Volunteer management is one of the more unique things community radio stations are tasked with. It’s a dash of human resources, a bit of talent scouting and a spoonful of cultural awareness. There’s intake, interviewing and training, then spotting and fostering leadership skills. Volunteer management is really its own role, but it’s usually lumped in to other tasks community radio managers do. So, it’s up to you to develop techniques for execution in the best interests of your station.
For stations that operate using volunteer hosts, picking the right music DJs can be one of the hardest choices you’ll make. With talk/public-affairs programming, an astute decision maker can determine pretty quickly what a radio host knows about Congress, international affairs and current debates. Picking a decent playlist or knowing a genre, however, aren’t all that makes a successful music DJ.
It’s not an exact science, but there are a few methods to employ when settling on new music programming and new DJs. Here is what you should consider:
Does this music matter?
Before you reflexively answer, ‘yes,’ the answer is probably really, ‘no.’ Representing numerous genres may be a totem in community radio, because it’s a fun talking point and gives you a chance to promote how unique you are. Aggregation today means obscure sounds are quickly available on demand now. Vinyl show? Got that. Avant garde? Yep. Goth? Uh-huh. Punk? Tons.
You can’t assume your listeners live in abandoned grain silos with flip phones, no electricity or computers. I’m sure we all have a listener or two like that, and they always call with the old Motorola, but smartphone ownershiip has increased dramatically since 2010. By 2018, they’re expected to be nearly 80 percent of the global market. That’s but one example of the march of technology, and it’s shaping how new generations interact with media.
Something to consider – and maybe it doesn’t fit for you, but it likely does – is asking what about this music matters to your community. Does it ha
ve a historical, scene or other relationship with your listeners? Getting beyond the everything-to-everyone mentality and instead into curating what matters most will help you get a better sense of what your station needs.
Truly know the audience!
Tim Ferriss is internationally known for his writings on boosting productivity, creativity and business. He offered sage wisdom to apply to people and programming.
The wrong way to be successful, he remarks, is to see any area, say, ‘this is hot,’ then dive in without experience, knowledge or base. Others who have been in that field will frankly eat you alive, because they know it better, have been competing there ahead of you, have credibility and know the ins and outs you don’t. Now apply a similar rule to programming.
Knowing your audience means really knowing them, their habits, their likes and dislikes and their aspirations and the qualities of what they like in media. If you’re not in the target group, find those who are and explore issues of growth and appeal holistically. Apply a similar metric to prospective DJs. Who are they, what do they really know about a specific audience, and how can it benefit your radio station?
Separate music fact from DJ fact.
I can’t begin to tell you the number of prospective program hosts who have started our chat by pitching me facts and figures about a genre. However, keep in mind these are facts and figures about a genre, not the person presenting them. A person who knows a genre is big is no more a tastemaker than I’m an economist because I know the average American income.
Explore these issues with prospective DJs to assess their suitability for your station and their ability to think bigger. For instance, electronic dance music is popular, but how does that translate into support for a station, beyond a single program (given EDM is subcultural, and at least 50 popular podcasts are available on demand and have been in the space for quite some time)? K-Pop is trending worldwide, but how do you compose a program exposing core listeners to it if they’re unfamiliar, without having them turn off the station entirely? You get the idea. If a potential DJ wants to join your team, ask them questions you’ll have to answer eventually.
Does this person actually sound interesting?
It’s easy to take it for granted, but a primary question you need to ask yourself is whether the potential DJ before you seems interesting enough to listen to, and whether their passion for the given genre can lure in the uninitiated.
Here’s an example: I have a pair of DJs at KPFT who spin a mix of Asian-influenced electronic music, with tinges of hip-hop, Bollywood and dubstep. Who’s going to listen to it? Twentysomething club kids? Would you believe suburban grandmothers and club ‘kids’ twenty years removed? I am fortunate enough to have programmers who are ambassadors for the sound as well as the Indian culture that inspires the music. They use a bit of humor and warmth to make listeners feel like they’re at the dinner table for a conversation they wouldn’t otherwise ever get to access. The result is a program that is wildly popular across demographics.
You may not get so lucky, but in this very competitive media environment it is important for station decisionmakers to select people who have appeal. A host’s ability to sound interesting and to have an awareness of the casual radio audience are crucial. If this person doesn’t sound especially charismatic or engaging in your lobby (and you may have to judge that sort of stuff), why would people with no such obligation, like a the commuter, the occasional station fan or the regular listener, even bother?
Make sure any minuses are worth it.
If you’re gambling on a genre that could present challenges to your core audience, it’s important to be able to articulate to your stakeholders what will be gained to offset this. Can you quantify those assertions?
Similarly, if there have ever been issues with the prospective host, walk gingerly. If you grant a program to a known problem, it becomes much more difficult to coach others, because the message of rewarding bad behavior is out there, and to get rid of them if the bad behavior continues is even harder. There are courteous ways of setting expectations and working with people, and do so early.
In closing …
Some think the times are hard for community radio. I encourage you to think about them as exciting as they are liberating. Where community radio was once the hub of everything not otherwise available (and sometimes became a burial ground for stuff that wasn’t always the best), the Internet has created new space so community radio can go from being simply the hub for all things to the venue for what is truly wonderful in our respective communities.
As public-interest media leaders, community radio managers have a fresh responsibility to find the best to put before listeners who believe in our mission. What’s more, they believe in you to do it. Don’t be shy about asking the tough questions, because the people who support you expect and want you to do it.