On the Radio: The Popdose Interview with Scott McWilliams
I’m sure you’ve heard the news: radio is dead. This is not a new pronouncement, for there have been “death of radio” stories surfacing for years (if not decades) in the press. Despite all the premature obituaries, commercial and non-commercial radio remains a strong media presence in the entertainment/information landscape. But since 1996, there’s no denying that with the consolidation of radio properties away from independent owner-operators to large corporations with names like Clear Channel, Cumulus, CBS, Entercom, and Citidel (which is on the ropes as I write this), the kind of programming that gets churned out is less diverse, adventurous, and clearly lacking a strong local or regional focus. So while radio remains a profitable business enterprise, the things most people love about radio are waning. And what are those things? Well, simply put: being exposed to new music, listening to a host who is engaging, and generally being surprised by the content that’s on the air. Think back to a favorite DJ for a moment. What made that person unique or likable on the air? Now think about the hosts you hear on the air nowadays. Except for the fire-breathers on AM talk radio, compelling content on public radio stations, and Howard Stern-like imitators on morning shows, most DJs are relegated to saying standardized phrases, announcing songs, talking about the weather, and giving stuff away on the air.
Some of the changes in radio are the fault of the listening audience. In surveys, one of the most common refrains is that DJs talk too much, and they don’t play enough music. Fair enough. Sometime a DJ just likes to talk just to hear themselves talk. At other times, long commercial stop-sets and too many station sweepers (pre-recorded station identifiers that tell people what station they are listening to and what kind of programming they offer) can be off-putting. But small play lists and standardized content contribute to the staleness of radio, too. Creative programming takes work, and that means money to pay people to come up with the kind of content that creates a bond between the listener and the host. Because commercial radio is not immune to the pressures of shareholders, general managers are forced to cut costs to boost profits. And that means running your staff lean, having people double and triple up on jobs, and paying them less. When you have less money for programming, you have less “program” to offer listeners. People feel it, and migrate to other gadgets and apps for entertainment. Cell phones, iPods, Pandora, Rdio, and Mog have made a dent in radio’s audience, but not to the extent you think they have. Radio is hanging in there, but they aren’t really getting any new customers. The radio listening habits of people under 20 is very low, and part of that may be the fact that radio stations don’t really program to teens and young adults. Instead the inherent conservatism of the industry has pushed many younger folks away and into the arms of the Internet.
What can be done to reverse this trend? Well, it’s going to take some doing, but low power FM stations could have a more progressive influence in the industry. Another type of radio station – one that takes the openness of the Internet – and broadcasts it over the airwaves (and on the Internet, too) could spur an innovative programming streak that the industry sorely needs.
One individual who is trying to bring a new approach to radio is Scott McWilliams – the Operations Manager and Program Director of Party 934 in New York. The two of us had a lively back and forth via email about his radio station, the state of radio, and some of the changes to the radio landscape.
Ted: Tell me what makes your station unique?
Scott: Party 934 is unique because we allow people with no previous radio experience to come in for a minimum of one hour per week and do their very own radio show, allowing them to utilize their creativity on the air. For example, a personality could be on the air Mondays at 12 noon playing rock, then by 1 PM a new personality could be on playing hip-hop. The station creates a multi-genre, live, and interactive environment for listeners who are sick of hearing the same 50 tracks played over and over at their local corporate station.
Ted: How is it an interactive environment? Also, how do you build a devoted audience when the programming is so fragmented?
Scott: Our on-air personalities encourage listener interaction – through the requests page and the chat room.
I believe our listeners are inspired by Party 934 through its non-traditional programming structure. You won’t hear the same loudmouth corporate radio personality on the air Monday through Friday, 10 AM to 2 PM. We embrace diversity and challenge our personalities to do something out of the ordinary. For example, [we ask them to forget] about top 40/Billboard Hot 100. Our shows are a minimum of one hour per week, therefore, you could be listening to a hip-hop show and the next hour be listening to a country western show.
People jump around a lot when they listen to the radio – from CHR (Contemporary Hit Radio) to AOR (Album Oriented Rock) to Hot AC (Adult Contemporary) to RCHR (Rhythmic Contemporary Hit Radio) to News/Talk to Standards/Oldies to Country. The way I see it, Party 934 is all of the above – except CHR, of course. There wouldn’t be a significant difference between Party 934 and most radio stations if we subjected ourselves to a fascist radio programming structure of 100-200 tracks. The fact of the matter is, big corporate stations are ruining both the radio and music industries – and my hope is that Party 934 can offer listeners an alternative to the same tracks being played over and over, followed by 20 commercials.
Ted: I don’t remember when I heard a commercial stop set with 20 spots, but I get your meaning about being overexposed to advertising on the air. However, talking about commercials brings up an obvious question: how does your station make any money to pay for staffing, equipment, and ASCAP and BMI fees?
Scott: Expenses are paid by myself and a funding source. [Also], there are no staffing fees. I am not paid, nor are any of the on-air personalities. We do not pay anyone to produce shows, for we are a volunteer project, [and] our goal is not to attract monetary compensation.
Ted: So, this radio station (which is on 94.9 FM in the Hudson Valley in New York) exists purely for the love of radio and music. Since one of your goals is not to “attract monetary compensation,” what are your goals for the radio station?
Scott: The goals are the station is mostly educational in nature. We are educational in nature because we train people, regardless of previous knowledge, how to produce independent, creative radio from all over the world. We also have had several on-air personalities that started off at Party 934 and transitioned in to for-profit radio, which is something we’re quite proud of.[Another] goal of the station is to offer independent artists a venue to get their music heard, because as we both know, most mainstream stations couldn’t care less about artists that aren’t on Billboard.
Ted: When some of your mixologists moved on to commercial radio stations, were they able mix what they wanted, or did they have to revise their mixes to fit the format? I’m curious about this because if they were able to have control over their mixes, it means they are able to expose the audience who listens to commercial radio to artists they may have never heard before.
Scott: I am not sure what structure the mixologists who moved on to for-profit/corporate radio have to abide by, for I am not them.
Ted: I presume you keep in touch with them (and maybe even listened to their shows), so it would be interesting to compare playlists. Also, I know you’re not a fan of CHR — mostly because the format is pretty much everywhere — but do you have anyone on your staff playing music from lesser known power pop groups who haven’t charted on the Billboard Hot 100?
Scott: I’m not going to comment on the first part of your question because I simply do not know what arrangement they have with their program directors – whether they are assigned the tracks they need to play or if they are able to mix in some tracks from their personal collection. I simply do not know.
In regards to your second point, yes; we have on-air personalities that play independent music, whether it be pop, country, jazz, hip-hop, R&B, techno, or what have you.
Ted: My sense has been that terrestrial radio will not change until a viable alternative comes along that’s accessible in cars. At the consumer electronic show in Las Vegas this year, Toyota unveiled Entune — which takes elements already in most smart phones and puts them into the dashboard. It’s still pretty exclusive in terms of what’s offered musically (i.e., Pandora and Clear Channels iHeart Radio), but something like this will do a lot to change terrestrial radio and hopefully give Internet radio sites a chance to be more portable. Any comments on developing an iPhone or Droid app for Party 934?
Scott: An iPhone, Blackberry, and Android application are in the works.
Ted: And what about Toyota’s Entune? Like I said it takes a lot of elements already on smart phones and centralizes them in a dashboard unit. Music and information elements that radio currently provides listeners (but does so on a program clock) are now pretty much “on demand.” That, to me, is a real game changer in the industry.
Scott: It’s a shame that it’s so exclusive to only Pandora and iHeart Radio.
Ted: Agreed, but I think other developers will sell their own type of Entune devices that will allow consumers to tailor their dashboard to whatever apps they want on there, and that means more opportunities for stations like yours to be available in cars. There might be the same crowding that happens on the Internet, but hopefully it’ll mean a more diverse radio landscape. Any closing thoughts on Party934 or the state of radio in the U.S.?
Scott: I think Party 934 is truly a revolutionary concept, and I appreciate the opportunity Popdose has provided to help spread the word. Also, I am appreciative of you for conducting the interview.