Kevin Fleming

*Kevin Fleming is a former urban radio programmer who’s helmed several major market outlets and is now the publisher of The UrbanBuzz, a weekly radio and record industry newsletter.

Recently he wrote an essay expressing his thoughts on the current state of radio. We found it to be very interesting reading and thought you’d appreciate reading it as well.

The Fly on the Wall has been in love with radio for as long as I can remember. Radio, that device that emits magic: Music, entertainment, information, education, debate and theater of the mind.

I have a passion for music… and would go as far to say it’s an addiction and urban radio was the drug of choice. Like many urban radio lovers, I came up admiring programmers like BJ Stone, Carl Conner, BK Kirkland, Melvin Lindsey and the king, Frankie Crocker.

They ruled during a time when Black radio meant something to people, communities and cities. But what does urban radio mean today? Are you in love with your station or is your love for radio fading? To be honest, I’m not sure if I even like radio any more.

Yes, I have many of the same gripes about radio that you may have… they play too many commercials, they play the same songs over and over again, the jocks aren’t funny and talk too much … blah, blah, blah. But my discontent with urban radio runs deeper. I think most urban radio stations have lost their soul. A very wise General Manager once told me to make the radio station mean something to the community we served and to be honest, we see less of that philosophy in our stations everyday.

Serious radio programmers quickly learned from the time they entered the business, that to attract, maintain and grow the listenership of your station; you had to consistently entertain, educate and excite. You had to make an “emotional” connection with your listeners. Music stations have to play the best music. The programmers job is to find the right balance between the “no-question these are hits,” the “maybe with a little more exposure you’ll really love these songs potential hits” and the “I really like these songs and I hope you will too, my gut says that you’ll eventually consider these to be new songs hits”. Again, you have to play the right music. But the right music can sometimes be a crap shoot? The right music for me may not be the right music for you. Ultimately, the right music is determined by the listeners. Programmers don’t make hits… customers do. The musical expectations of listeners vary from station to station and market to market. Some listeners prefer to hear songs that are familiar to them, some want the popular songs of the day and others truly enjoy a mix of music that also includes new songs by artists they know and ones they would like to get to know. It’s the program and music director’s job to know how to ‘super-serve’ their audience… to be locked into the “pulse” of their city and their target audience. Good programmers know the right music for their stations. They have too… to build audience and battle their competitors, who by the way now include iPods, satellite radio and internet music streams. All sources for both familiar and new music.

Intelligent problem-solving brand managers, need to be allowed to do their jobs. The corporate radio playlist “gate-keepers” need to back down and let local programmers program. That’s straight get out of the mix and let the PD do his job! The concept of considering a song for airplay only when it reaches a certain chart position is simply crazy to me. Or reaching a national audience level… what does that even mean?  It makes no sense. When your corporate music master says, “this song is huge in NY, you need to play it”… but you’re in LA… you think to yourself, “they pay this guy big bucks to come up with this?” Do you really care what people in New York think about a song if I feel it will work for your listeners? Radio program directors (PDs) are responsible for the building the brand of their station. Music is a major part of that brand. So when PDs and MDs (music directors) are required to play music selected by out-of-market (radio) company upper level executives or restricted from adding songs they feel are right for their station or in some cases forbidden from even talking to other local, national or independent record promoters, you know your listeners will not be super-served. We have enough research tools at our disposal to effectively evaluate music. However, urban radio can’t be programmed like a fast food chain… where the menu is exactly the same at every station in every city. Urban radio is like home cooking and good music is food for the soul… let the PDs cook the food! And maybe we can turn some of these radio likes, back into radio loves!

If you would like to respond to Kevin Fleming regarding his comments and/or find out more about his newsletter, The UrbanBuzz, write to him via: [email protected].