R.A.P. Interview: J.R. Nelson

R.A.P.: Well, what else is there in the '90s? Haven't we done all the processing that we can do to the voice? We've sampled, flanged, delayed, echoed, EQ'd and everything else. What's next?
J.R.: I think the whole secret is gonna be with production people who have some kind of musical knowledge, production people that can build the music tracks or the promo beds around the voice track. It's a tedious process, but it can be done. In other words, you cut your voice track first. Then, play and produce the music to fit that. It's an old trick. They used to do that years ago. I think it was one of the laundry detergent companies who would cut the voice track first and then bring in somebody to score music to the meter of the voice track. Of course, back then you had to bring in the twenty-one piece band, and it was a pain in the butt. But now, with the keyboard and with one finger, you can sit there and just do a melody line, add a couple of voices and transition things, and have a killer spot or promo because the music is going to follow the natural rhythm of the voice.

This reminds me of another good trick. Sometimes when I get a voice track cut, I'll have a bunch of really old drum samples -- I mean really old, raucous drum samples -- and I will sit there and play along with every word that I say. You know, "Capital Radio, London -- da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da," in the same meter as the voice. It's there, but it's so subtle you don't hear it. It's little things like that which make it simple but yet, in the long run, give it such wearability.

R.A.P.: What are some thoughts on producing promos for the '90s?
J.R.: It's all in the presentation. You have to remove the hype element, yet maintain the urgency, and a lot of that is nothing more than the copy. Instead of, "Hey, you can rip us off for a pair of tickets!" it's more like, "Let us share a pair of tickets with you." In other words, take the verbiage away from the hard, attacking angle and make it a more relatable type of a thing.

One of the greatest promos I ever heard in my life was by some guy at a little country station who obviously spent hours and hours doing it. He had every word read by a different announcer, and it was a short promo, twenty-seconds or so. But it was so neat the way the thing worked. It's the little things that make the big difference.

And now you've got the problem of money being tight, so you've got sponsorships that are going to rip the copy apart every five seconds. So keep it as simple as possible. Let the momentum of what you're actually doing carry it. Don't try to over-zap it, and don't throw in a cash register effect every time you mention money. Come on, they know what that is. A lot of it is insulting the intelligence of the listener, and I guess that's what always pissed me off about CHR radio. I worked in more CHR stations than in anything else, and there was always that mentality. It was like, "Well, we're gonna give away money now -- (cash register SFX)." Come on, they know that! Give them a break! That mentality in one hand made CHR very exciting to listen to back in the late sixties and early seventies when there was nothing else going on, but now when you take that approach, people are going, "Yeah...I've heard that crap before. Goodbye."

I think the most successful promos -- you're going to laugh at this one -- are live. Get a really good produced bed and let the jock read the damn promo live! I don't care what anyone says, I think it sounds great on CHR. On other stations it sounds like crap, but on CHR you've got that momentum -- especially dance stations. It actually gives the jocks something to do, and it makes for a more personable approach. That's what radio has been lacking. That's what made Z100. It was a family, a personable radio station. You knew everything about every person on that radio station just by listening to it. You don't have that anymore. You really don't.

A lot of it is letting your guard down and being able to laugh at yourself. I mean, if you're giving away a stupid prize, you're not going to have the 1812 Overture behind you. You've got to laugh at it -- "Your chance to win a six-pack of bagels is coming up" -- I mean, you have to be real. If nothing else, this X Generation is going to tell us one thing. They're going to say, "Okay, the hype's over with. Tell us what the straight shit is."

Programmers now have got to have two printouts to make a decision about anything. They don't rely on their gut. In fact, that's what this whole demo is about for my new jingle package. In the beginning I say, "Listen, if you've never flown by the seat of your pants, turn this thing off because you won't understand," and that's true. You've got to have emotion!

I was so lucky. I was able to meet Orson Welles when I was a young kid, and to me it was a big deal because he was the master of the old theater of the mind stuff. But more than that, he took it to a different level. Well, nobody does that anymore because it's all "play it safe, ten in a row, give away a car," and there's nothing there. You have to feel what's going on.

And people now are nothing more than numbers. You know, "What does the research say? Okay, fine." Programmers don't feel anymore. You get a few who do. A real good friend of mine, Brian Phillips/99X, is probably one of the few people I know who is an actual feeling programmer. I mean, he feels that whole radio station, and you can tell it's a Brian Phillips station just by listening.

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