Who Programs the Music?
AMPPR Board Members Talk About Radio
Interview Excerpt #7
DEANNE POULOS: I don’t know if this is a significant variable at all, but the program director at our station has said that the one music director programs all the music, so none of the announcers programs anything, or there’s no special program or anything like that, and the idea is consistency.
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: I did that for The Concert Network for a while. I think it’s a terrible idea. It’s a terrible idea to have one person programming all of the music for all of the announcers.
DEANNE POULOS: Well, and then the program director enlisted an expert in programming. Anyway, he felt that the music director should include more of the popular pieces more often. So, play Beethoven’s 5th more often, Pachelbel’s Canon more often, and he has been doing that.
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: You know why I think it’s a terrible idea? Because I think that the person that is communicating with the audience is the host of the program. And the host of the program should be enthusiastic about what he’s playing.
BOYCE LANCASTER: He has to have some commitment to what he’s playing.
FRANK J. OTERI: Some personality.
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: And it should be something that he feels for.
BOYCE LANCASTER: When I was in commercial pop radio, I was a program director for a while there, and the program director in that venue does all the programming. And the announcer has nothing to do but pull the cart out and say: “Okay, what’s next in the rotation?” and play the rotation. And all the program director does is sit there and listen to the rotation and make sure it’s right. It forces you to hire people who have enough knowledge, and enough, and are willing to work within certain parameters and can be trusted enough to program responsibly, but on the other hand, I don’t know. It limits your voice, I think, on a station if there’s one person programming. Or, God forbid, you’re using computers to program your music, which really frightens me, unless you know how to manipulate it to make it do what you want to do. I don’t know if you use it in Cincinnati…
CHRIS KOHTZ: I’ll bite my tongue, because I’m on the out of most of the comments that have been made in the last few minutes.
BOYCE LANCASTER: If you can manipulate Program Director, if you’re using it as a tool to help you do what you want to do better, that’s one thing. There’s a station, the call letters of which escape me, and I probably wouldn’t mention them anyway, but they just let it spew whatever it spews, and you look at their playlist, and it’s frightening. Because it’s so limited, and so boring, and the announcer just says, “This is making me nuts to play this.”
CHRIS KOHTZ: First, let me just reinforce, if I could be reflected that these are my personal thoughts, label me as music programmer, but you know, you don’t have to tie me to GUC. [Everyone laughs.] I mean, obviously, I’m working there, so we’re like-minded about things, but just to keep clear, that this is just me as a programmer. I was brought up in the setting where I got to choose my own music. I think it was the greatest proving ground and training ground. I got to understand it; I got to learn from my mistakes. I pulled out, I don’t know what it was, early on, and it was one of the few times the program director said, “Why don’t you stop this at the movement?” I don’t know if it was, I don’t know what it was. Stravinsky‘s The Flood, or something, at like 7 o’clock on a Sunday morning. I mean, I was 19, 20, and I learned baptism by fire. And it was a great proving ground, and I’m sure there’ll be, at least if trends are right now, there will be less of those opportunities for some people. I think it’s a great way for people who are really interested in the industry to cut their teeth. So I’m not going to judge one person doing it or the whole staff doing it. At our station I do it exclusively. I’ll tell you what the plus has been. The other really, really important thing, and the thing that’s been successful in our really growing our audience, and getting such great audience reaction, is our announcers tell stories. We bring the music to life by talking about the music, the artist, anything to add something, you know, added value. The announcers have all, for the most part, reflected that they now don’t really want the time to choose pieces. And if there’s something they really want to play, they can come to me and we can work it out. So they have that flexibility. It’s not iron, you know. I mean, if they come and say, “I want to play some Stockhausen on his birthday,” well, we’ll have a discussion on that and we probably won’t do it. [Everyone laughs.] Unless we can really find something that, you know, fits all the pieces of the puzzle…
BOYCE LANCASTER: You’ll be hearing from his agent…
CHRIS KOHTZ: But now they get time exclusively, on a daily basis, to look at the playlist and find those connections. And to them, they’re terribly intrigued, because now they have this playlist that’s not thematic, necessarily. Maybe it doesn’t have any obvious hooks: there are no birthdays or themes, or whatever on that given day. But they’ve got to sit down and look at it and go, “What am I going to weave through over the course of this day?” And they’re having a great time with it, and they don’t have to spend the time pulling the recordings and considering it, doing all those things. That’s what I’m there for.
DEANNE POULOS: Do you encourage that, as a manager, or it just kind of happens?
CHRIS KOHTZ: The storytelling?
DEANNE POULOS: Yes.
CHRIS KOHTZ: That’s a requirement.
DEANNE POULOS: Okay.
FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, wow.
CHRIS KOHTZ: That’s an expectation. That is a critical part.
BOYCE LANCASTER: You have to do that to give the music some substance.
CHRIS KOHTZ: Exactly. And, I’ll tell you honestly, it has worked so well. The comments were made about owning it, personalizing it, bringing it to life. And I’ll tell you, our audience is growing, and everyday we’re introducing somebody new to classical music and I think that’s public radio‘s mission. I don’t care what music you choose, if you are bringing more and more people into it every day, you are fulfilling your mission.
ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: The other advantage, ’cause I did the same thing, programming 7 days a week, 16 hours a day, for a couple of years at the Concert Network, is that you do get to balance the entire week, the entire month, the year, you know, one person overseeing the whole thing.
CHRIS KOHTZ: But we talk about it on a weekly basis. We have an announcers’ meeting, and again, it encourages them to plan ahead, which is a good thing. Not to plan your whole show from beginning to end, but to sit down and think about it so that, if you at least give it some thought, and you come back a week later to that show, it’s rattling around in your head, you know, you’ve done some of the groundwork already. But if they see down the road, oh, it’s so-and-so’s birthday, and, you know, I studied with him, and I’ve got this great story I’d love to tell. Well, fine, then come to me, and we’ll work that out in the playlist. And it’s the same thing with computer programming… That’s what we do. In fact, it’s over there on my laptop right now. But again, it’s just a tool, and if you have the right tools, you can do the job better.
BEVERLEY ERVINE: There is a movement, a problem that’s happening in radio right now, with all the downsizing, that a lot of people that are on the air are juggling several jobs simultaneously for the station. And so they don’t have the freedom of time to be able to do the research to find the stories, because while the music’s playing, they’re busy cataloging recordings, or answering the phone, and it really is a problem because on one hand, I’m sure they’re torn. They want to be able to do that, take the time, and make every break a magical moment and find a way to reach the audience. But a lot of times, it’s just life, the job gets in the way.
CHRIS KOHTZ: I find myself saying the way we do things is a luxury. And I’m starting to get a little upset with myself for coming back to that every time, that the way we do it is a luxury. I’m beginning to think, after more experience, that the way we do things is the way we should do it, and should continue to do it. And other stations could possibly benefit from doing it that way. But you have to take that big chance, you have to make the financial commitment, the time commitment, and at least try it. Because that’s the whole thing about public broadcasting… We don’t have that $23 million a year in commercial sales. Public radio can often be very stagnant, because if you change, that might mean the audience changes. And if they change, they don’t give you money. And if they don’t give you money, you don’t do it anyway. And that often stifles…
BOYCE LANCASTER: My only concern about having one person… In commercial radio, in terms of programming, you have a person who’s the program director, and he and the music director together decide what’s going to happen… Most of the time, though, in commercial radio, especially in pop, it’s all chart driven anyway. And it’s even more so now than it used to be; 20 years ago, 25 years ago, the PD would sit down, and they would use charts to guide them. When I was first programming in commercial radio, eventually I had 4 or 5 record labels that would send me pre-copies of recordings and say, “What order would you release these things in?” And there would be a couple of dozen of us across the country that would say: “This is what I think you should do.” And that’s how they would release the singles. And that doesn’t happen much anymore. Now it’s video and promotion driven, and the radio stations are told what to play, so it’s a tough comparison. But my concern is, who’s giving the program directors of tomorrow the training that you got by being allowed to go in there and do the digging, I mean, they’re learning to do it the way you’re doing it now, but there’s some…
CHRIS KOHTZ: That’s a philosophical area… this is a transition for me. And that’s the gray area. Like I said, it was a great proving ground. Was it a necessary proving ground? I just don’t have an answer to that. It was a great one for me. Is it the only way? I don’t know. We have a lot of people that didn’t in our instance that I think would be great PD’s, by the nature of who they are. They didn’t have this, although, one in particular did, but from a rock background.