When we talk about the audio industry and the areas in which its lives, we tend to think about it in two ways: linear and nonlinear format. And within these categories, the dominant players seem to be films, games, and television. But how is it that we’ve forgotten about radio? The oldest medium of them all, radio is more than just a linear or nonlinear format. It’s a living thing. It’s an audio only experience that has shaped our emotions, influenced our views, and informed our societies for generations. So why don’t we talk more about it now?
“In 1996, Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act which deregulated how many media properties an individual company could own in any given market.” That was the voice of Jeff Schmidt, Creative Director at Cumulus Media, audio designer, and expert of sound for radio. “There used to be much stricter regulations for how many radio stations a single company could own. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was part of a broad sweeping change to loosen those restrictions.”
So how did that action change the face, or rather the voice, of radio? “Wall Street noticed that at the time, radio was (and still is) a very high margin business. A well run radio station easily makes 50 cents on the dollar. It’s a 17 billion dollar a year industry. They saw that and thought, ‘If we can just roll up all these companies through leverage, we can own it all.’ So that’s what a lot of them did. And now, most of those companies are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Because they over leveraged.” It doesn’t matter what market you talk about; if one, or a select few companies have monopolized the creative decision making power, you’ve got a situation in which all outlets can potentially become standardized. And if those companies aren’t turning a profit, the situation becomes worse. And that’s exactly what happened to radio.
“If you just spent 20 billion dollars to buy a bunch of radio stations and found yourself overleveraged, you would need to find a way to cut costs. So that’s basically what those companies did. One of the most popular ways to cut costs was to make everything come from corporate. They just treated radio stations as receivers for corporate programs. So all the decisions were made in San Antonio, Texas for every market throughout the country. It really went through this horrible homogenization thing.”
The result of this consolidation meant that specialization of creative thinkers died and that people started being asked to manage multiple markets simultaneously. “Right now,” says Jeff, “I’m working with two stations, although occasionally I give input on others. But previously, I’ve done more. And when I originally took over those two stations, there were people that felt that you could only keep one brand in mind at the time. You’re either this, or your that. You can’t be a rock guy and like top 40. You can’t be a rock guy and do country. You can’t be a rock guy and know jazz. You needed to be a specialist. But as these companies started reducing a lot of the staff, people who were specialists found themselves out, with companies saying, ‘You’re a great rock guy, but we need somebody who can do a rock thing and then also help us out on our top 40 station.’”
“Here’s a perfect example. The two stations I was working with a couple weeks ago were both giving away tickets to see U2. One was a male station targeted at ‘harley driving’ dudes and the other station targeted 35-year-old females. So how do you talk about the same thing to two different audiences? It came down to the copy, the people reading it, what they sound like, and the music & FX I’m using. For the female leading station, I used “Where The Streets Have No Name” whereas on the male station, I used “Bullet In The Blue Sky.” So it’s the little things like that that distinguish between the two stations.”
“Somehow, I’ve managed to stay engaged and employed this whole time. But I think part of it has to do with the fact that I have been able to switch around. I like rock music, but I’m not the rock guy. I like top 40 and hits music, but I’m not the hits guy. I can get inside each one and start to figure it out.”
The Living Voice
When we turn the radio on, and switch to a station that we enjoy, we expect to hear a specific style of conversation or music. And if those expectations aren’t met, we can get frustrated quickly. Maybe we change the station or switch to another medium completely. But one thing we haven’t considered yet is the simple expectation that we all have, for the radio just to be on in the first place.
“Radio is always on. You always have a minute of time to fill…”
“Radio is always on. You always have a minute of time to fill…”
Personally, I think trying to keep multiple radio stations continually speaking with their own voices would make my head explode. But Jeff seems to do it effortlessly. And it all seems to come down to the style of voice, pacing, and music choices. And of course, sound effects. Being an audio designer himself, Jeff has used his talents in sound design to continue to create a unique identity in radio and to innovate in sound.
“Early on, back in 2003, I decided I wanted to do this for myself. And it was purely selfish, because I wanted my own stuff that no one had. I didn’t want to sound like other stations by getting the same sounds that they were using. But the first thing I did that made me realize I could actually make something, was totally by accident. I held down all three modifier keys in Pro Tools and I was in scrub mode. I had zoomed out and had a bunch of music tracks on my timeline and for some reason, took the mouse and kinda scrubbed across the right channel of one track and the left channel of another track. And it was doing this kind of extreme tape manipulation. And I thought, ‘That’s cool.’ “I pressed record on my DAT machine, loaded up a bunch of plugins on the master output, like L1 and all kinds of weird EQ, and started scratching all the tracks.”
“I pressed record on my DAT machine, loaded up a bunch of plugins on the master output, like L1 and all kinds of weird EQ, and started scratching all the tracks.”
What’s more, Jeff was able to take that new library he was designing and create a side business to sell it. It’s called Alien-Imaging, and while I’m not suppose to promote sound libraries here, I will tell you that it’s pretty awesome. “I would produce things and think, ‘Wow that sounds cool or that sounds different, maybe other people would dig it.’ So I created a website back in the day, this was 2003, and took out an ad in an industry publication that used to only go to people who do what I do. They sent out a CD every month and you could buy the first track of the CD to put in your demo. So I made a demo for my first sound effects library and put it on there. Within a week, fellow Radio Producer Steve Stone from the Howard Stern Station in New York called and said, ‘I gotta have this. How much is it?’ And once New York had it, well, that was like social currency. All of a sudden it was like, ‘Wow, New York’s on it, it must be good. I want it too!’”
The Medium & Tools
When designing sounds, most of us understand deeply the kind of environment in which our sounds will be played back. I, for example, design sounds for a mobile platform, which couldn’t be more different than someone who designs for film. Radio is no exception. It has it’s own set of rules and demands a certain kind of workflow to be successful. “Radio hates dynamics. It’s like trying to hear a TV in this environment [we were having our conversation at an Irish pub in Northern California]. Is having a really dynamic show on here effective? It’s not. [There was a TV going in the background. We couldn’t hear it.] Same thing with radio. When you’re driving a car, there’s 60db of road noise. So that’s why all these radio stations have at the end, a chain called “optimizer” which is basically this huge, complex, multiband compressor and limiter. “Everything is getting crushed. They have to because the FM frequency band is dramatically limited.”
“Everything is getting crushed. They have to because the FM frequency band is dramatically limited.”
Jeff and I had spent a good portion of our time talking about how he started making sounds for radio and how that process had evolved overtime. So my follow up question was, what is your process like today? “I still use Pro Tools as the main setup, but I also have a modular rig now that I use to modify stuff. It’s still all about taking simple or basic source material and then manipulating it through plugins and processes. I’ve been a big fan of Ableton Live for years now. Most of my first wave of creation is through Ableton, because I can have all these clips going at the same time, I can chain things to each other so that it’s playing the first 100 milliseconds then it goes on to the next sound. I can have all this jumping around, take the tempo up to 999.99 all the way down to 20. Just do these massive sweeps. Automate all kinds of stuff. It’s really expressive.”
“It doesn’t matter what you start with. Start with a simple footstep. And that can become all kinds of stuff. You’re not limited. It used to be that you had to start with really cool sounding stuff. Or really original sounding stuff. It’s not like that anymore. It’s much more like what you do to the sound you have.”
We’ve seen how the creative decision making behind radio has functioned in the past and we’re starting to understand it’s limitations as well as its strengths. But the real question is, how do we decide where radio is going in the future? How are creative thinkers like Jeff constantly challenging the status quo and pushing the medium forward?
“Radio people are used to hearing the voices that they’re used to hearing. You hear the same voices over and over again. The same sound. We say, ‘Oh this is what that kind of station sounds like so we’re going to use that guy.’ But when I see that kind of thing, I tend to become a contrarian and ask, ‘What could it sound like if it was different than what everybody thinks it should sound like?’ It’s challenging. Because, most people are not ready to step out of that comfort zone. Because at the end of the day, these are big companies, and their job is not to run radio stations, their job is to return value to their shareholders. The easy decision is the easiest because there’s just so much momentum behind it. So trying to be creative in that environment is challenging. But you have to keep pushing. Otherwise nothing new happens.”
“I think the big thing is paying attention to all other mediums. Like Adult Swim, for example, and the interstitial elements that they create. It’s like they’re saying, ‘Okay, we’re going into commercial break, and we know that sucks, so here’s 30 seconds of goofiness for you to zone out on. Or when we come back from commercial break we will reward you with this little piece of audio.’ That’s kinda like the purest version of branding for the sake of branding. For the sake of entertainment value. They’re not selling anything other than Adult Swim. They’re selling the vibe of Adult Swim. And I look at that and think that I could do more of that on radio. Because with radio, a lot of times, what we’re forced to do is very promotional. Like coming up in 15min, this is happening. Coming up tomorrow, this is happening. Here’s how you can win this. There’s much more of a call to action.”
From Jeff, I have learned that radio is a complex industry. Run by corporate conglomerates, in some people’s opinion, it struggles to remain contemporary amongst all the noise of podcasts, streaming music services, or whatever new thing is throwing sound at us today. And yet, we still treat radio as a given. Something that we expect to receive but not put any effort into. And through all of this, it still manages to turn a profit, even if some of the companies that own individuals stations are going under. Some people like to say that radio is dead. But it’s not. In fact, it’s not going away at all.
A big thank you to Jeff Schmidt for being willing to be interviewed for this article. And to you, the reader, for making it this far. Cheers!