Thursday, April 22, 2010

UCRN College Radio Conference Offers up Tips for DJs, Insights on Commercial Radio, and a Forum to Debate the Digital Future

On April 10, 2010 I got to spend the entire day fixated on college radio at the University of California Radio Network (UCRN) conference hosted by UC Berkeley station KALX. Held twice a year, these confabs for DJs and staff of University of California-affiliated radio stations are a great opportunity for shop talk and networking, but are also a chance to get a glimpse into the current struggles and debates within the music industry and college radio.

Last year I attended the UCRN event at UC Santa Cruz station KZSC and found it to be an amazing mixture of pragmatic sessions, music-focused panels, and intelligent discussion. This year's conference was similar, with sessions about broadcast law, the community and music, news and public affairs writing, how DJs can improve their on-air presence, and a panel about the future of music and media. Staff members from KALX also toured DJs around their station, the highlight of which is their meticulously organized music library containing more than 95,000 pieces of music.

 A mere sliver of the Record Library at KALX

There were around 70 people in attendance at the conference from KALX, KDVS, KCSB, KUCI, KUCR, KZSC, KSDT and upstart UC Merced station Bobcat Radio. And, many of the music industry panelists speaking at the conference had college radio pasts, making for interesting discussions about the college radio world vs. the commercial radio world. Unfortunately some sessions conflicted with each other, so I was only able to attend a selection of panels. Here's my recap of what struck me during the conference:

Community and Music Panel at UCRN
(L to R: Bev Elithorp, Joe Barham, Kathleen Wentz, and George Corona)

The Community and Music: Building Relationships Panel

This panel was fascinating to me, mainly because we got some great insight into the differences between college radio and commercial radio from KSAN (The Bone) DJ/Music Director Joe Barham (aka Joe Rock). Joe has been a DJ since he was in high school (at Mendocino high school radio station KAKX), with stints in both college radio at San Francisco State station KSFS and in commercial radio at a number of different stations. Other panelists worked at music promotions company Terrorbird, for a UC Berkeley concert series, and for local paper The East Bay Express.

Joe argued that with the way the radio and music industry is going, "it's almost an obligation that we pay attention to the local community." He pointed out that with the growth of digital music and services like Pandora, music listening is most likely "going in the direction of on demand [programming]." He said that although "radio's limited to playing something at a specific time," it can excel by continuing to play "original content" and by focusing on "localization." Joe does a Sunday night local music show "Local Licks" on The Bone and told the assembled crowd that that particular program is "the funnest part of my job," arguing that it's important to support one's local music scene.

 KALX DJ Doing a Show Amid the UCRN Crowds Milling About

Music promoter George Corona from Terrorbird (who used to be a college radio DJ at KXLU) shared his feeling that the "landscape for radio [is] shifting" and that "charting [on radio]...doesn't mean that [a band is] going to sell records."

Joe encouraged those in college radio to embrace the power and freedom that they have. When asked during the Q&A about the "forces" that he has to "bow to" in commercial radio, he replied, "The number one thing...We have commercials." Although everyone laughed at this reply, Joe argued that the commercials bring with them certain obligations. He talked a bit about the chaos in commercial radio saying that radio has been "kind of creamed" in the past 2 years and that there have been lots of firings and a great deal of flux in commercial radio staff. He said that being in San Francisco (the #4 market) gives him a bit more freedom, but that he has to answer to an out of town corporate Program Director when making certain decisions about programming.

Giving the crowd of college radio DJs a reality check about the commercial radio industry, Joe pointed out that they have to "play 450 songs over and over again" and that song list is a result of twice yearly music research in which potential radio listeners get to hear an 8 second sample of a song "in a hotel lobby." He said, "That's not art. That's robotic" and contrasted that with college radio, which he said is more like finding out about music from a "best friend."

Although all of the panelists offered up advice (start with an internship was the resounding suggestion) to those college radio DJs hoping to get into some aspect of the music business, Joe was pessimistic about the opportunities for music fans in commercial terrestrial radio, saying, "Don't do it." He was more optimistic about syndicated radio programs and about non-commercial radio where he said "music is art." He predicted that terrestrial radio "will die out," but added that there might be a glimmer of hope when stations rise from the ashes. Joe said that with all of the corporate radio bankruptcies (which aren't over yet), there could be a shift back to local, private ownership and that if that happens radio has the chance to change dramatically and for the better.

I was also interested to hear that The Bone is doing some interesting things programming-wise, not only with its local music shows, but also with Sunday night programming (Little Steven's Garage and Joel Selvin's radio show) that hearkens back to the freeform, underground radio days of the original KSAN. Additionally, Joe mentioned that The Bone airs a high rated all-request show in which music not normally in rotation gets played. His saw that as a sign that listeners really are interested in more than just the same short list of songs approved for airplay.

DJ and Programming Panel at UCRN
(L to R: "DJ Dave" Richards, Khris Brown and Shawn Reynoldo)

DJ and Programming Panel

Next, I sat in on a panel discussion about how to be a better DJ. As with the previous panel, one of the most interesting aspects of it was that one of the panelists had experience as both a college radio DJ and a commercial radio DJ. Shawn Reynaldo of XLR8R started at UC Berkeley station KALX six months after he began working at commercial station LIVE 105 (KITS-FM) as a phone operator. Eventually he became Operations Manager at KALX and a DJ and producer at LIVE 105. As we heard throughout the day, he talked about the importance of internships as the path to jobs in the music industry.

Shawn also pointed out that if you are DJing because you love music, then corporate, commercial radio is the wrong industry for you. He said that the music played at commercial stations comes from a "giant list that a middle-age white man" has compiled based on phone surveys and added that on college radio "you can experiment more."

In terms of specific advice that Shawn and others on the panel had for college radio DJs, here are some of the highlights:

1. "Drink water. Eat a green apple. Imagine your audience is your friend." - Khris Brown (KBA Voice Production)

2. "Pull more music than you need ahead of's better to have too much." -Shawn

3. "Make an effort to expand your musical knowledge" and seek out advice from others at the station- Shawn

4. "Playing random things sounds like playing random things," so really think about your set -Shawn

5. When on the air don't apologize for your mistakes because the audience won't even notice them - Khris

6. Write notes before going on mic so that you remember what you need to cover - "DJ Dave" Richards

7. Be prepared for your shift and for mic breaks - Shawn

8. "Personality really makes a difference on the radio." Be yourself. -Shawn

9. Listen to the beginning and end of each track to ensure smooth transitions without dead air -Shawn

10. If you don't know what to say at the beginning or end of a mic break, say the name of the station - Shawn

11. When mixing sounds don't overlap voices or mismatch beats because "it sounds like shoes in a dryer." - Shawn

Panelist Prepare for the Changing Media Landscape Panel at UCRN
(L to R: Jody Colley, Corey Denis, Jillian Putnam-Smith, and Mike Cadoo)

The Changing Media Landscape: What is the Future of the Music and Media Industry?

The final panel of the day brought together everyone from the conference into one room to discuss the future of the music and media industry. As the KALX staff member introducing the panelists pointed out, "everything's transitioning to digital." This digital transition became the focus of the panel, with several of the panelists working almost purely in the online world.

This led to some tensions in the room as radio wasn't always acknowledged as being a part of this digital future. Corey Denis from Not Shocking Digital Strategies proudly said, "I don't deal with any traditional radio," but conceded that artists do still value radio and that college radio is particularly important for local musicians. She added that "unique programming is still going to be the backbone of radio." Mike Cadoo from digital-only label n5MD added that "[radio] charts are pretty valuable to a label" and said that his label services 200 radio stations in North America.

East Bay Express editor Jody Colley chimed in with the role that college radio plays in her job as the editor of a weekly newspaper that works hard to cover local music events, saying that college radio helps local music promoters identify talent because "college radio has always been on the forefront of finding the best bands." The East Bay Express just opened a music venue, so it's even more important for them to be tapped into the music scene.

Talk then turned to digital music and how it is stored and distributed. When discussing the possibility of housing music in "the cloud," located on servers far from one's own physical location there were concerns raised by both panelists and DJs in the audience. Jillian Putnam-Smith of online music company IODA acknowledged that artists seem to make less money from their music if it exists in this virtual space. One DJ said, "When I DJ...I'm being a fan, but I'm also selecting...instead of going to a faceless website and downloading." Another added, "We're a visceral, tangible educational resource" and stated that it's beneficial to have a "physical library [of music] with physical comments on [the material]."

At this point Corey made the claim, "College radio used to break bands. That doesn't happen anymore."

 New Release Bin at KALX

Corey asked the assembled DJs in the room if their stations accepted digital submissions and as far as I could tell no hands went up. Jillian (who used to be a KALX DJ) pointed out that for college radio stations it's often a very complex process to handle digital releases and navigate the password-protected systems put in place by promo companies.

A DJ in the audience then said that for college radio stations having libraries of CDs and LPs is important and that "the actual physical thing reminds you that it exists."

Later on in the discussion Corey added that if a college station created a system for accepting digital music submissions it would be "such a story" and encouraged stations to do so and hire grad students to develop this type of tool. Similarly, others in the audience wondered about the possibility of having digital music located in "the cloud" so that stations could access it without having to download it from promoter or label websites.

But, then the discussion turned back to the desires of DJs who want to be able to play physical music on their shows. Jillian agreed, saying that as a college radio DJ "you want to be able to go into your library and smell all the vinyl." Someone in the audience then brought up a concern about the sound quality of digital and the difference in sound between playing vinyl, CDs, or a stream off of MySpace over the radio. Corey's reply was that "audiophiles like us...We're not the general public" and she argued that people are being taught to expect lower and lower sound quality and that music formats have "degraded in sound over time" as vinyl made way for cassettes, CDs and digital files.

On the flip side, Mike agreed that there is a resurgent interest in vinyl, with vinyl-only labels cropping up. Jillian said that at IODA they create digital files from vinyl and that there's an entire online store ThinkIndie devoted to digital music converted from physical music, including vinyl.

 Audience for the Final UCRN Panel of the Day

Another DJ then brought up that he couldn't imagine preparing for his radio show without having access to bins of CDs and records and said that he likes that he "can see all the CDs...and the artwork" and that he wouldn't want to plan for his show by just going off of a list of music files. Inexplicably this comment caused Corey to launch into an attack on college radio. She complained about record stores being full of cast-off promo CDs and blamed college radio for selling off material, saying that bands pay $2 for that CD and when it gets sold off they don't make any money.

When I pointed out to her that it should be the responsiblity of labels and promo companies to identify stations that would be most interested in specific CDs, she backed off a bit, but didn't really acknowledge that the financial constraints of labels has a lot more to do with their push for stations to go digital than college radio stations getting rid of free CDs that they don't want. Her argument is quite similar to what I've heard on other panels, in which promoters said that they couldn't send out promo CDs anymore and that music stealing fans were to blame.

It was an interesting discussion to say the least and provided some great fodder for the piece that I was just finishing up for PopMatters about "Technology and the Soul of College Radio," so the timing of this debate couldn't have been better.

Thanks to everyone at KALX for allowing me to again be a fly on the wall at UCRN. It's an amazing event that is so beneficial to everyone who participates.


dearxiola said...

hi this is corey - i didn't "attack" college radio! i love college radio, and made that clear....

what i did make VERY clear is that the medium is changing, and the formats for delivery are changing, and there is no reason to fight these technological developments. in fact, you can't!

this is far from an attack, and i am definitely disappointed to read your words as characterizing philosophical conversation as an "attack"

simply not true, and not reported accurately.


dearxiola said...

the more i read this the more offended i am! you blatantly misquote me. over and over.

dearxiola said...

lastly, i challenge you to prove anything (ANYTHING) i said at that panel to be...wrong. go for it. ANYTHING. come on, you're a journalist. go for it!

Jennifer Waits said...

Hi Corey,

Thanks for your comments. If there's anything specific that you think I misquoted, then I'd welcome your clarifications.

Perhaps "attack" was a strong word, but I'm just expressing how I felt as an college radio DJ in the room and as a reporter on the day's events.

I think you raised some interesting points throughout the discussion.

But, you also have to acknowledge that when you are talking to a room full of college radio DJs they might pick up on any potential critiques and respond accordingly.

Maybe you could explain further your feelings about promotional CDs and how college radio should handle them.

I'm also curious to know why you brought that topic up right after a comment from a DJ about how much he liked being able to do his show prep using physical music.

The timing of the comment is what really made me feel like you were launching an attack, but perhaps I just mistook your passion for anger.

There's nothing wrong with a lively discussion I think it's important for all of us to reflect on what we're doing as DJs.