May 12, 2015
In a brand-possessive media world, few things illustrate and convey a radio station's brand better than the jingle. While the classic jingles of radio's "Golden Days" may still ring in our heads, Erik Huber and ReelWorld have built a global success from updating the jingle ... and making it sound as fresh and cutting edge as anything else the digital era. Here, Huber describes what it takes to craft ahead-of-the-curve jingles in these ever-changing times.
What were you doing before you started ReelWorld?
This is probably the gig I was born to do. The very first time I produced a radio jingle package, I was about 15 years old, an intern at my very first studio gig in the Seattle area in the late '80s. Prior to ReelWorld, I was working as a producer at another local studio doing music for film and TV, commercial audio post-production and a little bit of songwriting and artist development. I also did some radio IDs and jingles. That was when I met Steve Thomas, who ultimately became my co-founder.
What attracted you to this line of work?
Back in the day, if I asked my 15-year-old self that question, my answer would be that jingles are the purest distillation of pop music production. What we do in this business is take everything we know about songcraft, melody, production, pacing, vocal and musical structure and compress it down to a seven-second sound bite while making it sound huge, memorable and current. It's a challenge not unlike writing a haiku or a sonnet. You have to play within these very strictly defined boundaries; that's what makes it a creative challenge and so much fun. You've got to do all these things in a few seconds - the jingle has to capture the station brand and be sonically compelling for the listener, while standing up to the hottest records that are being played on the station. And to do all that in 10 seconds or less is a great challenge.
Was there a "light bulb" moment when you knew you could succeed in this?
There definitely was a light bulb moment; it occurred in 1994. Steve and I had been collaborating on artist development stuff, songwriting and some low-budget record production. We were having a lot of fun doing it but we hadn't had that triple-Platinum hit record yet and on the side, we were looking for other ways to earn a living as producers. I knew a bit about the radio ID thing; this was in the early '90s, when hip-hop and grunge had just crossed over to the mainstream and there was a lot of fresh stuff on the radio that wasn't reflected in its radio jingle product. Back in those days the dominant players in the radio jingle industry were almost all Dallas-based, still producing all these old school Top 40 jingles with barbershop harmonies in them - and having that go into a Dr. Dre record sounded really cheesy. There was a real market opportunity there; no one was making ID jingles that sounded at home next to Boyz II Men or Warren G, or the alt rock or dance stuff, for that matter. Our background and skill set, as musicians and record producers, gave us a vision for radio jingles that sounded more like the format; and we knew the singers and musicians who could give us those sounds.
That sort of led us into locking ourselves in our basement to come up with a jingle package for WPGC in 1994. At the time, 'PGC was arguably one of the foremost Rhythmic Top 40s in the country - and I was just looking for a home for my radio jingle product. I literally called every station in the top-50 markets and Jay Stevens was the only guy who picked up the phone. He gave us a chance to create a jingle package on a spec basis; Steve and I went into the basement and came up with something he liked, and he rolled with it.
That was our light bulb moment. We got in with Jay; he loved our stuff because no jingle had ever sounded like that, so he talked up our stuff to Guy Zapoleon and Jerry Clifton, which led to Steve Rivers getting hold of one of our demos. He got us on Kiss 108 in Boston, which was another watershed moment because around the same time, Pyramid was turning into Evergreen, which became part of Chancellor, which became part of Clear Channel. We went from three clients to 70 or 80 in our first 18 months; 80 stations were airing our stuff, all on the basis of Jay Stevens, Guy Zapoleon, Jerry Clifton and ultimately Steve Rivers.
It was a unique time to be in radio. Deregulation was in full swing; there were massive station buying frenzies after the FCC relaxed ownership limits, which led to a lot of format flips and station re-branding situations - and hence a greater need for new jingles, with relatively few guys making programming decisions that impacted lots of markets.
ReelWorld capitalized on the consolidation to land new stations - consolidation that still reigns today. How does ReelWorld succeed in dealing with groups when your jingles are supposed to sound very localized?
Everything we do has always been customized, not just within each format but also to specific geographical regions within that format. As an example, a few years ago we did custom jingles for La Mega in New York, incorporating a very particular mix of tropical sounds like reggaeton and salsa music along with a mainstream Top 40 brand identity. Or, in Europe, stations in different countries and regions have the ability to pull together individual jingle themes from our ReelWorld ONE catalog to reflect the particular texture and flavor of their local sound and their target audience. Over time, we have built up a catalog that's specifically targeted to a wide variety of musical genres and regional distinctions within each format.
Our creation process always starts with a deep dive into each format and into each client's playlist, target demographic and position within the market. We really do everything possible to come up with something that is uniquely tied to the personality of each broadcaster, whether it's a Country jingle, a tropical format, a News/Talk or Hot AC. From a philosophical standpoint, our end goal is to meld the station's brand into the DNA of the format in a way that sounds unique, current, memorable and hopefully captures the soul and the core brand values of the station.
How do you judge the success of a jingle package if you can't do it through the ratings?
Some aspect of that will always be subjective. It would be great to say that our new KIIS jingles are the reason they're #1, but with apologies to John Ivey, obviously we can't say that. So, we rely on the experience in the room, the tastemakers in the room, to provide steerage on the brand strategy and the creative decisions that go into a particular jingle identity, with the guys making the calls being either our team internally, the programmer at the group level or the individual PD of the station. We all determine whether the jingles work for the brand, are on-message and are accurately capturing the core identity of the station. If we're successful in that process, I've got to believe it can play a part in a station's growth, but until they come up with PPM for jingles, we can't measure it through ratings. However, one might argue that a disproportionate share of our clients are on top of the ratings in their particular markets.
Do you research your jingle packages and if so, how?
Constantly. We are paying attention to what's going on throughout this industry at all times. We look at what each format is doing and where it's headed; we also look at what hasn't been created yet, in terms of a cool brand image or a new twist on a heritage brand. We've got repeat clients who are always searching for the next big thing, so in our research we're always looking at not only what's happening within a particular format, but what the industry is doing as a whole - and what we can do to add listener value and differentiate radio as a product from other media such as Spotify and Pandora.
At the moment, I can't talk about it too much before it's officially launched but we're about to roll out a reinvention of our entire radio branding philosophy, coming from the angle of a post-PPM world and how we can actually add value to the total listener experience while successfully conveying the station's brand. We want to be cooler than what you hear on Spotify. So the question is how to create audio branding that actually elevates the listener experience, as opposed to an irritating sweeper that takes the listener out of the flow of the music. It's a whole new deal and I am very excited about it.
Have the new digital platforms impacted the sound of your jingle packages?
We haven't made any particular changes based on digital alone. However, the aggregate changes we are seeing out of PPM, streaming media and a greater degree of competition for the medium in general, is certainly driving the conversation about how we brand and image a station in a way that's the least invasive with respect to the program stream and overall audience experience. We want the jingle's musical brand to actually make each content transition more compelling, to add spark and momentum and energy as we glide into the next song or bit or commercial or whatever topical content is next. That type of thoughtful production can actually add value to the listener experience, rather than just doing the job of conveying the brand.
Say you get a call from a potential client that's flipping formats at a station. How long do you need to come up with a fresh jingle package for it?
At this stage in the game, with so many fantastic resources at our disposal, we have the ability to come up with a custom brand within a week or two. We've got so much great material built up and a huge network of inside and outside talent, enabling us to create a turnkey brand image from a standing start and get it locked in and customized within a week to 10 days.
As well, in addition to jingles we can service all formats with production and prep because we now have 40-50 full-time creatives handling various roles. Plus, we have a massive network of singers and voice talent in our deep Rolodex. We partner with several dozen vendors in Nashville, L.A., New York and internationally, which enables us to call local contractors and put together just about any vocal blend one could hope for. We have the ability and resources to move with velocity.
Say the station you're created a new jingle package for is flipping to a format that already has a direct-format rival, if not close format competition. Do you study what the other stations do to make sure your product stands apart from theirs?
Absolutely. At every stage, we are looking at the other players in a given market to inform our process. By that I mean if someone is going to roll out a brand -- especially if it has to compete with other players in the same format ... say, a new Hot AC in a crowded market -- we know that these guys play a lot of the same material as the station across the street, and to make it even more complicated, may also share many artists with the Top 40 outlet in the market. In that situation, the only way to differentiate is with the brand positioning. It becomes absolutely critical to position a niche in the market through the particular personality of the station, the imaging, the jingles, the on-air sound and the personalities on the station. If done properly, all that creates a unique space within the market for the station.
There are all kinds of ways we can achieve that through the jingle. We can differentiate in the choice of genres or artists we choose to emulate, the sonic choices, the verbiage, the pacing, the instrumental and vocal textures, the personality of each individual singer, and so on. But before we begin our process, we do a comprehensive market analysis on what the other players are doing, so we can craft something absolutely unique within the context of that market.
ReelWorld is expanding internationally. On top of bringing American jingle craftmanship elsewhere, are you learning anything from other countries that could apply here?
Definitely. With respect to our growth in Europe, we've begun to achieve significant presence there in the last few years with great clients like Heart in the U.K., RTL in Germany, Kronehit in Austria, Cadena and Los 40 in Spain, to name just a few. Obviously those clients are seeking us out because they want our particular flavor, but I believe we are gaining traction right now because we've demonstrated the ability to accommodate the particular regional and local variations among individual national markets in Europe. And from doing that, we're definitely learning a lot from them in the process.
Besides internationally, where else do you see ReelWorld expanding? Can you foresee working with digital platforms such as Pandora or Spotify?
People have approached us about other platforms and when the time is right, we'll go there. I would say TV is a no-brainer, and we're in active discussions on opportunities in front of us. And there's certainly a lot more for us more to do in radio. We're going to stay front and center in this medium.