R.A.P. Interview: Chris Ackerman

Chris Ackerman, Production Manager, Clear Channel Audio Design, Boise, Idaho

Chris-Ackerman-StationsBy Jerry Vigil

Imagine a production department in a small market with annual revenues of $70,000 a year. That’s right, a production department, not a radio station. Meet Chris Ackerman, Production Manager for Clear Channel Audio Design. Clear Channel Audio Design is basically the production department for Clear Channel’s Boise stations. But this is no ordinary radio production department. Chris, with nearly 40 years in radio and recording studios, has turned the department into a revenue generating business inside the radio stations facility, with clients paying for much more than just radio commercials. This month’s RAP Interview takes a look at how Clear Channel Audio Design came to be, how it works, and why it works.

JV: Let’s start out with a little background on you.
Chris: Well I started out in Boise when I was about 14. I worked at a little AM day-timer like most people did and just went on from there. I spent a great deal of time in Boise when I was very young. Then I went to Portland for about 15 years and worked at KWJJ and KYTE; I programmed both of them. I did a lot of studio work when I was in Portland and managed a recording studio while I was there. Finally, in ’82, because of various habits that were so easy to pick up in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, I decided to come home and pretty much dry out. I went to work for a country station here in town and proceeded to do as much studio work as I possibly could. In those days particularly, people didn’t tumble to the fact that you needed to have an audio person actually help you with your commercials, your radio and TV spots. That’s changed a little bit in the last few years, and so through a process of attrition, I pretty much quit doing most of the on-air stuff and do mostly production now.

JV: Who owned the station when you came back to Boise?
Chris: At that time, the radio station I went to work for was owned by a newspaper in Salt Lake City. That station was KJAM. A few years after that I wound up at KCIX, which at that particular time was owned by a man by the name of Kip Guth whose background was in Detroit radio. He came into to town and took this little AC FM radio station and turned it into something that you could put in any major city in the world. He kicked everybody’s ass basically. That was in 1987 or ’88. That little radio station was the #1 rated radio station in the country, on a per capita basis, and we received a Marconi Award.

We did lots of music research, callout research and stuff that nobody else was doing at the time. We also did something that nobody else in this market had done and that was give away $60,000 in one fell swoop during the book. It made people real cranky with us because all of a sudden here was somebody that wasn’t a sleepy little cow-town kind of guy, operating a radio station that was actually going to do something. Not only serve the listeners and serve the clients but actually make some ratings history.

And Kip was one of the first guys that said, “Listen, if we’re going to do production for these people, it needs to be the agency kind of production. It needs to be at that level. And so consequently, we’re going to charge for it. If that person is an advertising agency, why are we giving them 15% off their rates? They have to pay for something. Their job is to make certain that we have an A-rated piece of production to put on the air for them. And somebody’s got to do that, why not us?”

JV: That’s some rare thinking there.
Chris: Yeah, it is, and it worked out okay because we have these incredible studios that he built. I mean this was a millionaire, and the radio station was his own personal stereo set. But he was also a programmer. He just wasn’t somebody that wanted to have a radio station. So he said, “We’re going to have a really nice production room, and what I want you guys to do is start courting the agencies out there and get them in here because I want us to do this work.” And so we set up K106 Production Services. We had a rate card with an hourly studio fee, dub fees, talent fees for the different jocks that wanted to do that stuff, and outside talent. We have a good sized Shakespeare company here. So we got a bunch of the kids who like to do voice work and rounded them all up and said, “Okay, what do you guys want to do? What do you want to charge?” And in this part of the country, we don’t have representation. This is a right-to-work state, and what that means is AFTRA is not here. Although there are an awful lot of inactive AFTRA, SAG and Equity people in town, they can’t charge the rates. So what we do is we charge what we can and keep the rates up as high as we can. We’ve got a pretty good group of folks here; there’s probably 20 of us that are actually doing a lot of the work—not just for Boise, but for outside communities too.

JV: These kids at the Shakespeare company, what kind of talent fees do they get for stuff that’s done for the agencies?
Chris: The kids who are pretty radio savvy would probably make anywhere from $100 to $150 for a 60 second spot, which is pretty much what our air personalities will get. And then we try to get a little usage fee in there. If it’s a TV spot, you can get a little more. If it’s a radio spot, it’s going to be a little less. If it stays in the market it’s going to be a little less. If it goes statewide or regional, it’s going to be more. But we’re not getting actor rates. We did a spot the other day and happened to use one of the local actor/writer types who is a very good guy and is very fast, and he gets pretty close to $200 when he walks in, but also he’s Mr. One Take, in and out in fifteen minutes, whereas somebody who might be in there for an hour doing the same thing probably isn’t going to make that kind of money.

JV: Tell us about this studio that was built for K106 Production Services. This was in the late ‘80s, so I imagine it was an analog studio.
Chris: Yes, there was no digital stuff. We had… in fact I’ve still got the board. It’s an old Auditronics 24-channel/4-bus board. We had all MCI reel-to-reels. There were two half-track machines, and one 4-track machine. That was our multi-track; it was the first 4-track in town, which was very cool. Then we had some outboard gear. We had an Orban stereo limiter, an Orban reverberation unit, and some Lexicon reverb. And that was pretty much the size of it in those days.

JV: How did Kip Guth end up selling the station?
Chris: Well, Jacor came in and Kip realized that there was no way he was going to be able to operate a radio station in this market in the face of the giants, so he sold the radio station in ’97 or ’98. He sold it to Jacor, and Jacor not only bought that radio station, but they ended up buying a total of 6 in this market. Then Clear Channel sucked up Jacor, and all the while we’re still operating this K106 Production Services thing. Just last year we finished work on this giant building where we were able to move all six radio stations into.

When we moved into the new building, they built four production rooms. These rooms share a voice booth between each two. In other words, there is a hall and there are two rooms on either side of the hall. In between each of those rooms is an isolated voice booth with ports so you can see the talent that’s in there.

Now they’ve never said, “Hey, we really appreciate what you guys are doing over there…,” but I know they’re very tickled with the fact that we generate between $60,000 and $70,000 a year in production. Now that’s not to say that’s all we do because we do have 6 radio stations we work for, but we do outside work, too. Of course, our work, the commercials for our radio stations comes first. And 90% of the agencies that come to us are going to run on our radio stations. That old adage about if you control the production you control the buying…we find that works really well here. And we have such great relationships with most of these people. As you may or may not know, Micron is here in Boise and so is HP, and they do a lot of training videos. We’ll many times do the audio for those training videos. Interstate Batteries, which is located in Dallas, does an audio newsletter four or five times a year, and they ship it out to their route drivers, 2500 route drivers around the country. We produce that here.

JV: So you’ve been doing production there since the ‘80s, when it was just one station, K106, and now it’s six stations. I’m sure you’re cranking out tons of promos out of those studios as well.
Chris: Yeah, absolutely. We have out of market promo voices, but we produce the promos that are on the air. There are two Production Managers here, and then we have a staff. We have a guy who is a copywriter who does some news and sidekick stuff on MIX 106 in the morning. Then he writes commercials the rest of the day. We’re doing voice tracking on all of our radio stations except for the morning shows, and so that frees up two people that help us with production in the afternoons, the late morning and afternoons. Then there is the other Production Manager who also does agency work as well as a lot of promo work, and so it keeps us hopping.

JV: Why two Production Managers?
Chris: Well actually it’s always been that way. When we did the merger, we were in two different locations, and I had been the Production Manager for our three stations for 10 years. This other fellow had been the Production Manager for the other 3 stations that were a couple of miles away. So consequently they decided just to kind of keep it the way it was. Knowing the volume of work we were going to have when we finally all got together, it just made sense to have two full-time production people.

JV: What’s a typical day like for you?
Chris: I usually get here about 8:15 in the morning, and the first thing I do is a little show prep. In addition to my other duties, I do an afternoon show on our Classic Country station. That takes about half an hour for show prep, and then about a half hour to do voice-tracking for a 4-hour show. Then by 9:00 the agency folks start coming in. For instance, here’s today’s schedule. Of course, this morning I blocked out the 9:00 hour for this interview. At 10:00, I have two political candidates coming in. They’re each going to do 2 commercials. We’ll take a break at noon for lunch, and at 1:00 we’ll come back. Chris Thomas does this Interstate Battery show that I mentioned earlier. She’s coming in for her narration at 1:00. That will take about an hour. After that, I’ll start doing the rough cuts on her interviews until probably 3:00 or 4:00. At 4:00, we’ll do a missing cart report to determine what we’re missing for tomorrow, as far as our six radio stations are concerned, and make sure everything is in. By 5:00 everything should be ready to rock for tomorrow. From 5:00 to 6:00, today in particular, I’ll work some more on Chris Thomas’ show because it’s kind of a time intensive thing. And that’s pretty much a typical day.

JV: Ad agencies are famous for asking radio station production departments for free studio time, free dubs, free talent, and too often it’s something the station sales rep has already promised the agency. How have you been able to turn this situation around to the point where agencies are paying and salespeople aren’t complaining?
Chris: We’ve been very fortunate in that our salespeople realize what a valuable tool the production department is. And what we tell the agency people, as well as direct clients, is this is the best production you can get in this part of the state, and it’s true. We have no young people here. When I say young people, I mean new to radio. These people have all been doing this for a long time. We also have the contacts to go out in the community and pick up other voices if we need them. And as far as the kind of work that we produce, it’s an educational process. You have to say, “Is this what you want?” and play them a commercial from another radio station. “Or is this what you want?” and play them something we’ve done. Once they can see the difference, they can figure that yes by god, it is worth paying for.

Now concerning direct clients, we do not charge them for studio time or talent unless they request somebody specifically, but we do charge them for dubs. And I don’t understand any radio station that for no charge says, “Oh sure, I can make you a dub.” Because you’re going to take that production person, and you’re going to take them away from whatever else they’re doing to make somebody a dub. Why should the station not be paid for the time or the material? In our case, it’s either CDs or e-mailed MP3s. And so we charge $8.00 for each one of those, but we guarantee them. 

JV: So if a direct client gets a dub for another station, he’s charged for the dub but not for studio time or talent?
Chris: Right, they’re not charged for anything except for a dub fee if we send something out. And we only charge for talent if someone has requested a particular voice. Management feels that we’re here to do a bit of a job, and one of our jobs is to make certain that those direct clients are pretty much taken care of. Now, if it’s an advertising agency, we would charge them a studio fee and talent fee.

In order to see that nobody gets hurt too badly with that direct account arrangement, what we will do if it’s a regular client is hand the production to different people and we’ll rotate it through. Now the spot has to stay in this market; we won’t send it out of the market without a talent fee.

JV: What kind of rate do you get for studio time?
Chris: Right now our studio time is $90 an hour with a half hour minimum. For that they get a studio equipped with Pro Tools or Vegas, and like I said, we manage to bring in between $60,000 and $70,000 a year.

JV: That’s amazing. I wonder how many stations or groups out there actually are doing something like this. Do you know of any other Clear Channel clusters that have a production house like you have there, generating significant cash flow?
Chris: I’m unaware of it. I know that it’s always been looked at kind of strangely. When we first started doing this with Clear Channel, they said, “What are you guys charging these people for?” They’ll get an $8 or $16 bill and the folks at corporate are saying, “Sixteen dollars? What are you charging these people $16 for?” They did that for the first couple of months, and then they said, “Oh screw it, just send the money in.”

But the production department can be a real moneymaker for a lot of these radio stations. But you do have to teach your salespeople, and you have to teach the agencies what it’s all about. One of the things that has always graveled me is the advertising agency that gets 15% and they think they get that 15% because they’re buying time on your radio station. And then we also have the radio station managers around the country that are saying, “Yeah, I’m not going to charge you for anything, just come and buy my radio station.” Well you have to consider that if you can generate the kind of revenue that we’re doing over here, we’re paying for people to be here. Sure, it takes a certain amount of time and effort to do this kind of work, but if you generate that kind of revenue, then you’re paying salaries for two people.

Now I have to back up and I have to say there are lots of 10 and 12-hour days. But I have to think that there are a lot of 10 and 12-hour days around the country for production people now anyway. So, it’s a pretty good thing.

JV: Give us a more detailed rundown of the studios. You mentioned that you have Pro Tools and Vegas.
Chris: Yes, and if you’re going to do the kind of work we do here to generate that kind of money, you’ve got to be equipped to do it, and we have lots of equipment here. In my room, I have that 24-channel Auditronics board I mentioned earlier with Pro Tools LE, and that’s more than enough. I have a bunch of plug-ins for Pro Tools. I have an Eventide Ultra Harmonizer, a Yamaha SPX 1000, a new Sony MiniDisc recorder, a CD burner, Panasonic 3700 and 3800 DAT machines, and something that I bought recently that I just love which is a dbx Quantum. It’s a master processor, and no matter how I process a spot, I can run it through this guy and it makes it sound like 5 million bucks. I think it was like $1300. I know that’s a lot of money to a lot of radio stations, but it is well worth it.

JV: You use it for processing the final mixes?
Chris: You bet. I process the piss out of everything. People nowadays talk about how they like a real natural sound, how they don’t want to do much processing. Not me. I use every single trick I can get my hands on. And I’m a noble guy—I’ve been doing this for a long time—and the kids come up and they say, “I want this to cut through everything.” Well good, roll it off then. Yeah, we use everything we can. We like a big sound without being muddy.

JV: The Pro Tools LE is a stripped down version correct?
Chris: Yeah, it’s a smaller version of the full-blown Pro Tools. There are some things it can’t do. For instance, I can’t lock the video, and that’s one of the big drawbacks with this particular version. But it has plug-ins, and it does all the stuff it needs to do. I think now you can get it for about $800. You get a break out box, the software, and I think it comes with a proprietary sound card.

JV: You mentioned Sonic Foundry’s Vegas as the other multi-tracking software in the studios.
Chris: Yes, my buddy across the hall, the other Production Manager, John Jackson, says that Vegas is the best thing that ever happened to him, and he won’t even look at my Pro Tools. He loves it. I think it does a heck of a job, and it does some things that Pro Tools just will not do. One of the things that we’re looking at now is sending out so many MP3 files to everybody. In Pro Tools, it’s a little more time consuming to render audio into an MP3 file. Vegas does that very quickly. I’m the only one with Pro Tools. The other three studios all run Vegas.

JV: Who writes most of the copy for all the spots produced there?
Chris: John writes a lot of copy. I write almost none anymore. One of the fellows that is involved in the production department, Tom Collins, does a morning show. When he gets off the air, he’s our copywriter for the rest of the day. And believe it or not, he’s also a weekend weather guy on the CBS affiliate. Anyway, he’s able to crank out some great stuff. And you know, if you write copy, 9 times out of 10 you’ve got a real good idea in your head of what that copy is supposed to sound like when it’s produced; and that’s one of the nice things about having your own copywriter. You can go to him and say, ”What am I supposed to do with this?”

And so between Tom Collins and John Jackson, that’s where most of the copywriting comes from. The rest of us will write copy when needed. I’m much more valuable if I’m in the studio all of the time and not writing copy.

JV: What kind of scripts are your guys turning out? Are we doing some theater of the mind stuff or are we keeping it clean cut and simple?
Chris: It’s mostly straight VO stuff. It’s probably 60-70% straight VO stuff. We use a lot of jingles in our production here simply because this has always been a jingle oriented market. We will get into the theater of the mind stuff when we have time. Unfortunately, the volume or work we do is so huge that lots of times you don’t have 2 hours to spend doing a spot for somebody. But we do do that. Don’t misunderstand me, we do it. I think probably about 40% of the stuff we do is pretty creative and weird. We have a lot of fun with it. One of the things we try to teach the salespeople is when you need something real creative don’t bring it to us at 5:00 on a Friday night. Give us a couple of days. And they’re good about that. That way we can turn out some really good stuff.

JV: I’m sure there are a lot of stations that would love to put together a production house like you have set up there. What advice would you offer on how to get it off the ground?
Chris: Well first, in today’s radio station you’ve got to convince the manager that it’s either going to pay for itself or it’s going to bring in some revenue somehow. That’s the first step. You don’t have to charge $90 an hour. If somebody believes in you and you do some decent work, you can charge $20 an hour or $25 an hour and it will work up over a period of time. The important thing is that the individual who is doing the work has the ability to do it in a timely fashion, and that he has been given the tools to do that work. Having a great voice has nothing to do with this kind of work. Having an ability to edit and record and get the most out of your talent and the most out of your equipment is the most important thing. If you can convince your manager that you’ve got the time to spend two or three hours a day doing somebody else’s work and make the station some money and make you look good and the station look good, I think you’ve pretty much got it licked.

Once again, it’s that education thing. You have to convince your management and your salespeople that this is a valuable, valuable tool, and that you aren’t just doing this because you have to do it. You have to convince your manager that there is a need for this and there is a place for it. It’s like a donut shop. How many donut shops you got in town? There are fourteen? Well I don’t think I’m going to put another donut shop in, but if you have one, or none, then you can go for it. That sort of thing works a little better in medium markets or larger markets than it does in very small markets.

JV: What about marketing the service? I mean for some of the stuff that you do that’s not station related, do you actually market your services, or is it word of mouth?
Chris: There is a lot of word of mouth that goes into it, but I try to get our name in ever trade publication I can. For instance, Mix Magazine, if you have a studio, lets you list your studio for free. I’m all over the Internet. Every time I get an opportunity to write down Clear Channel Audio Design, I do it, just to let people know that we’re out there. When it’s slow, for instance right after 9/11 it was very slow for everyone, I spend a lot of time on the telephone talking to people that might potentially be in the market for some kind of audio work. There is very little audio we can’t do. It isn’t just commercials, slide shows or videos. We can do almost anything. We’ve done wedding audios. So, we market the hell out of the place when it’s slow around here.

JV: Continued success at Clear Channel Audio Design! Any parting thoughts on your business inside the business?
Chris: I think many people won’t understand how they can set this kind of thing up. Their manager tells them they’re doing all this stuff for free. That’s what a lot of these production people are up against. We see it everyday here too, but at least I’ve got some management that will back me up, and they have been backing me up for a number of years. We have to get away from this good old boy mentality. What we do is very, very important. It’s an integral part of any radio station. And you should be allowed to charge for the things that you do for people that are going to benefit. You don’t charge your direct clients because that’s part of the package. But an advertising agency who gets a 15% discount? Somebody needs to walk up to these guys and say, “Listen, you’re not getting your 15% discount because you come in and buy my radio station. The reason you’re getting your 15% is because I don’t have to go out and produce a spot for you.” And then somebody’s going to have to produce the commercial. Why shouldn’t we do it? Pay me. I mean that’s only fair.

JV: Well, unfortunately there are not enough managers out there who realize that placing value on your production affects the overall sound of the station, which ultimately affects the bottom line in a positive way.
Chris: Yes, and it’s shortsighted because this is so important. Production is so very important. Maybe we’re not as important as the morning guys, although I can tell you a bunch of morning guys that ought to be thinking about working more than 4 or 5 hours a day, but that’s another issue. But production is one of the most important departments in a radio station. We’re what makes you look good. And we’re what makes the client look good. Why would you not market those services? I mean look at Ogilvy & Mather; you know they’re going to spend maybe $10,000 for a 60 second commercial to be produced. Now I’m not talking about charging that kind of money. I am talking about $500 in a small market like this. Where is that $500 going to go? Well part of it should go to me, I mean I’m producing the commercial. Maybe I’m voicing it. Why should I be doing that for free? Who knows? That advertising agency may turn around and say to the client, “Well Burt, I got old what’s her mouth over at the radio station to produce it, but it’s going to cost you $500.” And they will stick that $500 in their pocket. Now there is something sick and wrong about that.

So let’s be straight. Let’s be honest. Let’s make certain that everybody appreciates what everybody else is trying to do. In the radio business, we all have to stick together or we’re all going to hang separately. So let’s help each other a little bit with this stuff. The managers out there need to realize that the production departments are very important to their bottom line, but let the production department do what it does. Don’t pull guys off the air and say, “Okay, when you get done with your shift, I want you to go in there and produce commercials for 10 hours.” Get me a production person who might do some voice tracking here or there, maybe even a weekend shift, but get me a production person.

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