R.A.P. Interview: James Stodd

James Stodd, Regional Production Manager, Capital Radio, 96.4 FM BRMB, Birmingham, United Kingdom

BRMB-Logoby Jerry Vigil 

Commercial radio in the United Kingdom is still relatively new in comparison to commercial radio in the US. And in the past decade, the UK has seen an explosion of commercial radio stations that has quickly ushered UK radio into the spectrum of great radio around the world. Capital Radio is the UK’s most profitable radio group with 19 stations throughout London, Birmingham, Cardiff, Oxford, Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, the North East, the North West and the East Midlands. The group now broadcasts to over half of the UK’s adult population. James Stodd is Capital Radio’s new Regional Production Manager, having recently relocated from Capital’s Red Dragon FM in Cardiff to BRMB in Birmingham. In this month’s RAP Interview, James offers some insights into UK radio and production and gives us a dose of first-class image production with a remarkable demo on this month’s RAP Cassette.

Red-Dragon-LogoJV: How did you get into radio?
James: I got involved in radio when I was about ten years old. I started at my local hospital radio station, Chichester Hospital Radio. When I’d seen them out doing some outside broadcasts, I thought that would be quite cool to get into.

JV: “Hospital” radio station?
James: Yeah. It’s an equivalent version of a student radio station, a college station, but they’re in hospitals. They have a lot of them in this country.

I started there in 1980 and spent a good ten years helping out there while I was in school. I learned very basic production on quarter-inch tape, learned how to edit and all those kinds of things. That saw me into my first work experience at a BBC local radio station in South Hampton, where again I did odd bits of production working on the morning show a couple of days a week. That gave me a bit more experience of what a real radio station was like and persuaded me that that’s the sort of thing I really wanted to get into.

So, when I was twenty I went to university down in Canterbury, in Kent, at a college called Christ Church College. I did a course there that was part Geography degree and part Radio, Film and Television studies, a multifaceted degree course. I picked up some useful studio skills there, but the main experience I got was working on the college radio station called C4 Radio, which was a very tiny college radio station. For the three years I was there, I was Program Controller and Station Manager and pretty much did all the production, writing and recording of any adverts while also running the station and helping head up the fundraising that we had to do to keep the station on air. That was probably the best learning experience I could have received because it allowed us to experiment and do things that we wouldn’t necessarily have been able to do on a mainstream radio station.

That saw me through until I was about twenty-three. After that, I left university and got some free-lance work at a station down in Crawley, near Catwick Airport in England, called Radio Mercury. That was the first commercial station I worked at, and I was doing production on the breakfast show. I was also doing technical operations for the outside broadcasts and things like that. After about three or four months, I was taken on as a producer there, working on all sorts of programming output, which I did for about a year. I stayed with Mercury for about four years. I also worked in the newsroom, and then I did, most importantly, a year in commercial production, which is where I learned a bit more about the art of script writing. While I was doing commercial production, I was also doing a lot of the station imaging. In a sense, that was the most traditional combination of commercial production and station production that I’ve ever done. I’ve always had this luxury of doing one or the other apart from that. While I was there, I also did bits of on air work as well. But mainly, it was commercial production and station imaging and stuff like that.

That took me to 1997. I left Mercury and went to work for the BBC again at a station called BBC Southern Counties Radio, which again was another BBC local radio station. But it covered quite a fair area; it covered about three counties at the UK. While I was there, I was producing one of their breakfast shows and also doing all the station imaging.

Finally, from there I ended up moving over to Cardiff in Wales and eventually joined the Capital Radio Group in 1998 at Red Dragon FM as the head of production responsible for all the station production on Red Dragon FM. I was also overseeing production on the sister station, the AM station, Capital Gold. I was there for two years, and then about a month ago, I was moved with my Program Controller when he moved up to BRMB in Birmingham. He took me with him to be the a Regional Production Manager, which basically involves all the station production and imaging for BRMB, overseeing production on Capital Gold in Birmingham, and being in charge of production for Red Dragon as well as a station we have in Oxford called Fox FM, although my role at Fox is still in development.

JV: Capital Radio boasts being the largest commercial radio group in the UK in terms of revenue and profit. What does the consolidation picture look like there in the UK?
James: There is a fair amount of consolidation. The number of commercial radio stations in this country has absolutely ballooned over the last five years or so. It’s now well in excess of two hundred and fifty to three hundred radio stations. And when you consider the size of the country, I suppose it’s a fair number. Pretty much every major town and city has at least one large station serving it, and then quite often there are a couple of smaller stations serving more niche areas. We haven’t really gotten to the point of having so many specialized services yet, although you get that in the major cities such as London or Birmingham. London has its Jazz station and its Alternative station and its Talk station, and it has Ethnic stations as well.

But in terms of station groups, it’s now down to three or four large groups. There’s the Capital Group, which is certainly the most profitable. Then you have the GWR Network, which has the largest number of station across the country. Then there’s EMAP, which is a major publishing company that also has a large number of metropolitan radio stations. And then there’s the Chrysalis Group, which has a large number of brands around. There are smaller groups that have about ten or twelve stations, and every now and then one of the four big ones tends to snap up one of the smaller ones. So I guess it’s getting down to three or four large groups, and I suppose there’s room for one of the larger groups to take over one of the smaller large groups.

Consolidation has certainly happened, and certainly at the station I used to work at, Mercury Radio. In the four years I was there, it had two owners, and it has changed ownership again, twice I think, since I left. I think it’s currently owned by the GWR group.

JV: How many stations are there in your market of Birmingham?
James: Well, I’m still new to the market and not completely familiar with it, but there’s BRMB and Capital Gold. You’ve got Galaxy, one of the Chrysalis stations, a dance station. There’s Heart, which is an AOR station that covers a large area of the West Midlands. In the UK, we have varying sizes of stations. BRMB is a metropolitan or local station that basically covers the whole city of Birmingham, about a million people. In your standards, that’s pretty small, but for us it’s the second largest city in the UK. And then you have regional stations like Galaxy and Heart, which will cover a bigger area than just Birmingham. It’ll be Birmingham and the West Midlands and surrounding area. Then we have BBC local radio. BBC-WN, which will cover the same sort of area, but all of these picking up different target audiences. And then of course, you have all the national stations. There are five BBC national stations. BBC Radio 1 is pop music, new music. Radio 2 is an AOR brand. Radio 3 is very strongly Classical, traditional Classical radio. Radio 4 is speech—news, plays, drama, discussions. And Radio 5 is live sports and entertainment. There are three national commercial stations as well, which are Talk Sport, a sports station; Classic FM, which is a popular classical station; and Virgin Radio, which very much a pop and rock station.

JV: Are you producing commercials there as well as the promos?
James: No I’m not. There are three producers based in Birmingham. I look after all the imaging and the major promotions. Guy Jogoo works as a breakfast producer for Capital Gold and then looks after production until early afternoon. Our third producer, Tim Lichfield, joined the station after a talent search on air, has been learning the basics over the past year, and takes care of the other production duties.

We’re quite lucky and more. It’s certainly the biggest stations that have commercial producers that just work for the sales teams, and they are entirely separate from the programming department. I work for the programming department. I think we’re very lucky, in this radio group, to be able to do this. I sometimes cringe reading the reports from other guys who are doing commercials and imaging and everything else. It’s a luxury to be doing it the way we’re doing it.

All I do is work on the promotions. I script all the road show appearances, the breakfast show and drive time competitions and whatever. I also work closely with the Program Controller, Andy Johnson, basically as his deputy, to work on ideas and come up with creative competition mechanics and whatever. We both throw ideas back and forward, and he trusts me with the creative freedom to do my job. So, big campaigns, big contests, like our Birthday Bonanza or the Party in the Park, working with the Program Controller and with the promotional department to get the sponsorship sorted and whatever, that’s the major part of my job. And it’s nice to be free from the commercial writing side of it. However, you still get client combat with the sponsorship and promotion side, but it’s far more divided up here, than I think it is in most stations in the States. It gives us the freedom to be able to concentrate on the sound of the radio station. We can put our full energies into it.

JV: Tell us about your production studios.
James: We have two production studios here in Birmingham, both fairly much identical. The main one I use is a little better equipped, and it’s based around a Yamaha O3D desk. Into that we have all manner of different pieces. We’ve got Denon CD players, a Fostex DAT machine, and a Denon MiniDisc recorder and player. We have an Eventide Ultra-Harmonizer, which I’ve never had before, and that’s a nice little toy to play with. We have a couple of Focusrite mike processors, a Yamaha effects unit, a Lexicon effects unit, and the TC Electronic Finalizer, which is fantastic. Everything, once it comes out of our production room, basically goes through that before it hits the play-out system. And all of that goes in and out of SADiE 3.

JV: The SADiE is your DAW?
James: Yeah.

JV: How do you like the SADiE?
James: It’s what I’ve always used, ever since I was at Mercury. When they went from tape to digital, I started and learned everything on the Sadie 2, which I used for four years there. And then when I went to the BBC, we went with a SADiE 3. I’ve used SADiE 3 ever since. It’s very easy to use, and it does pretty much everything I want at the moment. Although, to be perfectly honest, I’ve gotten to the stage over the last year where it’s not quite enough. When Red Dragon, down in Cardiff, moves to their new studios, which they’re doing at the end of the year, we’re looking to upgrade them to a Pro Tools System. At the same time, we are hoping that we’ll upgrade here to Pro Tools as well, simply because a number of the Capital Radio Group’s stations have gone over to Pro Tools anyway. We’re trying to get a bit more of standard across the group.

JV: Are you putting the finished product into a digital storage/retrieval system of some kind? Is this what you called the “play-out” system?
James: Yes. We run all our play-out here from a system designed by Barrcode. You load it on a system called Brian, and then it’s played out from a system called BCX, which is the play-out system.

JV: “Brian.” I’m not familiar with this system.
James: Brian is the name of the bloke who designed it actually.There are a number of them in this country. There’s Brian, and there’s a system called Dave as well, which they use at the BBC. So the names of the people who design these systems, obviously, are immortalized.

JV: What production libraries are you using?
James: We’re quite lucky, and it’s actually an interesting thing. We seem to have a different system over here. You have all those “barter” libraries and things like that over there, which I read about and think, “Oh, we don’t have to worry too much about those.” We get production music from a lot of the large music publishers such as the BMG Group, KPM Music, and Atmosphere, a large number of libraries which are probably licensed in the States through various companies. But the way our system works over here, we use whatever we want, and then it’s all returned [reported] when we’re monitored every month by the Performing Rights Society. And we also have licenses with the MCPS, the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society. So we have access to quite a large collection of off the shelf production music.

We also have a couple of imaging libraries. The first one I used, probably a couple of years ago, is called Total Image, which was produced by Vibe Music Imaging. They’re a company that’s only been around for a couple of years. Most recently, they have been doing all the jingles and idents for Radio 1, the national Pop station. Some other stuff we use a lot is a library called D/Generation. This one is produced by Wise Buddah Music, a London-based production company which was formed by a couple of guys from Radio 1 a few years ago. A guy who used to work at Virgin Radio, Jeremy Godfrey, is there. They do a lot of program production for all sorts of stations, and they have a couple of Pro Tools whiz kids who obviously knocked out all these killer sounds and music beds. Other stuff I use is a library from Video Helper called “Noise Generator.” I’ve only used it at Red Dragon.

JV: You mentioned that you’re stations are monitored by the Performing Rights Society to determine what production music is used. Explain this further.
James: When they monitor us, we have to return [report] what commercially available music—the Beatles and whatever—we’re using on air. But we also have to return, during that monitoring period, the details of all the jingles and all the tracks from production music libraries. We have to return all of those.

JV: Is that manually recorded?
James: We keep it all in a database and then just print it out and sent it off to them. From that, they build a picture from across the country as to who’s using what, how much, and how they divide the money. It’s a different situation from an advertiser coming in wanting to license a particular piece of music. Our license would be MCPS, and we are then able to use this music. Then they determine what we are using from our returns.

JV: In recent issues of RAP, we’ve been discussing the use of the Internet to transfer commercials between stations and studios. Are you using the Internet for this?
James: We don’t, certainly not for the stuff I’m producing here which is only being used for this station. There’s been such a small amount of production transferred between the stations. It’s just bits and pieces here or there. So we haven’t gotten to that stage yet, but I’m sure this is the sort of thing we’ll probably be using more in the future as we start sharing more and more production material around the group.

At the moment, we have commercials arrive on a couple of systems. The system that seems to be popular now is a PC-based system called IMD. I think the company is Independent Media Distribution or something; I’m not sure. But it doesn’t use the Internet. It’s a PC -based system that sends the commercials via ISDN. And it’s not real-time. Commercials are downloaded to the system.

JV: That sounds like the DG Systems box here in the US.
James: Yeah. It’s the same sort of idea. We also have commercial delivery by satellite to a system called SMS, Satellite Media Services. That’s used more for program material rather than commercials. There’s also a system run by the company that runs IMD which is called Fastrax. It’s been around for about six months to a year, and record companies pay them to quickly distribute new releases or special versions of songs. That unit is designed to be sitting on the Program Controller’s desk, and the record company can phone up and say, “Hey, we got the new Robbie William’s single. Have a listen to it. It’s on your PC now.” And that’s sent in a broadcast quality format.

JV: We often wrestle with the problem of copyright infringement in US radio, especially with clients that want to use popular music under their commercials. Is this a typical problem in the UK as well?
James: It’s world over…trying to persuade advertisers that just because they like this particular song, we can’t put it on their promotion. They want to have a Bon Jovi song on a promo, and they think it’s a great idea. And we say, “Well, have you licensed that?” And they go, “No, but we were allowed to use this song by another station.”

I think there’s a degree of bad knowledge in this country because people have moved on. There isn’t so much of the basic training anymore. When there were fewer stations, the commercial producers were clued up on what you’re allowed to use and what the copyright situation is. As the number of stations has expanded, the people going into radio production are less and less experienced in this. There are fewer and fewer experienced people around to let them know the basics. And so, in a general sense in this country, and certainly in the smaller stations, standards might well be lower than they use to be because there is no specific training routes now. A lot of it is just cases of people going in, fancying working at radio stations, and because of the small budgets that some of these stations are running on, it’s a case of, “Oh, we’ve got someone here who’ll work for next to nothing. They can use a computer. They can be doing our production.” That helps to push the standard down. So, we’re very keen, certainly in this group, to make sure the standards are high, and that we have a product that we can be proud of.

JV: Do you have outside voice talent that you use for the station’s imaging? Are you the voice we hear on your work?
James: I’m not the voice, no. It’s the one thing I can’t say to have, a really strong voice. I used to do presentation, and when I was at hospital radio, yeah I was the guy who voiced all the promos. We’re quite lucky that our producer down in Cardiff, David Francis, has a fantastic production voice, and I use him on a large number of the promos down there and also in Birmingham.

We also, on each of the stations, have what we call the station voice. We had quite a challenge with this about six or seven months ago at our station down in Cardiff. Because it’s the major radio station in the capital city of Wales, which is, you know, one of the four countries of the United Kingdom, we wanted to reflect a national pride of the station. A lot of stations have had very non-distinctive voices. Not English—because you probably think of English as a sort of English movie star or something—but a very sort of “nothing” sound to them. They’re just big ballsy voices. So, we went the angle of finding someone with a hint of Welsh-ness in their voice. We tracked down an actor who was trained at the Welsh College of Music and Drama. He’s probably in his mid thirties and never did this sort of radio work before. He had done radio plays and perhaps some radio commercials. His name is David Childs. He’s the guy I brought in for the Birthday Bonanza promo that I mentioned earlier. It’s just been a matter of adapting to what he does. He can be very much an actor, but also, with production bits around him, he can work as a station voice. So, we use him a lot down in Cardiff.

At the moment in Birmingham we’re refreshing the on-air sound with a new voice. I found a guy, Dave Kelly, who used to do a lot of work for Kiss FM in London. He has a voice with attitude, “youthy” attitude, I suppose. He doesn’t sound very London, but he sounds quite "street" and quite "happening." We're using him on all of the new items we’re putting on. This has picked the station up a pace and given it a slightly more urban feel, a tiny bit more of an edge.

JV: What is your own personal production philosophy? When you settle down to produce a promo, what is your creative process?
James: I certainly think that all our station production should reflect the personality of the radio station when the presenters aren’t talking. When the presenters aren’t talking, our production should be exactly what the listeners think of as our radio station. You have the presenters doing their bit, and ours is the furniture. If they’re the house, then we’re the furniture that goes in the house to decorate it. We really should be thinking of our production as a very important part of what the radio station is.

My overall philosophy, which I’ve said to people before, is details, details, details, just spending the extra half-hour on the promo so that it flows together perfectly and every little edit works nicely. I’d imagine fifty percent of what I do in a promo people never hear. They don’t even notice that it’s going on. And you can’t always spend that time, but when you can, it just makes it sound so much better, certainly to my ear. And sometimes you can get a bit too picky over it, but at least it helps keep the quality threshold up.

On the other hand, when I’m given a brief for a promo, what it is will affect how I approach it. If it’s just a fairly simple sales promotion, there is sometimes the temptation to be a bit formulaic, and it’s difficult to get different angles and different spins on what you’ve done before. When it’s something bigger, like one of our big contests, I’ll spend more time on it. Take for example our Birthday Bonanza promotion that we ran down in Cardiff in March. There was a promo, which was featured on the [August 2000] RAP Cassette that got you thinking about the money itself, visualizing what it was we were giving away. “Visualize this coin in your hand. Now, visualize another one, and ten others, and a thousand others. That’s what our cash looks like…” you know, rather than just going, “Hey, we’re giving away two grand!” with lots of screaming winners. We still have elements of that, screaming winners, but it’s a matter of just putting a different spin on it, trying to make it sound a little different. All the time, it’s just thinking about the personality of the station and then a matter of  putting a different spin on it.

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