Why Radio Still Matters In The Streaming Age
“Video killed the radio star.” Did it though?
There are countless forms of entertainment in the digital era, from Netflix to Spotify to podcasts and audio books. So how is it that according to Nielsen, 93% of US adults still listen to the radio each week?
I was particularly curious how non-commercial stations like New York’s WFUV are able to thrive in this environment. So I chatted with Music Director Russ Borris to find out why radio still matters, and how a station operates day-to-day. Here’s our conversation:
Danny Ross: How has the popularity of Spotify affected the significance of radio?
Russ Borris: It’s apples and oranges. Streaming offers the opportunity to hear anything you want at any time, but it’s an algorithm-based recommendation system. So if you want to listen to Nine Inch Nails right now, go ahead — I can’t do that for you.
But on our station, we’re going to have a real-life human being telling you about breaking music. That human touch is what we hold fast to, it strengthens our connection to people. I don’t know if I can quantify it, but there’s just something about hearing a song on the radio that feels different to me and always has. I’m optimistic because radio just keeps going.
Ross: How do public radio stations like WFUV make money?
Borris: Over half comes from listener dollars. It’s a big deal. I think in public radio, it’s about 10% of the audience that supports the station, an incredibly low number. It’s a noncommercial radio station so we don’t run commercials — we have underwriting spots which are almost like bullet points: “Bowery Presents joins you in supporting WFUV and presents Gov’t Mule at the Beacon Theater.” Fordham University is basically paying to keep our lights on, and then a bit is from government.
Ross: What are the advantages to being a non-commercial station?
Borris: The spectrum is so much wider, we have the opportunity to do things that aren’t so tightly formatted. Our audience isn’t about one thing so we jump styles, genres and eras because what we do is very diverse. We play rock, soul, world music, songwriters, electronic.
We won’t be able to compete with commercial stations in terms of reach — we don’t have the marketing budget for billboards or bus signage. So we have to reach an audience of people who are passionate about discovering new music, and looking for something they can’t find anywhere else.
Ross: You’re the cool guys at the record store, like High Fidelity.
Borris: You probably had that family member or friend as a kid who just knew music and turned you onto stuff. That’s what our DJs are. Our audience wants us to tell them what’s good and what they should hear. It’s why they trust us and why they give us money.
Ross: How did you first get involved in radio?
Borris: As a kid I was always very interested in the radio, but I didn’t know I’d fall into it. I took a radio class at a community college, started doing shifts, recording promos and working overnight. It snowballed until I worked full-time and eventually ended up as Assistant Music Director at WFUV. Around 2013, I was promoted to Music Director.
Ross: What does a Music Director do at a radio station?
Borris: I listen to bad music all day, that’s chiefly my job. We listen to the bad music so you don’t have to. We’re trying to separate and curate this for you. We get a lot of submissions, which has grown exponentially — but getting links is better than getting CDRs in the old days. I work with the programming team on features, and I book the artist interviews. I also host a couple show each week, including The Alternate Side. And I program a lot of the music you hear every day. Meanwhile, the Program Director has to pretty much oversee everything, including the staff, programming, specialty shows, hosts, big picture ideas, features and marquee events.
Ross: What makes you decide to put a song on the radio?
Borris: It’s 95% what the music sounds like. I have to be compelled to want to put a song on the radio. The artist’s story is important later on, and it always helps if the artist has a following or if we happen to catch a live show. But right off the bat it’s about the song.
There are definitely times where I play something on the radio, and it feels special. Conversely, something I thought might work well could feel a little off in the mix. Sometimes you’re not sure, and decide to just spin it and see what happens. We do what we can by way of research, but we don’t have the budget to conduct listening sessions to get feedback. So much of what we do is still very much programming by way of gut and feel. I love that.
Ross: Who are radio promoters, and what’s their role?
Borris: We deal with a number of promoters every week, and I have dedicated times to talk through the new music they’ve been hired to work. They call me up and say “Hey, here’s this band. What do you think of it? Would you play it on the radio?” That’s their job. Most of them already have a very good idea of who we are, what we do, and what’s going to work for us. They understand what sounds like WFUV and what doesn’t.
Ross: How much new music can you play?
Borris: For us, you’ve got to have a balance of music that’s new versus music that’s heritage or classic or familiar. That’s how you keep people tuned in so they actually pay attention to the new songs. There’s a lot of strategy. We have to balance what our membership is telling us to do with its fundraising dollars, and the new music that we love.
Ross: Who are some of the artists WFUV helped to break?
Borris: When you embrace an artist in the early going, it’s kind of amazing. Years ago we had done the first radio session with Norah Jones. We started playing Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” and booked him for SXSW when nobody knew who he was. Elle King played our CMJ showcase before “Exes and Ohs” became a gigantic song. Those things will happen. It’s why a lot of labels and promo people will bring music to AAA — we break stuff, and take a chance that other formats won’t take at first.
Ross: What is AAA?
Borris: It’s referred to as Adult Album Alternative when it started years ago, it was meant to be a place to hear both familiar songs and music you wouldn’t otherwise hear. But AAA has become a home for huge artists like Pheonix, Modest Mouse and Kings of Leon. It’s become a place for music that labels don’t know what to do with, so it’s a bit of a dumping ground. But looking at it positively, it means we have so much to choose from. For example, country artists like Jason Isbell and Margot Price and Sturgill Simpson have a big place in AAA. Country radio has become a different animal, so those artists who have credibility need a home. I love that we can be a home to both Jason Isbell and Arcade Fire.
Ross: Wrapping up, what’s the Holiday Cheer show?
Borris: Holiday Cheer has been at the Beacon Theater for the last half-dozen years, and it always sells out. It’s a big event for the station, a huge fundraising opportunity, and a one-of-a-kind show. Shannon Shaw, who worked with Dan Auerbach and Shannon and the Clams, will open the show. The Lone Bellow, a band we embraced from the start will be on the lineup. John Prine is someone we chased down for awhile and this was the year. There’s a lot of good vibes attached to him these days. To have him headline is a natural fit.
Ross: And what advice would you offer up-and-coming musicians who want their records played on air someday?
Borris: Identify who you are as a band, and please don’t use the algebra, “If Band A had a baby with Band B.” If I ever have to see that again, it’s too soon! (laughs) Make the best recording you can before you submit. Be honest and realistic, but be ambitious.
artikel by :forbes.com