National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) president Neil Portnow sounds remarkably chipper for a man who just inaugurated the first-ever Grammy Nominations Concert, broadcast live on CBS. Performers and presenters included Taylor Swift, the Foo Fighters, and John Mayer, as well as perennial Grammy faves Celine Dion and B.B. King, who doled out nominations to the likes of Lil Wayne and M.I.A.

While some have said this year’s crop of nominations is a radical departure, Portnow sees it as part of an ongoing process to make NARAS more inclusive.

His efforts seem to be paying off as youth membership has grown and even the snarkiest bloggers have started admitting that the Grammys might be kind of cool, after all.

Many commentators who write off the Grammys as out-of-touch have registered their surprise and pleasure with this year’s crop of younger, hipper nominations. How do you account for this change?

Well, I think the nominations have been trending in that direction for a while now. I think the main thing I attribute it to is the work we’ve done to develop our membership. We’ve worked really hard to make sure we have members from more diverse genre, age, and gender backgrounds.

What sort of recruitment efforts has NARAS engaged in to develop this new member base?

I’m particularly proud of our Grammy University network. It’s geared towards college students majoring in relevant subjects, and it only costs $25 for a membership. Even though they’re non-voting members, I think they get a lot out of it and it’s a great way to build a farm team of younger folks. We currently have over 4,000 members at more than 300 schools.

Our member services department also does a great job doing targeted
outreach. We look at the twelve cities we operate in and we’re always asking ourselves what communities are under-represented and then making an effort to include them.

How will the awards ceremony reflect the more edgy vibe of many of the nominees?

I think we have a fresh canvas every year when it comes to planning the ceremony. We have a great crop of young, up-and-coming artists this year, and we have the ability to think about roles for them.

There are two agendas for the broadcast. The first, obviously, is the
awards, and making sure we honor the artists that have been selected by their peers. But the second is that we have to make this a great TV show. Handing out awards to every single artist isn’t very entertaining by itself, and we need to make sure this is great TV.

How are you working to bridge the divide between older, more established and younger, more digital members?

We are aware that we have a fast-growing population of young, independent artists involved, and that they provide a wealth of valuable experience. From a digital standpoint, we recently hired several people to address digital initiatives, including one person who has a lot of social networking experience. We also have a partnership with the CBS Audience Network to try to utilize their digital platforms.

With an explosion of niche awards, like the BET Awards and the
indie-focused PLUG Awards, how do you make sure the Grammys stay diverse and relevant?

We pride ourselves on recognizing all categories of music. We have been criticized for having too many awards, but our goal is to be inclusive. I think each Grammy is equally important.

The Grammy nomination special was rated fourth in its timeslot. Based on that, do you think it was still a success and something you would do again next year?

I still think it was a fantastic show. Given that this was the first time we’ve done something like this, our expectations were realistic. The promotion for something like this takes time to catch on, and some of the booking was late in the game. But I’m not unhappy. In terms of next year, we’re going to analyze and evaluate the event before we make any decisions.