The most eagerly anticipated panel for me at CMJ was the "Music Directors' Summit" during College Day. Moderated by Susie Kuo of Sacramento State station KSSU, it was ostensibly an opportunity to hear a variety of perspectives about the ins and outs of being Music Director at a college radio station. Unfortunately the format of the conversation was not as free-flowing as I would have liked, meaning that not every voice on the panel got as much airtime as they should have. Regardless, it was a fascinating panel, leaving me at times inspired and at other times freaked out, depending on whether or not I agreed with a particular MD's approach.
In addition to Susie, others on the panel included Caitlin Bates from SCAD Radio-Atlanta, Justin Lanoue from Canadian station CFUV (University of Victoria, BC), Keri Fico from WUSB (whose QRD interview was featured on Spinning Indie a few weeks back), and MD Andrew Balcerzak from my former station WBGU (Bowling Green, OH).
How Do MDs Select Music for Airplay?
The session began with a discussion about how various Music Directors choose the music that gets added to their stations. I was really surprised to hear that WUSB's Keri Fico adds everything that gets sent to her. She said, "WUSB …accepts all submissions…if a package comes in…then it goes into studio for 3 months…." After 3 months of rotation, then the release gets filed away in a "back cabinet."
Keri added, "All CDs are selected for airplay…everything has an equal chance for airplay." Keri listens to everything that comes in to the station, but doesn't write music reviews or use review stickers. She said that the reason she does this is because she doesn't want to "bias" the DJs for or against a particular release.
The music selection process at CFUV is very different and more guided. According to Music Director Justin Lanoue, "I don’t throw everything in…I do listen to everything….I have the editorial ability to direct where the station is going….we’re all about exposing new music…if the modern rock station is playing [something]…we don’t need to be playing it…"
Andrew is one of the specialty Music Directors at WBGU and he spoke a bit about how he selects music for his genre area (RPM, electronic, experimental). He said, "We will accept anything and add everything so long as we feel that it is appropriate for the format." The format that he covers is IGE, which according to Andrew, "IGE is short for industrial gothic and experimental …[the term is] something I sort of made up…not a real term….we have no CMJ chart …in our community it's kind of caught on….it’s a total BS term..it’s meant to include other forms of electronic music …maybe marginalized….[like] gothic rock…"
At WBGU, items remain in current rotation and are eligible for charting for 6 months after a release's official street release date. DJs at WBGU are expected to play a certain number of current releases each hour in order to push new (versus established) music.
Music Director's Office at WFMU
Station Rules about New Music Requirements
The next topic of discussion was whether or not the panel members are at stations with rules about playing new material. Keri said that at WUSB DJs can play what they like, but are asked to play 25% "new music," from either the station or the DJ's own collection.
Andrew pointed out that at WBGU "current" requirements vary by department, with each department head (jazz, metal, RPM, etc.) asking DJs to play a specific number of new releases.
Managing a Station with Limited Staff
The conversation then turned to Caitlin's experience at tiny SCAD Radio-Atlanta, a 1-year-old Internet-only station (not to be confused with sister station SCAD-Savannah) with only 9 staff members: a GM, Program Manager, Music Director, 3 official DJs and 3 DJs in training.
Caitlin previews all the music herself and mentioned that she initially tried to play everything that she received, but soon learned that it made for a "weird sound" at the station, so now she picks and chooses and did some "reformatting."
She talked about the difficulty they've had in attracting staff members, which is made more difficult by university rules about who is authorized to enter the station building, since it's located in a private dorm. Caitlin said, "If you do not live in this dorm, you can only come in if you’re on a special list."
Record Label/Promoter Relations
Next, the topic turned to how the MDs on the panel handle relationships with promoters and record labels who are looking for feedback on their music. Justin from CFUV said, "I’ve always just done…the honesty thing… I try to give more than light, medium, heavy…they sort of like having that feedback…I try to make myself as available as possible…most promoters and record labels sort of know…that you’re directing the sound of your station"
Justin pointed out that even though his station is freeform, he won't add everything that gets send to him and isn't afraid to tell a promoter or label if something won't work for their airsound. He said, "Some people will add everything or say something nice about everything…I’ll tell someone if I don’t think the record…[will] fit…" He added, "Don’t neglect the phone when it rings…you should talk to them…[even if] you may not appreciate everything [they send]…don’t alienate your station from their servicing…"
Communicating with Station Staff
The stations on the panel covered a wide range of staff sizes, from 9 to 200, so methods of communication among staff members varied tremendously. Justin said that CFUV's 6 person executive staff has short (20 minutes max) daily meetings and are also in regular email contact so that everyone is well aware of what they are all doing.
Keri said that at WUSB they have 200 staff members and have staff meetings twice a year and everyone is required to attend at least one meeting. They also have an active email discussion list for staff, which she acknowledged was both an "open email forum" and a space for "fights and BS."
Susie said that at KSSU staff meetings are more regular, with general staff meetings every other week and "core staff" (directors) meetings on the alternating weeks.
Perspectives on Digital Releases
There was a brief discussion about digital releases on this panel, although a much more in-depth conversation happened later in the day. Justin said that CFUV plays digital releases and said that "now I almost prefer getting it digitally…." Often he'll get digital service for limited release items, such as limited vinyl. He admitted that some DJs are resistant to playing digital releases and he said that sometimes he'll purposefully not add a CD so that DJs will play the digital version. It was mentioned that a survey related to this topic was on the Medium Rotation message board. Susie from KSSU added that her station has digital files for DJs to play, plus some digital releases burned to CD. At her station they post pictures on the wall of the cover art for digital releases, perhaps to make them seem more tangible.
Q & A
The Q&A portion of the session was full of excellent questions from other college radio DJs and MDs.
Getting DJs to Diversify their Playlists
Q: Max from WUOG (Athens, Georgia) talked about how they add a lot of great music to the station every week, but that often "cool stuff gets ignored." He asked the panel for suggestions on how to get DJs to diversify their playlists.
A: Justin said, "I send out a list of things…I…think were awesome… if it’s something that I think is really cool… I put a gold star on it…”
Dealing with Limited Space in Music Library....To Purge or Not to Purge?
Q: Tim from KCSC at Chico State asked a question about how to handle the constant influx of new music into a radio station's library "when you’re limited in your physical space?" He also wondered about everyone's perspective about purging music from radio station music libraries.
A: There were a number of suggestions. Keri said that she has cabinets full of old CDs and that they are starting to take CDs out of jewel cases and putting them into plastic slip cases to create more room.
Andrew said, "We have a large library…[but] we got downsized…[in terms of] storage space." And, then, in probably my favorite quote of the day, he said, "In terms of getting rid of old records…we believe if...it was played…it should be held onto as a piece of history… [it's] property of our station...[as a last resort] we could give it to our Music Library…our Pop Culture Library….the problem is…tastes change...what you think is not very good…DJs in the past thought was great and spun it."
But, then Susie made the argument that as MD you should have the ability to purge music if you like. She said, "Maybe it should be your call."
Justin once again was a voice of reason, saying: "We ran out of room in our library...it was a long process…we moved everything into slip cases…As for purging…personally, I’d always err on the side of caution." He then joked, "Avril Lavigne…you can take that out." He gave the specific example of something in their library that recently got new life, saying, "We had a Simply Saucer record that nobody played in 20 years…[and it's] suddenly all the rage again [with DJs]." He said it was pretty cool to find that they had original releases in the library and it was nice to see DJs re-discovering things like that in the library.
Susie also suggested that stations ask their campus if they have extra room anywhere to house old music.
Preventing Music Theft
Q: Ashley, the MD of WMSC (Montclair,NJ) asked, "Our biggest problem [is]…theft….how do you prevent that? How do you make your DJs respect the work you’re doing"
A: Susie said that at KSSU DJs can borrow CDs from the station if they fill out a sheet. When they return the item, staff sign off on it.
Andrew said that at WBGU music can't leave the station, saying, "you’re not allowed to borrow it…everything gets marked with an ID number…" He said that every DJ needs to keep a log of what music is missing at the end of their shift. The station has a manager who tracks the missing items. He also suggested that stations consider security cameras if theft is a big problem.
After the panel I was super excited to meet the crew from WBGU since I was a DJ and Assistant Music Director there in the 1990s. In fact, my last trip to CMJ was with my WBGU station-mates in 1996.