How noncommercial radio stations like WXPN plan to stay relevant in the YouTube age

WXPN general manager Roger LaMay and NPR program director Anya Grundman aim to build careers - and flex non-commercial radio' muscle - with the Emerging Artists Project.

Five songs. Twenty minutes of stage time. Free eats. (No pay.)

That was the "deal" for the retro song and dance team of Nancy and Beth, alter egos for Will and Grace star Megan Mullally and Stephanie Hunt of Friday Night Lights fame, to “work” the Non-Comm radio convention, held last week in the showrooms of  World Café Live from Wednesday through Friday.

Yet the opportunity was enough to inspire the duo, their band, and road crew to haul their collective selves from Austin, Texas, and Los Angeles for a pricey two-night stay, bassist Andrew Huffman said.

And they were hardly the only musicians who felt compelled to court the Non-Comm crowd. The gathering drew nearly 300 radio program directors, air talent, and industry professionals from the adult alternative and mostly noncommercial radio world, represented here by 88.5 FM WXPN, the confab's hosts.

Even the most popular artists are no longer a “slam dunk,” program directors said. And some old ways of radio are having to make way for the new.

That’s why Dan Auerbach -- identified by XPN air personality and conference organizer Dan Reed as “the number-one artist on the format” -- felt compelled to pop in, to  talk up his forthcoming album and producer pursuits.

And why a surprisingly robust Deborah Harry and Blondie kicked off their summer comeback tour at Non-Comm by praising the assembled power brokers.

Format faves Laura Marling and Gov’t Mule landed in town early, to squeeze in Non-Comm appearances with other Philly dates.

Paul Schaffer, of Late Show With David Letterman fame, brought in his World’s Most Dangerous Band for a convention showcase, saying, “I heard this was a good place to plug my album.”

And heroic rocker Tommy Stinson of Bash & Pop (and the legendary Replacements) testified: “Without you people, we’d be nowhere.”

Well, not exactly. In today’s music world, listeners have many new places to “self-select their own media channels, make up their stations as they go along,” said David Macias of Thirty Tigers, a label that manages and distributes music for Jason Isbell and Patty Griffin.

Bill Burrs of the indie label 300 Entertainment said the curators who assemble the playlists at Spotify and Apple Music "have to be visited every week,” as they now have as much clout as pop-radio programmers.  

YouTube -- with music operations now run by Burr’s former label boss Lyor Cohen -- is  yet another new media monster, he said. “My 15-year-old son, who finds all his music on YouTube, is constantly on me -- ‘Dad, you really ought to sign this guy. He’s got three million hits.'”

So how is noncommercial radio responding?

  • By adding fewer new tracks per week (though still more than hot hits and country format stations) and paying attention to listeners' searches on the song identification tool Shazam, “the modern equivalent of the radio request line,” noted Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming for Edison Research.
  • By using other “crowdsourcing” tracking tools  “to gauge our on-air performance,”  said Jim McGuinn, program director of the Current (Minneapolis). “You can do something [on air] at 9 a.m. and by 5 p.m. know if it worked.”
  • By rallying the noncommercial radio world behind a small number of worthy new talents through a soon-coming vehicle called the Emerging Artists Project -- a venture announced by WXPN general manager and NPR Members Board director Roger LaMay, and NPR program director Anya Grundman. With participation from “at least 19 stations, syndicated shows and the NPR music streaming service,” the plan is to put a full-court press behind just “three up- and-coming artists that we all like -- promoting their new music, sponsoring their live shows as special events,"  LaMay said. “We want to have a positive impact on their careers, and demonstrate the clout we have.”
  • By expanding beyond the core broadcast music “commodity” service to embrace more arts and cultural happenings, special video postings on the fast-exploding Facebook Live and YouTube Live (along with millennial faves Instagram and Snapchat),  and making a commitment to podcasts. Noncommercial  program syndicator PRX (Public Radio Exchange) is  enjoying huge success (17 million streams per month) with the 16 original podcasts  now available through its Radiotopia site, with a new one on the way – “Ear Hustle,”  produced by inmates at San Quentin prison. 

PRX managing director John Barth urged stations to likewise mimic PRX’s Podcast Garage, a  community-focused media  center “in a former Jiffy Lube, given us by Harvard, where we teach people how to make their own podcasts.” A former news director at WHYY-FM,  Barth is now aiming to expand  the Podcast Garage concept to Philadelphia, “in partnership with WHYY and WXPN.”

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