I remember seeing imaging on my work experience sheet and not knowing what that even was...???
Imaging impresario Denzil Lacey tells us about the journey from fixing headphones in Dublin City FM to fixing mixes for Eminem and Diplo on Sirius XM.
Daryl Moorhouse: It’s the Tinpot Productions podcast, aka The Tinpot, and it is the first podcast of 2019. And I’m delighted to have sitting opposite me is Denzil Lacey. Imaging producer, would that be how you describe yourself primarily?
Denzil Lacey: Yeah, production I suppose is kind of the overall in broader terms, plus imaging’s a niche term for people who don’t know what it is.
Daryl Moorhouse: You’ve been a radio person since you were a babe in arms almost. Tell us about your first experiences in radio and where you started.
Denzil Lacey: So my dad started in radio god, in 1982. He was in pirate radio, so he had a Jamaican music program. He still does it to this day, like 35 whatever years later.
Daryl Moorhouse: Really?
Denzil Lacey: Yeah, it’s crazy, and it’s just for the love of it. I haven’t met many people who are still in radio for the love, the absolute love. A lot of people, it’s just a job, but he’s still doing that. I used to go into his program. 1992, what is now East Coast FM, it was a pirate radio station back then and I was sitting under the desk and just asleep, oblivious to what was going on behind me, and I just started following him around to radio stations. It was loads of pirates. Jazz FM, BLB, DLR, all these kind of ones that people might remember from the 90s, so basically for people who don’t know, pirate radio was illegal radio. It was like RT was the only broadcaster open until the ’80s really, then all these commercial radio stations came on, but in between that, there was pirate radio, occasion for like niches.
Daryl Moorhouse: At that stage as a kid, were you in awe of these fantastic radio stations, because there must have been an excitement about it as a young kid to be in this fantastic around this technology and music and exciting people.
Denzil Lacey: Yeah, it was just bizarre to me that someone goes into a room and just talks to a wall. Back then, I think that was the most interesting thing to me, and I couldn’t understand because the station I remember the most was Jazz FM. That was on Dominic Street. I think it’s just off Parnell Street, and it was at the top of this old Victorian building and no one really knew it was there, and it was just funny, me doing my homework while my dad’s presenting a radio show on a pirate radio station. It was just bizarre.
Daryl Moorhouse: When was it then that you got your own … you started working in radio yourself. Presumably you got the itch from being with your dad, the one who’s did the shows, get when did you start … where did you start working yourself first?
Denzil Lacey: It was when he moved to [inaudible 00:02:23] now Dublin City FM, so that’s been going since I think the early ’90s. That’s a special interest radio station. Narrow community station, so I started helping around the station, just fixing headphones, and obviously there was no budgets there for fixing things, and all that sort of thing, so I was just helping around and that’s where I really got the love, and it was just, listening to radio at the time, it just seemed like a very vibrant … it was a different time then as well. There was a lot more jobs, and all that sort of thing, so it was just a fun place to be in and I just started networking like crazy and just stalking, nearly stalking people. Because I remember work experience then in 2006, I was in transition year and I got work experience in 19FM and I just remember the [inaudible 00:03:05] in that place at the time was just amazing. Now again, I could have been just a kid, and it just looked amazing then, but it just seemed like something I wanted to get into.
Daryl Moorhouse: On that note, on the work experience note, and because why work in radio? You’d often see there would interns would come in, work experience people would come in on a weekly basis, nearly a different one or two people every single week. And there’s a certain kind of a thing, you could almost tell within a day or two, this person is going to last in the industry. What do you think it is that makes somebody stand out against all the other people who do work experience? What are the skills you think, do you need to turn a work experience that where you’re only in the station for a matter of days, or a week or so, into a full-time job? What do you need to do?
Denzil Lacey: I think you need to show interest. I find a lot of people now who are work experience, and [Coby Justin 00:03:52] said, it’s the phone generation, everyone’s on their phone, but I just find people are just distracted so quickly, whereas back then, I was just showing a lot of interest. I remember one of the producers of Dermot and Dave back in the day on 98 was asking how to do something in [inaudible 00:04:08], and I remember I just knew from messing around with it, and she goes, “How did you know that?” And I was just like, “Look, I’m weird just use this all the time,” so I think it was stuff like that that got noticed, and the and the assistant program director was Robbie [inaudible 00:04:21] at the time, and then the program director was Andy Matthews, and these people are still in the industry today, and I eventually got working with them later on, so I think I showed that I was just really interested and a bit of a weirdo as opposed to some asswipe.
Daryl Moorhouse: Had you always wanted to do production, or had you initially had notions of being an on-air presenter, or a jock, or what was it, production from day one, or did you try a couple of different things when you started out?
Denzil Lacey: I didn’t even know … I remember seeing imaging on my work experience sheet and not knowing what that even was. And I think the way the week worked, I didn’t even get to do imaging and work experience time, but it was from just listening to radio in New York and Australia, and obviously in Dublin that was … just hearing all this, wondering who made it, or I didn’t know if there was someone in the station making it or if it was done outside, and then I just met some great people over the years and just realized, wow, this is cool. You’re like the unsung hero of the radio station. No one knows who you are, but you’re making all this incredible content.
Daryl Moorhouse: What do you think imaging has can do for a station to differentiate it? What’s the importance of imaging to a radio station? Because it is kind of … it can be, it’s usually important, but it can often be overlooked, can’t it?
Denzil Lacey: Oh completely. And I was only just thinking about this on the way in that more stations are voice tracked now. More stations are pre-recorded, so the only element that’s really going to stick out for that station is the imaging that is the personality of the radio station. And I think it is often overlooked. There’s not enough money put into it, especially with digital radio becoming so popular. In other countries it is. Australia are putting a lot of money into production, because they have production people for a breakfast show, and for specific shows they could have 10, 12 imaging people, whereas obviously budgets are less over here, the listenership isn’t as big over here because the population in comparison.
Denzil Lacey: But no, absolutely I think it really just sets a station apart. Like if you look in Dublin, there’s 12 radio stations. There could be six of them playing the same music, but the only thing setting them apart really is that imaging. It could be this kind of cheeky attitude, or maybe it’s just straight down to the point, and I think one of the stations that have nailed this, and I’m not saying the imaging is spectacular, but just in terms of a format of sunshine, is that everyone just knows what they do and I think they’ve just nailed it down to a T. Like the imaging is nothing special. It’s dry, it wouldn’t be something I would be doing all day, but it’s just so unique in the marketplace that there’s not loads of noise on it. It’s just simple, and I think that’s why they’re gaining in the marketplace lately.
Daryl Moorhouse: But it’s about defining the brand of the station, isn’t it? It’s about … in five or six seconds or 10 seconds, somebody should be able to hear something and understand what this radio station is about. It’s ethos, or it’s failing.
Denzil Lacey: Completely, because [inaudible 00:07:06] if anyone wants to listen is Jack FM in the UK if anyone’s heard it. It’s so out there, like it is cheeky to the point of nearly being legal issues in terms of what they can say, but they’re just so clever with their scripting, and you instantly know they’re this station that we don’t care what we do, we’re just different. I think that might lack in certain marketplaces that everyone is doing the same thing, and they’re not being as different as they could be. I’ve looked back to the ’90s or 2000s, especially in Dublin, the imaging was just very out there, whereas now it seems to be a bit more conservative. I could understand from a sales point of view, absolutely that’s why, and budgets and time, and all that sort of thing, but I just think if you set that brand apart so different, you could be the number one station. It’s a simple as that, really.
Daryl Moorhouse: A lot of that comes down to copywriting, doesn’t it? To the idea, and what’s the breakdown between the importance of the copy and the production that the way it’s produced and the actual copy in the first place? Which of those is more important, or are they equally weighted, do you think?
Denzil Lacey: I think creativity is just the most important thing ever. You know, we could forgive someone for not having the best technical skills, but the script is so good that it just … you remember it so well, so I think creativity scripting is definitely the most important thing. And it is the most hardest thing. It’s easier to pick up technical skills I think, than writing skills. Some people are born with it, some people are not. You can pick up tips and tricks and you just immerse yourself in society and what that station is, so if you’re catering to 15 to 24s, you need to know what those people are doing, because otherwise you could be just off the point completely. Do I think it’s just so important to go to the cinema, just watch TV or magazine or anything what they’re doing, just to familiarize yourself, and then even getting ahead with topical content, so because things change so quick, and if something could be relevant for a day, I’m trying to think of something recent that … something happens at the Grammys or something, that could be relevant for two or three days and then it’s gone. That’s why you have to be so quick now just to think of an idea on that spot. You need to be watching all these programs to see what’s actually in the now.
Daryl Moorhouse: You have worked with 2FM, you’ve worked with some of the biggest stations in Dublin, you’ve worked in Spain, a lot of different stations, so you have the good kind of perspective presumably on the radio market at this stage as it stands. Where do you think radio stands in relation to FM versus the challenges or the opportunities of digital, of dad, of 5G, of other areas. Where do you see radio as being at the minute?
Denzil Lacey: It’s definitely in an interesting place. The listenership is still quite high, I think it’s 82% of people are listening every day, which is still quite high. There is a lot of stations in Dublin doing the exact same thing. You’ve got 90FM, you’ve got FM104, 2FM, TodayFM, really going after the same audience, so I think something’s going to give there eventually. Stations are chasing the younger end of the audience because there’s fear of that younger end just disappearing. But the funniest thing actually which being involved in radio, is that 10 years ago, when podcasts were being started up, radio just said, ah, podcasts, they’ll never do anything. And now we’re in an age where every radio station’s now hiring podcast producers. So it’s just funny how it’s flipped 360. They’ve now gone, oh, we need to do something here. It’s just funny, the podcasts are still really in their infancy, and they’ve been around so long, really.
Daryl Moorhouse: Why is it, because I see that radio stations are moving to podcasts, but is there a revenue stream there, or is it just that they see that podcasts are of the moment and everybody’s talking about them, so we need to be almost optically seen to be doing them, or is there a strategy there to say podcasts, we can monetize these in a couple of years, or we can sponsor them, or what do you think the rationale is?
Denzil Lacey: That’s exactly it. I think they’re future-proofing themselves. It’s like there’s a lot of stations, you’ve got Today FM, FM 104, all doing digital stations as well, there’s no commercial content on them right now, but I think they’re just running in the background as nearly like a fallback in case terrestrial radio just disappears or collapses, I think they’re just future-proofing themselves to be more of a media organization. If you look at the likes of [inaudible 00:11:27] and Love in Dublin, they’re all doing this sort of thing, so they’re trying to chase that market, because FM104 is such a big brand. People will know it, so they’re trying to expand out a little bit and eventually that could be 104, no FM, it could be just online 104. Do you know that kind of way? I think that’s what they are doing is future-proofing that they’re [inaudible 00:11:47] terrestrial radio I think.
Daryl Moorhouse: One of the things in the podcast so far we’ve had an agenda. We’re speaking with creative people, but they’re not necessarily from audio industries per se. But one thing that seems to be common with everybody we speak to who people generally from creative fields is that all of them started out being interested in music. That was the first thing, and then seguewayed into film, or post production, whatever it is. Music must be a huge influence on you, considering how important it is as a part of imaging.
Denzil Lacey: I’d say definitely, yeah, definitely huge the influence, and just over the last few years I’m trying to play music, and I learned piano, which is becoming very important for imaging, just in terms of melodics and sonics, and just all that sort of thing for radio, so important for the brands I’ve been doing for years, but you do it in-house, and to have someone there that can just understand notes and how music’s put together I think is very important for what we do. Obviously I’m not going to be Mozart or anything, but it’s just to understand why things are done or why that’s there and how can I manipulate this better. So absolutely music is just non-stop. It always has been in my house as well, so. And it’s funny that when I went into work for 4FM, they couldn’t understand how I knew all this music, because it’s come in 40 years before I was born. So come around, how do you know all this? And I think that stood to me working there expanded my mind a bit as well.
Daryl Moorhouse: You’re now working with Sirius in the States, so you’ve just started with them recently. How does that work? You work from Dublin but your stuff is going out on Sirius in the States? Is that international as well or does it just go out on satellite in the States?
Denzil Lacey: Yeah, so how about [inaudible 00:13:27] actually. It’s going on about god, over a year, so when I was working at FM104, I was doing freelance work as well, and I got [inaudible 00:13:34] by the company that I could do this, so I launched, there’s an artist called Diplo who is quite big in the dance world, Major Laser, he’s got all these massive hits, so he was launching a channel last year, and they approached me and said, you want to do a bit of freelance work, and I said absolutely. Then yeah, I just over the months they were impressed with the work and were trying to get me to move to the States, but the visa situation just isn’t a possibility at the moment.
Denzil Lacey: So we’re working things out and said, do you want to do it from Dublin? I’m like, yeah, that’d be great. I’m the first international imaging person for Sirius, which is pretty cool that they made that happen, that they believed in me and that they trusted me, because I’m working for myself here, I might be doing any work, but they trust me. Do you know that kind of way? I’m very busy, but for all they know I could be doing nothing but they actually trust me that they know what I’m doing and I’m delivering the work, so it’s quite incredible that you’re listening to Sirius XM in the States online, and you hear your work, and you’re like, this is crazy. 35 million subscribers listening, and it’s mindblowing.
Daryl Moorhouse: What kind of creative latitude do they give you then for your productions? Are you writing copy, are the scripts given to you, are you completely coming up with the concepts, are they running ideas past you? How does that relationship work?
Denzil Lacey: It really depends on the program directors. They’ve got about 170 stations, so there’s program directors for every station. Some like to control their station and they know what they want, they’ve been doing radio for years. But then for example, the M&M channel I’m working on, he leaves me free rein, come up with anything you want, send it on, and I’ve found that it’s just paid off a lot, like I’ve sent some crazy stuff.
Denzil Lacey: I was in a meeting last week and they played one of my bits, and were like, wow, how did you even come up with this? But it turned out they couldn’t use it for legal reason, but it wasn’t even that, they just go, how did you come up with that concept? And you know, even though it wasn’t used, I just felt it was a sense of accomplishment I came up with this idea. I’d love to play it, but actually physically can’t because it’s so off the wall. Though I love having that creative … the program directors don’t have time to be scripting incredible promos. They’re so busy doing everything else, so I could be on the phone on the boss and go, oh, here’s an idea, just write it down. Could be awful, but you’ll win some, you’ll lose some. So I think it really works that way. And they’re always open to new ideas and stuff, and it’s not as restricted as terrestrial radio will be. There’s no regulation in terms of watch you can and can’t say, other than defamation, obviously.
Daryl Moorhouse: Coming back to the music side of things, so music is a part of what you do in terms of your imaging. You’re starting to experiment musically yourself. Given that you’re working with artists, imaging for Diplo and M&M and others, do you think that music production is something you could potentially segueway into, is there opportunities there maybe to navigate into that area?
Denzil Lacey: Yeah, and I’m definitely upscaling like, I’m looking at tutorials, and I’ve made friends with some amazing people, just music producers around the world, so I think it’s going to be a good skill. It’s going to take years before I can become … just learn everything, but it is definitely something I’d look at, or sound design, because I made a sound design album a few years ago, one I got to use on various projects and it’s just easier for me to use that myself, still looking away, so just building stuff myself, and even beats, and just stuff like that, it just helps that way.
Daryl Moorhouse: Having worked internationally with Sirius, but also with others, what do think Irish radio can learn from international radio? Are there things that … Australia’s probably a market that would be regarded as being ahead of Ireland in the curve and in where they are. Do you think are there things that can be applied in the Irish market?
Denzil Lacey: I just feel that Irish radio at the moment is just quite conservative in terms of what it does, and if there was just that little bit more creativity or a little bit more time or thought put into just clever or silly imaging, nobody wants to hear, this is, insert radio station name here, all day.
Daryl Moorhouse: Why do you think, and it happens in other markets as well, I think. Why do you think that stations do cluster around this successful format? Is it because they’re all focus grouped, or researched in the same way, are they using the same consultants, or is it just that they’re conservative, or there’s a lack of creativity or copy [inaudible 00:17:48]. What’s the reason for this kind of do you think for this for stations, having the same kind of similar sounding formats?
Denzil Lacey: I’d agree with that, it’s definitely down to the research, the audience tests that they do. The formats change so quick. One second we’re going for a younger audience, three months later, no we’re going for an older audience, so yeah, it’s definitely down to that and it just feels like everything’s fluctuating so quick that nothing stays the same, sorry, everything stays the same, and they don’t want to try anything that’s different, so that they’re just sticking to this format that works.
Daryl Moorhouse: You mentioned audience testing there, to me I think one of the reasons why I feel that imaging is kind of overlooked is it’s sometimes a little bit intangible to see how it’s having a positive effect. Because advertising has a measure, imaging is a much more broader, it’s a brand thing. I’m just wondering, are you aware of any research that’s been done where imaging has been tested with audiences to see what’s better in terms of brand recall or in terms of making, being effective. Is there any kind of research or anything around that?
Denzil Lacey: Well I know jingles traditionally have always been there and they seem to be the easiest thing to recall just because it’s a singing element and I remember there’s an example in New York at C100. They took jingles off the air completely until Ja Rule came into that radio station and was doing his drops recording in the studio and he actually sung the sonic logo that was off air for two or three years, and that moment they brought them back. So that’s the only thing I’ve ever heard in terms of audience testing with imaging. It definitely isn’t done. I’d say it’d be more generic on what you think of the brand or what you think of the look of the station, but I think sound’s definitely overlooked.
Daryl Moorhouse: What’s the … if I had to put you on the spot, what’s your favorite piece you’ve ever produced?
Denzil Lacey: That M&M piece I was talking about last week.
Daryl Moorhouse: What was the one that you can’t play?
Denzil Lacey: Yeah, the one that I can’t … I can play it for you afterwards. And can tell you what it is. I’ll explain why it couldn’t be used. Toy Story is hugely in the news at the moment. It’s going to be massive. It’s going to be … Toy Story 4, isn’t it? So obviously that’s going to be a big thing. So I was thinking in my head, okay how can I tie this into the M&M channel? And I was just okay, M&M’s going to be a new toy, and there’s a famous line set by Woody in Toy Story, nobody’s getting replaced. So I started off with the movie of the summer’s coming, and then it’s like, nobody’s getting replaced. The voiceover comes in, goes yeah, everyone’s getting replaced. Then M&M comes in and just goes crazy, just cursing non-stop, and it was just so off the wall.
Daryl Moorhouse: When you’re working, can you get M&M to voice drop to you in voice bits, so you can say, I need this for a promo, and you can get M&M and the guys get M&M in studio to do Linus and stuff for the stuff you’re putting together?
Denzil Lacey: Yeah, the programmers get to EB, he’s Detroit, so they’d fly to Detroit and record with him, or Diplo’s in LA, so the programmer will go out to LA and record with him. Now it’s not as often as you think, and it could be maybe three, four times a year, but there is a main station voice for each station, so they’d be more accessible, so with that promo, the M&M promo, I was using bits that I already had in stock and making it fit, so it was more like a puzzle, which made it even more fun. The drops I got from these artists are crazy. Ozzy Osbourne’s another one. You can’t understand half of what he’s saying sometimes, get it’s just so off the wall, it’s so funny. It’s so unique in that regards and that I’m getting to work with these artists and they don’t even know that I probably exist. They know someone’s there making their [inaudible 00:21:29] dummy who I am, so it’s kind of cool.
Daryl Moorhouse: So how many stations are you imaging then across Sirius?
Denzil Lacey: There’s five, so it’s Diplo, M&M, Ozzy Osbourne, a dance station called Utopia, and then there’s other projects. If someone’s busy, they reassign you work. So the beauty of this job is that you never get bored. In traditional FM setting, you’re doing the same thing all day, and I found that I was getting into this habit of doing the same thing, day in, day out, I wasn’t challenging myself, so now, because the formats are just so very, I’m thinking more about what I’m doing. Ozzy’s channel’s not going to be as harsh sounding as say a Diplo channel, because it’s a different format. It’s just understanding those formats and that’s the beauty of working on so many different channels. When you go on to, I’ve got a login luckily, for the Sirius site so I can see all the different channels, there’s whatever, 140 channels. You’ve got from Howard Stern to a Dolly Parton channel, so like it’s so varied, and the talent that’s in the imaging team within the station is incredible. They all come from different backgrounds, so it’s great to be part of something where you’re constantly learning.
Daryl Moorhouse: So that creative element is incredibly important to you then.
Denzil Lacey: Yeah, totally. I’m just even speaking to the other members of the team. One of the people I work with and a bit more senior to me was doing all the sound design for Grand Theft Auto for three games, and he’s a senior imaging producer within the group, and it’s incredible to work with him. I’m just like, you worked on Grand Theft Auto. That’s one of the biggest things ever. So it’s just good to get other people’s perspective, because everyone worked differently as well.
Daryl Moorhouse: The whole gaming audio thing is incredible, isn’t it? The opportunities that are there, and the money that’s been spent on it. It’s a really exciting area, isn’t it?
Denzil Lacey: Absolutely. It’s blowing open. He was working on Red Dead Redemption 2 and he was telling me all the stories of recording on these air strips in Scotland, because the rock star who made Grand Theft Auto are based in Scotland. So they actually moved him from the States to Scotland and there he is on runways recording jets and gunshots and all this, so like it’s … there’s a lot of money going into it, and a lot of care, like it could take three years for a game in production and there’s a lot of work within the audio, like getting it right, and mixing and mastering on all that. Such a different world.
Daryl Moorhouse: What would be your piece of killer kit that the piece of equipment that you just can’t do without? Hardware or software?
Denzil Lacey: Oh, where do I start? [inaudible 00:23:58] speakers, I’m looking at them in this studio here. The best. I was on a Dolby audition until … when I met you can, a couple of years ago I was still on a Dolby audition, then I moved to Pro Tools, and it was probably the best decision I ever. Plugins wise, there’s just so many out there. Native Instruments is obviously a big player. Universal Audio is an incredible plugin one of manufacturer as well as sound card manufacturers who are invested within that. And the Soundoff, the Universal audio plugins are incredible. They’re very close to what the old analog stuff was sounding like. So yeah, I’d use Universal Audio. It costs a fortune, but it’s definitely worth it if I you have a few quid to spend.
Daryl Moorhouse: Do you use any analog kit now, or is all in the box?
Denzil Lacey: It’s all in the box. Yeah, 100% in the box. I’d love to have the space or the money to get analog stuff, but now it’s all in the box now.
Daryl Moorhouse: Play it forward. I’m going to ask you, we do this with everybody we interview. Essentially the podcast is about conversations with the creative community, which is obviously a large community in Ireland and abroad, and we’re just interested in talking to people about the creative process, about the industry they work in, about their background. Who do you think we would interview next?
Denzil Lacey: Ooh, [inaudible 00:25:12] and take a breath.
Daryl Moorhouse: But you can pick anybody. Somebody international would be nice, but anybody who you think just has an interesting perspective, is a creative person, could be from any field in the industry.
Denzil Lacey: Dave Fox, XZ100 creative services director. There for 30 years, would love to do it, I’d say, and he is just probably the most inspirational imaging/production person you’ll ever meet.
Daryl Moorhouse: He’s the don of imaging, really.
Denzil Lacey: He really is.
Daryl Moorhouse: He’s the godfather.
Denzil Lacey: Yeah, he’s just like … I don’t know how he does it, but his talks, and his videos online are just simply incredible. So if you ever got the chance to speak to him, he’d give you so much.
Daryl Moorhouse: And he’s out of Z100 now, isn’t he?
Denzil Lacey: He’s out of Z100, he’s still voicing a lot of stations, and he’s doing a lot of video work on the side as well, and he’s living back in Texas. But he was just very good to me, and just I think a lot of people in this industry gave people a lot of time, and he’s always telling people to pay it forward as well, so he’s definitely someone.
Daryl Moorhouse: Final question. Obviously you’ve worked in radio and imaging for a while, you know a lot about imaging, you’ve seen different styles. What are the things that excite you about radio production and radio imaging into the future?
Denzil Lacey: I think with the likes of smart devices, you’ve got your Lexes, your Siris, everything like that. I think it could move in a slightly different direction but I think it’s going to be strong, because our deal is now being seen as a very important aspect of our lives. Just with smart homes, everything is controlled by it’s voice. So I think it’s definitely got a strong place in the future, and the likes of Spotify, I think there could be more branding on Spotify in the future. There could be sweepers between songs on the free version. That kind of thing. So I think there is definitely a strong future. It could be slightly different than what it has been, just maybe not as complex. Might be just a bit more simple.
Daryl Moorhouse: Thanks very much Denzil, really interesting, and congratulations on the new gig in Sirius. I know you just started, but I think it sounds to me like the potential of it is literally just unbelievable.
Denzil Lacey: I really appreciate it. Thanks so much.