Why Radio Needs Music Supervisors

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I’ve always groaned a little bit at radio’s claim of being “the original social network.” It sounded to me like an unnecessarily desperate grasping at relevance. But radio did create unwired communities among its listeners. My publisher at Billboard’s former radio publication, Airplay Monitor, Jon Guynn and I became friends in part because we’d both grown up with Detroit’s legendary top 40 station, CKLW. He was listening in Cleveland; I was in the Northeast.

I’d actually discovered CKLW because of its music director. Rosalie Trombley was featured in a New Yorker article on tipsheet publisher Kal Rudman that my father brought to my attention. Regular readers have encountered her often in my writing, but she’ll also be awarded Canada’s music award, the Juno, in early April.

I’m under no delusions that anybody else chose their favorite radio stations back then because of an off-air music director. But maybe they should have. Guynn, now the publisher of Pasadena Weekly, and I were recalling our origin stories recently. He still listens to radio, but not for music discovery. More often, he looks for playlists on Deezer, and says that finding a trusted curator is the most important thing, whether friend or tastemaker.

I’ve been suggesting for a while that radio become more transparent about its music process. More than a decade ago, I posited that making the music-meeting an on-air event, and deputizing listeners as assistant MDs, might neutralize some of the bad post-Elliot Spitzer press about how music decisions were allegedly influenced by promotional consideration. Broadcasters are more transparent now about their chain-wide initiatives in support of an artist. And yet, there’s never a person accountable for that decision, or, for that matter, credited for finding the hits.

A decade ago, radio was only just coming to grips with losing its hegemony on music discovery. For a while, we told ourselves, we didn’t even want to defend the franchise. We would become the place where hits are legitimized, not discovered.

A decade ago, the word “playlist” was used by people outside the radio business only as a pejorative, and usually modified by the word “restrictive.” Now, it has become a common term, typically a positive, but one rarely used by a non-broadcaster in connection with broadcast radio (as opposed to Spotify or iTunes). People love playlists, but they don’t realize radio has been making them for years. And yet, however dubious our claim on social networks, broadcasters are the creator of the playlist.

Back then, broadcasters were afraid to disabuse listeners of the notion that on-air personalities still chose the music. For a while, around the time of the Adult Hits boom and its renewed emphasis on variety, radio even restored limited music choice to the DJs. Maybe it’s just because I schedule music for radio stations, but in an era of people paying money to watch a DJ choose music, perhaps there’s value in letting it be known to listeners that somebody behind the scenes is putting thought not just into finding music, but to assembling twenty-four hours’ worth of playlisted tracks for them, day after day.

It was also in the mid-‘00s that the job of music supervisor became known in the consumer press, not just the entertainment industry. In many ways, Gray’s Anatomy music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas became that era’s Rosalie Trombley, the person who could put as unlikely a hit song as Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” on the industry’s docket.

Eventually, broadcasters realized that they were not willing to relinquish the music discovery franchise, at least judging from the frequency with which that phrase now appears on the air. A station can add a song when it is nine months old and No. 19 on the Mainstream Top 40 chart and it will still be preceded by the station declaring itself “No. 1 for Music Discovery.” But what if we put a person behind a choice of new songs or artists to support, not just a stager?

Maybe the time is long overdue for radio to abolish the title of music director. What radio stations need instead is a “music supervisor.” They would show up on the air at any time to introduce the latest superstar release. Music directors don’t get to show a lot of enterprise in the era of musical conservatism that followed the introduction of metered ratings measurement, but music supervisors would be expected to find the hits.

You’ll still have to convince me on the “original social network” thing. But radio’s MDs are the original music supervisors. And now is the time to get credit for it.


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