R.A.P. Interview: Chris Rice

Chris Rice, Creative Services Director, KRXQ/KSEG, Sacramento, CA

1103-Chris-Rice-PicBy Jerry Vigil

We often talk in these pages about where the next prod gods are coming from and whether or not they’re even coming. As it turns out, there are actually quite a few young guys and girls out there doing some incredible work and learning the trade faster than ever. One person to keep an eye on is Chris Rice, Creative Services Director at Entercom’s KRXQ and KSEG in Sacramento, California. Here’s a guy who started in market #171 and went directly to market #27 in one leap. A listen to his demo on this month’s RAP CD speaks for itself, and this month’s interview sheds some light on the mind and methods of another one of today’s talented young imaging producers.

JV: Where and how did you get started in radio?
Chris: I grew up in Chicago and that was a huge influence. I was an adolescent growing up with B96 and Z95 in Chicago while they were having this huge CHR radio war. On the rock side, listening to the guys like Jonathan Brandmeier and Steve Dahl also got me real interested in radio, hearing all the weird things that came out of the speakers. In 1991, I went to college in South Bend, Indiana, which is only about 1 ½ to 2 hours away from Chicago, and I was still able to pick up some of the Chicago stations. And about that time is when WRCX came into the picture, which was Rock 103.5 and was programmed by Dave Richards. It had a resident super genius named Ned Spindle who was making all the funny noises come out of the speakers, and that’s what sold me on radio production. Even after that station went away, Ned went to Q101 in the same market, and I was still able to hear his stuff and just soak it all up.

The summer before my senior year I did an internship with a couple of stations in Chicago, and that led me to put together a fake tape which got me a part-time gig at the rock station in Indiana, WAOR. After I graduated, I made it full-time and worked there for a couple of years. I started out doing overnights and wound up doing evenings with various production duties. And where I wound up living in South Bend I was able to pick up Rock 103.5 and Q101, so I was still able to soak it in. I was able to go to the studio everyday and play around with production while still having Ned’s influence on me, warping my mind. It was cool. And Rock 103.5 was bigger than life too — the jocks, the production, everything was just absurd.

JV: So you were into the production side of radio even before you got into radio.
Chris: I was always a fan of it. Hearing the people talk on the radio was cool and entertaining but hearing the little miniature plays — those fifteen-second sweepers that make you look at your radio and go “whoa” — that kind of thing appealed to me right from the get go. I was able to talk them into letting me play around with that aspect of the station a little bit when I was in Indiana, and that was enough for me to have some halfway decent production to put on my demo when I came out here to Sacramento.

JV: How did the gig in Sacramento come about?
Chris: I moved out here to do part-time in May of ‘97. I wasn’t too happy in South Bend — those 40 below zero winters got real old. I had already been to school there, and so going back for radio was like being a glutton for punishment. So I decided to start sniffing around, and I recognized the name of the guy who was running the station here in Sacramento. Curtis Johnson was the station manager. I recognized his name from trade magazines and I thought, he seems to be a respected guy, a good guy to learn some stuff from. So I moved out here for part-time work in ’97 and then tried taking some of the production load off of Pat Martin who was the APD. Pat was trying to get more to the program duties and didn’t have time to do all the imaging and production. After about three months of that they put me on full-time as Creative Service Director, and I voice-tracked the overnights as well. Since then I also did mornings for about eight months. Then, when the morning show thing abruptly moved in a different direction, I was actually out of work for a couple of months but came back to the same building and wound up doing KRXQ 98 Rock, the Active Rock station, and our sister station, which is CHR, 107.9 The End. I was doing imaging and some air work for both stations for about a year, and then I made the switch to my current position, which is doing imaging for KRXQ and our classic rocker KSEG as well as voice-tracking 10p to 2a on KRXQ.

JV: How many stations does Entercom have there?
Chris: We’ve got six in the building. We’ve got 98 Rock, the classic rocker The Eagle, and CHR KDND, which is 107.9 The End. We’ve got a smooth jazz station; we’ve got an AM nostalgia station, which is pretty much all satellite; and then we just acquired Quad 106.5, which has been the Alternative station in Sacramento for, I think, close to 10 years. We just acquired them in May, and they’re in the building now as well.

JV: Are all the stations on the same floor?
Chris: It’s actually just a one-story building. I like the way it’s laid out. I’ve been to some places where one floor has all the production rooms, then this wing has all the on-air studios, the sales department is on a different floor, and the programmers on yet another floor. To me that’s not really working as a radio station. The way we’re set up here, there’s a central hub where all the administrative stuff is, but everybody else is like a spoke in a wheel branching out from that. Our air-studios for KRXQ are next to my production room, which is next to the sales area, which is next to the programmer’s office. So it’s like its own little radio station, which I think is more conducive to it being a fun kind of team environment.

JV: Let’s talk about your imaging style. Ned Spindle was obviously somewhat of a mentor for you, correct?
Chris: Yes, unbeknownst to him, he was a huge influence on me. And as I spent more time here in Sacramento and got more comfortable with my own work, I started reaching out emailing people, calling people, and sending my stuff to them to get feedback from them. Ned was one of those guys, and it was real cool to talk to him, pick his brain a little bit and to get his feedback on my work. He’s always been real friendly and willing to share when I’ve approached him. It’s cool; production people I’ve found are a lot more willing to help out one another than the on-air people. It’s like all the imaging people have their own club or something. Take Ann DeWig for example, who up until recently was at DC101. She is just phenomenal. I’ve never met her face to face, but between emails and talking on the phone, she’s been so helpful and more than willing to pass on what she’s learned along the way. And in all her emails she’s like, I’ve learned this from so and so and try this and that… and especially stuff with compression and EQ, she’s taught me huge amounts about those things.

And Steve Stone was a huge mentor to me. Steve is perhaps the person I’m most indebted to. He was Creative Services Director at K-Rock in New York and is now doing free-lance voice-work. Here’s this guy in market #1, a complete imaging wizard, who got a random call out of the blue from some young hack in Sacramento, and not only did he take the time to call me back and answer all of my inane questions, but he was willing to sit down and listen to the countless promos and imaging pieces I sent him over probably a 3-year period, and help me see what my strengths were and what I needed to work on. And he suggested ways to go about improving in those areas. It amounted to an imaging version of a bi-monthly aircheck session that really accelerated my learning curve. Steve’s also the guy who put me in touch with Ann, as well as Jude Corbett, who is now the Creative Director at K-Rock. Jude really helped me with my reads as I began to voice more promos for 98 Rock. And then there’s John Castino at WCKG in Chicago who shared a ton of Audicy tricks with me.

It’s funny, after sitting here listening to myself answer these questions, it’s really dawning on me that, while I know what I’m doing in this studio, I really don’t know HOW I’m doing it! I’m sure someone reading this, who’s been producing for a couple of decades and knows all the ins and outs of sound dynamics, is probably swearing at me right now, but for me it’s just kind of an organic process — rarely do I know how something will turn out. I’ll start with it sounding one way in my head, but it invariably ends up going in a different direction, sometimes many directions. The analogy I always fall back on is when I was a kid, my favorite toys were my Legos, always building things from the corners of my imagination, and that’s basically all I do here; I play with noise, and it beats the hell out of working!

One of the things I like best about Ned’s and Annie’s production is the way they create these characters and throw them into situations. I’ve tried to get into that to some extent. Mostly I’ll just create characters for the situation and just make the characters as ridiculous as possible. We had a promotion at the beginning of the year when the new Godsmack album came out. The CD was called “Faceless.” So I created a superhero named Faceless Man, and he was walking into things because he didn’t have any eyes and couldn’t see. And every time he spoke it was him mumbling like somebody with his mouth taped up because he didn’t have a mouth, so the narrator had to translate for him. And Faceless Man got into all sorts of trouble for this Godsmack promotion.

We’ve done a bunch of parodies on the Osborne Show. And we’re all sick to death of the show around here, as it seems most of America is, but when you’re able to take the show and completely make it even worse by coming up with our own scripts, it kind of works. Our afternoon guy, Paul Marshall, does a real good Ozzy voice. He also does a great Arnold Schwarzenegger voice, which came in handy during the election.

JV: You mentioned learning stuff about EQ and compression from Ann DeWig. What did you start doing differently after talking with her?
Chris: Talking with her got me using compression two different ways. One thing I did was I started compressing my voice more. I’ve only been voicing the promos here for about three years or so, and I had no idea what I was doing when I first started out. I don’t really have that big deep resonant voice, so in order for me to help myself make that voice punch through a little more, I’ve started compressing it a lot more. And I’ve also started putting a little bit of compression on the final mix, which I’ve never done before, just to kind of smooth it out and make it sound more like a fluid piece of audio versus a bunch of workparts just slapped together. I use an Orban Audicy which I absolutely love, and they’ve got this super squash compressor setting in there that I use to compress the hell out of my voice, sometimes repeatedly, just to get it to cut through.

JV: What did you pick up from her about using EQ?
Chris: It was funny because the way she explained it to me the first time was that you can EQ each voice that you’re using to each music bed that you’re using. And when I first read that I replied to her, “If you have a voice setting that you really like can’t you just EQ the music to match it?” And she’s like, you could except all this time and effort goes into processing the music bed that it’s probably best to leave the bed as is… unless you’re going to EQ the bed to give it a weird effect like an old time radio sound or something. The bed is probably going to sound optimal the way it is, and it’s easier to alter your voice with a little change here and there at one or two frequencies to make it really cut through. And that makes a huge difference because being able to mix beds and elements a little bit hotter I think makes the production a little denser.

JV: Is the Audicy the only DAW you’ve worked with, or have you played with some of the others?
Chris: We got Pro Tools here about two months ago, and the engineers for a bunch of reasons want us all to use Pro Tools. But I’m dragging my feet kicking and screaming because I love the Audicy. I love the scrub wheel on it. I love the on-board processing. I really like the compression on there. I guess some people will say that production takes longer on the Audicy because you’ve got to apply your effects in real time, but I like the way it sounds and I’m comfortable using it. I’m sure at some point I’m going to have to use Pro Tools more. I’ll use it for individual plug-in effects here and there, and I’ll do the same thing with Sound Forge. I’ll use them for effects then put everything back in the Audicy. But it’s all about what you’re comfortable with.

JV: The production techniques are obviously just one aspect of your style of imaging. You do some storytelling, too.
Chris: Yeah. That’s one of the things that most appealed to me about that stuff in the first place, and Ann DeWig is also a tremendous storyteller. That’s the biggest thing I want to improve on, that “theatre of the mind” stuff. It’s a picture coming out of the radio. It truly is. There’s so much going on, yet it all cuts through crystal clear. And to be able to add the creative writing with that ability to paint a picture is priceless. It would be nice to be able to do that some day. I like my writing right now. I’m relatively happy with it. I can come up with the creative wacky scenarios or whatever. But I don’t think my ability to paint those pictures is quite up to where it needs to be, and that’s something I’m continually working on.

JV: How many people are on the production staff there?
Chris: For the commercial production in the building, it’s pretty much a collective effort. We’ve got Charlie Thomas who is the main Production Director for the two stations I work with. Then we’ve got a cluster Production Director and a couple of part-timers who do stuff in addition to other duties. There’s a full-time imaging guy for our CHR station, and we’re in the process of finding an imaging/jock for Quad as well. When all is said and done, we’ll probably be looking at about eight people in the building for production.

JV: How are your two stations doing in the ratings?
Chris: 98 Rock KRXQ is bouncing back. We were doing really, really well for a while and took a big hit from what management thinks was an Arbitron related thing — and we’re not going to argue with them on that; we’re okay with that. They never really lost confidence in us. They wanted us to keep plugging along and make sure we’re on top of our game, but they aren’t angry at the slippage. And it’s improved in the last couple of trends. It looks like we’re coming back up to where we’d like to be. We’re on target for coming in number two in our demo. And the classic rock station has been doing phenomenally well. We’re really encouraged because through the whole Gulf War thing we thought the Newstalk stations would hit us pretty hard, but right now it looks like we’ll probably be number one 25-54 in the summer book, which is just great.

JV: What challenges do you find imaging two different formats?
Chris: Sometimes we have some time management issues just because occasionally there will be times when they both have a big project coming down at the same time. But by and large they’ve been pretty good about realizing that I’ve got time needs for both stations, and they do a good job of not overworking me too much. I still have enough time where I can sit down and play around just to see what kind of sounds may come out of the Audicy, which is always a nice way to get the creative juices flowing too.

JV: Sounds like you get most your effects from the Audicy and plug-ins in Sound Forge and Pro Tools. Do you use any outboard gear at all?
Chris: The only stuff I use in terms of outboard gear is what I run my mic through. The way the studio is set up, I’ve got my mic going through a patch bay with just a little rack EQ. I use a Yamaha SPX900 for my initial compression before I get it in the Audicy. Other than that, I don’t have anything else in here.

JV: What kind of microphone are you using?
Chris: We’ve got a Neumann U87. Back in the day when there were just two stations in the building, they had two of these Neumanns in the building. One of them was in the other production room and one of them was in the air studio. And when they got a live morning show, they had two guys and they didn’t want to have one Neumann and one RE20. So they just put this Neumann in a box in the back, and it just sat there for like four years until I came along and saw the box in the engineer shack and said, “What’s that?” “That’s a Neumann.” “Can I have it?” So they put it in here. I love it.

JV: What kind of mixer do you work with?
Chris: I’ve got a full-blown Pacific Recorders BMX III-18 in here. It’s pretty old school, but I like it. It makes the room look like it’s part of a radio station.

JV: What production libraries do you use for imaging?
Chris: We’ve got a bunch of the AV Deli libraries. We’ve got Revolt from Krash Productions, and Organism III from Alien Imaging. I use all those. Lately, with the way the economy has been going and the budget crunch that’s been going down, I’ve had to rely on making some homemade stuff. And luckily, one of the last packages I got at the end of the year was the Sound Designers Tool Kit from Hollywood Edge, which is like a bunch of movie trailer type sounds — all the whooshes and hits and that type of stuff you hear on movie trailers. That’s been a great starting point for making my own work parts. I’ll lay some of that stuff down and mix in my own tone samples, guitar and drum hits and see where that takes me.

JV: Where do you think your strongest skills lie right now?
Chris: Probably on the writing side because everything else is so much of a work in progress for me. I’ve always enjoyed writing, even from when I was in high school. I was always able to write weird things and be creative in that vein, so that’s what I’ve got the most experience with. All the editing stuff and the production techniques and that kind of thing are still kind of new to me. And my voice work is also very much a work in progress. I’ve only been voicing stuff for about three years now. I’m starting to get to the point to where I’m comfortable with how it sounds on the air, and I’ve got a couple stations that I do some side voice-work for. I’m starting to get some commercial voice-work on the side as well, but it’s a weird experience for me to lay down a voice track, thinking that it sucks, and it’s exactly what the client wants. Okay, fine. If that’s what you’re looking for, more power to you.

JV: When you do a promo, what’s your approach? Do you try to make it entertaining, or is the focus on the message or something else?
Chris: Another work in progress. I’m getting to the point now where I’m starting to pay more attention to the message. I’m still kind of new to this whole thing, and your first impulse when you’re starting out in production is to show off all the tricks that you can do and how weird the copy can get, and sometimes along the way you kind of ignore that fact that you’ve got a message and a story to tell and a point to get across. So I’m at the point now where I’m starting to realize that okay, it’s time to pull that back, and you don’t need all those effects in there and all that stupid stuttering. You’ve got to tell the people what they’re listening for. Give them the information. And if you can do it in an entertaining way, then that’s great, but make sure that message gets across.

That said, we’re also getting back to something here at the station where we’re putting more pieces back in the mix – not promos – but some shorter pieces here and there that don’t have any real message, and that’s a nice creative outlet as well. There’s no point to the piece other than to get the listener to look at the radio and say “what?” It’s just to keep them guessing, keep them on their feet so radio doesn’t get predictable, as is the case with a lot of stations you hear across the country these days. You hear some really good stuff, but you also hear cookie cutter radio, which is kind of frustrating, especially when you hear it in a big market.

But when I sit down and write a promo I’ll try to find a couple of different angles. One of my favorite characters I came up with was “Dirk Shredder, Ski Patrol,” which came out of a lift ticket weekend. We’re just down the freeway from Lake Tahoe, and we do these lift ticket weekends all the time. So after a while you get tired of doing the same old “listen all weekend to win your lift ticket” thing, blah, blah, blah. So I created this fake superhero guy, your typical guy on skis who’s skiing to the rescue of the young damsels in distress. He gets into a couple of misadventures in a promo and that became the basis for the weekend. So if there’s a way to get the message across — obviously the message in this promo was about the whole skiing thing — if there’s a way to get the message across but still find a way to take a left turn with it, that’s always a positive.

JV: Where do go to get your creative juices flowing?
Chris: In terms of production techniques, I’ll listen to other people’s stuff and get ideas. I’ll say, how do they do that? I try to figure out what they did and how they did that nifty little trick. As for the storytelling and theater of the mind stuff, I don’t know where it comes from. Sometimes I’ll get an idea from watching something on TV, a show or a commercial or promo or some random thing I’ll stumble across. And sometimes I’ll surf through a CD library of sound effects just looking for something that might take me down one road. Other times I just sit there and think about words or stare at a blank screen until something magical appears on it.

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