R.A.P. Interview: John Pallarino

John Pallarino, Creative Services, Director, Entercom, Greenville, South Carolina

Pallarino-in-studio

By Jerry Vigil

Greenville, South Carolina. Market #60. Just under a million population. A couple dozen stations. Entercom has six of those stations, and they’re proud to say five of them are in the top ten. But what happens in a market this size, with 6 stations in one cluster? A LOT of local direct advertising. To a production person, that means a TON of spots to produce. John Pallarino heads up the task at Entercom Greenville with what many would consider a small crew for such a large task. But they manage, and they manage to keep their department not only running like a fine tuned engine, but they’re able to go above and beyond what one might expect in this situation. Furthermore, they’re feeding six internet streams as well. You’ve heard the phrase “spot factory”. This month’s RAP Interview gives you an inside look at one. This month’s RAP CD features some of the excellent work coming from this factory.

JV: Tell us how you got into this business.
John: Well, it all started when I was 18 years old. I went to college for architecture, and next thing you know, I was more curious about the broadcasting end of things. I went to Penn State, so I got an internship at one of the local radio stations there in town, and I was just a sponge. I did everything, from production to working with the morning show and stuff like that. The next thing you know I’m board-oping and really getting into things. I was spending a lot of time doing all my school projects in the production room. This was probably 13 years ago, so we were splicing tape. But they had a 4-track reel-to-reel in there, and I kind of cheated and used the 4-track instead of the blade because I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. And, I always used to get in trouble. My teacher always used to say, “Can you do at least one project with a razor blade, just to show you can do it?”

So that’s when I really started getting a buzz for doing production, and back then they had just introduced the SAW system. My GM was using it, but I was not even interested. It looked too difficult to me at the time.

So from there I got on the air and finally moved back home and got an internship at WPOY in Philadelphia, doing promotions, which really wasn’t too fun. One day I walked in the production room and asked if I could help out, and the Production Director gave me like 20 dubs to put on cart. So I started doing a little of that and was working overnights at ‘POY, helping produce the overnight show… I was just anywhere I could get in the building.

Then I finally got my first full time gig for a local radio station in Williamsport doing afternoons. They had a digital production room, they called it, and they had the old Roland DM800 in there. I was a bit shy to it at first, but then somebody taught me how to use it and it just all clicked. I spent hours doing stuff in there, just for nothing. I started getting into listening to voice demos from production houses and stuff and really getting into doing that kind of thing and trying to emulate what they were doing. I wasn’t doing it for any of the stations; I was really just doing it for myself. After a while, more and more of the Program Directors were asking me to do stuff for them, and so I did.

After about a year, I got fired from that job and worked at a video production house that did local commercials. I was doing video and had no clue about video, but I lied and said I did. They put me in the copywriting department. I was just bored out of my mind there for months. Then I got a call from Lima, Ohio, Forever Broadcasting. They were looking for a Production Director for four radio stations, and it came with an afternoon gig. In my interview they said, “We’re not looking for bells and whistles, just straight stuff.” And they said they had electronic editing, and I didn’t know what that was, but I got there and it happened to be two reel-to-reels. So I’m coming off of a DM800 to two reel-to-reels. It was interesting. I kind of had to go back a little bit, but I was still doing some quality production with those two reel-to-reels. And I was really getting into the imaging end of things because the local advertising side of production was just really boring in that place.

Then things starting heating up and we started getting some better tools. Cool Edit Pro came into play then. I took that up real easy and started doing some good production, some creative stuff, and I started doing a lot of imaging for all the radio stations. I would listen to Sean Caldwell and Keith Eubanks and pretty much steal every single thing they had on their demos. I’d put my twist on it and put it on the radio stations. Any chance I had, I would listen to all the big voice guys out there and steal their ideas. I’d listen to Z100 and Dave Foxx and people like that, and I’d try to emulate everything they were doing. That’s how I really learned what a promo should sound like, and eventually I just started doing them on my own. It was really fun. I was single at the time, so that’s what I did all day, spend time in the production room doing stuff like that.

After about four years, I left there and got the call from Entercom here in South Carolina. At the time, we had four radio stations. I came on board as the Production Director, and that’s all I did. There was no on-air work, just total production and imaging. This was about five years ago. Back then, we were at a different location. We had two production rooms in a real old building, and we just had the basics, but we had a lot of fun. But then we moved about two years ago to this new facility, which just spoiled us. Everything was state of the art with flat screen monitors everywhere, digital boards – it was clean and brand new. I got to design my own production room, as far as where I wanted things and how I wanted it to look and sound and all that, and it was fun.

JV: So it was four stations a few years ago, and you’ve acquired a couple since then, right?
John: Yeah, we acquired Barnstable, and they brought over two radio stations. We had to lose one for FCC reasons and some other things transpired, and now we’re six radio stations. We have the Heritage CHR, which is WFBC. We have an AC station, of which there’s only two in the market, so they’re always going back and forth in the ratings. We have the only AM news talk station in the market, and we have one station which has been going through some changes and is now WGBC. They went from the ‘80s format to a new country Christian format called The Walk, and now they’ve created a new women’s format. So it’s a women’s talk radio station now. And then we have the two rock stations, a classic rock and a new rock station.

Pallarino-Group

JV: Tell us about your staff in the creative department there.
John: The staff is amazing. We have a very unique staff. We start off with Fred Sanders, who’s our copywriter. Fred comes with some 30 plus years of radio broadcasting, from Chicago. He worked on WMAQ, doing national voiceovers and the whole thing. He took a break from radio and came back to Greenville, and we hired him on as the copywriter. So he’s our full-time copywriter/production assistant. He does voiceovers and stuff like that, but he really concentrates on copy. We have a very unique system when it comes to copywriting and how it should be done. All of the GM’s that we’ve had really took pride in how the copy should sound on the air, so none of the salespeople are writing their own copy. And we don’t have any outside copywriting services. I feel Fred is just as good if not better than these guys. He may not make those very creative spots, but sometimes those creative spots aren’t effective. Everything he makes is effective. It’s basic copywriting that is effective, copy that’s going to show results. It’s not just the wow value we’re after. Fred goes on sales calls and is very involved with the whole copywriting aspect of things.

And then we have Joe Lawrence, who we acquired from Barnstable, who came on with 26 years of experience as well. Joe is and was the production guy of Greenville. He’s the voice of almost every spot you hear, and he does jingles too. He’s a musician, which enables us to do custom jingles here. Joe is a studio guy. He sits in his studio from nine in the morning till five at night doing dubs and production, and that is his thing.

And then we have a full-time continuity person. Her name is Nan Underwood, and she handles the copy all day, organizing it, doing copy reports, putting it in the Marketron system and following up on things. That takes a huge weight off my shoulders. Before Nan and Joe were here, it was just me and Fred doing four radio stations, and we did it all – copy, continuity and production. That was a lot. Sometimes I look back and I don’t know how we did it, but we did it and we did it well. So Nan is a huge part of the creative services department, as far as how things flow around here. And she’s tough, so that’s a good thing too.

Pallarino---Sanders-at-MicAnd then we have me. I’m just an all around kind of guy. I kind of take care of everything. I do a lot of the long form interviews with clients for commercials, and take care of all the salespeople. We’ll go through all the paperwork and spend a lot of time in the studio. And I’m a real interactive guy with the salespeople. I believe you need to be friends with the salespeople. You talk to a lot of production people out there and say “salesperson,” and they start making funny faces and stuff. I work closely with them and have a good relationship with them, and things get done the way they should be done. There’s no complaining. They respect what we do, and I respect what they do, and I think that’s really important when it comes to running a good department.

JV: You mentioned doing long form interviews for commercials. What’s that about?
John: Since we have two talk formats, we do something called the Business of the Week. We get a client to come in, and Fred will sit in there and do a long interview with them, maybe about five or ten minutes — just off the cuff stuff, no script. He’ll talk to them, and then we edit that down into a 60 second commercial about their business. They’re the Business of the Week, and it’s like a focus on them. We edit it and clean it up so it sounds real nice, and it’s pretty much one of the most successful things that we have on those formats.

JV: How many salespeople are there?
John: At any given time, we’ve got about 18 to 20.

JV: Getting back to what you said about the relationship you have with them, I think production people make those funny faces because of the type of salesperson that will say anything, true or not, to get you to do what they want. They tell clients, “Yeah, I can get that spot on this afternoon,” and set things up so you become the only “thing in the way” of “the station making money.” They whine to the GM, or they’ll come to you and say, “This client has the potential to be a very, very big client if we just do this one thing for them now…” blah, blah. How do you keep this kind of thing from being a problem? How do you maintain this healthy relationship you have with the salespeople?
John: The key to this whole department is how we deal with it, because you’ll never get rid of that. That’s something that happens every day, no matter what relationship you have, no matter what salesperson you have. The key to the success we’ve had is to really get personal with them and really explain to them the process and train them and train them and train them, and keep them in the loop and make them feel important, so then they’ll respect what we do. I constantly tell them how production works, because nine times out of ten, they have no clue what it takes to get a commercial on the air. The key for us and for me is to talk to them and bring them in and sit down with them and explain things.

If they come in and say, “Hey, I got this client that needs to be on right now,” and so on, I’ll sit down and say, “Okay, let’s go through the steps. Let’s see if this is possible. I can’t promise anything, but let’s see if it’s possible. I’ll do my best to accommodate you, but if I can’t, we will do it tomorrow…” or something like that.

Through the years, I’ve built enough equity within the management structure – the GM and the sales managers — that even if a salesperson goes to them, they’re not going to overrule what I say because they trust that I’m doing my job and I’m doing what’s best for the company and doing what’s best for the client. So after we chat, the salesperson understands. If I say, “Listen, I can’t do it, and this is why,” they understand that and they know they can’t go and overrule me.

I think this is very important because I’ve seen a lot of production people out there who are more the type to say, “no, we can’t do it,” and once you start doing stuff like that, always saying no, or saying yes and walking away with a bad attitude, they’re not going to respect you. They’re just going to say you’re childish, and they’re going to constantly do it to you.

But if you throw them a bone every once in a while, they’ll start respecting that and they won’t come back and keep doing it. And when they do, they come back almost begging: “I know I can’t do this, I know this, but what can we do?” It’s “What can we do to make this happen,” rather than, “This has to happen.”

JV: Your department offers clients something called “Level 2.1” production services. Tell us about that.
John: Level 2.1 is something I’ve been working on for about four years. I was sick of hearing mediocre radio, mediocre commercials. I was trying to figure out how we could up the level of production to our clients that need it, that are looking for it, and stop going to these local agencies, and then paying them 15 percent just to have them send back the production our way and having us do it. You know, you’ve got these salespeople who are now so-called agencies, writing some copy and making us do the production on it. Or these agencies are going to other radio stations in town and getting it produced, and it just all sounds the same. Eventually, if you start listening in a market like this, it’s the same voice; it’s the same people everywhere.

I heard it, and I said, “This has got to stop. What can we do, and how can we create a sales tool for the salespeople to generate revenue?” That’s the key, you know, production is not just to make spots; it’s also to generate revenue, to create a way to make more money. Every salesperson’s always looking for an in with an advertiser. How can we get this guy on the air?

At the beginning of the year my GM gave me a goal. She asked, “What’s your goal for this year?” And I said, “Well, generate revenue and do some creative stuff for this place.” She said, “Show me what you’ve got,” so I created 2.1 production. I gave it a cool name, and it’s basically a uniquely designed marketing campaign. It’s free of charge and it’s just like our level one production, but the whole key is getting that voice talent on there, getting a different voice on the spots, a professional voice actor, because there are thousands of them out there who are looking for gigs, that are going to work for cheap, cheap rates. They’re trying to get in the business. It’s a different voice, and they’ll do auditions for free, spec spots for free. It’s out there. You’ve just got to go get it.

So I say, let’s do fully produced agency quality stuff for a fraction of the cost, instead of these local agencies who may be going to a production house, spending 500 or 600 bucks on a spot, eating up all the budget, and then bringing the spot here. I say, “We’ll do it for 150 bucks. We’ll do it for 100 bucks and take the rest of that money and put it into your schedule.”

So the process basically consists of this: you come to me and say, “I want to do 2.1. Let’s get a script together.” I go online to Voice123. They have a bunch of voice talent on there. We send a script out to be bid on and say, “This is how what my budget is,” and you get a bunch of emails back. They audition the script for you and say, I’ll do it for 50, 75, 150 – you deal with whatever your budget allows. Then we put together a bunch of spec spots. We send them to the client and say, “Which voice do you like?” They say, “I like that one.” So, we put the spot together, and all the client is paying for is the voice. So it’s 75 bucks or whatever, or sometimes the AE’s will actually take it out of their own pocket.

But it’s great to have a great spec spot to go into the client with, especially when you’ve got all these new voices. You have other stations going in, presenting a spot, and the client is like, “oh yeah, that’s that guy.” But then we come in and they’re like, “Well, I never heard that voice before. That sounds great. It sounds professional. Sounds like a national voice.” It’s great, and the clients love it, especially if they’re looking for a specific voice, a British accent or whatever. You can find it for them. It’s especially helpful for those two voice spots where you have the husband and wife. We’re so sick of doing those with jocks. It’s like, oh yeah, there’s those guys doing it again, and it doesn’t sound right. So that’s where Level 2.1 comes in.

It’s a great sales tool. It’s a great first impression. Some clients are always saying, I want something different, something different, different, different, different. That’s how we make things different for them. And the salespeople love it because it makes them get more involved with their clients because most salespeople aren’t that involved with the creative side. I make sure the AE is involved in this whole process. They’re listening to the auditions, they’re talking to their client, and it’s just one big circle. And by the end, the client’s just ecstatic that they’re involved too.

JV: About how many local direct spots would you say you’re doing in a typical week?
John: I would say at least 100.

JV: You’re kidding! You’re talking about copy that’s getting written and produced there?
John: Yes. And Joe is the one who pretty much does the bulk of it all. He sits in there nine hours a day and pumps out spot after spot after spot. Nan kind of delegates it out and Joe will give me some stuff to do. I sometimes have five on my desk in a given day ready to be done, and then I see the pile Joe brings down and it’s like, man, we’re pumping out some production here. And that’s not including the dubs that are going in every day.

So, it’s a huge assembly line that we’re working on here. And if something flaws the system, like an AE not turning in the proper paperwork, it messes things up. But we have a lot of safeguards in place. Everything is digital, as far as production orders and such, and everything is communicated through e-mail. There’s really no way for something to get lost because we have one central e-mail address, and all the AE’s send their orders to that, and it gets filtered to all of us here in the department.

JV: You mentioned that Joe Lawrence does jingles. Would that be part of the Level 2.1 stuff?
John: Yeah, but Joe does that pretty much on his own. It is something that starts here at the station, as far as the client wanting a jingle, but when Joe gets involved, that’s when he takes over and he does a spec for them. He goes to his studio at home, because that’s where all his equipment is to do that. He writes it himself and he’ll do a quick little spec for them. Everything is produced from the ground up. He does the drums, keyboards, guitars and everything.

JV: And he’s able to make a few dollars on the side.
John: Absolutely, and that’s important too for a lot of people here in radio, to get that extra side work. And Joe does it for a fraction of the cost. Here in Greenville, we have a lot of agencies and a lot of production houses as well. You could go to those guys, but for these small businesses who can’t afford $10,000 for a jingle, you come to us and we’ll do it for a fraction of the cost. And you’re getting pretty much the same quality, because Joe has a band and he pays his people to come in and do the whole thing.

JV: What are the biggest challenges you face on a regular basis?
John: The biggest challenge that we face here is keeping the consistency, because we pretty much have a 99 percent error-free rate here, which is phenomenal for a six station radio group. We try to stay error-free and make no mistakes every day. The law of averages says you’re going to make some kind of mistake here and there, but 99 percent of the time we’re error-free and we’re making sure all our AE’s are getting everything they want to get, and that they’re getting a quality job.

So the challenge is always keeping that level set to the highest standard, always — everything we do, from the quick rip-and-read to a full blown 4-voice 60 second spot. Everything is going to be at that certain level that everybody expects.

JV: You must have a few production studios there to handle the load!
John: We have six of them, one for each station here in our building. My personal production room is on the first floor — we have a two floor building — and that’s the main production room. That’s pretty much my room. Joe’s is upstairs.

My production room is the only new studio. All the ones upstairs are all refurbished from our last radio station. All the on-air studios, however, all have new equipment. When we acquired the last two radio stations, they made two brand new production rooms for those stations and Joe uses one of those.

They are all equipped with Wheatstone boards and flat screens. We use the Electrovoice microphones. I use a Rode condenser mic. We’ve got the Maestro system in there. We’ve got dual monitors, TV, and it’s just a clean, real neat, studio. Everything was built to be a radio station studio — floating floors, acoustics, the whole nine yards, the way it should be.

JV: What’s the DAW software of choice?
John: Adobe Audition/Cool Edit Pro in all of them. Joe, however, uses Vegas. He’s just totally a Vegas guy. Our production styles differ. He’s very dry, no processing, and I guess that’s where the musician part of him cuts in. I, on the other hand, will use every plug-in I can get my hands on. I do a lot of imaging too, so I guess that’s where a lot of that comes from. And when you listen to it on the air, you can tell my spot from his spot. I’m not saying his are better or mine are better, but you can just tell the difference between them, or at least we can. But they’re all very solid production.

JV: Your station cluster is taking advantage of the internet by streaming all six stations and monetizing those streams. Tell us a little about that process and your department’s involvement there.
John: These six stations that are streaming are really treated as six extra radio stations because they all get their own production, each stream. And it’s all a separate entity because of the rules when it comes to national talent — they can’t be on streaming. So we have to re-create every spot. And every spot that’s on streaming has to have some kind of call to action at the end that says click now on the banner or whatever it is they’re doing. So you have to create one spot for on-air and one spot for streaming. And sometimes, you’re not doing two spots; you’re just doing one for streaming.

So, it’s almost like you’ve got some more radio stations that you’re doing production for. And right now we’re just kind of getting really in the bulk of things. We have a digital sales manager now, and our webmaster does all the trafficking, so I have another traffic department to worry about and all these extra production orders that are coming. Our digital sales manager, Josh Scott, was a sales guy, and he’s really involved in the whole NTR thing. That’s all his job is, to generate revenue for the digital and the NTR side of things. He’s got his hands full, and he has his own budget. It’s really getting going now, and there’s some dollars being made, so we have to treat it just like we do everything else.

It’s interesting how it works, because you really don’t know how to do things. You’re not used to that, doing the streaming, and all of sudden it’s on, and you say, “Wow, how are we going to handle this road?” But we handle it. It’s not as busy as the six stations right now, but eventually it is going to be just as busy. There’s a whole different world out there, and we have to be prepared for it.

JV: Are these spots that you’re cutting for the streams, are they part of that 100 spots per week that you mentioned?
John: Oh, no. That’s additional. Right now we treat the streaming as an additional entity. We’re still kind of experimenting with the salespeople and the flow and how it really makes it through the system, because eventually it ends up with a different traffic person who’s trafficking these things.

I kind of spearheaded the whole streaming thing with regards to creating a process for it, and it’s still in the early stages. Then you’ve got to teach the salespeople a whole new world of the streaming aspect, which is a challenge in its own. They’re still trying to learn how to sell streaming and are getting educated on it. And a lot of the times they overlook the whole streaming thing. They’ll sell it as part of a package and forget about it, and the next thing you know we’re missing spots for it. That’s a challenge right there — how we get a copy report, how we know what we’re missing, how’s it billing. So it’s a work in progress.

Josh is getting educated, and he’s got to educate the salespeople on how to sell this format. They really don’t know because it’s a different world. They go to a client and say, “Hey, you want to go on streaming?” And they’re like, “I don’t want to do streaming. Nobody’s listening.” So there’s the aspect of numbers to prove we have an audience. People are listening online, and we’ve got to show that.

JV: And you have one web guy that is handling all this?
John: Yeah, Tracy, who is actually our webmaster lady. She handles everything from designing the website to updating them and dealing with all the streaming spots that are coming in, and making sure those are trafficked properly, because the system we use is all new — it’s new software. You’re dealing with how many impressions ads get and so forth. How many impressions does the client want? When does the spot come down? When does it go up? Right now it takes three days for that spot to actually get uploaded. Radio is supposed to be now, and we’re telling salespeople you’ve got three days before it will even go on the air. There’s no same day turnaround right now.

Those are the challenges that we keep facing, how to get this whole streaming thing up and running, and they’re treating it as six new radio stations. Management sees this as six radio stations that can generate revenue.

I often ask other radio stations or people I talk to, what do you guys do for streaming? And most of the time it’s just nothing. There’s not a huge focus. Here at Entercom Greenville, our slogan is “Online, Onsite, On the Air.” We take great pride in our on-air presence, our online presence and our onsite presence. So it’s one big package that we sell, and a client can get the whole nine yards. They can get everything, because we have it, and we pretty much dominate the market with all our formats.

JV: Well, it sounds like a finely tuned engine there in Greenville.
John: It really is, and that’s especially true when you’re working with people like Joe and Fred. You’ve got all this experience behind you. And then there’s me, who probably has half the amount of experience, but I’m in charge of the whole thing and I do my best. It’s been a challenge of its own, getting everybody to work together, but it’s worked out great. We have a lot of fun here.

JV: I would imagine organization is a must-have quality for you.
John: Yeah, it’s something I’ve had no choice but to develop all these years. If you don’t, you’re just going to end up in piles of paperwork. But we’re very organized here.

JV: Any final thoughts for those guys out there in those huge clusters in other markets like yours, doing a ton of direct work?
John: Make friends with the salespeople. Get to know them so you can have that relationship where you can actually go up to them and handle things on your own instead of having a meeting with a general manager and the sales manager. Get on that level where you can just go up to them and say, “What the heck are you doing? Why are you doing this?” You’ll be amazed, when you have that relationship with them, how much better it is, because they respect you, and you respect them. Don’t be afraid of them. They’re not out to hurt you. Help them, and they’ll help you.

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