R.A.P. Interview: Tom Sandman

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R.A.P.: Where do you get your creative ideas from? What gets the creative juices flowing for you?
Tom: Well, the ideas can come from anywhere, and that's one thing that's nice about the job. You've always got a steady flow of ideas. But, in a way, it's a curse because you can never really stop working. If you're sitting at home reading something in the newspaper, or you see something on TV, that could be the genesis of a new commercial or a new promo or a funny bit.

Here's something I'll do to help me come up with ideas. I have a copy of just about everything I've produced that I was proud of. Every now and then, I'll just go through and listen to old tapes. Stealing from yourself is as legal as legal can be. There have been commercials that I did at 'EBN that were originally done in college, and there was stuff that aired on 'BCN that was originally an 'EBN bit. And there's stuff I'm doing at WARM 98 now that had it's beginnings on 'BCN. It's not a lot, but a good idea is a good idea.

Archiving is a very important part of this job. For example, take a look at what the record companies are doing. Their vaults are lined with all this old classic rock and archived material, and they're making a lot of money out off of it -- Nat King Cole re-releases, Beatles and Beach Boys re-releases, Rolling Stones re-releases. You name it. It's out there. And they can make much more money off of this than they can spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to establish new music and new artists.

If you go back and look at the stuff that you've done, maybe you can re-use that idea next week, next month, next year, or five years from now. If you do that, then you've got an advantage. A good bit is a good bit.

Dick Clark makes a living putting together television retrospectives. There's no new material there at all. It's just wrap around. It's Dick Clark Presents the Bloopers, Dick Clark Presents the Best of American Bandstand. There was a guy named Jack Haley, Jr., and all he did was put together anthologies of old movies. That's Entertainment is a Jack Haley, Jr. film. Some of his documentaries still show up on the A&E cable channel. All he does is take old, archived material, chop it up, and reuse it. It's fascinating, and I love doing that.

We put together a collage of WBCN's greatest moments for their twentieth anniversary. That's one of the best things I ever did and one of the most fun. It was a forty-five minute program of 'BCN's best moments. We went through the archives of the radio station and found things we didn't even know we had. We found a two and a half hour concert featuring Canned Heat live from 1972 or 1973. Two members of the Jay Giles band come on as guest stars, and they start doing this jam. It's unbelievable, and we didn't know we had that! We found the Bruce Springsteen visits. There were two of them in 'BCN's history.

Archive your stuff. I've done an awful lot of musical theme collages over the years. I started doing them twenty years ago at 'EBN, and I'm still doing them now. I do a New Orleans collage for Mardi Gras day. I do a heart collage for Valentine's Day, a green collage for St. Patrick's Day, a baseball collage for opening day. We have about twenty or twenty-five that we use throughout the year. So, for twenty-five of the fifty-two weekends, we've got a collage on the air on WARM 98; and it's a good sounding, attractive, music-oriented piece at the top of the hour that identifies us as more than just a radio station that plays music. It identifies us as a station that also has a personality in between the records twenty-four hours a day. And that, I think, is important. It can differentiate our radio station from not just the other adult contemporaries, but from all other stations in town. It takes a while, and not everyone gets it; but if twenty-five percent of your listeners get it, that's an exciting advantage for you. They know that you do something different, and the other ones don't.

R.A.P.: It can't be said enough. If two or more stations are playing basically the same music, the difference is going to be in the presentation of the music, and that's done with air personalities, promotions, and production.
Tom: Yes, it's all in the presentation. When we present a promotion on the air, we try to have fun with them, even if they are promotions that aren't necessarily fun to us. There are listeners of WARM 98 who look forward to visiting our remote broadcast vehicle on the weekends. We call it the WARM Wheels, and we don't do much more than show up at a grocery store, spin a wheel, give away CDs and maybe a free pizza, and do some call-ins on the air. But there are listeners who track the vehicle, who find it, and who have fun visiting with us.

Let's keep it simple. Radio doesn't have to get any more complicated than this. Just make everything sound like fun, because it is fun. It should be fun. If it's not fun, then we shouldn't be in this business. That's why we're in this business anyway, because it's more fun than being an accountant or a lawyer or a doctor. It's a hell of a lot more fun.

R.A.P.: How have you kept the Production Director's job fun for so many years?
Tom: Well, one good way to keep it fun is to go into programming and get fired! But besides that, I really enjoy listening to recorded material. I've always loved records. I have a record collection at home that I like to listen to. I like to have platter parties at home with my family. I like to listen to stuff at work. I like to listen to comedy. I like to write comedy. I like to laugh. If given a chance between having a boring day or a fun day, I will probably choose a fun day. To me, having a fun day means doing something that I'll enjoy, and something that, hopefully, one radio listener will enjoy as well. And maybe they'll talk about it. "Did you hear what WARM 98 did this morning?"

It's obvious that we're very close to WINK. I mean, WINK and WARM right now are almost playing the exact same music. But after a while, after the years go by, it'll start to sink in that we are different, that we are a little more creative, that we do something that isn't cookie cutter at the top of the hour, that we do something better, more distinctive, more personable, more fun. And we're not talking about something more audacious. We're talking about more fun. We're never going to be able to out-AOR the male-oriented, hit them over the head stations. We're not that kind of station. But you can't tell me that WARM 98's core of listeners doesn't have a sense of humor. The statistics show that our listeners are predominantly female. You can't tell me that they don't have a sense of humor if in the evening they watch Roseanne and Home Improvement and Frazier and in the daytime listen to soft rock. They do have a sense of humor. The people who don't have a sense of humor are the AOR Program Directors who don't know how to program to women.

R.A.P.: What would you say is the single most thing you would contribute your success to?
Tom: I had some good teachers early on. Billy West, Jay Gilbert, Frank Wood, Jr., Beau Wood. Beau told me the most important thing about writing and producing. He said, "It all comes out of a typewriter first." And he's right. You can have all the bells and all the whistles, the best sound effects, and the best announcers in the world, but if it's not funny to begin with, if it's not a good idea that reaches out and touches that one listener and motivates him or her to either laugh or get up and buy something or get up and go somewhere that is remote or do something or write down the radio station's call letters in a diary, if it doesn't get them to do something or to touch them in some way, it's not radio. Real radio motivates, and it all comes out of a typewriter.

If you can write something that you can read to your inner ear, and hear how it should sound on the air, if you know it's gonna be an effective piece of motivation or entertainment, then you've got it. The rest is all practice. You can practice being a good mixer or a good director or a good announcer. You can get other people to do the announcing for you if you don't have the ballsy-est voice or the best character voice, but it all comes out of a typewriter first. And if the script isn't there, no amount of effort can save it or make it really great radio.

R.A.P.: You really seem to enjoy being a Production Director. What advice can you give to those who find more stress and frustration in their day than fun?
Tom: There are a lot of frustrating things about the Production Director's job, and most of them have to do with the less fun aspects of the job -- deadlines, copy changes, spot revisions, demanding salespeople, demanding clients, and so on. But radio ought to be fun, and you really have to take those things in perspective. Do those things and learn to accept them as part of the business. Learn to accept them and get them over with as soon as possible. Just do it, then you can leave yourself with some quality creative time.

Just give yourself a half an hour or an hour in the middle of the day before the late work comes in, before those dubs and tags that always sweeten the end of your day come in. "Okay, I've got an hour. What am I going to do? Should I do a song parody? Should I do a collage? What am I going to do? I'll read the paper. Maybe I'll get an idea. Should I do a baseball bit? The Reds are hot. Clinton. Should I do a Clinton bit? Maybe I should go through these records and find an old comedy bit that's already produced that would work well here. Maybe it's an old George Carlin baseball/football bit." Take some time and just think of something funny to do. But to do that, you have to get the other stuff done first. That's unfortunate.

R.A.P.: What's down the road for you?
Tom: I really don't know. I'm really happy being back in Cincinnati. My family's here. My mom is here, and my wife's parents are here. And my son, who is eleven, is rediscovering a whole new family life that he really didn't have much of when we lived in Boston. He was pretty happy up there -- we all were; don't get me wrong -- but we're going to stay here in Cincinnati for a while. Other than that, I don't have any plans.

Susquehanna and WARM 98 have been good to me. They just announced a new President, Dave Kennedy, whom all of us at WARM 98 know and like very much, and we are looking forward to good things with him and from him. I think that we have as good a chance as any stand-alone in any market to be successful. We are now one of two adult contemporaries, not three. I think the future looks good for us. '94 could be a fabulous year in WARM 98 history, and that's exciting.

I really like radio, and it's really exciting to be part of a group effort. I've toyed with the idea of going into advertising, but I don't think the advertising agency work would have the synergy that radio demands. All the departments have to be working together kind of like pistons in an engine. I know it sounds corny, but it's true. Promotions, traffic, continuity, air staff, production, sales -- we've all got to be popping. We've all got to be on the same wavelength, and when you're on the same wavelength, success comes. It's really gratifying.

And it's neat that I didn't do this alone. I couldn't do this alone. I had to have good announcers, and they had to have good copy, and the copy had to be generated for an account from a salesperson who knew what she or he was doing. It really is a teamwork kind of thing, and that's something that is very gratifying. I don't know how else to describe it, but I've always felt that way, and I've been lucky to work with some great people in the business.

I guess the next thing I'm looking forward to is digital. If I could apply my talents to a new medium that will let me save time and do higher quality work, well, sign me up. And I'll take one of those computers for my house, too, while you're at it. And, gee, maybe I could just do all the work at home. Then we'll have to invent some digital linking system so I can get voice-work over the phone from the morning guy's house. He could just call me up at home, and I could put it together and digitally transfer it to the mainframe of the radio station downtown.

R.A.P.: There's no inventing necessary. With the new ISDN lines we discussed in last month's interview being installed everywhere, the technology is already here to do what you're talking about!
Tom: It's really scary how it's going to change the face of radio. You know, it's funny that the cart machines, the single most important invention to change the face of radio thirty-five or forty years ago, are finally being replaced, and the revolution's going to be twice as big. I mean, just the thought of me putting together a commercial and sticking it into a huge hard-disk system -- no cartridge, no label, can't drop it, can't lose it, can't erase it. If the salesperson needs to call it up and play it for a client, he just does it from his workstation. The guy on the air needs to air it? He just calls it up. If traffic needs to, she can call it up to make sure the copy is okay or that it's not out of date. It's going to be great. We'll all be fat and lazy because we won't have to walk. Just think of all the walking you do to go from one part of the radio station to another, and all you're doing is carrying one lousy cart with you.

R.A.P.: You're a creative talent working for people that know how to get the most of your skills. What would you say to programmers and managers about how to get the most creativity out of their creative people?
Tom: Well, first of all, choose a person who is not only creative, but has good organizational skills because, unless you've got a two-man operation -- and I have seen that in more than a few places where you have the organizer/producer and then the funny guy, the idea guy -- unless you've got that, you really have to choose one person who is evident in his or her creativity, but also shows some organizational skills so that they will have the time to use their creativity. Then, once you get that person, give him or her a chance to really be creative. That is, make it a point that the radio station knows that there are certain guidelines that have to be met in order for this person to get the most out of his or her potential creativity. In other words, give them the space that they need. Be respectful of that person. If there is a five-day deadline on spec work, make it a five-day deadline.

The short buck and the short run aren't as important as what you can potentially reap in the long run from a dependable, creative person. I'm talking about the kind of person who, if he gets everything in on time, is never late with your needs. He will spend an extra hour or two or three, if need be, to get the work done, but he knows that you're being fair with him or her because the guidelines they asked for -- the timetables, the schedules, the deadlines -- have been met on the sales end. Hey, I'll work all night if I have to. If the work's there, that means the radio station is making money.

Be respectful of that person as sometimes being the last filter before something gets on the air. Sometimes that person is the last person to touch it, to listen to it. Sometimes it doesn't even get client approval. That commercial goes in the air studio, and the jock hasn't heard it before. He puts it in the machine and hits that button, and it goes on the air for the first time. And the last person to touch it or hear it or make sure it's okay is the Production Director. That's a big responsibility, especially when you've got thousands of those things to do every year.

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