Saturday, November 1, 2008

College Day at CMJ Recap Part 3 - The Revolution will be Digitized

College Radio Day at the CMJ Music Marathon, which took place on Thursday, October 23rd, was a great chance to hear about some of the latest trends in college radio. The final panel of the day, "WMP3: The Revolution will be Digitized," was one of the most eye-opening for me. Moderated by Jessica Caragliano of Terrorbird Media, the panel also included a record label rep (Graham MacRae from Warner Brothers) and 3 radio folks: Ted Leibowitz from online radio station Bagel Radio, Cynthia Luna from WBWC (Baldwin-Wallace College, Berea, Ohio), and Blair Neal from WRPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY). It's interesting to note that the two college radio stations represented on the panel are both 50 years old, so have a great deal of history with older formats like vinyl.

The big theme of the panel was that the future of music is digital and that radio station staff should not fear this, but should instead embrace it. The panel members chatted about the benefits of digital releases, but also acknowledged some of the hurdles. From the label and promoter's perspectives, digital just makes more sense financially. With budgets getting cut dramatically, many labels can't afford to send CDs and vinyl out to college radio. At the same time, digital downloads are often perceived of as more labor intensive for college radio staff, since stations need to have bandwidth and the proper technology to download the media. Additionally, stations that don't add mp3s have to take the time to download and burn to CD the music that they want to add.

Board at KCPR

Jessica pointed out, "we’re not just sending you digital music to make your lives easier….it’s just the way that the industry is going…" She also acknowledged the critics, saying, "I know…old school…you’re set in your ways…" but added that there are many benefits of digital, saying that it's "great for clean versions, exclusives, vinyl releases that definitely aren’t going to get mailed out to radio."

Blair, the Music Director of WRPI mentioned some of the technical problems that he's had with digital releases. He said, "We just haven’t figured out a solution that works for us…we tried…burning CDs…download[ing]…put it on flash drive." He also alluded to the challenges in storing music in this way, saying that music on a server "sitting in a not very glamorous."

Computers at WNYU

Cynthia of WBWC said that her station still uses "old school vinyl" but is "also progressing towards digital."

Ted from Bagel Radio comes at digital from a completely different perspective since his station is relatively new and Internet-only. He said that they are "big proponents...of digital servicing…CDs take up space…" At Bagel radio they rip everything to digital and they also use software similar to iTunes that allows them to "build entire programs in advance."

Graham from Warner Brothers talked a bit about a survey that he did about digital releases. He said that of the 130 people who filled out the survey, more than half said they could accept some digital servicing. He said that most people burned the digital releases to CD before adding to the station library. He mentioned that in the survey some respondents said that they were worried about the sound quality of digital releases. Graham agreed that there should be standards, but added that some stations let DJs "plug in their iPods...which horrifies me."

Throughout the panel Jessica was the major evangelist for digital. She said, "that's where the future is going." She tipped her hat to the critics, saying, "yes…people like holding a physical CD," but argued that the benefits of digital outweigh the negatives. As an example she pointed out that when selecting a digital track from a computer, "….it's going to be much easier than picking through the wall."


At this point in the panel I was SO ready for the Q&A, as I was feeling more and more protective about the old ways of doing things. Granted, I've been in college radio for a long time and first began DJing when all we had was vinyl. However, I'm also at a station today that still adds a lot of vinyl and definitely does not view it as a dead medium. I think there's something magical about scanning through the shelves in a radio station library. Often I end up playing things that I just happen to find on the shelf. Yes, with digital it might be easier to find exactly what you're looking for, but I worry that there will be fewer chances to discover new things and not as many unplanned moments.


Less Info with Digital Releases?

Q: Michelle, a specialty MD from KXLU said that she receives and adds digital releases, but that she feels that she gets a lot less information with digital, including fewer warnings about profanity.

A: Jessica said that she includes the same FCC sticker on the digital packages she sends out and Graham added that the lack of information sent is not uncommon with all forms of servicing, saying, "that’s not uniquely a digital issue…"

Fears about Reliability, Hard Drive Failure

Q: Max, the MD from WUOG (Athens, GA) said, "We haven’t really done a lot of digital yet…" and said that his main concern is reliability, adding that "hard drive failure rate is really high." He said that they often have computers crash and have to deal with the university's IT department when they have issues. (P.S. I just realized that I featured Max's QRD interview on Spinning Indie recently)

A: Cynthia said that at her station the DJs take classes to learn how to use all the equipment and also learn how to use CDs and vinyl. Because of that, she said if there are failures with the digital system, they have "hard copies to fall back on." Several panelists also suggested that stations have back-up hard drives.

Role of DJ in All-Digital World?

Q: Tyson from KCSC asked about the role of the DJ in moving a station to digital. At his station they have vinyl and CDs and he worries about the move to digital, saying that there's "...nothing stopping DJ from…programming [the computer and]… falling asleep." He added, "Do you think that maybe we don’t need DJs anymore?"

A: Graham said that computer systems and DJ automation are good for when the next DJ doesn't show up. Ted expressed a different perspective, saying, "if you have a DJ that is that disinterested…" then you should really question why they are even on the air.

Annoyance that Labels Won't Spend Money to Send Physical Copies

Q: Angelica from CJLO (Concordia University, Montreal) said that she enjoys sitting down with CDs and reading lining notes. She challenged record labels, saying that if they won't even spend the money to send physical copies to albums to her, how can they assume that she'll convince listeners that "it's worth their money to buy?"

A: Graham argued that there's "a lot more information available online" than in liner notes. Jessica said that labels just can't send out CDs because "the money’s not there," arguing that "people are stealing it for free…not buying records…"

DJ Automation: No Megadeath at 6am

Q: Bill Moss, PD of WUMF (University of Maine, Farmington) said, "our library has been digital for years…at least 10 years….that’s our entire library…we import it into the computer..” They also use an automation program for overnight shifts. He mentioned that they wrote their own, soon-to-be Open Source program MILBERT "so that you’re not waking up at 6 in the morning to Megadeath."

A: This wasn't really a question, so there wasn't really an answer....But, I was struck by his Megadeath comment. Is there common wisdom or are there standards at stations about the kind of music that gets played at certain hours of the day? I would imagine that many college radio stations pride themselves on the fact that they program eclectic music throughout their broadcast days. Some people probably even enjoy hearing heavier music early in the morning. So, I'm curious about that.

Burning Digital to CD is Time-Consuming

Q: Susie, the MD of the Sacramento State station KSSU said that she worried that with digital releases, there's a greater lag time between receiving the release and it getting added to the station library since in her case she has to take the time to burn the CD before distributing it to staff for review.

A: Cynthia said that she typically saves time by reviewing digital releases herself. Jessica also said that some stations have a team of staff members devoted to digital, adding, "the position of music director is evolving…"

Vinyl at WVFI

Old Hippies Cling to Vinyl

Q: Scott from KZSC (Santa Cruz) talked about how he's at a community-run station in Santa Cruz and talked about the old school hippie element there. He said that a lot of his DJs will only use vinyl and that the station has difficulty getting them to play digital. He asked for any advice the panel could give in order to help with shifting the ideology of people who are "60 years old...doing a college radio show."

A: Blair responded that, "We do have a bunch of the older community members at our station…You have to make it a part of the training process." Graham (sounding incredulous) asked, "you aren’t getting serviced with vinyl are you?" Ted addressed the sound-quality argument that may be raised by old school vinyl lovers, saying, "most people are listening to mp3s on iPods…most people are OK with pretty good sound." Jessica commiserated, saying, "some of the old school community members are going to be difficult to convince." Blair bluntly stated: "deal with it."

Forum for College Radio Staff to Share Tech Tips?

Q: A staff member from Clemson station WSBF said that he would like to be able to talk to people from other college radio stations about technology/solutions/troubleshooting/etc. and wondered if there was a place where this was happening.

A: Graham suggested that he start a post on MediumRotation

Fears about Lazy DJs Ignoring Vinyl and CD Libraries

Q: Amanda, the PD from WUOG (Athens, GA) said that her station has a huge library of vinyl and CDs. She added, "I understand the merits of digitizing things….my concern is that DJ will just not play any of our records or CDs that we don’t have the means to digitize…How would you encourage DJs to still play records?" "The general trend is to do what's easiest..."

A: Cynthia said that at her station they have rules that DJs have to use CDs and vinyl. Jessica added that you can tell DJs that there's "cool old stuff" on vinyl and that the "new stuff" is on digital. Blair added, "a lot of people are scared of this transition."

Vinyl at KCPR

Now, my station may be unusual, but in addition to a massive vinyl and CD archive, we also regularly add new vinyl releases and gets serviced with vinyl. The last time I checked there were 60 LPs in current rotation and at least 40 7" singles. So, it kind of bums me out to hear vinyl being portrayed as "old" and digital as "new," when, in fact, there's a lot of cool new vinyl as well.

I'm not anti-digital. But I do hope that there's still a future for vinyl. Is vinyl still alive and well at your station and do you regularly get sent vinyl? Do DJs embrace it or is it seen as the domain of just old-school DJs?


El Pedro / Logan 5 said...

Hi think that your (* and my former) station gets serviced vinyl because it has a reputation for cherishing the format, communicating well within the station and to the listening community about the music, and is in a major metropolitan area with proven listenership and staying power. If I were a label and had 10 copies of vinyl ear-marked for radio distribution, I'd send to WFMU, KFJC, KALX, and you guys can probably fill in the other 7 from this great blog's coverage of the music-focused community radio beacons.

For the rest, digital is becoming the norm and I appreciate Tyson's sentiments (* at another former station of mine) about the pre-building of digital playlists rendering the DJ irrelevant, when even well-trained digital native millennial generation college students will generally opt to play far less CD/vinyl/cassette library material in their shows because they're just more familiar with scrolling and throwing together a single playlist that way.

It's truly not easy to plan a hybridized radio show incorporating digitally serviced material and physical media. I used to burn the digital files onto a single CD for every show, print a label, and then keep myself in the physical realm, with notes made about digital releases for my talk breaks. Someone else might take the opposite tact and pre-rip the CD/vinyl to digital before planning a show.

Radio station studio engineers and programming directors need to consider these strategies and provide accessible ways for DJs to fluently incorporate both realms of music AND information.

One of these days I gotta make it out to a conference, this sounded like a great panel. Thanks for making me feel like part of the conversation.

Cheers from Chico where I'm currently station-less.

Jennifer Waits said...

Thanks Logan 5! This digital revolution thing is pretty interesting and just want to make sure you know that this particular panel discussion that you commented on was from October 2008. Surprisingly the conversation at the UCRN conference a few weeks ago (that I just posted on today)touched on many of the same conflicts.

And, then I get all cranky on the digital situation in my article in PopMatters (which came out this week).

It's clear to me that many DJs still love physical music and the massive and lovingly cared for record libraries at places like KALX attest to that.