R.A.P. Interview: Ned Spindle

Ned Spindle, WKQX/Q101, Chicago, IL

Ned-Spindle-Jan02by Jerry Vigil 

If you like theatre of the mind production and the freedom to get a little crazy with your ideas, the Alternative Rock format is a good home for you. Leading the rock race in the country’s 3rd largest market is Emmis’ Q101 in Chicago. The man keeping the station on the imaging edge is Ned Spindle, another one of those guys that found out people actually pay you "for goofing off  and having a wandering mind."

JV: Tell us about your background in radio.
Ned: My first job was in ’84 at a small town station in Kentucky, an AM Country station with 5 thousand watts. I went from there to Norfolk, Virginia where I went through two ownership changes and a format change. It was Country first and then Classic Rock. I was there for about six years and did it all. I was Production Director, did the commercials, and had a full-time on-air shift for part of the time there. From there I went to Houston, Texas at what is now The Buzz. It was Classic Rock then, Z107.5. While there, I was on the air and did promos and imaging. From Houston I went to ‘RCX in Chicago where I did an air shift for a couple of years and then went straight to production full-time. When ‘RCX flipped formats and threw us all out, Dave Richards came over to Q101 and hired me, and that’s where I am now. I will be here three years in January.

JV: Are you doing any air work at Q101?
Ned: No, just imaging and promos now, plus any other little things that need to be done. For example, I’ll do things for Mancow occasionally. He syndicates his show from here, and occasionally he will come to me and ask me to do something. But for the most part, it’s promos and imaging.

JV: Was Houston where you got your feet wet with imaging?
Ned: Actually, I did imaging in Norfolk. I worked with Chris Corley down there for a while. When he was there he was doing all the promos and imaging, and I learned a lot from him. After he left, I took over the promos and imaging.

JV: Is Q101 the only station in the facility?
Ned: Yes, it’s the only Emmis station in Chicago.

JV: So you’re one of the rare ones doing imaging for just one station.
Ned: Yeah, the more I talk to people, the more I realize that doing multiple stations is incredibly common. I find that I’m very fortunate to be doing just one station because I’ve talked to people who are doing multiple stations and they seem to have plenty of work on their hands.

JV: Tell us about your studio.
Ned: This is the nicest facility I’ve ever worked in. We moved a year ago from the 17th floor down to the 14th floor into a brand new facility and it’s just beautiful. As far as equipment goes, what I have right now is actually somewhat primitive by today’s standards. It’s a G3 Mac running Pro Tools, which they bought back when Mancow first came over to Q101. We’re now considering something new. I used to do 99% of my stuff at home because for the longest time I had better stuff at home, than they had here. But when they got me this Mac and gave me this old Pro Tools system, it was good enough that I could move in here and work at a fast enough speed to make it worthwhile. So now I’m doing 99% here and my system at home is just sitting there most of the time.

JV: What do you have at home?
Ned: I have a PC running Vegas. There are several of us here who are big fans of Vegas 2.0 from Sonic Foundry. We like it because it’s very simple. They have lots of left-handed shortcuts and you can just zip through things at amazing speed. Pro Tools in my opinion is great—I have never used the latest version of Pro Tools because I have a G3—but in my opinion, it’s also needlessly complex for radio. I just have found Vegas easier to work with. And Sludge and Brian Rhodes both have Vegas at home and love it. Sludge is our afternoon guy, and Brian is our Production Director who handles the commercial stuff.

JV: Is it the three of you handling all the production?
Ned: Sludge does the beat mixes just because he has a real knack for them. So, whenever we want some of those, he does them. He’s also done them for other stations and has submitted some to the Cornerstone Player and just enjoys doing them. But everything else is Brian and myself. And Mancow has a guy who does stuff just for him.

JV: You have one station and 4 people handling production for it. That sounds like a nice setup.
Ned: Yeah, it’s the best company I’ve ever worked for. It’s the most employee-oriented broadcasting company I’ve ever worked for.

JV: With three of you being Vegas fans, any plans to put Vegas in the station’s studios?
Ned: Well, money’s tight right now, but they’re trying to scrape up the money to get me a PC with a professional sound card and Vegas. That’s all you really need. There’s no outboard equipment with Vegas; it’s all software. So if they can scrape up a couple of grand, we may be getting that. Then I’d be able to transfer projects between home and work, which would be really nice.

All of our studios right now are Pro Tools, but the Pro Tools in Brian’s studio is on a PC. So he loaded Vegas onto that PC and is now exclusively using Vegas and Sound Forge, I’m pretty sure. I don’t think I’ve seen him touch Pro Tools in a while.

JV: You guys are the first I’ve heard of that are downgrading, as it may be, from Pro Tools to Vegas.
Ned: Well I’ve often wondered why Sonic Foundry doesn’t market more aggressively to radio. Maybe they’re just short on cash, I don’t know. I know they did have some tough times, but there are just so many things in Vegas that I see and go, “Wow, now that’s smart.” Stuff like the scroll wheel on the mouse zooming in and out on the waveform. I love that. I don’t have to go grab a tool; I just turn the wheel and zoom. I know the latest Pro Tools will do some of the things that Vegas does, but I’m sure it’s not at the same price.

JV: Are you the station voice?
Ned: I am the voice of the promos. And right now we’ve got a new PD, and we’re trying to decide what we’re going to do voice-wise. They have been using Vic Corolli since before I was even here. I like Vic, but we’re trying to decide what we’re going to do about the voice situation. So for now I’ve been voicing the imaging too because we don’t want to do a whole bunch of imaging with Vic and then realize that we can’t use it because we’re going with a new voice. We have not decided to go with a new voice; it’s just a question mark right now.

JV: Were you the voice of any of the other stations you were with?
Ned: Every station I’ve worked for always had a marquee voice from out of town, so no, I’ve never been the voice of a station I’ve worked at. I’ve been the promo voice but not the imaging voice.

Dave Richards, and our new PD Tim Richards, both seem to like the idea of having a separate voice on the imaging apart from the promos. And that’s pretty much the way I’ve always done it, even in Houston.

JV: How would you describe your production style?
Ned: The big thing that drew me into this side of radio is my love for the “theater of mind” and radio, being able to do in 2 hours, by painting a picture in someone’s mind, what it would cost Hollywood millions to do. I can depict anything that the mind can imagine with just a couple of hours’ work, with some sound effects and music, and that’s always really attracted me to radio. Right now we are in a war with a brand new Alternative station that just signed on, 94.7, which is either their 3rd or 4th format in the last couple of years. They’re calling themselves the New Alternative, so right now we’re backing off the humor and theatre of the mind stuff a little bit and really driving home the heritage aspect, just pounding that into the listeners’ minds. By the way, we had a major coup recently against our competition. They tried to take ownership of our big holiday concert with Twisted. I don’t know if you heard about this, but they had to run on-air apologies mentioning our name and acknowledging that the concert is not theirs, but is in fact ours.

There is still some humor in what I’m doing, but it’s more of a focused Alternative image thing going on right now. But for most of my radio career, I’ve really enjoyed the humor. I mean if you can make a listener laugh and actually have a promo requested by a listener, I think that’s a good thing.

JV: How did you develop your skills for the theatre of the mind style of production?
Ned: I think the raw interest in it was always there, even as a kid. I don’t know why I never realized this when it came time to decide what I wanted to do for a living because it took me several years to realize that I could make a living at what I used to get in trouble for, goofing off and having a wandering mind. When I was 8 years old I got a tape recorder. I used to always make up stories and trade tapes with friends and do all that, and no one in the public school system ever suggested, “Hey, you could get paid to do that you know.”

So, it took me a couple of years to figure that out on my own, and of course it’s been a lot of polishing since then. I have listened to my first tape from back in the early ‘80s, and I can’t even believe it’s me. I’m so embarrassed I can’t listen to it anymore. The only time I ever take it out is if I’m talking to an intern and they’re down on themselves saying, “Well I won’t ever be as good as you….”  I play them my old tape and say, “What do you think of that?” They inevitably say, “That guy sucks, who is that?” And I say, “That’s me.” I mean, it’s that bad. But the imagination was there. I was always trying new things, always trying to make a story and paint a picture.

JV: Who writes the promos?
Ned: I do all my own writing, but like I said, things are in flux right now with the new PD. He has said he wants to go over scripts with me before I produce them. For the time being, that hasn’t happened too much. Because he’s just starting, I think he’s pretty busy. Also, I think he has worked with some people in the past that just weren’t very good writers and so I think--I’ve got my fingers crossed--I think he’s pretty happy with my writing so far. We haven’t done much of that reviewing scripts and writing scripts together. He said he likes to have a hand in the writing but so far it’s still been 100% me. And before him, that’s how it was.

One discomfort area I have with writing something and presenting a script to someone is that what’s on paper is not what’s in my head. In other words, how something is going to sound cannot be translated on paper very accurately. You could spend an entire paragraph describing what voice is going to be used and what accent and what the mood is going to be, but you don’t do that. You just write the script and then explain to him how it’s going to sound. But so far I’m meshing pretty good with this new PD, and I think it’s going to be a good situation.

JV: What production libraries are you using?
Ned: We have a lot of AVdeli stuff and 2 or 3 sound effects libraries, Hollywood Edge and a couple of others. And over the years I have collected thousands of movie drops and thousands of sound effects and beds that I’ve created for promos where I just saved the bed minus all the vocals. I used something last week that I recorded 5 years ago. It was a guy screaming, “I’m on fire!”

JV: What have you been archiving all this stuff on?
Ned: I have, for 6 years probably, been using MiniDisc, just because it’s fabulously convenient and indestructible. I’ve talked to a lot of people that don’t like the fact that it uses compression, but the whole world is going compression. DAT is uncompressed, but my problem with DAT has always been that it’s slow to find what you want, and it will degrade. The tape will break or crimp or fold. Although the raw sound quality might be better on DAT, MiniDisc is indestructible. I’ve never had a MiniDisc fail me. I cannot say that about DAT. And CDR, although it is full digital quality, it’s much slower than MiniDisc. It takes 2 minutes to write the table of contents, it can be scratched, and it takes up more space. So, I’ve been very pleased with MiniDisc. And now I think they have something called MDHD or something like that. I guess it’s a different compression scheme that allows them to get four CDs on one MiniDisc.

JV: What digital storage/retrieval system are you using, or are you possibly still using carts?
Ned: A year ago, when we moved to the new studios, we finally got rid of the carts. We’re using the Scott Studios system now. The switch was just a wonderful thing because we were using cart decks that were just being nursed along and repaired every two weeks. We knew eventually we were going to go to an all digital system, so they didn’t want to go out and buy a new cart deck. I was so happy to see the demise of the cart in my life.

JV: How did that whole process of going from cart to digital go?
Ned: Well the biggest task is just getting all the stuff in there. The first thing you have to do when you get the digital system up and running is get all the music in there, and all the promos and all the commercials, that’s the biggest job. I’m sure there were some engineering headaches, many of which I probably never saw. And we still have the occasional glitch and the occasional lock-up, but we have backups for that. And in the worst case scenario, we have CDs in the studio and CD players that can be used. But I can guarantee you no one here, if given the choice, would go back to cart.

JV: How about a production tip or trick to pass on?
Ned: Well, one thing that’s been immensely useful to me, and it’s just the simplest thing, is one of those little digital chip recorders. It’s like a tape recorder but it records on a chip. I have a Sony that holds like 2 hours worth of stuff, and unlike a tape recorder, you don’t have to fast forward. Each recording has it’s own individual file. I carry that with me everywhere I go. If I think of an idea and I don’t get it written down, it’s gone in 5 minutes. Not so with these things. And you can use them anywhere. You can use them when you’re driving, when you’re riding your bicycle. And when an idea comes to me, that little thing comes out of my pocket, I record it, and it’s there. I recommend one of these recorders to everyone. It’s incredibly useful.

JV: How is it for recording drops and such out in the field?
Ned: I have never used it for that because the sound quality is not that good. Although it’s perfectly understandable, it’s not broadcast quality. Now I know they do make digital recorders that use full 44k sampling, etc., but they’re about as big as a large cell phone—not a small StarTac, I mean 6 inches by 4 inches. Those are nice, but they’re extraordinarily expensive. If you want to record artist IDs or something, they’re fine; but you can’t carry them around in your pocket.

JV: What would you tell someone who wants to start doing more theatre of the mind production?
Ned: The main thing I tell people who really want to do creative stuff is to expose yourself to that kind of creativity. For instance, one of my earliest influences was Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I just worshipped them, and that was one of the first real influences on my sense of humor. And another thing I tell people is that creativity, maybe 75% of creativity for me, is not so much thinking of things but just seeing them, and that’s when the little recorder comes in handy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a situation where something has happened or I heard someone say something, and I’ll say to myself, “Hey, that’s an idea.” It’s just being observant. Almost anything in life and the world can be turned into an idea, you just have to see it and develop that way of thinking. Always being aware that an idea can come from anywhere, and all you have to do is refine it and turn it into something that can be put into a promo.

JV: What’s down the road for you?
Ned: I’ve got a few years left here, and I love Chicago. This is the best company I’ve ever worked for, and the minute I arrived in Chicago I felt like I was home. So I love the company and I love the station, and if we’re still here doing this and they want me to stay, I think I’ll probably still be here.

JV: Do you do any freelance work?
Ned: I have done freelance work in the past, but I’m not doing anything right now, mainly because I really haven’t wanted to spend the time. I’m happy with my salary, and most stations who talk to me are interested in full blown production as opposed to just reading lines. I like my voice but I’m no Vic Corolli. And when people come to me they usually want someone to produce full blown promos. I just haven’t really wanted to spend the time doing that.

One thing I’ve thought about pursuing is commercial voiceover work. Chicago is a good town for it, but it takes incredible dedication and incredible ambition because it’s so fiercely competitive. There are a lot of agencies in town, and I know some guys that have tried to break into it and have had some success, but you really just have to go for it. I’ve thought maybe I’d give that a go, so I might send a CD out to some agencies and see what happens.

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