Remember when you were a kid how you got to go on all kinds of neat field trips to see how things worked? Whether it was the bank or the fire station, I loved learning about how the world operates with all the behind-the-scenes goodness.
For that reason, I decided to schedule myself a little field trip to the local college radio station, KEPC. I love listening to their variety (recently in one set I heard: Springsteen’s “Pay Me My Money Down,” followed by “The Only Lie Worth Telling” by Westerberg, “Playing In The Distance” by Grand National, and rounding it out with “Long Road” by Pearl Jam), and I have long-wondered how radio had changed since the last time I was in a college radio studio, KSCU at Santa Clara University back in the day (’93 or ’94 when I was in high school). I wondered how technology has impacted operations, how songs are selected, what’s hot, etc. Sharon Hogg was just the gal to help me out.
Sharon is the station manager and one of the main instructors in the radio program at the college. She gets to do the fun work of deciding which songs to add to rotation on a weekly basis, and with the help of an intern, programs the massive system called Simian that runs everything. And like all good music lovers, she has a Beatles poster on her office wall, even though she claimed that there was no Beatles in rotation at the station. The grizzled engineer disagreed, and we found 5 tracks that they do, in fact, play (most from later albums). With a rotation of 57,000 songs it can be easy to get confused. Sharon showed me all around the station, answered my interminable questions, and made me want her job.
To answer my first question, most of what KEPC plays (like most radio stations now) is all pre-programmed. It’s not as I may have pictured at one halcyon moment; sitting behind the soundboard, taking requests, stacks of records to my right and left, thinking to myself, “Hmmm, what would go good with this song? What should we throw on next?” No, my friend. It’s a hard and fast science nowadays.
All the songs are on .wav files on a massive computer system; no more actual putting CDs or records or anything else in and out of players during the show. And get this – the system is programmed with what is essentially a mathematical system: Sharon tells the system roughly how often to play a song (for instance, that Grand National track –which I love– is fairly new and hot, so it is scheduled to play once every day-and-a-half). She also dictates the general overall order: One older song, followed by two newer songs, then one brand-new addition, etc. The behemoth brain of the radio station can be programmed to run for weeks with no one even in the station (like during Christmas: 5 weeks of pre-programmed!). Good luck calling in with that request (when there is a DJ in house, they can play one request per hour).
New songs are added into rotation weekly. They get about 20-25 new CDs a week (but she didn’t know about music blogs! I filled her in) and the intern compares what they have received with the college radio and AAA charts. Most of the songs they add each week come straight from the charts. She gave me copies of this week’s charts from CMJ -
…that’s the top 20 from the Radio 200 Chart above.
And those are the top 20 songs from the AAA (Adult Album Alternative) Chart.
There is leniency to add local bands, personal favorites, etc. On a yearly basis the station has to submit playlist information to ASCAP and BMI, which charges them a certain amount in order for them to have the rights to play those songs (I think she said about $700/year). All DJs are students and, obviously, unpaid. The format of the radio station is consistent all the live-long day: No “Electronica Hour” or “Emo-Screamo Saturday Night” shows. She said it just got too crazy and they standardized all their music across the spectrum for consistency.
Some of my impressions: Is radio losing its immediacy and its connection with the individual listener? It all seems to be so mechanized, based on formulas and charts, pre-programmed systems. While there is some freedom and flexibility for sure (especially up at the station manager’s end because she can add anything she wants) overall it is pretty structured for the little people, the DJs. The business model is tightened up towards perfection. But perfection doesn’t always equal passion, and that’s what I think listening to and sharing music should be about – that free-flowing blending of favorite songs, where the DJ’s personality can come through. I know that at KEPC the DJs are obviously encouraged to let their personality come through in what they say, but that is rigidly segmented into time slots and station breaks, and if they don’t personally like or know anything about the music they are playing, how can they be passionate?
Perhaps the freedom-seekers are shifting more towards mediums such as podcasting, blogging, or satellite radio where everyone from Bob Dylan to blogger Chris from Gorilla vs. Bear can have a show to suit their specific tastes.
I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts, especially those of you who may work in radio. Is radio just changing to suit the slick production of our times & giving us what we want? And in doing so what is happening to the relationship with the audience? Is traditional radio becoming obsolete, with customizable internet radio stations, satellite radio, iTunes and iPods with the ability to store 10,000 songs and listen to them in any order you choose? Do we still need traditional radio?
All that being said, it was a very cool visit. I loved digging through their new CDs for this week (got me some good ideas) and if they ever call me, I’m definitely ready for my show. Here’s the obligatory touristy shot (ha!).
Pump up the volume.