R.A.P. Interview: Jeff Schmidt

Jeff Schmidt, Creative Director, Entercom, San Francisco

Jeff-Schmidt-1By Jerry Vigil

When we last checked in with Jeff [April 2002 R.A.P. Interview], he was putting a new twist on the imaging at KFOG in San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, he launched the successful Alien Imaging production library series, which is still going strong today. He also took a deep dive into sound design for video and film and launched another business, Jeff Schmidt Sound Design & Post Production. He picked up his bass guitar and won an international solo bass competition and then released a CD and won an award for that. More recently, Jeff is using his multiple talents imaging for Entercom’s San Francisco stations, including their sports outlet, 95.7 The Game, where he is enjoying the change from imaging music radio.We get insights into this new challenge for Jeff, along with a peek at sound design for video games and much more in this month’s interview. And we have some fun audio from Jeff on this month’s R.A.P. CD. Turn up!

JV:When we last visited 12 years ago, you were imaging KFOG. What came next?
Jeff:Well, I launched Alien Imaging in 2003, and then I got into music around the mid-2000s. I went back to playing music a lot, and I won an international solo-based competition, which was kind of strange. I really got into music, and that was kind of a distraction for me. Then I think it was late ‘08, ‘09 that the bottom fell out of all kinds of stuff with the economy. It was chaos. I had always been told radio was a pretty volatile business, and fortunately it hadn’t really been for me up to that point. But after that happened, I was seeing really talented people lose their jobs, and not because they weren’t talented. That was frightening. You can be good at your job and still lose your job. Fortunately I stayed employed in radio, but a lot of people I knew and respected didn’t. So I was kind of expecting any day that I would be next and thinking, what should I do?

JV:Were you still at KFOG at this point?
Jeff:Yeah, I was, and I’m still here in San Francisco, but not at KFOG anymore. I didn’t get fired in ‘09. I was actually one of the few people that stayed. But it frightened me. Everybody was frightened. So I began looking for what else I could do while I still had a job because I was expecting my job would end any day. So I went and got certified in Pro Tools. I already knew how to use Pro Tools, but it was like no, this is the tool of my craft. I’m going to take it seriously.

Through that process I met a lot of really interesting people who were doing stuff in adjacent fields, like video games and film and video. I started working with them on the side, doing a lot of video game sound design and some film stuff -- both music and sound design. Then they invited me to teach. So I did teaching. I was doing this while I was still in radio, too. I got a few offers to leave radio completely and work in video games, and if there’s any industry more volatile than radio, it’s probably video games.

Then in 2011, I was really serious about leaving radio altogether. At the time, Entercom was launching an FM sports station in San Francisco, the first FM sports station. I thought, now that’s something that I can sink my teeth into. So I left Cumulus, which was KFOG and KSAN at the time -- and I had been doing some work for KNBR too, but not really that much. I took the job with Entercom in 2011 and have been there since then.

JV:You had some pretty “out of the box” ideas for imaging back then, and I’m sure you’re still out there. How has your style transferred over to sports radio?
Jeff:I got into this business to work in what I thought was going to be the next big thing, which was FM talk radio back in the early ‘90s. I thought that was going to be huge. That obviously didn’t materialize, so I ended up staying in music formats. But the whole time I really always wanted to work with personalities and original content. So when the FM sports thing happened, it was like this offers way more opportunities to expand my creative sense than just doing another ticket giveaway promo for a music station. Having original content developing on your station every single day is probably the best part of spoken word radio over music.

In music formats, you’re still playing the same 400 songs every day, and you’re constantly trying to make it sound interesting or whatever. But when you’re talking about sports, the issue of sports, the story lines of sports, it’s a soap opera for dudes really. You have the story lines, you can get into more storytelling, and I think the imaging becomes more relevant to the listener. Whereas with music formats… I still think if listeners could turn off the imaging in music formats, they probably would. Do they need to hear a sweeper saying “the greatest rock station ever”? If they could turn that off on their radio, give me the music but turn off that stuff, I think they would. A lot of it doesn’t add any value to listeners. There’s also that stuff in sports, too, of course -- the positioning stuff you have to do for PPM, or what we think we have to do. But there’s a lot more opportunity to do stuff I would call imaging as content where it’s actually contributing to the content of the radio station as opposed to just being a sales message that’s unwanted or unwelcome. I think that is the biggest shift. And you can notice and sense the palpable passion people have for the subject matter and what’s happening on your radio station. Unless you’re giving a million dollars away on a music station, no one’s really talking about your station in most cases. It’s just this passive background kind of thing. So the difference between the two is pretty palpable, and I really get off on that.

JV: How free are you to be creative? Are you given scripts to work from?
Jeff: No, no. That was one of the best things. Once you get in, you understand the DNA of how story lines are covered. It took me a while because I really hadn’t done sports seriously. I had done sports promos in the past, but an occasional one-off promo is not the same thing as doing sports day in and day out. You really do have to pay attention to the world of sports. You have to know what the story lines are. You have to know the important facts of the day, important milestones and highlights and whatever the big thing is going to be and what we’re going to be talking about. You have to be on top of that stuff.

The thing that’s great about now is that it’s so easy to do. There are a million and one sources of information. So as far as people handing you scripts, no. We’ll talk about what we need to say, or what we need to do something about. Like if there’s a big trade, you should create a promo about that. But no one tells me how to cover it or what clips to use. There are suggestions, of course. Every Program Director has an idea, but – and I think this happened with pretty much every Program Director I’ve worked with -- you develop a level of trust where they are confident that when they give you a note saying, “Hey, there was a big trade that happened, we should be on this with a promo”, they don’t have to micromanage it.

And I think with sports – especially because it’s still relatively new to me because I haven’t been doing it for ten years –every day still feels fresh. I haven’t gotten to that point where it’s like, oh, this again… Great, another ticket giveaway. There’s so much other stuff to do. It still feels fresh and new, and I think that’s really invigorating. It’s really putting a whole new wind underneath my attitude about radio. I think if I had stayed in music radio, I’d be a lot more jaded.

JV: What’s your approach to finding that spark to get the creative juices flowing? Let’s say there’s a big trade with the 49ers. And sure, you can go online and read a lot of stories and stuff. But what gives you the spark to make the promo something different, something special?
Jeff:Well, that’s kind of just the way I think anyway. I’ll look at what the top line story is, what the main point is. I’ll assume that everyone else has that covered. Just assume that the top line’s bullet point is something you don’t have to repeat if it’s big news because that’s the thing everyone else covers. I can also lean on the fact that the promo doesn’t have to educate our listeners about every detail of whatever it is that’s happening. So the promo can depend on all this information already being in the Zeitgeist, so to speak. So you don’t have to necessarily give all the facts and details. You can really lean on broad strokes.. You can be more metaphorical. You can allude to things without obviously having to say them.

So for me, it’s always just trying to find something that’s related to or adjacent to that. The whole thing about sports is that the facts are out there. What everybody wants after the fact is what to make of it. What does this mean? What does this mean to me? What does it mean to my team? What does it mean to my fantasy team? What does it mean to the team my team’s going to have to play? Those kinds of things.

At any given time and with any given issue, there’s literally five to ten different ways you could attack it. That in and of itself is almost like the opposite problem I have with music radio, which was how do I make an Aerosmith promo cool again? This is more like, oh my God, there’s almost too many ways to approach it. And the stress comes from having to pick one and get it on the air. And you’re almost wondering, is this the coolest one, or was there a cooler idea that I didn’t pursue? And of course, it’s ultimately meaningless. You’re not going to lose anything if you don’t pick the right take on the promo. But I do depend on pretty much the entire news space filling in the details so that my work doesn’t have to, and then I can play off that and be more free creatively.

JV: You’ve been in that market for a long time. Do you have a sense of how imaging in that market has changed over the past ten years?
Jeff:It’s unfortunately gotten really lame. I think there are a lot of really big names that came through here and were doing cool stuff. I think back to the early ‘90s, it was Jim Pratt down at KOME in San Jose. He and John Frost were doing a lot of really cool stuff that migrated across from the west coast to the east as far as alternative imaging. I think that was pretty much done by the time I got here in ‘97. But then Will Morgan kind of picked up the gauntlet on that at LIVE 105. He was doing really cool stuff while he was there for a few years in the late ‘90s, early 2000s. I don’t think there was a lot of “out of the box” stuff happening anywhere else besides on The Bone. I think I was doing what I would say was unique stuff. In other words, I had a voice that wasn’t a voice guy, but was a personality, another jock on 107.7 the Bone. No one was really doing that. Will was doing that to a certain degree on LIVE 105, and then everybody dialed back to just using positioning statements and slogans.

I think 99.7 right now, which is the top 40 station, is the coolest approach to top 40 imaging I’ve heard. They do have the big voice thing, but it’s such a small part of their sound. They literally have normal sounding people on the imaging. It sounds like the city. They sound young and energetic. Obviously they’re being recorded out on remotes or whatever, and then they collage them together. It’s a young, multiethnic, multicultural sound. You can hear accents. It’s balanced between both male and female voices. And they’re not being recorded for the quality of the voices; they’re being recorded for the quality of their enthusiasm. And the way it’s put together… they’re really short pieces, but it just sounds like a party all the time. In that format, which has become so formulaic now with the production, this other stuff really stands out.

But nothing else has really been worthy of attention on its own merit, which is unfortunate, and I see that happening a lot. I don’t know if it’s because guys like me are not really employed at stations anymore, or that they’re using a lot of production services, which are just these kind of drop your call letters in type of things. Even in big markets that’s happening. And obviously the PPM thing is part of it, too. It’s like, where are the big epic pieces of production we used to do back in the day? Last time we talked, I think I was still doing minute and 10, minute and 15 second promos. Not that you can’t be creative in 30, I just think once you get all the facts in and you get one clever line in you’re at 30 seconds. That challenges you.

JV: What are your biggest challenges imaging sports?
Jeff:If you ask me that about the music station I was doing, I would have a lot of frustrations, and they would be external frustrations. It would be frustrations about not being able to go to creative places, not being able to fully take advantage of the medium. And when I say that, I mean we’re an audio medium. There are no pictures. So if we want to create imagery, we really have to go make an effort to do that with sound and words. That’s what we have. Those are our tools. I think my challenge with sports isn’t necessarily about sports. It’s about my every day. I’m still feeling like I’m not living up to what I could be doing in this format. I think I still have that as the challenge. And that’s the challenge I was seeking when I took the job because that’s not something I felt in music radio anymore. I never felt like, this is bigger than me. I don’t want to say I outgrew it, but I just feel like the scope of the work shrank in music radio. What was expected of somebody who does what I do shrank. Our station also has the added benefit of being the scrappy little upstart against a dominant incumbent. So were are, by necessity, not trying to be the institutional voice of sports in the market. We’re the alternative voice in the market. So it’s much more edgy, it’s much younger focused, and it’s energizing because of that.

And I think I enjoy that more than I would going to work for like a CBS, that Tiffany call letter kind of approach with the prestige or the ESPN thing. With this, you can go outside the box because you’re not limited by this prestigious brand necessarily.

But I think the challenge is every day going in and saying, how do I live up to this, because I want to be great at it. I don’t want to just go in and be, “oh yeah, that was a nice little promo.” It’s like every promo is an opportunity to do something that no one’s heard before. I still feel like that opportunity exists with sports that doesn’t with “Aerosmith is coming to town, and we’ve got your tickets.”

JV: How is Alien Imaging doing?
Jeff:It’s been ten years of making sounds whenever I feel like it. It all started out that I just wanted my own sounds. I wanted stuff to sound original. So I made them and then somebody said, “You should sell them”. So I started selling them. It was originally all on CD. I played that whole market exclusive game, which was cool, but it got hard to manage. Plus, things were moving digitally.

So I just decided to stop with the CDs, put everything online as a buyout and not care if I bought it and then the guy across the street was using it. Like, who cares? I’m not going to get into that. If somebody wants to come along and pay extra for a monopoly on a library, then fine. We can talk about that. Once I did that, I started getting customers all over the world. So New York, for example, wasn’t giving me $700 or $800 for one CD of sounds, but I was selling the same sounds worldwide 400 and 500 times. It’s like, this works.

So I’m still doing that. That initial CD I launched back in 2003 as digital sound files is still selling to this day. Obviously it’s not selling gangbusters, but I still sell a couple copies a month. And that was work I did ten years ago that’s still throwing off a little trickle of cash. And every year or so I release a new library. I’m up to nine or ten now.

I have another I’m just wrapping up which will probably launch either late this year or early next year. I just launched one in January and then a smaller one in June. I’m doing it all through mailing lists and connecting directly with people, so it’s been kept independent by choice. I’ve been in talks over the years to fold it into larger services or sell it outright to other services and go to work for other services, these larger barter-based services. There’s been temptation, but none of the deals as they were offered really seemed to make sense for me personally. I know a lot of guys have done that, and they probably are doing far better with it than I am. But for me, it wasn’t really a full-time thing. It was just kind of this thing I did on the side. And if I decide to take it full time, then maybe that’s the way to go. I would take those offers more seriously, or I would invest more time trying to hunt them down. But today it’s just felt more right to keep it independent.

JV: About how many elements per library?
Jeff:It’s a couple hundred. I think the first one had 200+ elements. I think the biggest one got to be 400+ elements. But they’re all between 200 and 400. The one I did in January, Micro FX, was just short little effects. There was 120 of them, I think. I did a one or two day only $10 sale on that little package. This is probably like a $49 buyout, but to my mailing list I just said, for the next couple days you can get it for ten bucks. A significant portion of the list picked it up, and of course that kind of gets the word out.

And that’s how it is now. It’s not on any kind of release schedule where I’m constantly trying to make new products or make a budget. That would be the world I would be in if I folded it into a service.

JV: Say a new library comes out, it’s got 350 cuts on it. What’s like an average price for your product?
Jeff:A lot of the older stuff I did still sounds current and relevant. When I released that first CD, I sold for 300 bucks. I think you can get that now for $49. The older stuff has been priced down because it’s older. The newer stuff is more contemporary. So that stuff’s priced higher. My highest priced library right now, I think, is $299. And then the lowest priced one, I think, is $9. It’s like 100 sounds you can get for $9.

I try to cover the range of stuff and keep the quality consistent. I’m not just throwing stuff out there. I make sounds when I want them and then put them out there. When I launched the sports station in 2011, I wanted all new sounds to do that with. So I built a library that I was going to use on that station. Then I ended up liking it a lot and released it. And I will kind of fill it out with some of the stuff that other producers might want. Sometimes that’s with beds and stuff like that. But most of the time it’s really just new sounds I want. Then I try it on my stations and tweak stuff. If I like it, if I think it’ll be cool, then I’ll release it.

JV: Your other company, Jeff Schmidt Sound Design and Post Production, came after Alien Imaging. Tell us a little about that.
Jeff:That was a response to the financial thing and basically wanting to have a plan B if radio was going to evaporate. The plan B was video game sound design and doing work in film, audio and music and things like that. It required a lot of learning to get into that. It’s not easy work. We all know radio people who work hard, but you haven’t seen work hard till you get into video games. Those guys seriously are like sleep at the office for four days, put in 18 hours a day, crash on the office floor. This is serious kind of stuff when they get into their crunch times.

I never got into full-time work. I always did stuff on a contract basis and freelance. And even with that, there was a period of time in 2010 where I would work all day at the stations, come home, get some quick grub, and then work in the home studio till 2:00 AM. You do that for a few weeks, and you’re living on two or three hours sleep a night because you’re sending stuff back and they’re critiquing it and sending it back for revisions. It can be very intense.

I was doing a lot of work for World of Warcraft, so they would send little videos over of whatever, all the little animated elements that are in the game -- everything from creatures to little weapons and spells and environments and animals and devices, things that move, any kind of object that needed a sound. It was from really the smallest things to really huge, enormous things.

The smallest thing I did was like these little torches that were on the wall when you’re working down this corridor. They needed to have a certain kind of texture. So they would tell you how they wanted it to sound. There would be instructions like, we want you to hear the flame, but we don’t want to hear this thing that’s burning. So that’s the creative brief on the torch. And you can’t just use some Sound Ideas library. No, you can’t do that. They are literally hiring you as a sound designer. They own a Sound Ideas library. If that’s all they wanted, they would just use that.

So it’s little things like that to these enormous 500 foot cranes that were moving these pieces around and needed to sound massive. They’re completely original. The artwork is completely original. So it’s not like a crane you’ve seen before, and it’s completely in this fantastical world. And they want equally compelling and interesting sound design to go along with it. It’s exciting, it’s challenging, it can be extremely frustrating, and it made me a better radio producer for sure. It’s something I would still consider doing full time if the right opportunity were available.

JV: The pressure that it puts you under, the work… is there money in it?
Jeff:Oh yeah, absolutely. I was doing it on a freelance basis, so the hourly rate was great. But if you did that full time, you’d still have to buy yourself health insurance and pay self-employment tax. So all of a sudden, that great rate, it kind of falls in line with what you’d make in radio, depending on the position. There are some discrepancies, for sure, but it wasn’t so vast that I couldn’t do it.

And this is me just getting into it, too. I was no way a senior person. A senior person is going to make what you’d expect talent in a major market to make in radio, although there’s downward pressure on that, too. But here’s the thing with games, and I would say this under no uncertain terms: if anybody reading this would think, oh let’s get into games… if it’s at all about the money, forget it because they’ll sniff you out and they won’t hire you. That is an industry that absolutely demands you be passionate about games, making great games and playing great games. They expect you to know the difference between a great game and a shitty game. Fortunately I have the experience with games. I’ve played a lot of games. I was into gaming. It isn’t like there’s a litmus test but there kind of is. Like they can sniff out if you’re just posing, because the thing is, people may be doing sound design on a major motion picture, and then their movie ships. Then they go work for a game company for six months doing sounds for games. They can hire that level of talent. So if you’re just a guy off the street without a name in Hollywood and a resume of having worked on Transformers, for example, then you have to have a passion for it that exceeds being able to say, “Well, I worked on Transformers that’s why you should hire me.” That’s the thing about that business; it really does require a high level of passion and commitment to the art form. You can’t just go into it casually.

JV: You mentioned your bass playing and you’ve won some awards. You’ve released some CDs. Tell us about that side of things.
Jeff:I was a musician in high school. It was something I was going to do, and then life kind of got in the way and I fell away from it. Then in the early 2000s, I think I got into a rut with radio. It just became the same old, same old. So I thought, I’ll just go back and pick up my bass again and start playing. And so I did.

I played around and hooked up with some local musicians and played but didn’t really feel satisfied with that. So I started in my own time writing compositions just for the bass guitar, not knowing this was something people did. Then in 2005, I learned that there was an international solo bass competition that was being hosted by these really big league bass players. I was like, wow what timing. So I recorded a few pieces -- and this is just you and your bass guitar. I sent it in and made the list of finalists. I had to go compete in a live performance in South Carolina in October of 2005 against three other musicians who were also finalists. This was in front of a live audience. They sold tickets to this event. It was this whole big thing, and I ended up winning.

JV: Wow, that’s great!
Jeff:Yeah, because I was by far not the most talented person there. There were people far more technically gifted than I was – they had obviously been playing for a really long time and working on their technique. But it just so happens that my stuff was a little more melodic. It was a little more song-like. It was a little more emotional, and it wasn’t that flashy look how fast I can play kind of stuff. I think that kind of resonated with the judges. It was not like here’s the greatest bass player ever. It was like, he’s making music. He’s not just playing fancy stuff.

So then I ended up touring with that for a while, in my free time, keeping the radio job going all during this time. I released a few CDs and put a bunch of videos up on YouTube. I went through that for a couple of years. Then I didn’t want it to be a thing I had to do, so I just let it slide for a while. I come back to it every now and then. I’ll put a new video out or something like that. But I’m not touring. I got a real taste of what that life is like, and it’s not that great, traveling in vehicles and playing places. There are parts that are excellent, but it’s like, yeah maybe if I was in my 20s. I think once you’ve tasted stability, it’s kind of hard to get back into that.

JV: If you were to teach a class on radio imaging, how do you think you would do that? How would you encourage them to get “out of the box”, for example?
Jeff:I don’t know that I would necessarily encourage students to look at radio imaging as a career. In fact, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t. And that’s not to denigrate it. I’ve been fortunate and few other people have been fortunate. But even me today, 20 years in this, I can go into work tomorrow and I’m not really sure that they are going to say, we value what you do. I just think the industry is kind of at that spot right now. After Dave Foxx leaves Z100, what are they going to do? Are they really going to hire another guy at his level in that role? Probably not. I think they’re going to have multiple people working on it making a fraction of his salary. And that’ll be cool, but will it be cool ten years from now?

So when you’re talking to a student, you can’t just talk about today abstracted from where things are trending. But I would say, look, you have to first of all be seriously super passionate, like you absolutely positively know this is what you want to do. Then I think you have to make a distinction between music and spoken word. I’m not sure music radio can escape the modification through online services and things like that. So what does that mean for production? Increasingly it seems like the trend is going to be reduce, reduce, reduce, reduce. Limit distraction, limit tune out, because PPM’s not going away. And as I said earlier, if listeners had a choice -- here’s your favorite radio station with all the braggy slogans -- would people turn that off? I think they would.

So I guess I keep coming back to I’m not sure I would advise kids to do it. I would say get in and use your skills to create content people actually want. Work on building a show. Don’t build a promo, build a show. Or use your production skills to tell stories and bring stories to life, not to promote “we’ve got Katy Perry tickets this weekend”.

I just don’t think production, the way we’re doing it right now, has a very long shelf life, so I would be really reticent to tell kids to invest a lot of time in it. I think I’d probably turn them to video. Learn how to edit and produce videos because there are kids who are stars now because they can produce funny, cool videos. And they don’t need to be flashy, special-effecty type things. They can just tell really quick stories and get tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of followers. If I was a kid today, that would be more compelling than, “now, ten in a row, on your ten in a row station leader.” I’m not sure how to make that cool to kids anymore because I’m not sure that it is.

JV: I have to agree. I guess my question arose from all the constant attention that radio imaging seems to get from radio production people, like it’s the Holy Grail of production. If you do commercials, that cool, but if you can get to the imaging, then you’ve made it to the top.
Jeff:I’m so glad you brought that up because I was just having this conversation with my wife last week. When I started, that was true. It was, commercials are lame, imaging is awesome. But I wonder, because I was explaining what I do to somebody who has no clue. I basically summed it up saying I’m essentially an in-house advertising agency with one client, and that client is the radio station. And he’s like, “Oh, okay.” He instantly understood what that meant.

I think because we get to use flashy sound effects and we get to do production, that’s why we think it’s cooler. But I wonder if the real opportunity in the future is going to be in making spots that actually get people to act and move product or get people to show up at a door. If I was a radio company, that’s what I would value more than somebody who can do stutter edits on a VO. Where’s the health of the business? The health of the business is being able to put a message out and have people act on it. There’s nothing more powerful, I think, in this business. That’s why the power personalities. Everybody in this business is talking about personality because when Ryan Seacrest talks about something, people listen, as opposed to when your big, dumb voice guy says stuff. That’s easy to ignore despite how many effects you put on it. So maybe to answer your original question, I would teach kids not to do imaging. I would teach kids how to craft compelling and persuasive stories that inspire people to act, whether it be go to a store, buy a product, or show up at an event. That is the ultimate skill in our business.