Last year, I wrote a tribute to the Oklahoma First Lady of Low Prices, the incomparable Linda Soundtrak. The creator of this beloved character—better known as Linda Verin—reached out to tell me how much she enjoyed the piece. Of course, I asked her for an interview.
A Californian by birth and an Oklahoman by choice, in the 80s she made her mark on the local television landscape at a time when true imagination could actually have a low budget, producing her own commercials—which, believe it or not, were actually divisive in this town—for her premier electronics store, Soundtrak.
From her home in Birmingham, Alabama, where Verin has had her own advertising agency for many years now, in that quintessential voice that made her famous in Oklahoma, she spoke with me about her glory days as the unforgettable Linda Soundtrak.
Louis Fowler: Oklahoma spokespeople like Lynn Hickey and the Credit Jeweler’s Cowboy have nearly faded from the public consciousness, but Linda Soundtrak is still remembered fondly. What’s it like to be an enduring Oklahoma icon?
Linda Verin: It’s lovely. I wish that I had more opportunities to be in Oklahoma and interact more. There is a guy here in Birmingham from Oklahoma that is a crazy OU fan—he actually won OU Fan of the Year this year—he’s got a pretty active alumni group which I joined even though I didn’t go to OU, but they let me join so I do get a little dose of Oklahoma…I appreciate that.
I’m still in touch with a lot of people and I was back there last summer, so I did get to reconnect with former employees and people like that. And now my husband has a nephew that lives in Tulsa, so we have another reason to come and visit.
How did you get set up with Soundtrak?
It was my business, I owned it. I was working in California for a big chain of electronic stores and I was the ad manager, working with about 25 stores. They were very entrepreneurial and you could sort of do whatever you wanted. For example, I had an incredible hi-fi show where I got people like Country Joe and the Fish to show up, with basically no supervision; I had no idea what I was doing, I was very young, but it was so exciting to be working for them.
They got bought out by CBS. Overnight, it became very corporate and CBS actually offered to send me to graduate school to get my MBA, but I’ve never been much of a student, nor was I interested in that. So I did some market research and thought well, I can open my own store. With the little bit of knowledge I had, I made a list of the top 50 cities and eliminated all the ones that were too big or had too much competition. I narrowed it down to four and talked a few other guys into doing this with me, one of them I was dating at the time.
So we made a list of four cities. We had Kansas City, but it looked like maybe the mafia controlled the businesses. We had Indianapolis and some young people had decided to open a concept like ours out there. So we were down to Oklahoma City and Louisville; when we went to Louisville, it seemed like everyone as either under 10 years old or over 80 years old…that was our impression.
So we landed in Oklahoma City. We went to The Oklahoman to talk to their marketing department to figure out where we should put this store and there was one guy and a hundred desks and all the desks were empty. I asked him “Where is everyone?” and he just looked at me and said “The OU/Texas game.” I said “What’s that?” and he said “Are you from Mars?” But he gave some information and we decided we were going to move to Oklahoma.
What started the commercials?
We moved to Oklahoma City not knowing anybody at all. Me and my boyfriend were each going to put in $10,000 and the other two guys were going to put in $10,000 and we thought that would be enough to open…but they backed out. We each had to go to our parents to borrow the money to get it open and we found a very nice landlord who rented us the space, but it was way out at Penn and Hefner and there was nothing, at that time, out there.
We had $40,000 when we started out and spent $10,000 the first week on advertisements. If that hadn’t of worked, we would have been out of business! But nobody had seen low prices like ours. I grew up in Chicago and my boyfriend—who became my husband—came from the Connecticut/New York area; we met in California working for this big chain of electronics stores so we were just used to this kind of marketing.
I had no intention of being on TV. I took a bunch of employees—we didn’t have very many at the time—down to the TV studio and had everybody read the script that I wrote. To get the manufacturers to pay for the spot, you had to say the brand names and get their product in there. I was the only one from the North, so I could talk two or three times faster than anybody else and get more product in. That’s how I got the job. It was totally not the way it was planned at all, and it surely wasn’t in my background.
What was your favorite Soundtrak commercial?
I had a couple of favorite ones. I loved the chocolate kiss, where I’d kiss off my prices. Another one that I really liked that I’m not sure anyone would remember was a takeoff on the “Super Bowl Shuffle” with lyrics like “It’s the Soundtrak Expo, the Super Bowl of stereos, for hi-fi, videos, there’s only one place you gotta go…” and I had all my managers out doing the shuffle. That was really fun.
A lot of them were just random, where I would say to anyone I knew “Do you want to be in a Soundtrak commercial?” I would tell them the theme is, like, rock and roll and people would show up dressed with one glove like Michael Jackson or whatever.
And I loved auctioning them off for charity; one of the weirdest ones was some guy that was in the meat business and he showed up in his butcher’s jacket with blood all over it…I think we did it for Halloween. I got some dry ice and smoke came out and he was like killing high prices with a guillotine…we just had so many that were so crazy. But that’s what made it fun.
I had to think up a new idea every month for twenty years. The truth is, with local commercials, you have to get people’s attention and if you don’t do that, you’re nowhere.
Did you ever get criticism for the commercials?
Absolutely, all the time. I did one that was a take-off of Laugh-In and I was in the park with a car stereo in my shopping cart and a guy came up and he goes “How about letting me turn your knobs?” and I went “Well, I never!” and he goes “I meant on your stereo!” We had a few Baptists say we need to take that off the air.
My favorite, however, would be people that came into the store. They would say “I hate those commercials!” and “I would never buy anything here!” and then they would give us $600 for a new stereo.
But I can’t say it really affected the way we did things. Whenever I did stuff that was tongue-in-cheek people could always take it the wrong way, like Linda’s at an electronics show and she’s got the checkbook, so you know what that means. Then I’d get a letter from someone that says it’s terrible against women, and I’d say well, you don’t know me very well.
Would you ever come back as Linda Soundtrak?
I really think that I’m too old, but…maybe. I would be interested in helping if it was a charitable thing, something for a good cause, something like that.
What are you up to these days?
I’m based in Birmingham, Alabama currently. Once oil busted in Oklahoma, we looked kind of all over the country to expand our business someplace outside of the Oil Belt and there was a company that had some stores that were very similar to Soundtrak in Birmingham and we ended up buying those and that’s how we actually got here.
But, after about eight years, much like the same reason we closed in Oklahoma, we were just overwhelmed by the big box stores. While running Soundtrak was a lot more fun, having my own ad agency is a lot easier because I don’t have 50 to 100 employees. Soundtrak was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’m appreciative of everyone in Oklahoma and I still have such a soft-spot for anything Oklahoman.
What do you think the character of Linda Soundtrak is doing today?
One of the reasons I started Soundtrak is because there weren’t very many women in business, especially in a male field like electronics. I wanted to do that and, in hiring, give everyone an opportunity; it was wonderful to have a company where you didn’t have to have any particular training or schooling, anything like that, and you still had the opportunity to make a good living.
I remember reading about a lady in Omaha that had stores there and she, in her 90s, was still riding in her golf-cart around the store; I really couldn’t see myself doing that but I honestly think that if I would have stayed in Oklahoma, I probably would have run for office. Whether I would have won, well, who knows?