Berklee Today

Radio Revival

Whether the genre is rock, jazz, classical, or more niche-oriented music, there is a radio broadcast format to help connect an artist with an audience.

  Ron Della Chiesa
  Boston radio personality Ron Della Chiesa
  By Mark Small

With the advent of affordable, high-quality recording gear, it has never been easier or more cost-effective for new artists to self-produce a disc of their own music. But for those among the ever-increasing number of artists releasing independent CDs, the challenge of getting their music to connect with an audience hasn't gotten any easier. There are, however, more broadcast options today than ever before. In addition to terrestrial FM radio, there is satellite and Internet radio. Music listeners may even return to the AM band, thanks to the improved sound quality of digital signals delivered via high-definition radio systems.

Airplay on terrestrial radio-still reigning supreme as the gateway to wider recognition-has always been a tough nut to crack. The passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which lifted limits on the number of stations that radio broadcasters could own, didn't improve the situation. Previously, a single entity could control only 40 stations nationally and two in any one locale. Deregulation gave Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting and Clear Channel the green light to dominate American commercial radio. (Clear Channel alone owns approximately 1,300 stations.) Many have lamented the current reality of commercial radio's rigid formats and the dominance of tight playlists developed by radio consultants interpreting market research and predicting new trends. Rather than the visceral methods of the past, radio programming has become a more orchestrated process that generally takes little notice of local music scenes.

Terrestrial radio itself experienced competition for listeners with the proliferation of new portable media devices. MP3 players, iPods, and cell phones with music-downloading capabilities have enabled disenchanted radio listeners to create their own music programming and take it with them. A 2004 survey by Bridge Ratings noted that consumers now spend less time listening to AM and FM radio and more time with iPods, Internet and satellite radio, and CDs (see www.bridgeratings.com).

But don't write off terrestrial radio just yet. An October 2005 report from Bridge Ratings indicates that the erosion of the traditional radio audience that began two years ago is beginning to plateau slightly. Despite the power of the iPod to store thousands of a listener's favorite songs, it's a closed system. Avid music fans have a hunger for what's new.

Jonathan Lev, founder of Jlev Inc., a marketing and consulting company that helps record labels and managers get their artists' music played on commercial rock radio stations, believes that radio faces new challenges but that it still holds promise for up-and-coming musicians. "There are places where there exist opportunities to break a new artist," Lev says. "I've worked with labels as big as Sony/BMG, Warner Music Group, and EMI, as well as small local labels. I try to help an artist get from point A to point B; it doesn't matter what label they are on. I think independent companies are very important to the industry."

Lev maintains that there are stations around the country that are programmed by people who use research as the tool it was meant to be and don't ignore their gut feelings. "There are stations that take chances and will give a new artist an opportunity to grow," Lev continues. "I cling to the belief that those stations will become more plentiful again. I've been in this business long enough to see that radio is cyclical. I've seen it tighten up and then loosen up. I may be ever the optimist, but I'm hoping that there will be some give, and a new trend in music will come along that everyone will want to be a part of."

Taking Chances

Lev believes that commercial radio needs to push the envelope a little bit. He looks back to the 1980s, when DJs would play a whole side of a new record. "People dared to be different," Lev says. "There were DJs that people had to hear every day to know what music to check out because they knew these people had great musical taste. I'd like to see radio get back to being exciting. There still are commercial stations such as WFNX in Boston; WPBZ in West Palm Beach, Florida; KITS in San Francisco; WBRU in Providence; and WBTZ in Burlington, Vermont, that take chances. KROK in Los Angeles, KXTE in Las Vegas, 99X in Atlanta, and others will still play music by an unknown artist. Most of these are owned by large, publicly traded corporations, but their audiences dare them to be different."

Lev also sees college radio as a useful means for providing exposure to help an artist get to the next level. "In Boston, there is a rich college environment and a lot of great college stations," he says. "It would be foolish for those in the industry to ignore what is happening here with a given artist. There are a lot of college stations with a large listenership. If you go to a club like the Middle East, you can see bands that are not played on mainstream stations but have drawn a crowd to their show. The audience has probably heard of them through the press and college radio stations."

Public Radio Saved Jazz

"Jazz has survived primarily because of public radio," says Ron Della Chiesa, a longtime host of both jazz and classical programs at WGBH-FM in Boston, a National Public Radio station. "With very few exceptions, it's almost unheard of to find jazz played at a commercial station," he says. "There are more than 400 public radio stations in the United States.

"For someone who has put out a jazz CD, I'd recommend that he or she get in touch with each of the public stations. Find out who the local jazz host is and send your CD. It's just a matter of getting the names of the hosts through the Internet. And most public radio stations have websites, and those names are pretty accessible." Della Chiesa recommends the same process for those with classical releases hoping for play on public radio.

Della Chiesa also suggests that artists send indie releases to the smaller stations in more remote locations. "They don't always get all of the promo copies from the major distributors as we do here at WGBH," says Della Chiesa. "There are some great programs out there in small markets. I became aware of a great jazz show in Boise, Idaho. I would think those in the small markets would be open to hearing new music and new groups-especially groups coming from Berklee, because it has such a reputation for jazz." It's also worth noting that many public-radio stations broadcast locally produced programming to their affiliates throughout their region.

BIRN  
From the left: BIRN General Manager Audrey Harrer and Operations Manager Jay Leavitt at the Berklee Internet Radio Network's 270 Commonwealth Ave. facility  
By Nick Balkin  

The Promise of Alternative Media

The newest broadcast frontiers are Internet radio and satellite radio. Currently, there are two primary satellite networks: XM and Sirius. The great promise of these networks is the diversity of strong programming by a stable of veteran DJs, including many who fled terrestrial radio after deregulation in 1996. Musical offerings on XM's 130 commercial-free channels and Sirius's 125 channels include shows devoted to many varieties of rock, urban, and jazz music, as well as show tunes, Americana, dance, Latin, new age, electronica, world music, Christian pop, movie soundtracks, and much more.

At this point, the future direction of this medium is hard to predict. Given that the price tag for launching a satellite can top $2 billion and that satellite radio listeners must purchase hardware and pay a monthly subscription bill, bottom-line considerations may one day affect programming.

Internet radio is another exciting avenue for getting music to an audience. Its potential for musicians to reach an audience across the globe via webcast appears to be limitless. While many commercial and terrestrial radio stations stream their signals over the Internet, a more complete discussion of these trends is beyond the scope of this article.

For decades, Berklee administrators, students and alumni have hoped that the college would have its own (terrestrial) radio station. Former President Lee Eliot Berk confronted formidable obstacles when exploring the possibilities for a college-run station. Finding an available frequency in Boston, the ninth largest radio market in the country, was just one. The logistics of Internet radio have finally made it possible for Berklee to host a student-run station.

For the past three years, a group of dedicated students, Music Technology Division Dean Stephen Croes, and other administrators have navigated various technological hurdles to establish and operate the Berklee Internet Radio Network (BIRN), the Berklee radio station. Together they have obtained studio space, computer servers, and licenses to broadcast commercial content and have created an interactive searchable website (see www.thebirn.com).

Working with fellow students on the eight-member student management committee, Audrey Harrer (the BIRN's general manager) and Jay Leavitt (the BIRN's operations manager) have cultivated a roster of 21 DJs. "We are campaigning to get more," says Harrer. "Even though this is a student-run club, we hope to have shows hosted by Berklee faculty, staff, and alumni DJs."

The plan is to offer four concurrent streams: the Mainstream, the daily broadcast; World Alumni, prerecorded shows by alumni from around the world; Special Events; and Alumni Jukebox, featuring tracks from Berklee's prominent alumni.

The Whole World Will Hear Us

"Right now, we have six hours of programming per day that repeats three times," says Leavitt. "We hope to have enough DJs soon to offer eight or 12 hours of content daily." Thus far, show titles include Spicy Rock, Soulful Science, Anime Scoop, Double-A Hip-Hop, Film-Reel Radio, Beyond Jazz, Eclectrik, and others. "I think the most exciting thing about the station is that real musicians are controlling it," says Harrer. "They are playing the material that really affected them and motivated them to become musicians. There is something really pure about that. The BIRN gives DJs an opportunity to get the music they feel the world should hear out there."

Croes and others did not want to do what some colleges have done: hire a staff of professionals to run a station that students could be involved in. "The BIRN has been a student-led effort, and the college wanted to show that students could sustain it," says Leavitt.

The hope is that the BIRN will offer its own blend of intriguing and obscure music with the stylistic freedom that is typical of college and Internet radio programming. "People at Berklee have created so much music that others outside these walls just don't get to hear," Leavitt states. "We now can bring it to the world. Because the DJs are Berklee students, there will be a lot of interest in original music."

With Berklee's international profile as both a seedbed and a proving ground for new talent, the station may attract listeners that run the gamut, from music aficionados in Africa to A&R professionals in Los Angeles. Leavitt thinks it's inevitable that the BIRN will be the first to present the sounds of a new major music star to a global audience. "Unlike college radio stations of the past with limited power, when we flip the switch, the whole world will be able to hear us."