Don’t Ask! Won’t Tell!

There has been a lot of talk lately about how public radio stations are becoming more and more indistinguishable from their commercial brethren. Except, of course, that public-financed stations have no owners or share holders to answer to. After all, the “owners” of public stations are the paying members of the public, the members of the stations. You certainly hear that ad naseam during the fundraisers, the “on air personalities” (not DJs anymore!) repeating endlessly how “It’s your radio station,” and how your pledge dollars make possible “the music that you want to hear.”

But just how is that music that I want to hear being chosen? And what about the other members? We couldn’t all be wanting to hear the same thing, so just how are the songs we hear selected?

Those very questions have been wonderfully addressed by at least two recent posts at this site. See WUMBier (here) and How Borg Are You (here). In those posts it is easy to see the influence of the Billboard charts in the posted playlists at KUT-FM in Austin and in the programming of “clunkers” at WUMB in Boston. The use of the Billboard charts follows closely the creeping advent of the use of Arbitron ratings at public stations as well. Neither of those services were ever intended for public stations; public stations by their very nature are supposed to take their cues from the public supporting them, the listeners such as you and I. But could it be that the actual selection process is more nuanced than that, that there are other, more community-oriented influences that hold greater sway than national charts and NPR tie-ins?

So, rather than use conjecture or make suppositions of my own, I decided to go straight to the top with these questions. And since traditionally most musical content at a station is the responsibility of the music director, I decided to ask three music directors at three stations nationwide for their input on the issue. And to get as wide of a picture as possible, I chose three stations — the above-mentioned WUMB Boston, KUT Austin (where I am a member), and KBCS in Seattle, which many readers here may be familiar with as well. So I had an East Coast station, a West Coast station, and KUT here in the midwest to try and give as much variety as possible and to eliminate any regional influence. In order to be fair to all, I composed and sent an identical email (available on file if interested) asking for general information on just how a song is selected for airplay at their station. I specified that the article I was researching was not about their particular station, and that their answers could be as general or specific as they they felt comfortable with. But I did ask some specific questions, those being the following:

  • In general, how does a song first come to your attention?
  • Would it be more through record company information and/or contact or through your own interests and research?
  • How much input comes through station staff and on-air talent?
  • How much from the artists themselves?
  • Considering the rise in social networking sites, do sites such as YouTube or Facebook play much of a role?
  • Do you have a committee that discusses and/or approves songs before they are aired, or does the on-air talent have the ability to introduce their own choices without prior approval?
  • And, when an artist is selected to be played, is it generally for their entire CD/catalogue, or are certain tracks selected or “bulleted” for play above other songs?

Seven questions on how songs are selected, with assurances that any answers at all would be greatly appreciated. Seemed reasonable enough to me. I wasn’t asking for the recipe for Coca-Cola or just what 11 herbs and spices go into Kentucky Fried Chicken. Just a general idea on how such decisions get made at their particular station. I sent those three identical messages via email the night of September 19th, just over two weeks ago. And so far I have received . . .

Nothing. Nada. Zero & Zip.

Three different music directors at three different public stations and not one would even reply with so much as a form letter. It seems that the song selection process at our public-financed stations across the country is now some type of closely guarded secret, something that can’t even be discussed with said public. Even, in the case of KUT and myself, with the paying members of that station. One can only wonder just what these music directors are afraid of if they are not willing to even discuss their selection process at all.

Which, I suppose, brings us back to conjecture and supposition. What else is there if the people who have been entrusted to make the decisions using public monies won’t discuss how those decisions are made? For those of us old enough to remember, there were the “payola” scandals back in the ’50s, where record companies were found to be bribing station managers to get songs added. Is there possibly some 21st-century variation of that happening now? Personally I would doubt that the record companies would have any involvement, as they have their hands full with file-sharing issues, etc. But considering how closed-mouthed public stations have become with any and all information about their operations, just about anything could be imagined. Many stations, such as KUT, have multimillion-dollar operating budgets and there is certainly enough money being moved around to make one wonder. I don’t suspect anything so nefarious, but so long as the stations continue to refuse to answer reasonable questions about their practices, suspicions are bound to grow.

So when it comes to just how songs get selected at your station the answer seems to be: Take a guess! A wild guess, use your imagination! Tarot cards? Ouija boards? Chicken entrails? Who knows! But the one thing you don’t want to waste your time on is asking the people who could actually tell you, ’cause they ain’t telling!

The music directors emailed on this were:

John Laurenti at WUMB
Jeff McCord at KUT
Christine Linde at KBCS

— Reverend Jim


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