate them because it finally hit me one day—they are really trying as hard as I am. A lot of things, like what I do, are out of their control. The only time I still get irritated is if I feel like they haven’t carried the ball, but that happens less and less and less. And a lot of this I learned from reading Radio And Production. There have been guys around the country who’ve dealt with the same thing, and if you can create a system to kind of accommodate these problems, then you can lower your stress level and your quality can still be maintained. That’s an important thing to me, and that goes back to something I said earlier about passion. I don’t like to operate in a system where I feel like I’m just stamping out one cookie after another. I like to have a little bit of time to try to think about each commercial, what I’m going to do with it, and try to find something about it that I can put a stamp on that makes that one a little bit better than the last one. I’m one of those people who do a spot, and when I do it, I think it’s good. Then one or two days later I listen to it, and I don’t like it anymore. If I could do it again, I would do something different. It’s frustrating when you get the note in the mailbox from the GM telling you that you need to enter this awards contest; I go back and I’m never satisfied with what I did.

JV: Have the stations all converted over to digital delivery systems in the on-air studios?
Dave: We’re getting there. We’re in an interesting situation because we began back in January installing a Scott Studio System. Right in the middle of that, Clear Channel merged with Jacor, and now we’re switching everything over to the Prophet System, and that should take place in eight weeks.

I’m kind of excited about it. In fact, five years ago I sent a memo to our GM explaining the benefits of the digital on-air retrieval system, and I think my first recommendation was the Prophet System.

You know what’s interesting about this? This on-air digital commercial and music retrieval system, this digital revolution in radio, is the first time in the history of radio that the technology bubbled up from the bottom. It was the small stations that got on board at first. In the past, all of the major innovations came from the top down.

JV: That’s probably because the smaller stations were realizing they could just buy a computer for a couple of grand and not have the expense of all those carts and high dollar art machines. Economics forced them to grab the new technology first.
Dave: Yep. And I think you’re going to see that same attitude bubble up from the bottom again, this time with the tendency to eliminate personnel and voice track certain day parts. And the other thing that concerns me and doesn’t concern the management types is that the farm teams for the talent down the road are going to be eliminated. All of our stations are now finding it difficult to find part-timers because the smaller stations have already eliminated that proving ground, that place where people go. I mean, when I first called a guy and said, “How do you get into radio?” He said, “Well, you go to a small station and you hang around and keep bugging them, and one day…” It worked out just the way he said for me. One day somebody didn’t show up and the guy goes, “Hey, I need somebody here ‘cause I got a dinner date” or whatever, and I’m on the air. And that’s when you begin to grow and test your skills and learn things and make your mistakes, and those opportunities are being eliminated. Where are the future people going to come from?

JV: That’s a good question. What’s your guess?
Dave: I really don’t know because the industry is changing so fast. If you think about it, there are opportunities opening up because of the DSS satellite. They just gave the okay for satellite systems to carry local broadcasts. You’re going to see some programming expansion. They are going to need programming, and they’re going to need promos. They’re going to need commercials. It might be that what we’re seeing is a shift in where talent is going to go.

JV: Won’t it still be “proven” talent that will get hired?
Dave: Not every station on that system is going to be a superstation. It’s going to run the gamut because, as the channels expand, you’re going to have start-up companies that are going to be offering very limited and narrow targeted programming. And this is just a guess of mine because I’m not sure where radio is going to go once you think about all the possibilities with CD radio, coast-to-coast non-commercial programming. Think about the possibilities of digital radio where you can have multiple formats on the same frequency. I’m just wondering about mixing both the phenomenon of having this dilution at the bottom where the new talent springs from, where they hone their skills, and this expansion of the output medium.

JV: How have you managed to stay in one place so long? This is radio, you know. What’s your secret?
Dave: Bottom line is, I really enjoy the people I work with. And sometimes you say this as a cliché, but in this building we’re in, and in the old building, WAMZ’s staff had a different attitude toward one another, from the air staff to the sales staff. It was almost—and I mean this exactly as I say it—like a family. They had their little tiffs, and they had their little scuffles, but everybody genuinely liked and cared about each other. We share. We have a history together, and Coyote has given me the freedom to set up my department and run it the way I want to. And as long as everything goes well, he doesn’t say anything. I have put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to deliver for people, and I’ve got a pretty established free-lance business. So if you add up the quality of life in Louisville, Kentucky, which is pretty good, the people I work with, who are great, and my ability to develop relationships and get along with clients and have their confidence, I make a pretty good living. And I stay interested in my job. That’s what has kept me here. It’s pretty simple.

JV: You definitely have a great voice. Are you the imaging voice for WAMZ?
Dave: Yes. And I also do KAJA in San Antonio; K105 in Salem, Ohio; and a station in Sioux City, Iowa. I could probably take one or two more, but I try not to let my free-lance stuff interfere at all with what I have to do for WAMZ.

JV: Are you doing free-lance commercial work as well?
Dave: Yes. In fact, I’ve had a commercial run in every state in the union except Hawaii. I’ve done McDonald’s spots. There was an eyeglass chain that I did spots for that ran in all of their markets for a while. I’m one of these people who has always loved the work that Bill Young and Moffitt and these guys do, so I do truck and tractor pull spots and concert spots. I do car spots. There’s a start-up network called “The Military Channel,” and I’m their voice. It’s really fun.

JV: Are you doing all this work at the station, or do you have a setup at home?
Dave: Nothing at home. I’m fortunate that they allow me to do it at the station.

JV: You must have some late nights at the studios from time to time.
Dave: I’m more of an early guy. I’ll go in and do it early when my voice is really crisp, but I’m also pretty fast. You know, digital makes you fast.

JV: What’s one of the more memorable promotions you’ve been involved with there at WAMZ?
Dave: We were one of the first country stations to do radiothons. St. Jude’s Hospital for Kids called it “Country Cares for St. Jude’s Kids,” and their radiothons are now almost exclusively on country stations. But one of the things I’m most proud of is our first radiothon. They had these vignettes that were interviews with patients and parents, and they were really dry and boring. I began to take those interviews and cut them up and put them with country songs. And in some instances I completely changed the song, edited it in a new way, and changed the instrumental bed so that these things fit. And the message was changed from the original intent of the song to fit the intent that I desired. This completely changed the way St. Jude’s does its radiothon, and now these musical vignettes are an integral part of the radiothon. They take the vignettes I’ve done—and now those from a lot of other talented guys around the country—and they put them on CDs that are distributed for use. They get permission from the artists. One of the songs I used was an Alabama song, and Randy Owen of Alabama is big time into St. Jude’s. He gave me a special award that he had made up personally for the work I did for St. Jude’s. That meant a lot to me.

JV: You’ve won more than one RAP Award over the years. One that comes to mind is a commercial for Mike’s Taxidermy. Tell us about this spot.
Dave: I won the RAP Award and a Louie Award, which is the Ad Club of Louisville Award, for spots I did for Mike’s Custom Taxidermy. Now on the surface, people want to laugh at the idea of spots for a taxidermist. But I got the biggest kick out of the challenge of that because I took a client who really didn’t have sympathetic feelings from the majority of the public and made him a sympathetic figure. When they played the spots here in Louisville at our ceremony, people cried, and it tickled me because they were crying over a taxidermy commercial. And Mike got calls from people who were not interested in his product telling him they appreciated his commercial, and his business grew to where we eventually, no kidding, had to take them off the air.

The first spot that won was called “Generations.” I had my nephew on it, and it started out having him ask his dad to take him hunting. Then it cross-fades into a teenager, then into the father, then into the grandfather, then back to the kid. The other one won an award the next year. It was with the little boy and his grandfather fishing, and at the end, the guy wakes up and it was him catching the fish with his grandfather. If you listen to the spot, the fish comes out of the water and the kid is catching the fish. When he first catches it, he’s insecure, and then the grandfather reinforces him. You can feel the kid getting his confidence. When the fish comes out of the water, you hear it flapping. The sound effect? It’s two Sweet ‘N Low packs. And people will believe that’s a fish until you tell them it’s Sweet ‘N Low packs. Then they can never hear it again.

JV: Where do you see yourself ten years from now?
Dave: What you’ve just hit on is one of my biggest problems. I’m so focused that I don’t even know when July 4th is until the 3rd, and it’s really a character flaw because of the way I look at things. For instance, I’ll look at something of mine that’s got a date on it, and I’ll go, “Jeez, that was five years ago?” You know what I’m saying?

I think eventually I would like to open my own place, image more stations. I used to do WHAS-TV voice-overs. I would like to have a couple of TV stations that I do. I would like to be able to work with clients who have the time and the money to put the energy into things. Who knows, I may just be drawing off my 401K in ten years.

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