R.A.P. Interview: Dave Savage

Dave Savage, Vice President, Creative Services Group, iHeartMedia, Atlanta, GA

Dave-Savage CSG-Group-2015 web

by Jerry Vigil

This month’s interview takes us to iHeartMedia’s Creative Services Group in Atlanta, which just received its third consecutive Mercury Award for some of the outstanding work coming from the group. Running the show is Dave Savage, who headed up iHeartMedia’s two production centers before moving into the VP position at the CSG in 2013. We find out a little more about those production centers and take a close look at the workings of the CSG and the talented staff behind it all. Be sure to check out the Soundstage for the group’s three Mercury winning commercials and more!

JV: What was your first radio job and how did you get it?
Dave: First radio job was WILS in Lansing, Michigan. It was an AM station that was automated. This was back in ‘84. They carried Michigan State Spartan games and Detroit Pistons games and such, and I had to run the board. It was a great learning experience. I ended up getting that job because I knew the sales manager. He was actually one of my instructors in college. I went to a community college where they got people who worked in the industry to be the instructors. I took an introduction to radio sales class, and he was the instructor. I really didn’t have much of an interest in sales, but I wanted to know how it worked.

I got to know him, and he said they had an internship available. So I started out as intern in the continuity department. I had to go in and clean out all their files, all the old copy. It took me probably two, three weeks, coming in every day to get it done. Finally, at the end of the internship, they let me write a commercial. I was just thrilled to be able to do that. My mom passed away a year ago, and I discovered she had saved that commercial, saved the script. I must have sent it to her. It’s on the letterhead and everything. I don’t have the audio, but I looked at it and like, wow, this was bad. It was a very typical first time project that somebody would write. So that was my start.

JV: You arrived at Clear Channel in Atlanta in 2001 about 15 years after you started. What were some of the stops along the way?
Dave: Well, the big thing for me was that I wanted to be on the air. I wanted to be the big morning show in Detroit. I wanted to be on WRIF in Detroit doing mornings. That was my goal. But I was struggling to be on the air and be a jock and be a personality. I kept getting fired or it just wasn’t working out. And then finally, when I was in Lansing at WVIC, the Production Director went on vacation and I came in off overnights and filled in for him. And the salespeople were like, oh, you’re great! I’m like, I’m not doing anything. I’m just kind of keeping it together. They’re like, no, you’re doing a great job. So every time he would go on vacation, I would fill in for him. I got along very well with the salespeople, and I enjoyed what I was doing. So when the Production Director finally left, I jumped in there. I threw my hat in the ring to be the Production Director, and that’s where my career took off.

My next stop was with Jacor, as they were called at the time, in Knoxville. I was Production Director and imaging. From there, I went to WQIK in Jacksonville, then to what was then Jacor and then became Clear Channel in Cincinnati doing commercial production for WEBN and the Fox, working with Joel Moss. And that was a thrill too because I had been a big fan of his for a long time. The guy does great work. I was only there a week or two and he came in one day and said, “Can I get your opinion on something?” I’m thinking, wow, Joel Moss is asking my opinion on his work. I was like, I’m not worthy. It was pretty cool.

So from there, Jim Cook called me up when he was in Atlanta and asked if I wanted to do production there, and I said, yeah. Been here ever since.

JV: Six of the years that you were with Clear Channel, you were the Production Operations Coordinator, which involved the two production centers that are currently in Phoenix and Cincinnati. Tell us about those facilities. How did they come about, and what is their role?
Dave: Nobody likes to do dubs in the local markets. It’s not the highlight of anybody’s day when they’ve worked all day and now,  oh boy, I got to do all these 20, 40, 60 dubs here at the end of a long day. So we decided to see if we could make it more efficient. If a person is able to specialize in that, they can do these dubs a lot quicker and a lot more accurately than somebody who’s sitting there being distracted with other tasks. They’re doing dubs and a salesperson comes in and says, oh, I need a copy of this, or whatever the interruption might be. So these people are dedicated to doing dubs, and they do them all day. We can do probably anywhere between -- depending on the week – 10,000 and 25,000 dubs in a week. The 25,000 would be like the week leading up to Thanksgiving, obviously. That’s the busiest time.

JV: When you have like 25,000 dubs, are we talking about 25,000 individual spots or are some of these duplicated?
Dave: Individual spots. Obviously you’ll have the Home Depot or whoever the client is, who’s going to run the same commercial in several markets. But we treat each one as if it’s an individual dub because you never know. It may look like the same spot, might even have the same ISCI code, but it might be a little different. The one that’s running in Atlanta might be different than the one that’s running in Denver. So we’ve got to make sure that we keep them all separate. So those are all individual dubs.

JV: Wow. Is that all the two facilities do?
Dave: They also do some light production work, some editing. We just had the CMT Awards, and we had some of our personalities out there interviewing the artists. The onsite producers will record those interviews and then upload them to an FTP. Then we have producers at the production centers that will edit them down to bite size morsels ready for air that they can use in local markets.

One thing about those production centers is they are extremely efficient. And I have to give a lot of credit to, first of all, every person on the staff. They’re very good people. But I also have to give a lot of credit to Kim Wisdom, who is the manager of the production center in Cincinnati, and Kevin Butler, the manager in Phoenix. Those two do a great job of trying to keep it a fun place to work while at the same time making those places run very efficiently. They’re really good at what they do.

JV: From there, you get the gig at CSG in Atlanta. How did that come about?
Dave: Well, it really started way back in ‘95 when I met Jim Cook. I was just looking for some inspiration because I’d never imaged an AC station before, and he was doing this AC station in Atlanta. So I called him up and said, “Hey, I don’t know what I’m doing imaging an AC station. Can you give me some help?” He was so gracious and said, yeah! So my Program Director and I actually made a trip to Atlanta. This was when I was living in Knoxville. We came down to Atlanta, and I hung out with Jim for a day. It was great. Right from the first minute we hit it off.

I kept in touch with him, and then he hired me here in Atlanta to just do production at the Atlanta cluster. When he started CSG, he didn’t bring me on board right away, but a couple years after that he did, in January of 2007. He kind of took me under his wing. Little did I know, I think he may have envisioned me taking over at some point. I mean, he knew he wouldn’t be here forever, and looking back on it now, I can see where he kind of was showing me things that I needed to do to run CSG. And part of that was running the production centers.

Then it was in March of 2013 when I became vice president of the group, replacing Jim Cook.

JV: How is the CSG structured personnel-wise?
Dave: Our function is like that of an in-house ad agency for national clients, and also we do work for some of the local markets as well. But basically, we’re a production department for national sales. They don’t really have a production department, so that’s what we do. It’s structured kind of like a hybrid between the way a local radio station’s production department would be set up, and somewhat like an ad agency as well, because we have dedicated writers and dedicated producers -- although, our producers write as well. We have two full-time writers, and that’s what they do. One is our Creative Director, Jill Belloma, who is hands down the best writer I’ve ever worked with, and then there’s Steve Stone, who you’ve actually featured in one of your magazines a few years ago. Then we have two producers and a Music Director. Vito Gorinas and JJ Fox are the producers, and JJ was featured in RAP back when CSG started up. Then we’ve got Jason Phelps, who’s our Music Director. And then we’ve got a Project Manager. Tamala Edmonds keeps everything running like clockwork.

JV: That sounds like a lean but talented staff that probably stays pretty busy.
Dave: Very. We manage to get all the work done. Sometimes I don’t know how, but we do. And it’s especially challenging when somebody goes on vacation. The two writers have to coordinate with each other to make sure that they’re not taking vacation at the same time, and the same thing with our producers. And then I will jump in with writing, or producing, or whatever needs to be done just to make sure things get done.

JV: Steve Stone is obviously from radio, but Jill Belloma is right out of the ad agencies. How does that make things different there? What kind of twist did that put into this hybrid facility?
Dave: That’s the way it was designed right from the beginning. Ad agencies run very differently from radio stations, and radio stations obviously are very different from ad agencies. Now, there are very creative people in both, but when CSG was formed, it was to bring the two worlds together. When Jill started here, she didn’t know a lot about radio. She had written radio commercials before, but didn’t know the inner workings of radio, as far as the personalities and how things actually got done. So she learned a lot about radio from us, and we were able to learn things about ad agencies and how they operate from her. In fact, I’m still learning from her. So it’s really a good combination.

JV: What’s the atmosphere like at CSG, generally speaking? Is it a relaxed kind of creative atmosphere, more under the gun trying to meet the deadlines, or is it a nice spot in the middle?
Dave: Let me use an analogy. When I was in high school, I worked at a grocery store. You could be sitting there like crickets are chirping -- not a soul in there. Then all of a sudden, five minutes later, there’s people that are lined up at the cash registers, and it’s like, where did all these people come from, and you’re trying to get everything done. It’s the same with us. Sometimes it is nice and relaxed and we have time to like actually create and make something great. And then the next thing you know, it’s like, wow, where did all this work come from?

JV: What’s the facility like? Cool studios? Nice office space?
Dave: I don’t want to create any haters, but honestly, this is the nicest facility I’ve ever worked in. It really is. I mean we’re blessed to have it. We’ve got really nice studios. It’s very comfortable. But for the most part, functionally speaking, we’re just like a regular radio station production department. The only difference is this is the first place I’ve ever worked in that has dedicated voice booths, and that’s a nice feature. If I ever built a radio station, I would make sure that we had dedicated voices booths. That’s all it is. It’s just a microphone and a headphone jack, and you’ve got glass to look through so you can see the producer as you’re talking to them. That’s a really nice feature because you don’t have any computer fans in there and other noise. It’s a dead room and it’s really nice. But that’s really the only difference between what we have and what any other radio station production department would have.

JV: What are the biggest challenges the group faces?
Dave: It’s the same basic challenges any production department has at any radio station in the country. At times there’s just way too much work. You don’t know how you’re going to get it done. You can’t control that. You just have to get the work done when it comes in. So that’s probably the biggest challenge, just finding a way to get everything done that needs to be done.

JV: The CSG has won three consecutive Mercury Awards. Tell us about the winning entries and what the secret is to winning three of them in a row.
Dave: Well, the secret is -- and this is a top secret thing -- I have extremely talented people and I let them do their thing. That’s about it. They are so good at what they do, and I’m just so proud and pleased and amazed that we have won three years in a row. It’s an amazing feat, but they deserve it. They work hard and they’re very creative people.

JV: What are the groups’ most popular ways to get the creative juices flowing?
Dave: Collaboration. We collaborate a lot, and we don’t need to necessarily. The Mercury Award winning spots were all produced by Jason and Jill. They were created by those two. Steve Stone had a part in it, too. It’s a group effort. That’s really the best way to do it. A lot of times somebody will be working on something, maybe trying to find an idea… you’re writing a spot and it’s like, oh, I need something funny here. They’ll walk in my office, “Hey Dave, what’s something funny somebody might do in this instance?” or something like that. If I’m working on something I might walk into one of the studios or in somebody’s office and do the same thing. That’s really the way we get it done. We don’t always collaborate. Sometimes you just don’t have time. But that’s really the best way, when you can bounce ideas off somebody else. It really helps.

JV: What do you love most about your job?
Dave: It’s probably the same answer you’d get from any creative person at any radio station in the country. I love it when either I or somebody on my team creates something that’s so awesome, I just want to pull everybody in -- come here, listen to this. Isn’t this great? From day one in my career, that was probably what I loved most about it, and to this day, that’s what I love most about my job.

JV: Is there anything that you don’t like so much about it?
Dave: I miss interacting with a full staff of the radio station. The salespeople, the promotions department… there’s just a fun atmosphere at a radio station. We have a fun atmosphere too, but we’re only a staff of seven people, so you don’t have as many personalities and the dynamics that you do at a local radio station. Radio’s fun. It really is. It’s a fun place to be. And don’t get me wrong on this because this staff of seven that we have, we’re all very close. We’re all very good friends. We all know each other very well and we work great together. But I think you know what I’m saying.

JV: I understand completely. But there’s a lot to be said for working closely with a small staff such as yours. You’re like a family.
Dave: Right. We are -- somewhat dysfunctional at times, but a family. And the great thing also is that we all know what our strengths are. When a certain project comes in, we can say, oh, let’s give this one to JJ because he’d be great producing this. Or let’s give this one to Vito. Or sometimes I’ll just say, let me do this one because I know exactly what needs to be done here. Yes. We all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and work together very well.

JV: Imaging vs. commercial production: what would you say to a student of radio who is trying to decide which to pursue?
Dave: If you have a strong passion to go into either imaging or commercial production, follow it. But if you’re trying to make a decision early on because you’re not really sure, let the cards play out how they will. Just let it happen and see where it takes you. See what your strengths are once you start doing it. Once you start working in the field, you’ll realize where your strengths are and what you truly enjoy.

Dave welcomes your comments and questions at DaveSavage@iheartmedia.com.

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