R.A.P. Interview: Ray Avila

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Ray Avila, KFI -- AM 640, Los Angeles, California

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by Jerry Vigil

Ray Avila has only five years in the business, yet he has managed to become an imaging producer for a top rated station in the #2 market. Perhaps a three-year internship with KROQ’s John Frost makes for a good start. Ray now handles most of the imaging production for KFI-AM, a 50,000 watt news/talk station in Los Angeles that presently holds the status of being LA’s number one English speaking station, beat out in the 12+ ratings only by two Latin stations. He also handles various production duties at sister stations KOST and KACE as well. Join us for a glimpse into the imaging wars in Los Angeles from the studios of someone lucky enough to spend three years learning from John Frost, and talented enough to turn those lessons into top-notch creative production. And be sure to check out Ray’s demo on this month’s RAP Cassette for an awesome sample of imaging from one of America’s hottest news/talk stations.

JV: Tell us how you got into radio.
Ray: I’ve lived in Southern California all my life and grew up with Los Angeles radio like KIIS-FM, KLOS, KROQ. I actually got my first bug in radio at Long Beach City College where I took some radio classes. From there I became the music director at the student-run radio station, KLBC, and transferred to Cal State Long Beach where I graduated with a BA in Radio and Television/Film.

While I was at Cal State Long Beach, I was doing a lot of radio internships. I did one for a year at KNX-FM before it was Arrow. Then I did an internship with KROQ. I started off just answering phones, then worked my way into helping with certain shows, then ended up in production as a production intern, and that’s where I really got the bug to get into production.

JV: Was John Frost there at the time?
Ray: Yeah, John Frost and Raymond Bannister.

JV: These must have been your mentors.
Ray: Yeah, very much so. Raymond pretty much showed me the basics of production and the commercial end of things. John was definitely the creative end of things at KROQ. He showed me a lot about how creativity played a big part of the radio station and the imaging of KROQ. I did almost a three-year intern stint over there. I really got a good look at what creative production is, and that was the place to be for that.

JV: That’s great, being able to get your degree while hanging around in a market like LA at a station like KROQ.
Ray: Yeah. I’ve always told myself that if I were going to make it into radio, I’d have to be here in LA. This would be the market to get into.

JV: So where was your first gig?
Ray: My first gig was at KGIL in the San Fernando Valley where I worked as a board operator for two years. I also did some production for them, not a whole lot, but I helped out on the commercial end of things. At the time, KGIL was up for sale, and I eventually switched over to the sister station, KMGX, and did some board work and production and programmed the automation for the station. That ended quickly, and I found myself out of radio for about six months.

Then I ended up here at KFI. I started as a board operator and worked my way into production. At the time, there was nothing available at KFI and KOST. The people in production have been here for years. They all have eight to ten years in the production department, and there was no movement when I got here. So, I talked to the Production Director at the time, Ken Davis, and told him I’d really be interested in doing some production for them. Eventually I bugged him enough that he gave me a shot at filling in for the production assistant for a month. That guy ended up getting into TV, and that opened up an opportunity for me. I got in, and I’ve been here five years now.

JV: When did KACE come into the picture?
Ray: KACE came into play about two years ago, maybe three. That’s when we acquired another production person.

JV: So how is the production department structured for these three stations?
Ray: Well, we don’t have a Production Director at all now. It’s actually run by Ernie Kristof. He’s the Operations Manager, and he pretty much oversees the production department. There are four of us in the department, and all four of us are doing all the commercials and promos and IDs for all three stations. It’s a weird structure, but it works. If someone’s out, the other person can come in and fill in for him. It’s an unusual situation where all of us can do everybody’s job. We have three production studios and they’re always busy.

Ernie Kristof has done a great job for us in production. Whatever we need, we can get from Ernie. He’s never held us back on wanting to improve our production department. Without Ernie, it would be a very difficult climb for us. He has definitely helped us a lot by getting us the tools and the equipment we need. With the load we’re doing, it makes production a little bit easier.

JV: Who are the other people in production?
Ray: We have Don Elliott, and he does a lot of the voices for the station, commercial voices, tags, and promos, too. Gil Perez helps Don with a lot of the retail stuff. He also works on some promos. Mark Drummond works pretty much just for KACE. He does everything for KACE—promos, commercials—you name it, he does it. I  mostly produce the promos for KFI, and I produce commercial work for all three stations, or at least for KFI and KOST.

JV: Do you use outside voices as well?
Ray: No, everything we use is in house. Our station is a union station, and we have to make sure that we use people in house. If we do use somebody outside, that’s a very rare occasion. KFI is a vast pool of talented people. I will use people from the morning show to do some of the jingles that I produce. We have so many people up here that do different voices. I can go down to one of the producers and say, “Hey, I need a character voice. Could you attempt this?” More than likely, they can do it. The primary voice for KFI is Mark Dennis. He’s the voice of the station, and he also does traffic.


JV: KFI is doing an incredible job in the ratings. What do you attribute this success to?
Ray: I think a lot of it is the vision of David G. Hall, the Program Director. He is always striving for KFI to be better. In the meetings I’ve gone to, he’s always wanting to make KFI, the product, that much better. He wants us to be unique. He wants the station to stand out. If you listen to us, we’re not your normal news/talk station. We’re geared toward a younger audience, and I would consider our staff to be a pretty young staff.

JV: What are some things you do to stand out on the radio, to be different?
Ray: Well, we are very promo intensive. We go through promos up here like crazy. Imaging is everything in my opinion, and we’re always striving to get that edgier sound or that unique promo to make the station different. We’re out there trying to be in your ear. That’s the best way I can describe it.

JV: It sounds like you can get just about as crazy as you want.
Ray: Yeah, and that’s where I love David Hall’s vision because he has given me the opportunity to expand and to push the envelope of every promo that I do. You can’t get any more creative freedom than that. Having that type of freedom to be able to do stuff like that is great.

JV: And once you’ve done something a little off the wall and take it to him, does he usually accept it?
Ray: Yeah, pretty much so. On a rare occasion, with something I’ve done that’s really obscure, he’ll say, “You know, that’s really not what I was looking for.” But I would say that close to ninety percent of the promos I do are accepted by KFI.

JV: Does KFI do some wild promotions to give you some unique material to work with? Are you giving away any breast implants?
Ray: A lot of the promotions we do are pretty straightforward. We don’t get too crazy with that. A lot of our stuff is simply inviting listeners to come out and meet the hosts of our shows.

JV: Do you have giveaways like cash or car giveaways?
Ray: No, none at all.

JV: Sounds like you’re not buying the audience.
Ray: Not at all. Our audience is really hooked on our hosts and the station.

JV: You mentioned that you produce jingles. Are you a musician?
Ray: Not per se, but I have some musical background. A lot of the jingle stuff is just coming up with the idea, finding the right music, writing out some lyrics, and asking the guys with the morning show to help me out. They’re the ones who can sing. I might be a background singer.

JV: Are you doing any voice work other than the occasional background vocal or character stuff?
Ray: No, that’s pretty much it.

JV: Are you writing the promos for KFI as well as producing?
Ray: Yes.

JV: About how many would you say you’re doing in a week?
Ray: I’m probably writing close to six or seven a week. But, I also handle a lot of the show promos too, like for Rush and Dr. Laura. There’s not much writing there. It’s pretty much just a quick voice track then throw in a bit from Dr. Laura or Rush. But those take time also. So, including those promos also, I’d say I’m doing about twenty, twenty-five promos a week. That’s on top of the other work such as the commercials and IDs and things like that.

JV: What are your hours like at the station?
Ray: I roll in about eight o’clock and leave about five.

JV: Tell us about your production rooms.
Ray: We have three production rooms. They just refurbished Mark Drummond’s room at KACE, and now all the production rooms have ABX 26 PR&E consoles. Every room has an Akai DD1000. That’s really our workhorse for voice tracking. It’s a 2-track. For multi-tracking, in two of the three studios, we have SAWplus. We’re in the process of upgrading to the 32-bit version. Our beefed-up studio also has the Tascam DA-88 and the Sonic Solutions CD burner. We burn CDs for KOST, all the music and jingles. For special effects, we have Eventide Harmonizers, the H4000, I think. We also have the Alesis MiniVerb 2 in all the rooms, and two of the three rooms have the Yamaha SPX 90.

JV: How do you like SAWplus?
Ray: I love it to death. It has made my promo life a lot easier. I’ve seen ProTools, but since I’m not a Mac person, it doesn’t do anything for me. Same thing with Sonic Solutions. The one we have is a 2-track recorder, a workstation, and it’s too slow. I don’t recall which one it is, but it must be one of the older ones.

JV: Are you still using carts?
Ray: Yeah. We’re using Tomcats. We archive everything to DAT, and we are starting to use MiniDiscs to archive. Then we dub it from the DAT or the MiniDisc onto cart.

JV: When you sit down to write and produce a killer promo for KFI, what’s your creative approach?
Ray: I generally try to envision what I want first. I come up with an idea, then I try to build around it. My creative process is really weird. Let’s say I have a great bit from a host I want to use. I’ll start with that then start building around it, adding sound effects and such. Then I’ll start writing things around that. I guess it’s almost like producing backwards. The music is also a big part of the promo. I’ve found that without the right music, the promo is not going to work.


JV: What are you using for production music?
Ray: We use Who Did That Music?, KPM, and Network for all three stations.

JV: Do you pick from all of those for the imaging for KFI?
Ray: Yeah. Depending on the mood and everything else, I will pick from the three production libraries we use. A lot of the sound effects and workparts I use come from Mindbenders from Who Did That Music?. That collection is probably one of the best collections of zips, bangs, and stuff that I’ve heard.

And I’m constantly videotaping things on TV to lift stuff from. I like to think that the promos and IDs that I’m producing have that MTV in-your-face type of style. It’s really obscure. I mean, you would not normally think this was a news/talk format. I’ve taken more of a CHR approach to producing promos for KFI.

JV: How do you know you have a good promo? When is it finished?
Ray: I test it with the guys here. I’ll sit them in a room and say, “Listen, what do you think of this?” It’s either a yes or a no. I use them as my bouncing board. If they’re on the floor laughing, I know I’ve done my job. And these guys will tell me what needs to be put in or what needs to be taken out. The working relationship between the guys here in production is very open.

JV: Many news/talk stations will use music clips from classic rock tunes to play underneath promos and IDs. Do you do that?
Ray: Yeah, but a lot of the stuff I use is from the younger more hip music. I’ll select from a lot of the alternative stuff. I really love the alternative music for our promos, and that’s what you’ll hear on the majority of my promos, anything from The Dance to The Grunge to anything else out there. I really like that edge on our promos.

JV: Do you listen to other stations in the market?
Ray: Yes, all the time. I love to see what other people are doing. There’s a lot of good imaging going on, especially at KROQ, and Star 98.7 is doing some great stuff.

JV: Would you say that John Frost has been a leader for the style of imaging in the market?
Ray: Yes. I consider John to be God of Production. He is the man. I think he has definitely revolutionized production, or imaging, at least, for modern rock formats. When I hear some of his stuff, I think, “How did he come up with that?” It’s just amazing.

JV: So it’s not so much how did he execute it, but rather, how did he come up with the idea.
Ray: Yeah, how did he come up with that? That blows me away. I wish I had more of that ability of being able to create, just to be able to sit down and create like he does.

JV: The part of the creative process that’s just coming up with the idea, the concept of the promo, is that something that happens to you on your way to work in the car? Do you turn the lights down in the studio and light a candle? How do you nurture this creativity?
Ray: A lot of it happens when I’m driving around town, going to and from places. Sometimes even on the train I’m writing. I’ll see a billboard that will catch me off guard, and I’ll think that’s kind of neat, write it down, and then elaborate on it. I constantly have a notepad with me.

JV: I guess it’s just a matter of keeping your mind open all the time to something that could possibly become a promo.
Ray: Oh, yeah. My wife tells me I cannot keep my mind off work for even a couple of hours. I’m always in what I consider “promo focus.” Anywhere I go, and even at home, I have pen and paper. I’ll be on the computer and will type up something for later. I have lots of stuff in my computer files that I go back to.

JV: To be able to crank out the creative stuff on a daily basis, I can see how you would have to constantly be in “promo focus,” always open to absorb new ideas.
Ray: Right. And that’s another thing about John that’s just amazing, he turns out promos that just blow me away, and he does that on a regular basis. The man is a genius. In my opinion, for production, if he’s not the best, he’s one of the best. He’s just amazing, and I’m very glad that I had the opportunity to intern with him and Raymond. They definitely showed me the basics and really gave me the big bug for production. I’ve never wanted to be on air, but I’ve always wanted to be behind the scenes, creating that commercial or promo. And I truly believe I’ve found my niche, at least for talk radio, with the stuff that I’m doing.

JV: What would you say your greatest talents are?
Ray: I suppose one of my biggest strengths is being able to visualize a promo in my head and put it all together with sound effects and everything before I produce it. My greatest talent is being able to be here in LA and stay level-headed. I take everything in stride around here.

JV: Do you have a studio at home?
Ray: Yes, I do. I’m working with a SAW system at home, too.

JV: Do you take work home?
Ray: Obviously. I get all the elements, my EDL list, drop it onto Zip, take it home, and work with some of the stuff there. I kind of refine the promo, take it back the next day, and maybe work on it some more at the station.

JV: Do you find time for any free-lance work?
Ray: Well, I’ve done a couple of things for a couple of our sister talk stations in Florida and Atlanta, but primarily it’s KFI stuff at home. I like to work mainly with KFI. That’s the primary station. With the stuff I’ve done outside, I always let the other PDs know that KFI has to come first.

JV: What advice would you give to news/talk producers to put some sparkle into their stations?
Ray: I would say to always gear toward the young audience. I think the younger sound is where the imaging is. We’re definitely trying to stay away from our competitors. You listen to KFI, and you know we’re KFI. We’ve definitely positioned ourselves to be a younger sounding news/talk station.

Keep everything fresh and have fun with it. That’s why we’re in this business, to have fun—at least for me that’s why. I try to have fun with everything I do. I keep doing what I’m doing, plugging away, being as creative as possible, and that much ahead of the next production person in LA.

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