Tuesday, June 30, 2009

San Francisco Music Directors Talk Shop

Music at KUSF

Today's San Francisco Chronicle features a story, "How Radio Stations Tune in Hit Songs," which includes interviews with Music Directors from three different San Francisco radio stations. They discuss how they determine what music gets added to each station and also offered up their choices for some of the best new bands. I was happy to see that a college radio MD from KUSF was included in the mix.

When asked how songs get on the air at the station, one of KUSF's Music Directors (and one of my favorite DJ's there-DJ Schmeejay!) Howard Ryan said:

"We're a free-form radio station, so a DJ can actually play just about any song that fits into their show-stream and KUSF's aesthetic. That being said, the records we add to rotation are generally ones that aren't getting play elsewhere, have serious artistic integrity or are just fun as hell. I roughly preview at least 25-30 records each week - sometimes my ears hurt at the end of the day."

In contrast to this, the commercial station representatives from Live 105 (MD Aaron Axelsen) and Wild 94.9/Star 101.3 (MD Travis X. Loughran) indicate that what gets added to their stations has more to do with what they perceive listeners want. According to Loughran,

"Listener feedback is what ultimately determines when a record gets on the air and also determines when it's time for a record to come off."

Aaron Axelsen (center) Moderates Panel at Industry Noise in March 2009

Live 105's Axelsen states,

"What gets on the air simply comes down to new music that my program director, Dave Numme, and I feel best represents Live 105 and will resonate and react the most with our listeners. It's a combination of playing new music from the modern rock juggernauts, combined with new releases from passion bands and embracing the best of the new emerging acts."

Yet, what this article doesn't reveal, is that commercial stations are also dealing with pressure from the music industry, mandates from their corporate bosses, and are working with a very small playlist in comparison to college stations. Although Music Directors in commercial radio may have some opportunities to add new music or underground acts, there's very little room in the schedule for this kind of music and it typically gets tested out on a specialty show before being introducted to regular rotation.

To learn more about KUSF's music policies, see my interview with another of their Music Directors, Irwin Swirnoff. Additionally, Aaron Axelsen talked more about Live 105's audience during Noise Pop's Industry Noise conference this year. During a panel there he admitted that he's programming for a mass audience, so it can be tricky introducing new artists.

P.S. After writing this I ran across Brad Kava's SF Radio Examiner post about Live 105's new experiment with a company called Jelli. Starting this past Sunday, those who tune in to the station on Sunday nights from 10 to Midnight will apparently be hearing "100% Listener-Controlled Radio." Hmmm. Kava applauds the effort, but is skeptical, arguing that college radio is really where it's at. He says,

"When you have people voting for music they like you get American Idol, not interesting new music tentacles.

If you want radio that really reflects a community, check out college stations such as KALX and KSJS, where the DJs actually talk to listeners old school style on the phone and play requests."

I totally agree....plus based on what I saw of Jelli, the voting is taking place amongst the already narrow playlists of Live 105. You can vote to hear more Minutemen, Melvins, Throwing Muses, Johnny Cash, Miles Davis, and Pixies (go do it!) and less Nine Inch Nails, Ace of Base and Concrete Blonde, but I doubt they'll be offering up the range that you'd get on college radio.

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