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The Life of a WAKY Production Director
Our Q&A with Mike Griffin

When you think of the things you listened to WAKY for, the commercials probably don't come to mind. But like any successful radio station, WAKY had plenty of paid "spots" that needed to be produced and transferred to tape cartridges before the DJ on the air could play them. Mike Griffin was WAKY's Production Director between 1971 and 1977, and graciously answered our questions about what it was like to be in charge of production at the Super 79.

Mike Griffin and Bill Bailey (July 2005)

What were the duties of the WAKY Production Director? How much of was fun and how much was "grunt work?"

I don't remember liking the work much. A lot of it was repetitive. In spite of this, I took a lot of pride in the station and the work. The work involved producing commercials and promos, scheduling the use of the studio, making sure music and commercials got carted and on the air, and insuring the studio was kept up and the product coming out was good. I also ran the transmitter and did overnight and weekend air shifts. [Download samples of Mike's airwork on the Airchecks Page.]

What was a typical day like? Did you work "as long as it took" to get the job done or did you have to watch your hours?

My hours were 10A-6P. Some days a lot of stuff came in at 5:30. I hated that. I could work as long as necessary to get things done.

Some Production Directors have a dedicated studio to use. Was that the case with you? If not, was there a certain time you had to use the studio?

The main production studio was mine. The secondary studio was typically kept open for the news folks although Gary Burbank also used it as an office and for show prep when I first came to WAKY.

What were you doing when you weren't in the studio?

WAKY was a directional station and required a First Class Licensed operator to operate the transmitter. I took the readings and signed the transmitter log during the day. Occasionally I would draw strange things on the transmitter log. Which reminds me, one had some strange rabbit looking figures on it. A black engineer decided that these strange figures were somehow a racial putdown against him and he complained to Doc (Earnest Dockery) who was acting chief engineer. I don't know how Doc handled it but things were okay afterwards and they really weren't racial. This particular log surfaced again a year or two later when the FCC requested it as part of a license renewal. The FCC didn't complain about the log but Doc was concerned about sending in a log with cartoon-like characters on it.

Other than being a misunderstood artist, I'd read or hang out during down times. Johnny Randolph's office was always a good place to visit. Randolph was great with stories. I'd also hack electronics, producing a number of small projects for use at the station.

Then there were the stupid memos I would write. I recall the station getting a security service to check up on the studio at night. I started "The Bowser Report" and hung it on the control room door. It was all about what Bowser, the main guard dog, found that night and what he recommended for protection. There were some others, but this series was probably the worst. Then, stupid stuff like Dial-A-Prayer calling you. Or experimenting with putting subliminals in promos. Usually this was a repeating track of something like the word "sex" or the sounds of intercourse, or the sound of bees or of rattlesnakes...any or all of it. I had read about the techniques after the movie "The Exorcist" came out in '73. There was a book called "Subliminal Seduction" that was fascinating. These sounds are set below the level of being noticed or are backwards as in some of the Beatles songs. The idea is that your subconscious picks up on them and raises your excitement even though you cannot interpret whether this excitement is for something good or bad. If enough other good elements accompany the subliminals they will be interpreted as good. The subliminals only went on a few promos and the only thing I was ever able to satisfy myself of was that I spent a lot more time on the promos and that promo production became better and stayed better.

Did the jocks produce all their spots, or did they just lay down the voice track and you took care of the rest?

For the daytime jocks it could go either way. Some, like Lee Gray and Gary Burbank typically had sessions scheduled for paid work at other studios. When they got off the air they would often, but not always, lay down voice tracks and run. The night guys typically were responsible for doing all of it. Jason O'Brian loved production and wouldn't think of anything other than doing all the work himself.

Were you able to make any extra money by rolling dubs for agencies for other stations?

Usually the dubs were included in the buy for the station. If copies went out, the station collected a nominal fee for them, not me. On several occasions some bigger jobs, say two- to three-hundred dubs came along. Those were supposed to be extra for me but it didn't always happen, I suspect sometimes the sales guy may have decided he deserved a little extra commission.

Did the jocks get paid extra if another station wanted a dub of a spot they produced for WAKY?

If a spot went out to another station, there was a talent fee. If a particular jock was requested, the fee might be more than for someone else. Several jocks derived considerable income from outside spot work. They were protected from someone trying to get it cheap by coming through the station. Gary Burbank, Tom Dooley and Lee Gray fell into this category. They did a lot of work at outside sound studios and the spots weren't always for the Louisville market. I'm not sure about the other jocks. I don't think Bill Bailey did much outside voiceover work. He made extra money for live spots on his show, while the others didn't.

The main WAKY production room in the early '70s

Did you have to attend any regular meetings as Production Director (sales meetings, meetings with clients, etc.)?

I typically went to jock meetings. I didn't typically meet with clients; agency people, but not clients. We did a lot of work with agencies.

Were you responsible for producing non-commercial items such as station promos, Sunday morning programs, etc.?

Yes, promos, programs, all of that, including production on all of the station composites from '72 and '73 posted on the Airchecks Page. Some of the Sunday programming was done by the news department, so they did all of that themselves. Several other programs involved outside people who would come in and produce various kinds of programs from interviews to subversive diatribes. Dick Gregory had a rather interesting view of the Declaration of Independence that I helped package into a program. We also did a local version of "Power Line" called "Rock And Soul" for a year or so. I pitched that one to Randolph, produced the first shows, then taught the young minister who voiced it to do it all himself.

Once we had a contract with a live "Adult Entertainment" theater that had replaced one of the movie houses that had closed when 4th street was turned into the "River City Mall." This contract required that I work (closely) with some of the girls producing music and sound effects for their acts.

Later, as the super long cuts from albums were becoming popular because of the growing popularity of FM, I would make custom cuts of some of these. Usually the 45's put out by record companies were way too hacked so I'd make a five- to seven-minute version from the longer LP cuts. I remember "Green Grass And High Tides" by the Outlaws and "Do You Feel Like I Do" by Peter Frampton as being some of the better cuts that I did. "Do You Feel Like I Do" went from nearly 15 minutes down to about 6 and I managed to keep all the "gimmick" stuff. I liked it better. "Green Grass And High Tides" likewise preserved the best parts of the song, and several other stations played our cut of it.

Any stories about the sales department fit to print? Favorites and not-so-favorites?

No particular bad guys. Two especially good guys were Jack Sumner and Tim Tyler. Jack was good to go to for theatre tickets. (I think Jack died in '73.) Tim was just an all around decent guy.

Any problems with getting jocks to do their production?

We had boxes set up for each jock. They checked what they had when they got off the air. It was never a problem.

Did you have anybody working with you doing stuff like straight agency dubs?

If it wasn't news and involved production, it was me. I did all the agency dubs.

Did WAKY have a copywriter? Did sales people write their own copy?

Penny Whitaker was "Creative Director." She did most of the in-house copy writing. She also worked with Johnny Randolph on contests and promotions.

Did you ever have to write copy or otherwise participate in the pre-studio creative process?

Toward the end of my time I wrote a little, but not much. Otherwise I took over at the studio door.

Dude Walker in one of the WAKY production rooms

What kind of equipment did the producer have at his disposal? Did you have EQ, reverb and/or limiting?

Before the Arrival of Engineer John Timm in 1975

The main production room had a Gatesway II console and a pair of two-track Scully reel-to-reel machines. There were also two cart machines: one that recorded, the other playback only. The studio also had a Gates Sta-Level that was modified for fast attack. We could crank in so much compression with it that the VU would barely move. Usually not too much was used because the air compression was adequate. There was an equalizer that could be patched in. There was no reverb -- just tape echo for delay effects.

The second production room contained the old Gatesway console from WAKY's old Kentucky Home Life control room. The second room had a cart recorder and two Ampex 350s. There was no EQ, echo or other effects.

After the Arrival of Engineer John Timm in 1975

The main production room became the secondary production room and a new four-track facility replaced what was the second room.

I don't recall the manufacturer of the new board, but it had slider pots and EQ on each channel. We had a new four-track Scully and a new two-track Scully. Seems like there was limiting and compression available, but I don't remember reverb. We also got a synthesizer so we could make strange sounds, musical notes, and such.

Do you remember what production and sound effects libraries you had at your disposal?

We had several libraries. The only one I remember was "The Sounds Of Broadcasting" (or "SOB"). It was done by the big jingle company that was located in Memphis [William B. Tanner]. I remember this package because these guys flew a bunch of Production Directors in from around the country to talk about ideas for it before they released it. They put us all up at the Sheraton Peabody, the old hotel that had live ducks in the fountain in its lobby. We bought this package while WAKY was still owned by LIN Broadcasting but the library was continously added to the whole time I was at WAKY.

How hard was it to get supplies like reel-to-reel tape, new carts, splicing tape, etc.?

When I came to WAKY we were doing stupid stuff like rebuilding carts and the like ourselves. Supplies and such were ordered through the Engineering Department. This worked okay but we essentially just got whatever tape or such that the local electronics parts house stocked. Later I got accounts going at several companies that rebuilt carts and sold tape and other production supplies. I then ordered whatever and whenever I wanted. We got better tape stock and the carts came back "factory spec" and were much better.

Was the Engineering Department pretty receptive to your needs as a Production Director?

Engineering had a regular preventative maintenance schedule for all the studios, for all equipment in the station. I don't recall any equipment failures in the studios. Maintenance was very good. I have written above about John Timm greatly improving our production facilities.

Did spots on WAKY have to be exactly :60 or :30?

Spot length didn't have to be exact. They could be short, but we wouldn't let them run over.

What did you do about the problem of recording over cart splices? Did have an automated splice finder or did the producer have to look for them manually to avoid them?

When I first came to WAKY splices were a bit of a problem. They weren't being managed. I started going through all the carts and manually finding the splices. Happily we got a splice finder in 1973. I also put a VU meter on the output of the cart machine so we could ensure that the playback levels were good without having to play the spots back again. Later when we got a multi-track studio we could bring the cart back into the board through another channel. On the Gatesway II that we used prior to '76 there was only a monitor channel. Adding a VU to the playback of the cart recorder improved efficiency a lot.

Coyote Calhoun in one of the WAKY production studios

What were the biggest problems you encountered (such as late copy, incorrect copy, etc.) and how did management respond to them?

Usually this was not a problem. Makegoods were done if necessary but this happened very seldom.

Who was your immediate supervisor as Production Director? Did you report to the Program Director, the Sales Manager or the General Manager?

I reported to the Program Director, Johnny Randolph.

Did WAKY do a lot of spec spots?

Very seldom. We often would play a spot for a client for approval before it aired, but usually the buy was made before any spots were cut.

How much stuff did you voice yourself? What determined whether you voiced it or somebody else did?

I mostly did tags. We had the best voices in Louisville. Unless a particular voice was requested, the production was divided between everyone. If a particular voice was requested there was a fee involved.

Did WAKY archive all commercials on reel? If so, what was that process/routine like?

We had a huge closet where we put reels alphabetically by sponsor. For a time we also had reel tapes that we logged items onto. This was something I introduced but didn't continue. The closet system was better because there was no good index to the spots on reel. Using a paper catalog and then counting down 20 cuts on a particular tape to get to the cut you wanted was too much trouble.

We also used a day reel for production. We had 31 of them numbered accordingly. The first would be used on the 1st day of the month, the second on the 2nd, and so on. This caught all the general production and provided us a backup until that tape cycled in again the next month. Then it would be bulk erased and we'd start on it again. The idea was that this tape would catch the promos, tags, voiceovers and easy production, and provide protection for those items against cart breakage. No catalog was kept of these tapes, only knowledge of when something might have been cut. This was somewhat useful but if you got out more than a few days it could be troublesome. This is why I tried the master reels.

Any rules about doing spots, such as no dry spots?

We tried not to have dry spots, but there were no hard rule.

Any particular coding on the cart labels so spots would be played in a certain order?

There was no coding on the cart labels. Spots were always played in the order they appeared on the program log.

I have heard others say that WAKY hired the best people, self-starters, and let them do their jobs. This worked out as well for production as it did for other areas of the station. Everyone who did production tried to make it sound the best that it could sound. It was not uncommon that a lot of time was spent just picking out music and sound effects.

Did programming ever reject commercials or require them to be recut? Were there any commercials that came in from outside the station that were "too bad" for WAKY to air?

No, we were whores. Someone brought up the name of a certain auto auto parts store on the Message Board. These were possibly the worst. The owner of the business did the voice work himself. He had a very high-pitched voice that grated. That statement is just a little extreme, but there was little push back that I can recall.

It's funny to remember now in this day of political extremes within the two main parties that in the 1970s we ran spots for Gus Hall for President. Gus was the head of the American Communist Party and the USSR had a lot of big bombs aimed at us. Remember Lyndon LaRouche? He was pretty far outside the mainstream. We ran ads for him for President as a third party candidate during the '76 election. Of course, we were required by law to run these political spots, but there was no out-cry from the listeners. These commercials ran like everything else.

What are some of the things you learned as Production Director? Would you ever want to do that job again?

In many ways this was a dark period for me (and possibly for radio production). I would never want this job again. I quit the job after doing it for a year. Marty Balou was getting ready for college and picked it up for several months before he headed off. Then for various reasons, some that don't make much sense today, I took the job again and kept it for six more years.

Before WAKY I had not worked with multi-track production -- I had no concept of it. Without multi-track everything had to be mixed down in a single pass or done in pieces and cut together. With the two-track machines at WAKY when I first came, a new dimension opened for me: building up spots in layers. Later with the four-track studio it was even more interesting and I began to add more elaborate sound effects. Sure, it was still tape and the basics stayed the same but it was now possible to add elements easily on the separate tracks. Sometimes I'd add just the hint of a sound. Whether it helped the spots or not it amused me and I learned all about multi-track production.

What was your favorite part of the job?

I don't recall a favorite part.

Least favorite?

The least favorite was carting commercials. I've never been big on repetitive work. As soon as work was finished more came in. It reminds me of Sisyphus in Greek mythology. A cruel king of Corinth was condemned forever to roll a huge stone up a hill in Hades only to have it roll down again on nearing the top.

In the end I stayed that last six years because the people were great, WAKY paid pretty well, and I loved doing the WAKY talk show which was part of overnights. I felt a freedom doing that show that I had never felt before or since. I left because the production part, after all this time, was just too horrid and I couldn't seem to talk about it. The bad overwhelmed the good. In an insane moment (probably one of many) I left to sell used cars and I was able to learn just what crooks looked like. When, after a month, they looked a little too much like me I left that job too.

Electronics had stayed pretty close to me through those years at WAKY. I loved it and kept up with it. John Timm, who became chief engineer at WAKY about 1975, was a good influence. He was always tinkering with new stuff like digital electronics and microprocessors and this prompted me to look into this area too. Within a short time I came to work at WDRB-TV and began my second career, TV engineering. I had worked for WDRB for nearly a year in 1970 when they first signed on. This time I stayed three years and the digital stuff and microprocessors that John Timm had interested me in were just what I needed. From there I went to WHAS for another three years, then to Sony Corporation for 22 years, and then my own company. The digital electronics and microprocessors that I started learning at WAKY were my technical base for many years. It is the communications skills, presenting ideas simply and to the point, that I started picking up at WAKY and that have gotten me noticed, gotten me awards, and have helped me move ahead.
Since 2012, I am doing SEO in Louisville helping businesses market themselves on the Internet. A person needs to do something he loves. When he's not growing or it's not fun anymore, he should find something else to do and love.