Creativity is not something you're born with. Creativity is something you learn and anyone who says otherwise is just full of it.
Legendary radio imager and voiceover artiste Dave Foxx joins us on the Tinpod to talk about starting out as a “puker”, then moving from presenter to producer and becoming part of Z100’s signature sound.
Daryl: I want to welcome to today’s 10 Pod live from Texas, I think I’m correct in saying, we have Dave Fox.
Dave: That’s right. Austin, Texas, the Capitol of the great state of Texas in the U.S. of A.
Daryl: I want to say thank you for joining us today. The first thing I wanted to start with is one of the reasons we’re speaking to you today is when we interview somebody on the podcast, we’ll typically ask them who do they think we should speak to next, or who do they recommend, who do they think would be an interesting person to speak to? We recently interviewed Denzel Lacey, who I know you know.
Daryl: He had this to say about you.
Denzel Lacey: Dave Fox, XZ100 Creative Services Director. There for 30 years and he is just probably the most inspirational imaging/production person you’ll ever meet. I don’t know how he does it. His talks and his videos online are just simply incredible.
Dave: Wow. I guess I’m going to have to send him a check.
Daryl: Yeah, it seems that way. He did mention that actually. He did ask me to say that to you. I’ll leave you guys to negotiate the fee, but … I think I can probably second Denzel’s sentiments there. I was working at, I probably started in radio properly around about 1996. I worked in a station called 96FM in Cork. You may know Brendan or Jessica or a few other people who worked there. I know even when I started working in radio, the go-to name, the gold standard in terms of production and imaging was always regarded as being Dave Fox. I think that’s still the case to this day. I guess my first question would be what do you think it is that differentiates your production style that has just given you the respect of a lot of people, production people and other people within the industry?
Dave: Wow. That’s probably the hardest question I’ve ever been asked.
Daryl: What a great start.
Dave: Yeah, great start if I can answer it. I think the thing that sets me apart is I insist on natural sound. I know there are explosions in music and all of that going on in the background, but conversation has to be a conversation. A lot of people view radio as being one person talking to millions and I always insist on bringing it back to, no, it needs to be one on one. You need to be speaking to one person. Whenever someone talks about target audience, I always insist that it has to be a target audience of one. You need to speak to one person, whoever that person is. When people talk about their target audience, they give these big broad parameters. “We want females between 18 and 35 and we want some college education, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” It’s like, that’s way too broad.
Dave: I like to think of one person. I’ll even give them a name. I very often do.
Daryl: As you’re producing content then whether it be imaging or whatever it might be, do you have a physical image or a persona of who this person is?
Dave: Yes, absolutely, because it helps me dial everything back. Instead of being bombastic on the radio, which I really detest, have a conversation with that person. It’s so much easier to do it when you can visualize. In one of my speeches in the Netherlands just a couple of years ago at the imaging days, I actually introduced people to one of my target audience of one people. It’s a woman I’ve never met, but she is smack in the middle of our target demo at the radio station at Z100. She’s got some education, she’s got some income. She matches all the things that they’re looking for, but I narrow it down to that one person so that when I’m speaking, I’m speaking to her.
Dave: I’m not speaking to 5,000 or 50,000 or in the case of Z100, 3 million people. I’m speaking to one person. That makes it more personal. When you make it personal like that, it makes it believable. It makes it heartfelt. It makes it sound like you’re their best friend or you’re their best uncle or your whatever, whoever you are to them so that when you’re genuine, when you’re natural, it just makes all the difference in the world to them as a listener. They feel like your speaking to them as an individual.
Dave: One of the hard things that people don’t get is that when they’re talking to this broad group of people, it’s like you’re standing in front of an audience. You make comments that are general. One of the things, one of the characters that I always tried to … We always talked about soccer moms at Z100 because they control the purse strings in most families. They’re in on decisions on the house that they buy, the cars that they drive, the furniture that they sit on, the food that they eat, all of the big money decisions that happen in a household almost always happen with the soccer mom. I’ve always made my character one of them. The reason is because people who are younger than … My person happens to be 23 years old. She’s just finished or is just finishing college and is perhaps married or at least in a very serious relationship.
Dave: People who are younger than that want to be her. People who are older than that want to be her. It’s the ideal for so many people. When you speak to that one person, you end up speaking to all of them. All of the 16 and 17 year old girls who aspire to be her, all of the 35 and 40 year old women who wish they were her again. You end up speaking to all of them. When you narrow it down to that one person, it makes it intensely personal and it makes it so much easier to sell.
Daryl: Is that an approach that you had from day one or have you learned to use that technique over time or to have that focus on the conversation over time? Did you just know that instinctively when you started working as a producer?
Dave: I would like to say that, yeah, I knew it from day one, but no, of course not. It’s something that you learn over time. When I first started out, it was all about being smooth, being Mr. DJ. When I first started out I was, I was verging on being what we call a puker. “Hey, boys and girls. Top down convertible sound around town here on,” whatever radio station it is. Then as I listened to other people doing the same thing, I thought to myself, that doesn’t sound in the least bit real. That doesn’t sound in the least bit personal. It doesn’t sound like you’re talking to me. You’re talking at me.
Dave: I scaled that back, scaled it back. Luckily I’d been working in CHR for quite a while at that point. Luckily I went through a radio station, went through a phase where they softened it up, became basically a soft AC. You had to scale all of that back to start with. It all started to fit together and I noticed that I always had more impact and that just … It was something that I did learn, but I learned it pretty early on.
Daryl: Am I right in saying that you started out as an on-air presenter and fell into radio production? is that right or had the plan always been you wanted to work in production in the earlier days?
Dave: Let me tell you the story. It was … When I was working in Washington DC. I worked in Washington for 10 years at WPGC. They went through that soft radio phase and I hated it. I really detested it. Finally I said, I’ve got to get my chops back up. I need to move on. Finally after 10 years. Good grief. I went to Baltimore. I was there for six months at B104. It’s a station that’s now called Z104 and did six months. In six months time I took mid days from way back in the pack, eighth or ninth in the market to number one. It was all using this same style. I had more energy than … There wasn’t a bedroom voice or anything like that. I had more energy, but it was personal. I was trying to ingratiate myself with an individual and that really shaped me.
Dave: After I’d been there for six months, I got the call to go to Z100. The day I got there, Steve Kingston had invited me up. The day I got there, he said, “We have a snafu.” The midday gal that was going to be leaving has changed her mind and she signed a contract. I’m like, “What do I do? I’ve already quit my job in Baltimore.” “Yeah, don’t worry about it. Here, go back into production studio.”
Dave: From day one I was also the de facto production director at the various radio stations I’d worked at. He said, just do production for a while. We’ll get this straightened out. It took a year because her contract was for a year. When he came back and opened the door and said, “Come on, we’re ready for you to go on the air,” I turned around and said, “Time out. I love doing this. I would much rather do this.” He was a little upset with me for a while because he had to punt. He had to go find another mid day presenter. When all the dust settled, he even confessed to me … He said, “You’re much better in the production room than you ever were on the air.” Although I was pretty damn good on the air.
Daryl: It’s still a compliment, isn’t it?
Dave: Oh, I think so.
Daryl: Were you the station voice for Z100 all the way back? Did that come later?
Dave: It came later. When I first got there, it was Ernie Anderson, amazing voice, out of Hollywood who did a lot of TV booth work. He was the one who kept saying, “Tonight on the love boat.” He wasn’t the regular station voice. Mitch Craig was. Then we went through a phase where we used couple other fellows, Paul Armbruster and we used Joe Kelly for a while. Keith Eubanks was our main voice at one point. Christmas time rolled around and we had a last minute promotion come up. Keith was on vacation. My boss said, “Look, your voice is fine. Just go back there and cut this promo and we’ll put it on the air until Keith gets back. Then we can replace it.” I did the promo. He called me from his office and said, “You’re our guy. You’re going to be the new guy.” Since then … That was probably two years into my time at Z100.
Daryl: You were the station voice for over 25 years, is that right?
Dave: Yeah. While I was still there. I am still the station voice even [crosstalk 00:12:52].
Daryl: It’s funny that you talk about that conversation. In a way you’ve almost become part of the DNA and part of the personality of Z100 really haven’t you? The voice is such a strong part of the station sound.
Dave: Absolutely. When you look at a painting, you see the signature at the bottom. My voice is the signature on the bottom of that Z100 painting. The day I left Mark Medina, the program director, he said, “I cannot hear anyone else saying from the top of the empire state building.” They called my agent and they set it up and made it so that I stayed on as the voice of the radio station. To this day, I do two or three sessions every week to get them all caught up on promos and sweepers and things.
Daryl: I’m interested from the point of view of a producer where, as a producer you are writing a lot of the content, you are voicing the content and you’re producing it. Have you ever found that because you’re involved in all of it, is it easy to keep your objectivity about how that sounds as opposed to working with maybe, directing another voice artist or is it … Do you like that element where you can control all of the elements there?
Dave: There are pros and cons, both sides. The big pro is … Back when Steve Kingston was the PD and I was just the producer and we had other voices doing the voice work, he would write the copy in the evening, say 6:37, 7:00 at night in his office, send it off to the voice, and then … This is long before we had the strong internet that we have now. The voice would then record it on dat tapes and overnight it to me so that I would have it the next morning. I had no clue what was coming. I just knew that there was something coming. I didn’t know what the copy read. I don’t know. I didn’t know what the … Interpretation was way out of my hands at that point.
Dave: You ended up having three different ideas of where we needed to be when the finished promo was done. Steve would often come in and he’d hear the promo. He said, “No, this is all wrong. Guys, come on, help me out here.” Once I took over as the voice of the radio station, by then I was doing a lot of the writing. By a year later I was doing all of the writing. It allowed me to keep that train of thought all the way through the process. I knew where it needed to be. I knew what emphasis I needed when I read it. I had the original thought in my head, so there was no guessing about what you meant to say or how you meant to say it. That’s the positive.
Dave: The negative is there are times when you do get wrapped up in an idea and you get so invested in the idea that you are blind to things that could be wrong with it. I always had to depend on other people to come in afterwards and say, “No, you need to emphasize this more.” The nice thing at that point was is that I happened to know the voiceover talent and it wasn’t a big deal to get them to reverse it for me.
Daryl: Do you … Obviously nowadays a lot of stuff is where voiceovers are mostly by and large working from their own home set up or doing source connect. Do you think there’s any value still in sometimes in terms of working with other talent to having that face to face connection where they’re in the booth or they’re in the studio with you? Does it matter?
Dave: It matters on a few … In a few instances, it’s really nice to have that face to face. Honestly, I never sat in the same room with Ernie Anderson. He was always in LA or a couple of times he was in London while I was working in New York. I never sat in the same room with him. It seemed to work. He always gave me enough. Of course he also took direction very well. He used to complain a lot because I was always pushing him bigger, deeper, come on. At one point he told me … He says, “Get that 5,000 watt daytime voice off my radio station.” Then he would complain. He’d say, “You’re making me bleed here. You’re making me bleed.” He was really good that way. He was an amazing talent. He really was.
Daryl: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the area of creativity. I think you put us quite well. I’d read one of your blog posts in the last couple of years where you had spoken about the idea of art and science. Good creative results I think are dependent on both of those things. The technology, which is the science side, but also the art side. Could you maybe just elaborate a little bit if you can recall what that blog post was about around art and science?
Dave: There’s two parts to everything, at least two parts. There are always at least two parts. The science of it … A lot of producers get caught up in the science and they forget about the art. I’m always really pushing people to think about if they’re not doing the writing, they need to have influence in the writing. If they’re not doing the audio design, they need to take part in the audio design. Only when you bring art and science together does the magic really happen. Creativity is not something you’re born with. Creativity is something you learn and anyone who says otherwise is just full of it.
Daryl: Do you think some people are more predisposed towards it though? Some people have more creative talent or do you think anybody can be trained or skilled to the same creative level?
Dave: I think anybody can, but here’s the thing. A lot of kids are raised in an atmosphere of creativity where other kids are not.
Daryl: They might have a headstart?
Dave: They’ll have a huge headstart sometimes. I had a girl come intern for me one time who was a Russian emigre. Lovely young lady, but she did not get radio at all. The whole thing about creativity was just beyond her. I was about to wash my hands over. I was just about to say, “All right, we’re done here. This is not going to work.” She came in and sat down and asked me questions about the origins of creativity. When does it happen? What is it exactly? It forced me to think out loud as I was talking to her about how creativity works. It wasn’t until years later that a Steve jobs came out with one of his quotes that really tells it like it is. The essence of it was when you ask a creative person how they came up with an idea, they get embarrassed because they’ll go, “It was just there.”
Dave: The spark of creativity happens when you take two or more disparate ideas, mash them together. Things that have nothing to do with each other. When you do that, excuse me, something happens. That spark happens. You can play a game, like what if? What if … This is a horrible example, but we’ll see. What if you’re doing a spot for a furniture store? You ask yourself the question, what if chairs had never been invented? We would have to sit in someone’s lap or whatever. Then you start working with that as a starting place for your idea and that’s where the creativity really happened was right there. When you say, “What if?”
Daryl: Do you think it’s important to be in the right frame of mind or to have the right, to have your hair head cleared to be able to maybe access creative ideas or come up with creative concepts?
Dave: It’s funny. One of my biggest lecture points, and I’ve made this lecture so many times, is we carry with us our own creative well. The well is where we draw ideas from. All the well is … It consists of all the things that you’ve done, the things that you’ve seen, things that you’ve read, taken part in, things that you’ve eaten, all of the things that you … Life, your life experience is where that creative well is. When you take two ideas out of there ba-da-bing. You mash them together and the magic happens.
Daryl: Everybody has their own unique well.
Dave: Exactly. When people … I had a couple of interns come in, or potential interns come in to interview and when they told me they didn’t read … They didn’t like to read books. “That’s a waste of time.” I dismissed them right away. To me, reading is the one way that you can experience things that you might never have the opportunity to experience in real life.
Daryl: When I was researching for this interview, and I’ve made some notes this morning before we spoke … This is absolutely true. One of the notes I’d made was bravery and creativity and the connection between when you’re trying to do things that are pushing the envelope creatively and whether or not that requires an element of bravery. A creative idea really can seem like absolute nonsense until it’s done and it’s successful and only then everybody says, “Yeah, it’s pretty obvious now.” That’s one of the notes I’d made and I was actually reading one of your articles for Wrap magazine. In actual fact you had spoken about that element of bravery and creativity. Do you think is that an important component where you have that bravery to just try things even though they might not always work?
Dave: Yeah. What is bravery? Bravery is doing something in spite of the fear. Everybody’s afraid. Helen Hayes, famous actress from last century. Near the end of her career, did a show on Broadway and they said, “Do you still get butterflies?” She says, “Oh yeah, I don’t want to even go on stage unless I have butterflies. It’s those butterflies that pushed me into the brave mode.” Being brave means you’ll do something in spite of the fear. When it comes to ideas, when it comes to creativity, the one thing most people fear most is being ridiculed. That’s a stupid idea. That’s really not very smart, blah, blah, blah. If you’re brave, you do it anyway. If you’re brave, you lay it out there, you put it out there, lay it on the line and go with it. Then afterwards … As you said, afterwards, when it’s blown up and everybody’s going, “Of course it’s obvious now” … Then you can say, “That was my idea.”
Daryl: Yeah. Part of that bravery must also be that it might not blow up. Some things … If you’re continuously trying new things, some of those things might not work and you’ll have to accept … Part of the bravery is accepting that as well though, isn’t it?
Dave: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. There’ve been a number of times when I have done things that I’m saying to myself, “All right, that was really not a good idea.”
Daryl: Yeah. Were there any creative ideas that just got away, that just didn’t land the way you thought they might over the years?
Dave: Yeah. Oh yeah. That happens a lot. I probably … I don’t know, half the time I’ll … Now I won’t use that as my final product. I’ll go back and rethink it. I’ll go back and redo it. I’ll go back and come up with new ideas. There have been times when I’ve gotten it produced, I’ve gotten a promo produced right down to the last … Ready to go on the air and realize this is … Pardon the phrase. This is shite. This is just awful. I’ll scrap it and start from scratch.
Daryl: When you’re in the middle of a production, will you finish something, step away, come back to it, review it or is it just sit down, do it until it’s done and then onto the next thing?
Dave: No, no. Always step away. When I finish a project or am very close to being finished, I will get up and do my mental break. Just go around and talk to people in the office and say hi to the receptionist and maybe go out and get a coffee and come back. Then sit down. Anything you can do to take your mind off of you’ve been doing. Then when you come back, you have a fresh perspective on it.
Daryl: How different kind of sound during that break, having had that break and you come back to something and I think, hearing new things or hearing it completely differently.
Dave: Yeah. Sometimes it’s shockingly different and you’ll think what in the world was I thinking? Other times you’ll go, wow, this is really good. It’s a crap shoot either way.
Daryl: Do you listen to stuff that you’ve produced 20, 25 years ago? You’ve obviously improved and changed your style, but what’s your perspective when you listen back to it now? Do you feel proud of it or do you just feel, what was I doing then? What’s it like to have such a massive archive of stuff that you can, to play back?
Dave: Honestly, I love everything I’ve done that I’ve archived. There’s a lot of stuff that I [crosstalk 00:27:40]
Daryl: The question is, then, how much have you archived?
Dave: I’ve archived most of it, but it’s not … I only archive the stuff that I use. If I listen to something and realize that it’s really just crap, then I won’t archive that. Whatever the final product is, I’m almost always extremely proud of what I’ve done. Each little piece of production is like a child of mine. I’ll listen to it and I can hear what I was thinking. I might do things very differently now based on my experience since, but I can hear what I was thinking, how I was doing and appreciate it for what it was.
Daryl: What’s your perspective on the industry in 2019, the radio industry? Where do you see it in an increasingly, I suppose, digital era?
Dave: That’s the hardest question of all because the one thing … Radio’s always been very resilient. It’s always been able to succeed in spite of everything, in spite of television, in spite of satellite, in spite of CDs, in spite of Spotify. When you get right down to it, the thing that makes radio unique that all of those other things cannot do or never do is be a friend to the listener. Anybody can play music, anybody can be a jukebox, like Spotify or iTunes or whatever. They’re valuable services but most people aren’t just craving music. Most people are looking for someone to share their ride with, someone to commiserate with. When someone’s sitting there doing their homework late at night and they put the music on, it soothes them. What really keeps them tuned in is that person who sympathetic, that person who they understand or understands them or at least feels like they understand them.
Daryl: It comes back to what you were speaking about earlier in terms of the conversation. It’s companionship really, isn’t it?
Dave: Absolutely. That’s the real gold star that radio will always have that almost none of those other services can have. Podcasts can come close, but ultimately podcasts are almost always about a particular single subject that may or may not be relatable to the listener directly. I find that most people who do podcasts sound like they’re doing podcasts. They don’t sound like just somebody having a conversation.
Daryl: It’s a more documentary forum, is it, rather than a conversational forum?
Dave: Yeah. The thing is, it could end up being very much like radio, but I don’t see it going that way. Radio will survive. It’s obviously going to be changed by all of this. It’s certainly shrunk as an industry because of all of the other competing entertainment venues. It’s broken my heart to see the number of people who’ve been cut loose from radio as they have consolidated. You have one creative person now doing creative for five and six radio stations.
Daryl: Is that consolidation in the states continuing? I know it started maybe 10 or 15 years … Is the industry continuously still consolidating or is it reached a point where it’s not feasible to consolidate anymore?
Dave: I think it’s pretty much there. I don’t think they can consolidate much more. One thing that a lot of stations are now starting to do is they’re doing a lot of outreach and having production done elsewhere, outside agencies.
Daryl: It’s not even within … It would be an external production company, an independent company?
Dave: Exactly. That’s because A, having one person in charge of the creative for five or six radio stations is self-defeating. You cannot be that incredible producer for that many radio stations and expect the same quality you get when you have one really good producer working at a radio station. It’s just not possible. It’s just impossible.
Daryl: Sometimes, particularly in smaller stations, I think the value of that strong station brand and that strong image sometimes isn’t properly understood really, is it?
Dave: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I find that’s true in a lot of medium and large markets.
Dave: Yeah. They just don’t get it. They’ve come up from smaller markets without the guidance or mentorship from somebody who really knows what’s going on. There are books out there that will teach you all about branding and marketing. There are books out there that will teach you about how to write copy. You talk to all of these people. None of them have read any of those books. They’re going by things that they’ve seen, things that that other people have done. For a lot of them, it’s just the blind leading the blind. They don’t understand marketing. They don’t understand branding. When you give them a lecture, their eyes pop open and they go, “Oh my God, that’s incredible. How do you do that?” Please come on. This is broadcasting 101.
Daryl: I have two questions for you before we finish up. Firstly, if I could slightly put you on the spot, your peace of killer kit. What is the piece of equipment that you think is the most essential for your production? Hardware or software?
Dave: Wow. I’m a Pro Tools guy through and through. I’ve used Audition. I’ve used MOTU, Mark of the unicorn. I’ve used Vegas. They’re all excellent programs. They all do the job that they’re supposed to do, but I don’t think any of them even come close to the depth that Pro Tools does. Pro Tools was not designed for radio. It was designed for music. As such, it opens up a whole new world to the radio producer possibilities that are just endless. Software wise, I’m big on Pro Tools.
Daryl: Do you have your stock plugins that you’d like to use? Are you increasingly trying different plugins, different combinations? Do you like to just work with a system that works or is it a bit of both?
Dave: It’s a bit of both. I’ve been a Waves guy for a long, long time. I’ve got their gold bundle. I think I’ve got their mercury bundled packed around someplace. How many different compressors do you need? Really? Recently I got into Universal Audio and I bought one of their UAD 2 satellite boxes that allows you to offload all of your digital signal processing from your computer, which allows your computer a lot … It gives you more power, lots more power and all of the plugins ride in the satellite box. They have emulations for just about any piece of gear you could talk about from Yamaha to Neve to Focusrite to … They’re all in there. Lexicon, the classic stuff. That just opens up the gate to thousands of things. Sometimes I’m sorry I did because there’s just so much there.
Daryl: Yeah. It can be overwhelming. Too much choice isn’t always a good thing, is it?
Dave: Exactly. It’s like going into a diner in New Jersey. You’ll sit there and read the menu for 40 minutes before you decide.
Daryl: Yeah, Cheesecake Factory has the menu that’s like a Bible isn’t it?
Dave: Yeah, exactly. Same idea. Exactly.
Daryl: Final thing as we deal with Denzel, what we’ll usually do to anybody we interview, if there is a one person you think would be good for us to talk to, knowing what the podcast is about … It’s about creativity, technology, creating things. We’re speaking to people from all industries, radio, video, design. Is there anybody you think you would recommend would be good for us to talk to?
Dave: There are a couple, but I will stick with one. The man who took my place at Z100 doing the creative. Stacks. I don’t know. After having been there for 30 years, I was worried that no matter who they got it would be a huge learning curve for them. There was a bit of a learning curve, but Stacks is adapted and conquered so quickly. I would say six months after he was there, he was doing just stellar work. I think the station right now sounds as strong, if not stronger than it ever has.
Daryl: Dave, I really want to thank you for taking the time to speak to us today. It’s fabulous to speak to somebody with such a pedigree in the industry and somebody who obviously just still has that passion and that interest. It’s just been fabulous. I just admire the fact that you’re also saw keen on passing on the information that you’ve learned and just sharing the information that you have. I really, really appreciate you taking the time today.
Dave: Always pay it forward. Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.