R.A.P. Interview: Lou Kastler

Lou Kastler, Production Manager, Journal Broadcast Group, Omaha, Nebraska

by Jerry Vigil 

Back in the day, there wasn’t much discussion when it came to selecting the multi-track recorder for the production room. There was 4-track and there was 8-track. Of course, there was the expensive 8-track, and the not so expensive 8-track. But that was about it. And your audio “network” was the worn pathway between studios where you walked with tape reel in hand. These days, it’s a different story. Not only do you have a wide selection of digital workstations, but the methods of connecting your newly consolidated production studios with each other are just as diverse. It was time for Journal Broadcast to connect its eight stations in Omaha when Lou Kastler came on board. With the help of Chief Engineer John Gaeta, Lou conceived and designed the BEAN—Broadcast Editor Audio Network, a do-it-yourself version of those fancy brand name workstation networks at a fraction of the price…and it’s working!

Journal-Broadcast-StationsJV: Tell us about your radio background.
Lou: Well, it all started twenty-one years ago this fall. I attended college at the University of Wisconsin-Stout State and was one of those confused college people who really didn’t know what they wanted to do. A friend of mine was the PD at a little Podunk station in Wabasha, Minnesota, and he didn’t have a part-timer to work the weekend shift. So, I went down there and just fell in love with radio. After about three or four years of jocking, MD-ing, and doing a little sales, that’s when I really started to focus on production and went full-time production back in ’85 in Rochester, Minnesota. From there, I did the loop to Colorado Springs, back to Rochester, to Des Moines and now I’m in Omaha. That’s been my radio tour.

JV: And during most of this tour, was production your primary focus?
Lou: Yeah, it was production for the most part in all those markets. I was an OM for a while of a little AM/FM combo as a favor for a friend after I left Colorado Springs, but other than that, it’s all been primarily focused on production and marketing and working with sales and new client development.

JV: What are your current responsibilities as Production Manager?
Lou: My responsibilities include everything for our eight radio stations here in Omaha, all the commercial entities—writing, producing, directing, working with a sales staff of forty, and also managing my own staff. So, it’s a pretty big plate. Our imaging for all eight radio stations is all outsourced. We just found that to be much more cost effective. We use Ed Lacomb, and Flash Flood does some stuff for us, too.

JV: Where else does Journal Broadcast have stations?
Lou: We have stations in Boise, Knoxville, Milwaukee, Springfield (Missouri), Tucson and Wichita. I think last count was thirty-six radio stations. Then our parent company, Journal Communications, is into TV, telecommunications, and print. They own the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Milwaukee is our headquarters for Journal Communications. And what kind of makes us unique, and the reason I came here, to be quite honest, is that we’re an employee-owned company, and the culture here is just so much different than what you see elsewhere.

JV: Employee owned? How is that set up?
Lou: We’ve been employee owned since 1936. After a certain enrollment period, I think it’s a year, you can start buying what we call “units” in the company. They’re not publicly traded, but the units, of course, grow in value as they have historically for just about every year, that I know of anyway. You are well informed of all financial affairs and things like that, so nobody is really kept in the dark. They really make you feel like a part of the whole family. It’s a neat way to do business.

JV: That must have an effect on the attitudes of the employees!
Lou: I think it really drives us and inspires us, and I think everybody has a very true vested interest. In some companies, you’ll see it’s all about me—you know, “I’m all for the company, but I’m all for me first.” Here it is almost in reverse. It’s, “I’m all for the company, and I’m also all for me.” And all across the board, you see just what I’ve been so impressed with, and that’s the passion, the passion for the business. And there’s also understanding when we need to make changes. Like any organization, we need to make staffing changes or realign some of our properties or our products from time to time. When we do, people understand that more, and they see that this or that isn’t working here and we need to fix it. So, it’s quite amazing to see that.

JV: Let’s talk about your BEAN editing system. What made you guys decide to do a system on your own?
Lou: Well, when I got here two years ago, Journal had grown in the Omaha market. We had just acquired Great Empire and two more radio stations, which just happened to be about six miles on the other side of Omaha. Journal had grown so fast in the Omaha market, and at that time, we were using carts, Scott Studios, and Audisk. It was a real mess for management of inventory. Our discrepancies were through the roof. Accountability was terrible.

Now, I had worked with Prophet and Audio Vault and other systems in other markets and was involved with installing several systems. So, we started thinking how could we apply the technology to help us in production with two geographic locations. The problem was that we have three studios in our main location in Southwest Omaha, and in our North Omaha location, we have two production studios. How could we get these all together, and how could they all be mirrored identically?

JV: How are the stations distributed between the two locations?
Lou: We have six in our South location and two in our North location. And due to the sale of the property and the fact that space is at a premium right now in Omaha, it hasn’t been possible to bring those properties together. It’s very costly to do so. So, what we wanted to do was somehow bring all those studios together so that everything was mirrored in every studio and so I could have somebody up North start a production, edit it down the way they wanted it, and just send it down to me here. And now we can do that. We can start one thing in one studio, then pull it up into a posting suite and finish it off there. It’s really a cool system. You can swap your sessions throughout the two geographic locations.

And if you look at the big picture—where it’s going to go and what I would like to see—I think it would be just awesome to see Journal stations share production sessions throughout our chain. We obviously aren’t the biggest, but I think that would be a real neat thing. And the other nice thing about it is the space required to combine all the functions of the editor. That’s been a huge thing for us. There are so many studios right now with five or six computers sitting in the studios cluttering things up. Everybody told us we couldn’t do it the way we proposed. “You need to have a dedicated system for this and for that.” Well, we designed this system so we can have them do all the functions we need them to do to facilitate our day-to-day business. We put them all on one monitor and all on one CPU. It’s really made us more efficient, and it’s been embraced by our staff. It’s real nice to be able to walk into any studio and have the same identical software on the same identical computer. And if somebody needs to get into that studio for something else, we just send the project somewhere else and finish it there.


JV: You were very involved in the design and installation of this system. How did you, a production guy, get that close to this more technical aspect of the station?
Lou: Well, I’ve always had a technical background of sorts and have always liked to tinker with things and ideas. The way I basically approached it was on the basis of cost savings. That was the big thing. We had a different editor in every studio. Nothing was the same. The North stations, when we got those, had Session 8s. We had an old Pro Tools version in one studio down here, and a newer Pro Tools version on a Mac, which wouldn’t network with anything to save your life. So we had a little bit of everything, and I said, “Listen, it’s got to be the same. We’ve got to fix this department. We have to run efficiently.”

As for getting involved with the technical end, I think most of it came just from wanting it and also gaining the respect of our engineering department and our operations manager at the time. Journal is really open to good ideas and new ideas, and the thing that really pushed us to go with this was the cost savings. In comparison to a full-blown Mac Pro Tools system that would do what we wanted to achieve, we saved well over seventy to eighty thousand dollars in the long haul. Out of last year’s budget alone, we saved close to twenty-two thousand dollars. That’s a pretty substantial amount of money, especially for a department that’s funded equally by eight radio stations and doesn’t really have a set budget. So that was a big thing, and I think they gained a lot of respect from what we’ve done since I came in here two years ago. I think they saw that I had fixed a lot of their problems. They said, “let’s let him run with this,” and that’s what Journal is great at—they give you the environment to grow. Our slogan here is “Built to Grow,” and that’s what it’s all about.

JV: What editing software did you decide to go with??
Lou: We went with the Digi 001 software from Digidesign. Originally, we had planned on going with a Mackie system, and I flew out to Vegas for NAB last year and spent a couple days at the Mackie booth just trying to crash their system, the HDR24/96. Unfortunately, Mackie didn’t get their production down. I was talking to them for months and months, and finally we couldn’t wait any more. We wanted to partner with Mackie and be a training center of some sort or demonstration center for them. We brought that to the table. We said “Why don’t you release some units so we can put them to use and see if we like them?” So, originally we’d planned on that, and after six months of, “We’re going to ship any week, we’re going to ship any week,” the Digi 001 came out, which was much more adaptable to broadcast, ran on a Windows platform rather than a proprietary platform such as Mackie, and it was just like, ding! The bells went off. It networks so well, and it’s just absolutely fantastic.


JV: What kind of computers did you build for the system?
Lou: We’re using the Abit VH6 motherboard. That was a very integral piece of the whole thing. These are Pentium III machines with 256 megs of RAM. And we’re using two hard drives, and that’s where the beauty comes in. We keep one hard drive reserved only for the operation of Digi 001. Nothing gets stored on it, and nothing gets downloaded on that drive. That drive is just there to support Digi 001. Then we have a second drive inside the CPU where we store our sessions, our e-mails, and any downloads from the web. Digidesign wasn’t too excited to hear what we wanted to do. They were afraid we would be very vulnerable to crashing and things like that. So far, that hasn’t been the case. The only problems we’ve had with crashing have come from anti-virus programs. We can’t seem to get an anti-virus program, at least the Norton anti-virus program, to run without crashing the system. It just takes the system down because it has that time schedule where it goes out and looks for stuff. That seems to make the system unstable, so we recently took that off, and we’re working on a fix for that.

Each computer also has a 100-meg network card, and each one has a CD-ROM burner in it. We bought the black server rack-mount cases for the units. And something that’s really cool, we use the new optical mouse with the little laser light in it, the little red light. Man, those are really nice for editing. They are so precise, it’s just unbelievable. It’s almost to the point where it’s too precise. It’s so easy to highlight something. Then we just bought some black keyboards, which round out a really nice looking little package. As for the operating system, we’re running Windows 98, Second Edition. We’re also running the supportive software for the CD burner, and for downloading MP3s via email, we just switched from Microsoft Outlook Express to Eudora. Outlook Express couldn’t handle the volume of MP3s we have coming in, so we switched to Eudora, which is a free download, and that seems to be working fantastically.

JV: Are the disk drives SCSI or the newer ATA 66 or ATA 100 drives?
Lou: I think we’re running the 100s. That was a big thing, the speed of the drives. John Gaeta, our engineer, helped me build these, and he knows all the specs. He’s the chief engineer of our Omaha group, and we collaborated on the whole thing. It was my idea to do this when he was just about ready to order two Mac Pro Tools systems last year, forty-four thousand dollars worth of equipment. I said, “Hey, wait a minute, look at this Mackie thing.” The Mackie unit offers lots of analog ins and outs, which I like because I like to have sixteen tracks minimum coming through my board. Unfortunately, with Digi 001, we only have eight outs. But anyway, he was ready to order those Pro Tools systems when I said let’s check out this Mackie thing, and that’s how this whole ball got rolling. Otherwise, we’d probably still be sitting with Macs. Not that Macs are bad—the problem is that so few people are knowledgeable on Macs anymore, the software programs are extremely expensive, and the peripherals and the hardware are expensive. That’s the problem with Macs. And they don’t network worth a damn when you live in a PC environment.

JV: You mentioned only having eight outputs with the Digi 001 system. Any other drawbacks to the BEAN that you’ve noticed so far?
Lou: We ran with 15.5” LCD screens, which were too small. It’s not bad, but when you’re used to looking at a 21-inch and have that clarity… It seems that the LCD screens are softer on the eyes, but they’re not quite as clean. So, that’s been a little bit of a drawback. And as I mentioned, Microsoft Outlook was something we struggled with for a little, but other than that, the system so far has been performing well. The first one went into use in December, so we’ve been on it about five months and really haven’t had any problem with it. We’ve upgraded to the newest version of Digi 001. There are some nice new features on that including multiple levels of undo. Thank you, Digidesign. So far, we really haven’t had any major catastrophic problems with the systems.

JV: What kind of mixer are you running the eight outs of the Digi 001 into?
Lou: We’re running the Digi 001 into a Mackie 32. For the most part, it works for us. There are times when I’d really like to have sixteen outs, like when I do concert ads. And occasionally I do imaging. I’m kind of like the secondary liner voice guy for the station, and you can get into some pretty complicated stuff with imaging where you’d like to have those sixteen outs. Twenty-four? Would I need that? Not really. I can’t see myself using twenty-four outs. Eight outs, for the most part, works pretty well. Of course, with the Digi 001, you’ve got plenty of tracks you can use. You can use ninety-six tracks. You just have to bring all the audio out between those eight busses.

JV: The eight busses are all mono outs right?
Lou: Correct. They’re all mono tracks. I’ve got four stereo pairs.

JV: Now that you’ve built this system and have been using it for a half of a year, are there some things you would do differently if you started from scratch again?
Lou: With this system, I think we would have built a prototype, if we’d had the luxury of time. Unfortunately, we didn’t. We needed the systems in place. But I think if I was going to go back and do a system from scratch, I’d build a prototype and let it sit for a while. Let people mash on it and get all the bugs worked out first before you go in and install a bunch of these at once. Because when you have little bugs, and you have two locations with multiple systems, you have to issue an e-mail letting everyone know that you’ve changed this or that and so on and so forth. That would probably be the thing I would recommend. The monitor thing—I would probably have spent a little more time choosing a monitor, but that’s pretty minor league stuff there.

JV: Well it sounds like a pretty smooth launch. Congratulations.
Lou: Yeah, we’ve just been totally thrilled with it. I was pretty scared at first. I mean, my job was riding on this. We spent quite a bit of money and resources to evolve this into what it is. I was going out to Vegas, talking to Mackie, researching other editors and things like that. I did that pretty much on my own, and once I felt we had something to work with, then I’d take it to engineering and say, “Okay, you tell me. What are the pros and cons here?” So, I feel pretty happy with what we’ve accomplished.

This situation is really facing radio right now, this geographical location thing. So many markets have multiple stations now—they pretty much all do. But they’re stuck with leases on one building in one part of town and so on and so forth. We had an existing T1 line going up. I’m like, “Hey, we’ve got the bandwidth. Why can’t we send production sessions back and forth over this thing?” It really has made things run smoothly.

JV: How big is a typical session for a commercial, a session you would send across town on the T1?
Lou: For a sixty-second spot, if it’s a real complicated production, it will probably run at around 30 megs. For a sixty-second spot, it takes about two minutes with the bandwidth we’re running now. Now with our FTP server connected to all the studios, it’s almost instantaneous. It’s just bang! It’s out on the FTP, and then you go into another studio, grab it off the FTP, and you’re ready to rock.

JV: Where are you guys with the MP3 thing on the Internet?
Lou: Actually, we were the first station in Omaha to start using MP3s, and that was just over two years ago. It took a while to make believers out of some people. Now we don’t send any FedEx. Our poor courier is probably eating macaroni and cheese now. We don’t need anyone to run stuff all over, and now even in the small markets it’s great. I do a lot of free-lance through my free-lance company I run out of my home, and I do a lot of work for agencies up in Minneapolis, La Crosse, Wisconsin and places like that. It’s so nice—my Airborne bill is like zero.

I think it’s a great time saver and a wonderful tool, but I would like to see some standards. We’ve collaborated with other stations in this market, and anybody that sends us MP3 audio is asked to limit it to one MP3 per file. And give us the ISCI code on the e-mail subject line so we can find the spot. You know, don’t say “Hey, here’s your spot,” and then you have no idea who the hell it came from or what it is.

I guess I worry a little more about viruses contaminating our system through MP3s. We got nailed about a year ago with one. It was the one that duplicated MP3s, and it took us a good three months to rid that out of our system. Since then, we’ve made some changes. We no longer send e-mail through our corporate hub out of Milwaukee. That’s where our big e-mail server is for business purposes. We were using that for production for a long time, and there was this huge delay to get anything. Well, this BEAN system included in the cost the building of our own e-mail client and e-mail server here in Omaha, so it’s totally separate from the Milwaukee system. That way, if things go down on either end, we have a residual backup. We have two different e-mail addresses for reception of MP3. If one system goes down, we’ve got the other one immediately. That’s really been a lifesaver. We found out the hard way that you can’t live off one server if something goes wrong. We get thirty MP3s a day now. It’s just amazing. If the power went out in Milwaukee, it screwed us up in Omaha and vice versa. Our tech guys in Milwaukee were saying, “Hey, you’ve got all this stuff coming in.” We had somebody send us this huge twenty-minute wave file to Milwaukee, which crashed the entire system. That’s when they called me and said we’d better do something about this.

So it’s come a long way, and I think the standardization of it all is going to come. As far as SpotTaxi, SpotTraffic .com, and services like that, to be honest, I have no use for them, and I don’t see how anybody else does either. With the inception of MP3s in all the agency work that we do here and the agency work I do, they really don’t need these services anymore. Their production house can handle all their distribution now. So I don’t think that would be a business I would want to be in right now. I don’t think it’s going to stay.

On the other hand, I think MP3 is going to be here for quite a while because there are still a lot of smaller markets just getting on the bandwagon. They’re just getting computers ready to receive MP3 or just getting online. And I think the recordable CD format is going to be around for quite some time to come, too. We’ve seen so many things…like DAT tapes. I’ve got a whole closet of DAT tapes. I think they were the worst idea. We take them out trap shooting on the weekends…that and carts. But I think MP3 is going to be around for a while, and I don’t see it going anywhere else at this point.

JV: How many people on your production staff?
Lou: On my production staff it’s me and two other full-time people. They are both writers and producers. Correy Webb is one of them, and Sandy Cunningham is the other. Then I have a part-time person as well who works out of our North office. We have about eleven or twelve jocks who take care of the dubs and things like that and do some voices for us.

JV: How many spots would you say you guys are cranking out in a week’s time at that facility?
Lou: We do about two hundred and fifty projects every week. Of those, about thirty percent are local direct. We just posted our biggest day about a week and a half ago. We’ve just had a tremendous first quarter this year, and we had our biggest day where we did one hundred and twelve projects in one day with twenty producers. The volume we do is huge.

JV: I take it a “project” is anything from a dub to a full-blown script to write and produce.
Lou: Could be a dub with a tag, yeah. But we’re talking about one hundred and twelve production orders processed in a day. We have a traffic staff of five if that gives you any idea. You know, there’s something wrong with this number. Wait a minute. We have five traffic people and three full-time production people…hmmm. My rule of thumb has always been that you need one full-time person for every two revenue-producing stations that you have, and we’re running under that. But we get it done. I came over here from Des Moines because I was bored. Guess what? I’m not bored any more.

JV: You’ve been in radio long enough that you’ve been at a single station where they have five or six salespeople maybe. What have you learned about dealing with forty salespeople there in Omaha?
Lou: Time management has become a very critical thing. It’s something I talk to my staff about every day—time management, prioritizing. You have to be prepared to enforce some common deadlines, but you also have to keep your eye open for the bottom line when you’re coming into a financial period. The biggest thing, I think, is treating everyone with respect—something that seems to come relatively easily in the Journal environment. They respect what we do. We respect what they do. We’re all a piece of this puzzle, and we’re all in this together. I don’t think there’s a better way to put it than that. We are all working for the same common denominator. We don’t work for them; we work for us, which is really a cool thing.

With forty salespeople, a lot of training is used. You get a lot of new salespeople coming through here quite often. One thing I do is meet with every new salesperson that comes in after they’ve become acclimated to their surroundings. About a week after they’ve been here, I spend extensive time with them. I go out on calls with them and try to teach them the values of continuity in advertising and marketing. And in turn, I think they look at our department and say, “Wow, you really care that this client gets results.” It’s like, “Yeah, that’s our thrill.” Just like they get the thrill of closing the deal, our thrill is when we packed Saul’s Jewelry and Loan with twenty-five thousand people at a garage sale last weekend.

So, it’s a real mutual respect environment, and we don’t have a lot of issues. Occasionally you have some issues of last-minute things coming up, and we’re here to facilitate that as much as possible because without our salespeople, without our programming people—our “brand managers” as we like to call them—we wouldn’t be here. There would be no need for us. I don’t want to sing “Cum by ya” too much, but we’re all professionals. We all run very intensive, but it’s also quite different than any other environment I’ve been in.

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