The final panel that I attended at the CMJ Music Marathon was "Small Stations - Big Obstacles" on Friday, October 24, 2008. Moderated by Steve Gardner of Yep Roc Records, the panel also included Jerry Steller, the CEO and Radio Rep from Vitriol Promotion, KCRW's Music Publicity Director Rachel Reynolds, WIDR's Music Director Jessica Kizer, and co-founder of East Village Radio Jorge doCouto.
Steve started off the discussion by talking about his own tenure in college radio. He's been involved with college radio for 20 years, at KCPR (Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo), KSCU (Santa Clara University), and currently at WXDU (Duke University). He opened the conversation by saying that in his job at Yep Roc he talks to a lot of stations and has learned that every station has similar issues. He asked the panel members to talk about how they manage their mostly volunteer staffs.
Managing Volunteer Staff
Jessica, of Western Michigan University station WIDR, said that at her station they have 80 volunteer DJs and that DJs are not required to be students. They utilize an application process and require potential DJs to work on street teams and work at radio station events in order to prove that they are committed to the station. She added that it's competitive and a "highly coveted position" to be a DJ at WIDR. If staff members screw up, they have a "three strikes you're out system" and have a formal warning process for penalizing and ultimately firing DJs who break station rules like having in-studio guests and committing FCC violations. She said that it really works at their station to treat DJs professionally and to have a formal process. She added, "stay professional...and so will they."
Jorge from East Village Radio, a 5-year-old for-profit Internet-only station, contrasted his station's approach, saying, "We're a little bit sloppier than that" and added, "We don't have that big of a staff." He said that they don't tell their DJs what to play, but that the rules at their station keep changing and that they have "a lot of growing pains."
Steve added that, "no matter how big your station... [a] rigorous application process...builds in this feeling [that] this is important." He mentioned that at his former station KCPR (the location of my 2nd radio station field trip in September) had a number of requirements including a written application and essay, a quarter-long class, a mentor program, and a "trial by fire" on the air. He said that it was "kind of like boot camp" and that if you made it through that process it instills a greater sense of commitment.
Jessica mentioned that a few staff members at their station actually get paid, but that they all have to rely on volunteer staff to get all of the work done. In particular she needs help reviewing all of the genre music that comes in. In order to keep volunteers happy she will often give out incentives like free T-shirts and tickets to shows. Steve agreed, saying that it's important to let volunteers know that they're appreciated.
Rachel from KCRW talked about how her station began in a junior high school basement 30 years ago and that they "worked our way up" to where they are today (a huge public radio station affiliated with Santa Monica College). She said that every former Music Director is still at the station and that there is "immense loyalty" amongst the staff. She said one of their main goals has always been to "play what you love." As an example of that, she talked about how they started to play world music at KCRW when public radio was playing only classical.
In contrast to that, Jorge talked about how East Village Radio started as a "pirate thingy...[so] people got used to that system." He said that it's "tough...trying to switch that model...they've gotten used to...loosy-goosy."
Jerry then suggested, "don't act like you're a small station...when contacting promoters." He said that it's important for even small stations to act professional, have regular office hours for their Music Directors, and report to CMJ. He also said that he's more likely to send music to stations where the top albums get more than a handful of spins (as they might on freeform stations).
Jessica said that at WIDR DJs have to play a certain number of songs from heavy (5), medium (4) and light (3) rotation categories during their shows. She said these are "strict rules" for DJs to follow during their shows and that she must create rotation categories every week.
Communication with Staff and Promoters/Labels
Steve said that stations should give DJs opportunities to talk to each other. At his station they email their music reviews to a staff email list and he said that he thinks that helps with staff communication.
In terms of communication with labels and promoters, Steve said that a lot of stations don't do office hours or don't show up for them. When this happens, he said that promoters just assume that the station is "a shambles." Jerry agreed, saying that he crosses people off his list for promos if they don't answer the phone or report their charts. Jessica said that if nothing else, be sure that you know the status of music that's been sent to you. Jerry added that it's frustrating for him if an album is "in review for 12 weeks," saying that it's "nice to have airplay when you're promoting the record."
Things at East Village Radio are a little different. Jorge said that in terms of bringing in new music to the station, "We depend a lot on the DJ." He added, "We're concentrating more on curation."
Role of Station in Community
Rachel talked about KCRW's role in the community in Los Angeles. She said that the best way to get the word out about KCRW is by partnering with other organizations like museums and venues. She also mentioned their "fringe benefits program," in which 900 businesses have agreed to offer discounts to KCRW supporters who've paid $50 to be in the program.
At East Village Radio the community has even easier access to the station. According to Jorge, "We have a booth right on the street." He added that according to one survey, as many as 1800 people walk by the station in an hour. He said, "We're definitely accessible."
Jessica said that even though they are a college radio station, that they've often had trouble attracting student listeners. To help change that, they've tried to be more present on campus by doing things like DJing at events.
Image from Fiddle While You Burn
The panel then talked about some of the events that they do. Jessica said that at WIDR they have a long-running (this year was the 24th) annual event called "The Barking Tuna Festival." This year, the 3-day fest featured a variety of bands including hip hop acts and Mates of State. Jorge then talked about East Village Radio's first festival called Free Fest. They flew in artists from all over the world, including Boris, and had acts on 2 stages at the free event in September. He said it was a "huge success." He said that the challenge going forward is deciding if future events should be free (with sponsorship) or if they should require an admission charge (with no branding). Jorge said that East Village Radio was lucky to be funded and that they would "prefer to have a non-branded event."
Rachel from KCRW talked about how with many of their big events, branding is often happening behind the scenes. She said that they've worked to get donated venues and food in order to save money.
Steve then talked about money and fund raising, mentioning that some college radio stations are completely funded by their universities and do not need to fund raise.
Jessica of WIDR said that for them, "funding...is the number one problem that we have." In order to raise money they do sponsorships and have underwriting. At her station they have one fund raising week a year, called "WIDR Week." She added, "when the university is hurting financially, we are hurting financially." Things at her school are even tougher as the university has had recent debt problems, which has led to a tighter budgeting process. Jessica told the group that she has to go through a complicated sign-off process to even get approval to buy $5 stickers. One thing they've tried is to get donations from alumni. Additionally, they do an "adopt-a-DJ" program where listeners can donate in order to spent an hour on the air. Donors can also give money in order to get passes to 5 shows a year.
At KCRW, there are 10-day pledge drives twice a year. Rachel mentioned that they have a huge number of online listeners, which increases their financial burden. She suggested that stations "never be negative" when fund raising.
Things are pretty different at East Village Radio, which is funded by a pizzeria. Additionally, the station has sponsors.
Getting People Interested/Involved with Station
Q: An audience member asked for suggestions on how to get more people interested in your station and how to get them involved?
A: Jessica said that at WIDR there are DJs who've been on the air for 20 years, so they don't really have that problem. Jerry suggested that stations promote themselves by visiting classes on campus (eg communications classes), since a classroom full of students is a captive audience. Jorge said that it's great to do live broadcasts from remote locations. East Village Radio recently broadcast a Gang Gang Dance performance. Rachel said that KCRW has an active presence at CMJ and they are recording songs on their cell phones and posting them on the KCRW website in order to share the CMJ experience with more people.
Dealing with Sports Pre-Empting Music Shows
Q: Someone asked a question about sports programming. At their station sporting events regularly preempt long-running specialty shows. She asked for suggestions on how to handle this.
A: Steve agreed that there's a "long-standing battle...[between] music, sports and news" at college radio stations. He's currently at the Duke radio station, and sports is huge at his school. Jorge's station is online-only, but he suggested that all stations use their Internet streams "to your advantage," pointing out that they could still run the specialty programming online if it's pre-empted by sports over the terrestrial signal.
Summer Break and Limited Staff
Q: A DJ asked about summertime, pointing out that often there are fewer students and radio staff around during summer break. She asked how stations maintain relationships with record labels over the summer.
A: Jerry suggested that stations tell promoters if they will be off the air during breaks. He said that if your station IS on the air, then try to report to CMJ (but don't do it if you aren't on the air as one station did last summer). He also said that many radio station alumni "would kill" to fill in over the summer if your station is in need of DJs. He also said that you can be honest with promoters if you don't want to get music sent in the summer. Steve pointed out that you just don't want to stop all communication because then labels and reps will think that the "music director graduated and now the station sucks."
Achieving a Consistent Airsound
Q: Someone in the audience asked about ways of homogenizing a station's schedule/sound without getting backlash from DJs.
A: Jessica said that "it's important to have smooth transitions" between shows. Jorge added that it's a good idea to ask DJs to listen to the last song of the last program in order to "make that transition" more seamless. He gave an example of how one can stylishly get from Jazz to Norwegian metal by transitioning with a John Zorn track. Steve shared an example from one of his old stations where the transition between DJs was a bit more questionable, with "Music M" (Music with a Message) followed by "Music D" (Music from the Devil).
So, with that, my coverage of the panels at this year's CMJ Music Marathon is completed. I still have a few more CMJ-related posts in the pipeline, including two more radio station visits (one of which is East Village Radio) and a show review, so stay tuned. In the meantime, here's a list of my complete CMJ coverage:
Previous Posts about 2008 CMJ Music Marathon:
CMJ New Music Marathon Then and Now
CMJ Music Marathon Day One Recap - Is Radio Still Relevant?
International Acts at CMJ and Japan Showcase
CMJ Music Marathon Day Two Recap - Unformatting Radio Formats
Tara Jane O'Neil, No Kids and Mirah at CMJ
Radio Station Field Trip #4 - WFMU in Jersey City
College Day at CMJ Recap Part 1- Miss Li, Juliana Hatfield, and Event Planning Tips
College Day at CMJ Recap Part 2 - Music Directors' Summit and WBGU Siting
College Day at CMJ Recap Part 3 - The Revolution will be Digitized
2008 College Radio Awards at CMJ
CMJ Music Marathon Day 4 Recap Part One - Metal Radio Panel