Day Two: Wednesday, October 22, 2008
On the second day of CMJ, Wednesday, October 22nd, I skipped the morning panels in order to continue my series of radio station field trips. Trekking over to Jersey City, I had an inspirational morning visiting freeform community radio station WFMU. Stay tuned for a massive post about that visit later.
While I was over in Jersey City, I missed panels dealing with music licensing, RIAA lawsuits, webcasting, social networking, video game music, indie artist success stories, hi-fidelity, and the intersections between politics, the law and music.
Spring Awakening Panel
I arrived back at NYU in time for a panel discussion featuring the author, producer, and composer of the award-winning Broadway musical “Spring Awakening.” A few cast members were also on hand to perform songs from the “indie-rock musical.” Composer Duncan Sheik (who totally endeared me to him when he revealed that he was heavily influenced by 4AD import records from Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance during his youth) talked about the music and how he approached the process of creating the soundtrack recording, saying that “…the record was made…like…. a rock record” because he wanted to break a bit from the standard “original cast recording” style. Ultimately, he said that the final product was more of a “hybrid of a rock record and a cast album.” He said that the album got radio play, probably even on college radio.
Unformatting the Radio Formats PanelThe final session of the day for me was “Unformatting the Radio Formats,” which was billed as a discussion of “current trends and formats in commercial and non-comm radio.” The panel had a packed audience, overflowing with mostly college radio DJs, presumably eager for a riveting interrogation of how radio is programmed.
Unfortunately, there was only one radio station representative on the panel—Andrew Corey, the Programming Manager of KEXP. Gregg Steele, the VP of Rock for Sirius Satellite Radio, was supposed to be there, but probably canceled in light of the XM-Sirius merger restructuring (lay offs just happened). It’s too bad, as it would have helped to have had a panel full of radio folks from a variety of stations. Instead, we had one radio guy and 4 promoters/marketers (some of whom had done stints in college radio). Regardless, it became an interesting discussion (and at times an infomercial) about what KEXP is doing since Andrew was the only person from radio on the panel.
KEXP is a station in Seattle, Washington that was formerly college station KCMU. In 2001 KCMU became KEXP after forging a partnership with the Experience Music Project and receiving an infusion of funds, a new studio, and a wattage increase. Today, Programing Manager Andrew Corey is the first to admit that they can't really call themselves a college radio station anymore, since they have more resources and are "fully staffed" with nearly 30 people working there full-time. At the same time, KEXP is much like a typical college radio station in its passion for music and its devotion to playing underexposed artists.
Andrew was optimistic about the state of radio today and said that even in light of all the changes in the radio landscape due to increased competition from Internet radio, iPods, and satellite radio, he feels that his station KEXP is still doing well. The station has even more "content" than in the past, using methods such as podcasting. He argued, "I don't feel like we've lost ground" and stated that with changes in technology the station has "more opportunities" and is "helping people discover music."
When asked about satellite radio and whether or not it was competition for terrestrial radio, the panelists made some interesting points about the community aspect of radio. Andrew from KEXP said, "Our model is based on community...Our community is growing and growing." He pointed out that he didn't think that people listening to satellite radio got that same sense of community. Gary Jay of Landshark Promotion Studio added, "Radio stations aspire...to be more than a box in your car...want to be a lifestyle...Satellite radio is in an interesting spot...non-stop barrage of songs...as much as it's great...it's not a lifestyle yet."
This theme kept coming up, over and over, that many great radio stations have a very defined brand or personality to them and that listeners are fans and loyalists because they want to be associated with that station's identity. There was a lot of joking around on the panel about how much they were all touting KEXP (since they were the only station on the panel). Gary even quipped, "We're really kissing KEXP's ass here." Probably because of that, Andrew mentioned a few other stations when talking about the potential of non-commercial radio.
The panelists contrasted the commercial radio model (playing the same songs over and over in order to present familiar music to listeners) with the beauty of college radio. Andrew said, "KCRW, WFMU...when the DJ retains the power to curate the experience...that's their job. Even our Senior Direct of Programming has been around forever...that's not the [commercial] model."
Panelist Steve Kline, of 10th Street Entertainment, reminded the college radio DJs in the room to "Keep your passion. There is an audience out there." Hannah Carlen from Spectre Entertainment, who works primarily with non-commercial radio stations, agreed, saying, "College radio seems to be alive and well." She also made a very interesting point about radio formatting, saying that some stations are "running from it" while others are "running toward it" (for example, college stations that program like an "adult contemporary" station) in order to get support from record labels.
Later in the panel, Andrew Corey talked a bit about how the Music Director of KEXP selects music for the station. He said that they do have a "rotation" system of about 100 records, but that their MD tries to exist apart from the industry. According to Andrew, "Our Music Director...Don Yates...he gets crates and crates of CDs...he's completely insulated from the music world...he puts up this wall and he's locked it down. The door is shut and you don't see that man for hours."
In terms of the future of radio, Gary turned to the audience, saying, "You're the future of radio right here in this room." J.J. Jensen of Foundation Media added, "...freeform...college radio...can re-invent itself...push the online angle." Panelist Hannah Carlen also challenged college radio stations, saying that radio needs "...to be braver...take more chances" and argued that the most successful stations (like KEXP) are "dissolving formats." She pointed out that dissolving formats and breaking genre lines makes so much sense because the today's iPod listener is accustomed to hearing playlists full of multiple styles of music.