R.A.P. Interview: Jim Cutler

Jim Cutler, Voice Talent, Cutchogue, New York

Jim-Cutler-feb00by Jerry Vigil 

It’s always a pleasure to visit with a radio production person who has taken their skills to the next level by going out on their own and doing well. Jim Cutler is another first-rate example of what you can do if you set your mind to it. After a long 15-year stint in Boston radio, Jim took the leap into self-employment about five years ago. Today, he is the voice for a hundred radio stations and has garnered a client list of TV voice work that includes ESPN, ABC, CBS, Tribune Television, Paramount, Buenavista, Home and Garden Television, and MANY others. This month’s RAP Interview gets up close and personal with Jim Cutler, and we get an ear-pleasing sample of his work on this month’s RAP Cassette.

JV: Tell us about your background in the biz.
Jim: First, I’d like to say that doing this interview is very disconcerting to me because we are kind of “the quiet company.” We’re very successful, but I am the opposite of some of the other interviews that I’ve read in RAP of people comparing themselves to Steven Spielberg and things like that. We work very hard and we’re booked all day, but if you notice the whole personality of what we do, we’re like “the quiet guys.” Like my web site, for example, is not Mr. Pipes dot com or something like that. Aside from all that, I’m also very flattered that you called.

My background is Long Island, New York City, Harvard, Detroit, Boston. I was with the same company in Boston for fifteen years. It started out as WZOU, which was a CHR. Then it went through twelve different owners and twenty-five Program Directors. There were many different variations on the company. They would end up firing the staff, and luckily, I survived the whole thing. And it has to absolutely be luck because if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and your contract is coming up, you’re gone. So I managed to stay at the same place for about fifteen years in Boston. From there, I went off on my own.

Jim-Cutler-Logo-Feb00JV: You went through twelve ownership changes?
Jim: Easily. And the terrible thing about ownership changes is that when somebody buys you, you’re no longer competitive for about eight months while they freeze any spending on promotions. And any work that you’ve done, any momentum that you built goes away while they’re not spending money because they’re going to sell you to somebody else. It’s pretty awful going through all those changes, but I managed to survive almost fifteen years at the same place, and I was Production Director for all fifteen years.

JV: I’ll bet you had some good times and bad times in those fifteen years.
Jim: The good times were when you worked for somebody who appreciated the value of production, and the absolute worst times were when the chain of Program Directors and guys would come in and not have any value for production at all. They did not realize that the music or the programming gives you the information, but the production tells the listener how they’re supposed to feel about it. Sometimes the PDs who would come through didn’t know that, and those were low times.

I always had a sixth sense—and I think this is a really good thing about survival to tell people who are maybe not down the road as far as I’ve been—I always managed my boss very, very well. And I don’t mean in a bad way; I mean in a good way. Very often, when you’re Production Director, you’re working very hard, and you’re thinking because you’re working very hard that you’re doing what your boss wants you to do. I always had a real good sense about constantly asking whoever was in charge whether I was spending the time on the things they wanted me to spend time on, and that’s a good thing because you can be totally wrong in the way you spend your time. You can think, ”Well I came in on Saturday. I came in on Sunday. I came in early Monday morning and I carted up all those things that needed to be carted.” Meanwhile, the boss couldn’t care less, but you think you’re very accomplished because you’ve done all these things. That’s one of the ways I survived for fifteen years—constantly knowing what the job was and what the Program Director wanted.

JV: How did you deal with Program Directors who didn’t know your capabilities?
Jim: I would usually entrench myself in commercial production. I could feel when the budget would start to get tight or a sale was coming. That’s when I would go to a sales meeting and announce that I was putting a ton of energy from here on into not only doing imaging production but into commercials as well, which endears you to the sales staff. And as long as you’re of value to the sales staff, you can usually survive any really tight budget time. And during those times when people got whacked right and left, somebody who was just doing image production was out there with their head way out on the chopping block. Whereas the commercial guy, whether he was good or bad, would stay on. So when times were getting tough, I would devote more time to doing commercials and survive.

JV: With regard to the imaging, what advice can you offer for someone having to shift gears from Program Director to Program Director in a similar situation?
Jim:  Especially with somebody new, spend all your energy finding out exactly what they want you to do, and you have to really micro manage them in the first few weeks. And they’re very appreciative, I’ve found, if you do that because they don’t know you from Adam. The terrible thing about being in a job for a long time is that no matter what you’ve done, no matter how brilliant you’ve been—the bits you’ve done are killer and the commercials have been great—when the new guy comes in, you are starting at zero. It’s as if none of that work mattered at all because when the new person comes in, they have in the back of their mind, “Well, who am I going to get to be the Production Director? I’ll use Joe because I used to use him in some other market.” So it’s pretty frightening. You’ve got to get in there and manipulate him or her, and I mean that in the purest, good, positive sense. You’ve got to find out every day when you come in what you should be working on that day. “What do you want me to be working on?” And if you manage them that way, it’s a very good way to survive tough times when a new Program Director comes in.

JV: When did you leave radio, and what was that like?
Jim: I left being a Production Director in ’95, I believe. It was frightening. It was very hard because I was constantly being reminded by the company that I was probably the highest paid production person in the country. And when you’re being told that, that’s not a good sign. They’d ask me do stuff, and it always came up that, “Hey, you’re being extremely well paid.” Starting with a 1980’s salary and staying with the same company, obviously you keep on advancing. But then you get to a point where they could get somebody for a lot less money, so I had that pressure. But at the same time, they were very happy with me because I would image one station, and fortunately, it would become successful. Then they would put me on their other station that was a dog and give me kind of carte blanche, and then that one would become successful.

But at the same time that was going on, I had a very savvy General Manager who also liked the commercial work that I would do, and he would bring in clients you normally would never talk to. He would bring in American Express and sit them down and say, “This is Jim, and when you guys come back in on Monday, Jim is going to have a commercial that is going to blow away anything your agencies have ever done…” and stuff like that. And my jaw would drop open—”Oh, good God, what am I going to do?” Then I would go home and spend the next three nights absolutely in a sweat because Monday morning I would have to be sitting in the boardroom with a DAT machine playing some kind of fantastic thing. It was really hard. You keep getting better and better and better and working harder and harder and harder and doing bigger things. Then eventually you get to a point where it’s tremendous pressure. So all of those things combined led me to say, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

JV: Did you have a list of free-lance clients established before you left?

Jim: Yes. I think I started doing free-lance stuff in ’86, so I had plenty of time to build up clientele. But it’s still scary when you step out. If you have a family to take care of, you have all those responsibilities, and it’s pretty scary, at least it was for me.

JV: Did you have a studio built at home when you resigned?

Jim: Yeah. I had been building the studio over the years. That was a very necessary part early on because when I was doing outside work, there were different Program Directors who looked down on you using the facilities. And while nobody ever told me not to, there were a few that I got the feeling from that even though you were working at the station nineteen or twenty hours, they still begrudged you using the facilities for outside stuff. I thought all of my outside work would go away with one snap of the wrong guy’s fingers, so I needed that studio at home.

JV: The free-lance that you were doing and building up before leaving, was it primarily imaging or commercials or both?

Jim: It was just voice work, and it was just promos.

JV: Was the transition into your own business pretty smooth? What was that first year like?

Jim: It was smooth, and I did it the only way I would ever suggest anybody to do it, and that is to cut a deal with the station so that you can continue working part-time for the station, but you do it from home.

I had just absolutely had it. I mean, I was doing really well and scoring with pretty big commercial clients one after another like American Express. I was handling all of Lojacks stuff, doing all their national spots, and I had a national car company, people who wouldn’t normally do stuff through a radio station. The pressure was getting unbelievable because every week there was somebody new, and that General Manager was telling them, “When you come in Monday morning, Jim Cutler is going to blow away anything your agencies have ever done.” So I finally got up one morning and said, “That’s it.” I drove in and went to the vice president and said, “I’m sorry, I just can’t do this anymore, and I’m leaving.” And they said, “No, you have a contract, and we’ll have a little legal problem then.” And I said, “Well, we don’t have a legal problem unless you want to make it a legal problem. Why don’t you just let me go?” And then I offered to work for half salary and work for half the amount of time from home. They thought about it for a week and agreed. I was very lucky. So I signed a contract with them for one or two years, working from home.

Then I moved out to this amazing part of the country out here, out to the very eastern tip of Long Island. It’s absolutely beautiful. It’s extremely rural. I’m moving again now after three years. I just bought a big house just outside New York City. I’ll definitely miss being out here. It’s pretty cool being in the drugstore and Billy Joel is in front of you or Jimmy Buffett or somebody like that. Not that they know me from Adam, but it’s just a very cool place to live.

JV: What’s taking you closer to the city?

Jim: Plain and simple, a lot of producers will not do ISDN sessions, and I’ve been cast in so many things that I have had to turn down because in New York, unlike radio and TV stations around the country, if you get a job for a cable network or something, they want you in front of them. Not everybody, and the good news for everybody around the country is that this is changing fast. People who would never use ISDN are opening up to it. But there still are a ton of people in New York who won’t. And you know the reason they don’t? It’s because it narrows down the field. As you know, everybody and their brother want to do voice-over stuff, and there are a lot of good people out there. So, just to simply cut it down to a manageable amount of people to deal with, some of these New York agencies will just work with people who can physically be there, which instantly narrows it down. It’s like in the old days when you had to have a first class radio license to be an engineer in some major market stations; it instantly narrowed the pool down to a number of people who were really serious about it.

JV: Do you remember about how many free-lance stations you had when you left the station?
Jim: Fifty, something like that, and TV had started to explode for me then, too.

JV: A look at your web site left the impression that you are doing a lot more stuff for TV than radio.
Jim: Yes, I’m doing more television promos than anything else.

JV: So even though you were pretty successful with the commercials in radio, you’re a promo guy these days.
Jim: That’s right. And it’s really amazing. I mean, I’ve done eighty billion commercials at radio stations, and when I started working in New York and started working in commercials outside of a radio station, I learned that I couldn’t even say my own name, even after doing thousands of commercials at radio stations, because doing national commercials is such a different animal. It is like night and day from what you do at a radio station. And as a million people have told you in other interviews, if you have any type of radio station sound, they don’t want you. You’ve got to completely lose that. And it was very difficult for me because I thought I had completely lost it, and still some people could spot me. And I worked very hard at that with commercial coaches, and fortunately, that has really come around. This is all about learning. I’m just getting started in all of this. I feel there’s so much yet to do. Even though I’ve been in our business for a long time, I keep crossing into new, really cool, fun. There’s a lot out there to explore, and you could spend your whole life working very hard at the commercial side of it.

JV: About how many radio stations are you doing these days?
Jim: I have a hundred radio stations right now. I’m very lucky, and I’m very fortunate. I’m fortunate enough to be in every major market in TV or radio or both. I’m on all four ESPN networks. I’ve been doing that for a long time, six years, but I am leaving ESPN after all that time. And they finally standardized on me for all four networks about five months ago. They are an incredibly great company. ESPN is the rock star of the nineties, so this hurts a lot. But I have another major, major client that asked me to resign from ESPN if I wanted to keep their business. It’s a business decision, and I can’t say no to them, but it still hurts after spending a few years coming up through the ranks there at ESPN and finally getting all four. But I became very visible, and I got the phone call saying, “Hey, you’ve got to come off.” ESPN has been very understanding, and I just did my last session with them.

But that’s what happens when you play in a certain ballpark where, if you’re on one network and you get big on the network, the other network says you’ve got to come off if you want to keep that network. That’s something you run up against. The whole point here is that you spend all your time thinking that some day you’re going to get to a certain point where you’ll be able to do all these big jobs, but it gets complicated because when you get a big job, then that’s it for that category. You can’t take other things. I’ve been offered jobs from pretty much all the major cable networks in New York City, and I can’t take the jobs. And that’s a weird thing that you just don’t expect to have to deal with.

JV: A hundred stations plus on top of TV promos. It sounds like your typical day must start at seven or eight o’clock in the morning and go for twelve hours straight in the studio.
Jim: It does go beyond twelve hours, but it starts late because I do West Coast, too. So I don’t start until ten o’clock in the morning, but my last session is eleven o’clock at night. This is five days a week, and it’s pretty much non-stop throughout the day. But you know what? This is not like God anointing you with a job you’re going to have forever. You do things while things are good and work hard at it and ride the wave as long as you can.

JV: Tell us about the studio you built to work out of.
Jim: I made every major mistake you can make building a studio. Fortunately, that rectified itself a long time ago. I’m all digital now. It’s really nice, and the prices have come down so much. I’m using Yamaha boards. I highly recommend the Yamaha 01V. It’s a very inexpensive board that has all the sonic quality of the Yamaha 02R. It’s like eleven hundred dollars or something like that. I’ve got a few of them. I have microphones, whatever the client wants. If you’re doing West Coast stuff, they want you on a Sennheiser 416—it’s like the only mic they know. If you’re doing Disney, they want you on a Neumann 149. I use a Neve mic preamp. It’s the 9098, and I think it’s really great.

JV: We’re talking about compressors elsewhere in this issue of RAP. What are your thoughts on using them on voice-work?
Jim: I don’t want to come off as the “wise old owl” because I’m not, but I would highly suggest that anybody who wants to do this for a living wean yourself off the compression. Let the stations do the compression. There are guys out there daisy-chaining compressors trying to sound really big, and one day they’re going to go into a studio in Manhattan or Los Angeles or Chicago and there won’t be any compression. They record you dry. Then the house will add whatever is appropriate. But it can be so disconcerting when you’re used to a lot of compression that when you get in there, you can suck big time. So learn to read without compression, and learn to sound great without compression.

JV: Do you use any EQ when laying voice tracks?
Jim: I keep it dry. I use a tiny bit of limiting, whether they know it or not, but that’s it. On ISDN, you can connect to a studio somewhere and think you’re going to get away with it from your studio at home, you know, set up your mic chain the way you want. But if I’m doing stuff to any of the good houses in LA, the first thing they’ll say is, “Hey, lose the compression.”

JV: I guess it kind of says to the talent that, “Hey, we want you for your voice. Let us do the production on it.”
Jim: But some people feel they don’t have a voice without the compression. And you do. You just have to get used to it. And there’s no trick to that. You just get in and sweat. Sweat and learn.

JV: How about a couple of tips for those getting ready to build a home studio.
Jim: Use really good cable. Invest in really good equipment because this is what you do for a living. Don’t cheap out because you’ll end up replacing every piece of gear. The proof is at the end when you listen to yourself and say, “Oh, man, I sound better at the radio station than I do at home.” And the point is to be able to get off on your own if that’s what you want to do, so you want to at least sound as good as you do at the station.

I had great equipment, but I had gone down to Joe’s Wire Store and brought really crappy cabling and noticed that things just didn’t sound as good. I had a sound engineer come in, and that’s the first thing he noticed. So we redid everything with Mogami cable and Neutrick connectors, and what a difference. Every time your signal goes through some cheap piece of cable or some cheap piece of equipment, the cumulative effect is what you’re going to get at the end. You cheap out each little piece, and by the time it gets to the end, all you know is, “Oh my God, I don’t sound that great.” And a common problem is that a lot of studios won’t hook up to a home studio with ISDN because people’s home studios sound like crap. So buy good equipment. You don’t need to spend a lot of money these days.

JV: When you’re not doing a live ISDN session, what do you record your voice tracks to? DAT? A hard drive?
Jim: I’ve got the Orban Audicy, which I love, and once I record the stuff to the Audicy, then I prepare it for distribution. I have the Enco DAD automation system, and once I’ve recorded the voice track, I put it into the Enco system. Lots of stations use this for their music and commercials, and so forth. In my case, however, instead of songs in the automation system, I have individual files of my voice tracks for individual stations. I also have a whole bank of Zephyrs. Then, the stations dial up any time they want on the Zephyrs. Once they get on line, they use these little Radio Shack touch-tone pads, which I provide, to produce the necessary tones to download their particular audio. It tells my unit to start playing their specific file, and down it comes.

JV: Wow! That’s pretty cool!
Jim: Yeah, it’s a great system. I wish I could say I invented it, but a fellow named Chris Claussen gave me the idea. It sure cuts down on a lot of time. John Pleisse, who’s really a good guy, heard about this and called me. He’s dying for this. I think he’s trying to put it together too, for obvious reasons. As he explained, “God, if I have six ISDN sessions, I literally could read the six pages in twelve to fifteen minutes. But instead, it’s fifteen minute session after fifteen minute session after fifteen minute session. The station’s never there on time. They don’t know how to operate the Zephyr. They don’t call in on time, and they miss the appointment.” And he said, “What I could do in fifteen minutes takes five or six hours.” Now, I don’t think you even have to buy the system anymore. You can just put your audio on the web. For some of my stations who are MP3 capable, I just have an FTP site. Each person has their own password-protected mailbox, and they go there and get the tracks. So, you don’t need to spend all the money on the Zephyr stuff. I did that five years ago, and I still have it for anybody who has a Zephyr, but you don’t need it.

JV: Yes, e-mailing MP3 files is quickly catching on. Are you doing a lot of that?
Jim: Yeah, I am. Although, I think MP2 sounds so much better than MP3. It sounds more dynamic. We did a really good, extensive test where we recorded the same voice track through MP2 and MP3 software encoders, and then MP2 and MP3 over a Zephyr, at 64K, then another at 128. And we stacked them all up in order of what sounded the best. The software MP2 at 128K is only beaten out by the Zephyr at layer 2 at 128k. Then after that comes MP3. After that comes any of the software encoders in layer 3. But layer 3 sounds less dynamic than MP2, and if I played you the two back to back, you’d notice the difference right away and you’d want to use MP2 instead of MP3. Fortunately, the MP2 files are the exact same size as MP3, and WinAmp will play MP2 or MP3 files.

JV: For the “quiet company,” you’ve certainly done well it seems.
Jim: Well, understand that none of this came overnight. And I know for some people it did. But I was not born with an incredibly deep voice. I have worked at it and worked at it and worked at the business, not improving my voice, because there’s not much I can do with my voice quality, but learning how to read. And it’s not like I’m exceeding in one type of read. I’m doing sports, and then on another network I’m doing kids’ voices. Then on another thing I’m doing a regular guy, and on another thing I’m doing light AC/VH1 type stuff. Then a few minutes later I’m doing really heavy classic rock type stuff. You just work hard at it.

And in my case, I think being a good guy is much more an important part of it than people realize because boy, there are a lot of dickheads in my business. One of the big guys was introduced to me at Promax. The agent said, “This is Jim Cutler.” And the guy leaned down and said “Who?” And I said, “Hi. How do you do? I’m Jim Cutler.” And he said, “Who?”  I find that’s usually par for the course. There’s another big voice guy I called years ago before I left the station. He answers the phone—I won’t give you the name of the company—and I said, “Hi, how do you do. I’m Jim Cutler, and I need some information because I’m going to start doing this station, and I think you’re the voice.” And he says to me, “I just want to thank the little guys like you for making us sound so great.”

Now, there are guys who are the opposite of that. Here’s the best way to describe it. The smallest countries are usually the ones with the biggest postage stamps. Okay? And the good guys are usually the ones who make it the biggest in this business, a la Joe Kelly. Joe Kelly is a top shelf good guy aside from being incredibly talented. Brian James, another top shelf good guy. I can name others. They all have that in common, and I think that has a lot to do with their success. Jeff Berlin, John Pleisse…those four names I think of right off the bat as gentlemen, along with being incredibly talented. I think that goes hand in hand.

So, I’ve been through the mill just like anybody who’s been a production guy, and I know what it’s like to be on that side of it. That’s why I’m not like that, and that’s why this success is so satisfying. Any success at all is very sweet. And wife DAWN (who was one of Infinty’s best billers), is no less than 50% of our success in every aspect.