R.A.P. Interview: Colin McGinness

Colin McGinness, Group Production Manager, UKRD Group, Bristol, United Kingdom

Colin-McGinness-photo2

By Jerry Vigil

The UKRD Group was founded in 1990 and currently owns 16 stations across the United Kingdom. Colin McGinness is Group Production Manager for these stations, overseeing the commercial and imaging production for all stations from his studios in Bristol, where all the production for these stations takes place. A heavy workload notwithstanding, the quality of the material coming from Colin and crew is exceptional, R.A.P. Award winning, and consistently featured on the R.A.P. CD as some of the best work coming from the UK. In this month’s R.A.P. Interview, we get a look inside this still growing central production facility, and we get some tips on how the UKRD has managed to be ranked first in the “Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For”, for the past three years.

UKRD-Group-Logo-Low-ResJV: Tell us how you got into this business and some of the highlights along the way to where you are now.
Colin: I started in 1994 back in Australia in community radio and the local little radio stations to get involved, and found an interest in that during my youth in high school. That didn’t go away. I pretty much discovered that radio was in my blood and it wasn’t going to leave. So I moved into my first position in radio as presenter in rural Australia and was there for about a year and a half. I then moved up to Canberra, which is the capital city of Australia, where I started working as producer, and that’s where everything changed from being a presenter to a producer.

So I really only presented for a year and a half, then moved behind the scenes and quite liked the idea that I could have a normal working week -- as far as normal goes in radio of course -- and get my weekends back, and I just found a real passion and love for manipulating sounds.

From Canberra, I then moved to Darwin in the Northern Territory. I was there for two years and moved on to Gosford, which is near Sydney and breaches in to the Sydney market. So it was quite a competitive area and a really good learning curve working with other producers there for the first time. I was able to sort of accelerate my skills working in that environment which proved to be really, really invaluable.

I then worked for MCM Entertainment, which is a national syndicated company that makes programs across Australia. From there I moved to the UK in 2001 and pretty much landed a job with UKRD and have been with them for 12 years now. I’ve seen them sort of grow from a small fledgling company to a slightly larger fledgling company. We’ve expanded our group. Now we’re about 16, 17 radio stations. One of our main focuses is maintaining a sense of localism with all our stations. So we have all these stations that have their own individual identity, their own set of branding and approaches. There’s a program controller and they have control at their end. We have group program people, but they’re there really more to advise and keep people on track but not to tell them exactly what to do. That’s for the programmer to do, and to focus on the fact that we want to stay local in our areas.

JV: What are your responsibilities as Group Production Manager?
Colin: Basically taking control of the entire sound and imaging and brandings for all the stations. Again, all the stations have their own program controllers and they have a sense of what they want, but may not understand how to make that work. So there’s a lot of communication with all the programmers, trying to help shape the sound of their radio stations.

What’s also happened this year is that we’ve expanded commercial production, bringing that in-house. I’ve been employing more producers as part of our team to take care of the commercial content. So I’m overseeing the entire production team. We have a team of four people now. There are two in commercial production and just two of us for all the imaging and branding, which is quite a tall order considering we’re talking about 16 stations all doing something different and just two of us doing all that imaging and branding. We have days where we see over 30 production requests come flooding in in one day. We generally try to have a three-day turnaround time, sometimes sooner.

We have the issue of feeling like a sausage factory sometimes. But the one thing that I try to make happen is that every once in a while, myself or the other producer, Adam Venton, has the opportunity to flex our muscles doing something interesting and pushing all the other work onto one of the other producers so that person can actually be creative. The problem is, if we don’t allow that to happen, it will just constantly feel like a sausage factory. We’ll get complacent, we’ll get bored, we’ll get tired.

JV: So it’s just two of you for commercials and two of you for the imaging for all 16, 17 stations?
Colin: Well at the moment the commercial production department is just us, and they’re taking on about six radio stations. We’re hiring copy writers, creative writers at all the stations. At the moment we only have six creative writers in place. So when we have all stations with creative writers we’ll probably end up having four commercial producers taking care of all the commercials -- and still, sadly, only two imaging and branding producers.

JV: And all the commercial production and imaging production will be done at one location?
Colin: Yes. It’s all done out of Bristol. We’re expanding and getting new studios built hopefully by Christmas time.

JV: Studios just for the production?
Colin: Just for the production team, yeah. We’re in a very, very small space at the moment. It’s a little bit cramped. We’ve had a few extra people come on board. We’ve got the head of IT and the head of music in our little office as well, plus a dog. And we’re desperately in need of more space.

JV: Well that’s amazing and it seems like an awful lot of work, especially on the imaging end since it’s only two of you and the stations all basically have their own identity. Let me see if I understand the program controllers’ position in the imaging. They have an idea of the image that they want to present and they tell you what that image is and you and Adam then use your own creative ideas to present that image, is that pretty much how it works?
Colin: Not always. Most cases you have program controllers that have a very clear idea of what they want. But we also have some that come to us saying, “I need help. We need some ideas. What else is out there? What have you done? What can you recommend? This is the sort of thing we want to do.” Then we’ll start throwing up suggestions. I think some of the more interesting times are when the more malleable program controllers who are up for anything come to us.

I’ve got a very dark sense of humor when it comes to writing scripts and so forth. I like to push the boundaries of what radio generally does. One particular station that Adam and I find it an absolute joy to produce for is one of our radio stations called STAR up in the north. It’s because they’ve decided to go in a slightly different direction than all these other stations, not just within our group but within the whole commercial sector -- a bit more edgy, a little bit more fun, taking a gamble and just being cheeky. So the imaging and branding then reflects that. It’s allowed us to really flex our muscles creatively with some very interesting and entertaining concepts and dig our teeth into some amazing production. Some of the best stuff we’ve done in the last year has come out of doing stuff for that particular station because it’s so different and fresh for us to do. We latch onto it and really, really enjoy it.

So it really depends on the program controllers’ grasp of what they want. If they have a very strict, clear idea of their station, in some cases they’ll just want something very simple and straight, which is absolutely fine. In some cases it’s a relief because we’ve got so much work to get through.

Doing an imaging rebranding package is quite taxing and draining because it requires so much attention to detail. And with 16 stations, we’re essentially looking at rebranding a station nearly every month. So there’s a lot of repetitiveness to some of the stuff that we do, but when we get the opportunity to be really creative and unique and have more of a say in how to shape it, I think our best work comes out of that.

JV: Over the years we’ve featured a lot of work on the CD from UKRD producers, and it’s always top-notch work. What’s the overall philosophy about the production there? What do you tell your producers? How do you define the philosophy for the creative production that seems to come out of there so regularly?
Colin: The philosophy I have is something I picked up a long time ago from an American who came over to Australia to talk to a big sales conference at a radio station. I was just there as a work experience student at the time. At the end of the day he summed it up in a really succinct fashion, which is something I’ve never forgotten. Even though he was talking about it from the sales perspective, I’ve taken it through with everything I’ve done and with how I want my team to work. And that is, always exceed your customer’s expectations. That was the line. To me that kind of encompasses everything, so that you’re not just thinking about your customers as in the listeners or the clients, you’re thinking about the program controllers, you’re thinking about your fellow co-workers. It’s always exceeding the expectations of those around you and stepping up and making something that you’re really, really proud of. If we don’t do that, for me it kind of becomes a question of, well why are we here? Why are we even bothering if we’re not trying to fulfill some element of forward progression within ourselves, within the team, within the sound of the station? And ultimately it comes back to the individual. As long as you feel like you’ve done something and you can look back and say, “Oh, this week I made this and it was bloody terrific.” If you’re not finding you’re having moments like that, then that’s when it needs to be addressed.

JV: I got into a discussion recently with someone about how imaging, at least here in the U.S., has gotten to be rather cookie cutter for whatever reasons. How would you describe radio imaging in the UK in general on the commercial stations?
Colin: I think that’s probably bang on exactly how it is now. Despite the fact that we might be in a tougher situation because there’s just two of us producing for so many radio stations, I don’t generally hear anything that stands out across any radio stations anymore. Most of it seems to wash over you. It’s kept very simple, clean, and nothing that really stands out. And I think because the audience’s attention is so fragmented, more so than ever before because everything else is vying for their attention, they’re not listening to the radio for long periods of time.

So trying to cut through with interesting production gets harder to do because it requires so much time and energy to do it, and then you come back to the question of, is this even reaching them? Is this cutting through? I think for a lot of people, and maybe a lot of program controllers, their decision is it’s not cutting through. Let’s not do that. Let’s go for the cookie-cutter approach. Let’s go for using regular standard sonics and music jingles and what have you just to get our message across, and focus more on the presenters and the other remaining aspects of what you want to do for that particular station, that brand.

For us, it’s always a constant battle. Again it can feel like that sausage factory, and we’re always trying to rise above it and do those interesting things. I think the danger is, if we maintain this sense of, as you describe it, the cookie-cutter approach to production, we continue to devalue the quality of radio and certainly of the skills that producers have. I think sometimes it’s not so much that the producers aren’t doing good work, but they’re restrained by program controllers and format issues, and the formatting being that a primary must only be 30 seconds long, it must say X, Y, and Zed, and must play these song hooks. That doesn’t allow for true creativity.

Denying the producers the chance to do things like that obviously means that you get producers that become disheartened with the job and don’t put their best foot forward, because they’re not allowed to. They’re not allowed to flex their muscles. Thankfully the company we work for allows that in spades. We have the opportunity to really do interesting and innovative stuff. Every year we do an Armistice Day tribute, and we’re given total control on that. I’ve started working on it for November now, in fact. I’m going to take over an entire hour of every single radio station in the group, and I’ve got control over the music as well. There are not many places… in fact I doubt there’s very few where programmers and music directors would allow the producer total control of an entire hour to do something like that. But they do.

JV: I recall one of your Armistice Day tributes winning a RAP Award trophy just a few years ago. Excellent work. Do you use imaging services, create your own material from scratch, or a little of both?
Colin: The vast majority of stuff we create from scratch. It boils down to the simple fact that we have limited budgets. We tap into effect packages and so forth from various companies, but as far as templated production pieces, we don’t have access to that because we simply don’t have the budget for it.

JV: Before we started the interview, you mentioned that you were producing some production library music?
Colin: That’s correct, yes. I’m signed with Big Idea Music. They’re also know as IQ Beats, responsible for a lot of radio jingles around the world. They’ve expanded with a music library and I signed with them at the beginning of the year. My role there is really to work on more orchestral-based compositions as that is my field of focus, more orchestral-bent material. In fact I’m working on tracks right now for the next collection which is hopefully going to be due out before the end of the year.

JV: I take it you’re a musician?
Colin: Well I’m a composer. I think using the term musician might be a bit of a lie in that I wouldn’t stand up and play live to someone, that’s not me. I’m someone who sits behind a computer with a keyboard and lots of expensive programs and twiddles knobs and plays with chords and notes and builds very complex pieces of music.

JV: So imaging sound effects, the zips and the zaps, you’re not creating that kind of material.
Colin: No, I’m not doing that. Actually my fellow producer Adam Venton, he’s doing a lot of that. That’s where his focus has been. Both of us continue to work outside our normal working hours in the realms of audio. Adam focuses on creating imaging and branding, and he does work with Benztown. He’s also involved in other projects as well, creating effects and so forth. Whilst I’m on the other end doing orchestral music and hybrid orchestral tracks.

JV: So between the two of you, you’re creating sounds and music that you’re using on your stations as well as producing them for sale to other stations, is that correct?
Colin: Yes, although sadly I’ve found very little use for my tracks at the moment because my first release was movie trailer music. I’ve rarely found anything I’ve been producing that fits with what I’m working on, so sadly I have a new album that won’t earn any money for myself on the tracks that I’ve made. But hopefully someone else is using it. Coming up next year, I’m actually signed to score a feature-length film, so I have that coming up in the beginning of the year.

JV: How are your studios equipped?
Colin: Relatively simple. We’re very much a Mac based society. We have iMacs in our studios, Pro Tools units, and we run relatively standard kits with a few Waves packages that we can get hold of every once in a while when the budget allows. We share all our resources. We have a server where we’re constantly putting ideas and materials and pieces that we find into a big database to help everyone out within the team. And we’re constantly trying to improve the quality of our compression settings and so forth and bouncing ideas backwards and forwards on that front.

The new guys currently are working at desks on headphones until we get the studios built, but then they’ll have studios set up in the same way we have and have themselves a nice space to work in. Again, not overly extravagant, however, from what we’ve heard from other companies in the UK, we probably are a little bit more extravagant than them. So our setup is quite reasonable but not ridiculously expensive.

JV: I take it you probably have a setup at home as well, is that right?
Colin: Yes. Actually I’ve only recently finished building my own studio. I’m set up with a system that’s definitely a little bit more powerful than the one I’ve got at work. I’ve got some PMC monitors to work off, a Mac Pro tower with oodles of space and power. I work off Logic Pro and I’ve got every program under the sun you can think of. I’ve got the Spectrasonics collection and Omnishpere, RNX Stylus, Symphobia, East West Symphonic Orchestra, the list goes on. I’ve got enormous amounts of material at my beck and call. But because of the nature of the music I do I need a big pallet to work with, so I have lots of very accurate sounding sampled orchestral libraries.

JV: How do you find the Macs with regards to stability?
Colin: Generally it’s top notch. In the past, when I first started in radio, I was working off a PC, and I look back to a time when I spent half that time redoing a lot of work because the computer would crash and you’d lose everything. When the Mac crashes it does so because the program decides to crash, and that’s Pro Tools itself. When that happens, it doesn’t happen very often and most of the time it tends to mean minimal loss of work.

I think the last time I lost an entire file of work might have been five years ago. So it’s so long ago now that I’ve had a major loss of work. And that was just one file, one piece of production. So we’re talking about losing maybe an hour’s worth of time. That’s not really a huge burden on your workload compared to what’s happened in the past with PCs. The reason for switching of from PCs to Macs was the stability that you get from it. And as I find it these days, the ease of use.

JV: Well, I wouldn’t know being mostly PC based, but certainly the PC over the years has become more stable for me. I think the programs that are running them have also incorporated auto save and such, so I’ve lost a lot less than I used to lose. Always curious to hear what Mac users have to say about their systems. I read that for the past three years, UKRD has been ranked first in the Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For. Why would you say that is?
Colin: I think the company has a really unique ethos in the way it treats the people within the company itself, the people on the ground. We have a set of core values that we live and breathe, and those core values trickle all the way from the top right down to the bottom. So it’s an attitude that everybody has, and everyone gets it. Everyone is on the same page. What you find is that the working environment is so much more conducive to being creative and trying to put your best foot forward and working that extra bit of hard because you all sort of see the benefit in it.

If we have a win it’s not just a win for yourself, it’s a win for the entire company. And there is that sense of reward right across the board. We find that nowadays there’s no major arguments, no major disagreements. If they occur they get tackled early. They get discussed and they get discussed with the person that you had the issue with and resolved. It means that the work environment is a joy.

So you don’t go to work trying to hide from somebody or feeling that you don’t want to go to work at all. You go to work most of the time with a bit of a spring in your step, thinking about the things that you’ve got to do today that you’re looking forward to, and the fact that you’ve got a great bunch of people to work with.

JV: That sounds pretty good. Many people here in the US, because of all the cutbacks and the downsizing over the years, they are worked to the max, eight, nine, ten hours a day in the factory cutting cookies. It can be demoralizing to a degree. Would you say that the UKRD group is aware that that can burn people out and does what they can to avoid that?
Colin: Absolutely. Again, any issues or concerns that people have, if they feel like they’ve got that pressure, it’s something that they can go and talk to people about within the company. There’s no sense of holding any issues in or not being able to communicate concerns and problems. It’s very much an open culture of communicating to each other about any situations that may occur. We all definitely have those days, weeks, where the pressure is on and you may be working longer than normal hours. But equally, there are moments where you can take a breather and actually start to have a bit of fun within what you do. And that’s really recognized and those opportunities are constantly there.

The other great thing about our company is that there’s always a level of investment in the staff for training, for self-improvement as well. There’s a real value put on the individual in each department right across the board in the entire company.

JV: Give us one more example of what you’re talking about where the company seems to go a step further than the average corporation in order to keep their people productive and happy at work.
Colin: Well I can give you a couple, really. One thing that occurred… in fact, this is something that’s more led by people on the ground, but I think this is a good example in that it doesn’t need management to dictate ideas and thoughts, that it can come from a grassroots level. A number of years back when the Haiti earthquake hit, there was obviously a massive disaster there, a lot of people in serious trouble in need of help. We had the receptionist of a radio station, KLFM, contact our music director and say, “should we do something, some kind of charity thing, can we organize something?”

It became not a question of could we, but why hadn’t we thought of this already, why hadn’t we actually jumped on this. Thankfully, we had somebody on the ground, a receptionist, who threw that out in the air saying, shouldn’t we do something like this. “Hell yeah. Absolutely we need to do something.” So within the space of about a week, without any head of promotions for our group -- which we do not have -- we had the web development, the head of music, the head of production, myself, and this woman Rose at KLFM working on putting together a charity auction, an online auction to raise money for the Haiti appeal.

By the time we had finished putting this together, we not only had all our radio stations right behind it, promoting it, and going all out and people spending extra time at work putting it together and not thinking about the fact that they’re at work extended period of time or on weekends, but we also ended up having multiple other radio groups join us. We were making and prepping everything for all these other stations as well. By the time we were running the auction we had over 50 stations in the UK onboard with us.

And it all stemmed from someone on the ground who just said, “Look, why can’t we do this?” And it doesn’t matter that they’re not on the programming side. It’s just someone’s opinion who happened to be pointing in a direction we weren’t looking at properly and saying, “Shouldn’t we do something here?” And immediately everyone was jumping on board. And of course management seeing things like this realizes how valuable the staff is, how valuable the teams are around us and what a great team we really do have.

JV: Any advice for producers and writers who want to improve their game? Maybe it’s the same advice you offer your own producers and writers, especially these new ones that you’re hiring for the commercial side. What kind of pep talk would you give these people to get them to feel good about the work they’re going to do for you?
Colin: I always like to push them on the writing. I think the writing is so much more important than ever to stand out. So I always like to say to them, “Look, push it on. Give me a story, give me something interesting. Write something amazing. Push it further.” Get them to think about an idea, workshop it and then say, “Okay, that’s where you’re starting from, take it further. Go one step further. Continue to push it.”

Even if it gets to the point that you couldn’t even air it. If it starts to become borderline offensive, you can always pull it back. It’s from those discussions of pushing it that one step further from the scripting stage that allows you to come up with something unique and interesting. And constantly getting them to collaborate, to talk through ideas and share ideas to come up with some concepts and then come back and discuss them, break them down, see if we can build them back up into something even bigger if they need to, or say, “Yes that’s great, focus on that but make sure it sounds like X, Y, and Zed. Give it that energy.”

So it’s just basically sharing of ideas and pushing the script, especially on the imaging and branding side -- writing a good script and coming up with something that’s just a little bit left of center.