February 10, 2015
A do-it-yourself mentality prompted Jason Garte to leave Beasley/Miami 12 years ago to start his own voice/imaging business. Talk about a challenge: Garte had to adapt to a changing competitive radio climate - what with the double-edge sword of radio consolidation and a slew of independent imaging/voice talents - but he had to master the continuous advances in production/digital technology. Through it all, his company The Mix Group has grown into a state-of-the-art production/imaging service ... and he has since launched Mix Talent, which boasts a stable of top-flight voice talent. Here Garte explains how he's succeeded on a challenging terrain.
While you were doing imaging/on-air for Beasley/Miami, what prompted you to do imaging full-time?
I hit the glass ceiling in radio; I had been there for quite a while and had done every job in the building. I was young enough to risk things and try out random ideas. I was imaging for a couple of stations on the side while I was at WPOW, just to see if it worked for me. So, in effect, I started my own business that I could transition into a full-time thing. I figured I had nothing to lose.
At what time were you confident that Mix Group could prosper on its own?
There was never a definitive moment when it suddenly occurred to me. It was a cumulative effort that I was able to build along the way, where every moment seamlessly blended into the next. It was a massive journey that was built on the success of the day before. When I had five stations, it was all about getting to 20 ... then it was getting to 50 stations ... then 100 stations. To be very honest, considering the state of where radio was then and is now, just like many other businesses, you have to stay pretty lean. You don't just make a killing around here; you just get it done to make each deal happen. It has always been that tight all along the way just to keep growing.
What was the toughest part of growing your business over the years?
The toughest part then - as it is now -- is spreading the word. We're very promotionally active and we market like crazy. Aside from the operation of the company and fantastic product we offer, we have to market and advertise heavily. Even if you have the best product out there, just getting it out to people and making them aware of your existence is key. Once they got to know us, saw our offerings and realized how we could help them, it became a no-brainer.
Describe the competitive imaging/production playing field. Did you feel like you have or have to pit your company's offerings against the others?
This reminds me of one of my favorite personal quotes: "Successful people are motivated by the desire to achieve, not the desire to beat others." I have blinders on. I am aware of competitors but I don't need to use competition to better my efforts. I have a very strong vision. Call me naïve but I have a clear concept on how it should all play out and how it should all go. Hopefully, I'll be able to convince the rest of the world to see my vision for them.
My company is concentrated internally. On the voiceover side, Mix Talent is very focused on making sure that we're not having the talent compete with one another for gigs. We offer up what I feel is a solid soup-to-nuts lineup of imaging voices that can serve whatever you need, be it the quintessential Country voice or a really powerful Hip-Hop voice. We're very focused on keeping our roster to a small size so we don't have five duplicated voices competing against each other for the same gig.
How do you sell your company to clients - do you compare your talent and rates to others?
We strive to be the answer to our client's needs, but that's what every great company does. There are great services out there; I feel the best companies try to address the needs of the marketplace. I don't just sit around here and wait for someone to come along. I cultivate talent who are creative and take risks, where people can see something in them and their work.
For example, Phil Marks does a lot of Urban AC work. He has found a great niche in classic hip-hop; we've been working together for a very long time. Then there's Joe Cruise who has become a dominant force in Top 40, or Rick Party who is one of the biggest Urban voices in the biz. I'm proud of all of them; they've taken the voiceover industry by storm and have helped us forge the Mix Talent division, giving Mix another great service to be known for.
How has consolidation impacted the growth of your company - in terms of competition for business? Is it harder when the big groups rely on one voice for all of their same-format stations?
That's definitely the case; that's what's happening out there in today's radio. You'll find bigger programmers running our industry who find that if a certain formula works, they'll replicate it at a lot of their stations - and a lot of people enjoy success like that ... us included. If you think about it, the record labels have been doing something like this for years, telling one station to play their record because it's on other stations. But although they may have a favorite go-to guy to voice a certain station, there are also a lot of extenuating circumstances where they'll try out someone new -- and that can be a whole new beginning, a whole new craze. It has happened when this new guy, who does a one-off, goes so well that he becomes their new voice. This even happens when their go-to guy is so embedded within the station group that you need the "jaws of life" to break that bond.
How has digital technology impacted your business?
Obviously, it has made it better. Certainly, when it comes to our production services, it has allowed us to utilize all kinds of great processing and studio technology to achieve a sonic product that in years past was just not attainable. It has also allowed us to be more nimble and portable. One our guys can do a last-minute revision while on the road, if need be. Wherever I go, I always have a mobile rig where I can put contracts together, listen to production, and post things up to our FTP server in my car over wi-fi.
Is there ever a danger if a particular imaging style or production sound becomes so ubiquitous that it becomes overplayed or predictable, thereby losing its appeal? And if there is, who decides that it's time to change the sound or style -- you or your customers?
I think a little of both, honestly. Naturally, over time music changes, styles change, and so therefore does the sound of the Imaging. The production work we do here at Mix is 100% custom in nature and stations will constantly steer us in the direction they're interested in going, changing the sound along the way. Additionally, I make it a point to continually cultivate new sounds and new methods of producing. I also hire fresh, new, up-and-coming talent frequently. Their individual approach coupled with my many years of experience allows us to have this killer contemporary sound that is also very much rooted in the classic sound of heritage stations of the past.
Do you offer new or specific imaging or production for a new station, or does the programmer ask you for something he or she already has in mind?
I've been doing it for over 20 years - and there's nothing in the world you couldn't ask me about creatively. If you ask me about imaging, I'll give you an earful. But when it comes to programming and what programmers want to hear, I defer to their expertise. The big people out there -- the Jon Zellners, the Colby Colbs -- have been doing this for so long, I defer to them when they say, "This is the sound we go for; this is what's working." I have those conversations with them, where they may ask me to take things up a notch or bring it down a couple -- whatever their vision is, I have to go with them blindly because these guys are really in the trenches. They've got the facts and I'll follow them every single time.
One of the great things about Mix Group is that we don't specialize in a certain sound. Rather, we have an offering for every need. We can go wherever programmers want us to go. Whatever their request is, we have the capability to execute the vision of whatever they hear in their head -- and we nail it for them.
Where does the innovation for new production sounds and styles come in? Who devotes the time for imaging experimentation ... and where can you go to see if it connects with listeners?
One of the big benefits of having this great big staff of full-time producers and not subcontracting out our work is that I get to bring everyone together for weekly production meetings where we go over what we did the week before and what is coming up on the horizon. During these meetings we often brainstorm like crazy; coming up with powerful new concepts and ideas, spit-balling creative thoughts, and putting our heads together to push our sound forward. The innovation is never-ending and we use every tool to our advantage from new audio plug-ins and equipment, to great new concepts and methods we may have been influenced by in watching a movie trailer or visiting a theme park. We work closely with each of our program directors to see how all of this comes across on the air, and of course to the listener.
How does the mantra of being and/or sounding "local, local, local" impact the way you do your job?
When we produce our stuff for the larger groups, they may be using the same voice guy all around the country, and there might be common elements in the imaging we do for them, but it ends there. The way we image a station in New York City is going to be very different than the imaging we'll do for a small station in Texas, which will be different for a station in Nevada or Florida. Having stations in so many different markets and having personally visited many, we have great knowledge of the specific vibes of each market. We often utilize a lot of listener testimonials and develop systems that appeal to backyards. We have a strong Hispanic influence in our imaging for our Miami station, while creating a Country vibe in Nashville or Lubbock, TX.
Does an imaging style popular in a big market ever become popular in other markets months or years later? How does a once cutting-edge production style become mainstream?
The larger markets will always set the stage for how things go from music to jocks, social media to imaging. That being said, we notice trends develop in larger markets and then replicate around the country. Case in point: 93.5 KDAY in LA and Boom 92 Houston -- both of which we produce by the way. These two stations started a massive Classic Hip-Hop craze that is running rampant around the country, and so is the Imaging style that we're using to bring these powerful brands to life. Programmers listen to other programmers and the same is true for imaging talent. We work with a lot of these Classic Hip-Hop stations, but we've also heard some of the ones we don't work with and you can hear a lot of similarities in the way the Imaging is produced.
What made you decide to start managing other voice talent?
Our meat and potatoes was our imaging and production work when we signed with Premiere at the end of 2005. From there I met with a couple of programmers who said they didn't have the budget to pay for a new voice guy and asked if I could help them by possibly running a couple more minutes so I could pick up the tab for the voice guy. I said sure; that got to be the case with a couple more programmers and soon enough, this picked up a lot of speed to where I made it a bona fide company and incorporated Mix Talent in '09. From that moment on, I decided that if I was going to get into something, I was going to get into it big. This wasn't something to just dabble in, so I made sure I would work with big names whose work I truly loved and respected, as well as cultivate new talent. It has been a great journey, so now I can offer a whole package to stations - even those with small budgets. It's a win-win all over the place.
How were you able to convince voiceover entrepreneurs to be part of Mix Talent?
It's the same whether I'm convincing stations to pick up our service or convincing talent to work with me. We like to be out there in the world, promoting ourselves, our products and our strengths. If they like what we're doing and want to be part of our movement, then we can start discussing what we can do together.
I'm very critical and discerning when it comes to the talent and producers I want to employ full-time. I don't want to water down or dissolve the quality of who we offer and who we work with. I'm very over-protective in that regard. We probably get a handful of stations every day, who are interested in us working with them. We also get the same number of VO talent who reach out and say they want to be part of Mix Talent. If I get a vision that this hypothetical guy would be perfect for News/Talk, for instance, and we happen to have a need for his talents, we get him on board and put a whole marketing thing together.
How do you keep everyone on your staff happy - and how difficult is it to generate enough business to satisfy them all?
All of our production staff are employed full-time, and as we book more stations we hire more producers. This helps maximize both our turnaround time and what my guys are each taking home. I also allow some of my staff to work from home, which helps keep them close to family members and also in raising their young children. I'm also big on raises, big on bonuses, big on never working weekends, and big on plenty of vacation time. I know... rare in radio.
When it comes to our voiceover talent we don't necessarily pigeonhole by formats, but utilize their strengths for specific styles. We have a Country guy who sounds very traditional and would be very much at home on a real Country station in rural America. Then we also have a voice for a very cutting edge hot Country station in a major market that almost has a Top 40 delivery. There are new contemporary voices in formats who won't share the same space with traditional voices because they have a totally different vibe. The best comparison for Mix Talent is that we have an Oceans 11 of talent, where we have someone who can satisfy any voice the programmer hears in his or her head.
How would an indie voice talent approach you about becoming part of your company?
I don't have a clear answer to that; there's no one thing I look for in a voice talent who just comes to me. First, I listen to the demo like a PD would listen to it. If it's a Country voice, I become a Country PD and ask myself if this voice is better than the one I now have.
A better example is our Hip-Hop and Urban talent. We have the best collection of big hip-hop voices on the radio, so when any hip-hop station is looking for a voice, they could call me and get Eric Edwards, Rick Party or DJ Drama. They're all different in some way.
So anytime new talents come in, they have to be unique or present themselves in a different way. At the same time, I would cultivate a strong sense of loyalty and not create competition within the company. I've had those opportunities before, when a guy approached me and sounded identical to one of my guys. I've had to tell him that I can't work with him - all because of my loyalty to my team.
How big do you want The Mix Group to be?
The sky's the limit! This thing really took off in 2007-8 when we reached 150 stations. We used to have years of 10-15% growth; now we average 40-50%, which is a monstrous kind of growth. We're hiring new people every other month, be it producers or marketing and sales people. We now have a staff of three motion graphic, video, and web designers who keep us looking sharp in the public eye. I have the mentality where every dollar we grow goes right back into the company. That gets us more talent and more tools to do this. Such huge growth is great, but it's been a rough and tough road having to bootstrap the hell out of this thing.
What challenges and/or goals do you have for the future, such as attracting satellite radio or streaming service clients?
Call me naïve, but considering our current growth, and the fact that I'm so hyper-focused and in love with radio, I'm actually not involved in satellite radio or many streaming services. We are all about terrestrial radio ... that's basically all we do. Personally, when I want to do side projects, I do things like the Grammy Awards or special programming for Univision TV. Being in Miami, I do lots of stuff for the Dolphins and Miami Heat. I produced their championship intro that you were able to watch on national TV during the NBA Finals. It was really exciting to be in the arena and watch it unfold live while the rest of the country watched it on TV.
I currently do one streaming service -- an EDM streaming music platform called Beatgasm; and I've also done stuff for Disney here and there but by-in-large, the Mix Group will always be about radio ... real, terrestrial radio. If there's some massive shift that forces the broadcast powers to focus on other platforms, we'll move with them, like everyone else. But right now, our focus is serving the 150 million who hear our work every day.