Thursday, August 23, 2018

When An Artist Dies, How Does V/T Radio React?

Back in the day, when a music artist died, you grabbed a stack of LPs and created a tribute on the spot. There was always a jock on the air since radio was live 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That’s not the case anymore. At thousands of stations, airshifts are entirely tracked, meaning there are many hours of the day – and especially overnight – when no one is in the building. So how do broadcasters react when an Aretha or a Tom Petty suddenly passes?

Aretha Franklin
According to Variety, big radio groups along with the syndication companies that provide prep services for stations have a protocol. First in line is the station’s program director who is in charge of all content locally and can remotely break into the automation from anywhere, even a cell phone, if need be.

At Cumulus, which operates nearly 450 stations nationwide, the parent company also offers help. “We work with [production house] Benztown to develop special salutes to the artists; vignettes and pieces of information that people can play,” says Mike McVay, Executive Vice President of Content and Programming for Cumulus Media and Westwood One. PDs can decide whether to use the pre-produced material, which includes self-contained segments, interview clips, and music montages, but McVay notes that often it’s not just music stations that pick it up, but also news and talk stations in the Cumulus network.

Beasley Media Group’s Vice President of Programming Buzz Knight says they are blessed with a depth of talent at heritage rock stations like WMMR in Philadelphia and WDHA in New Jersey. Along with Beasley’s digital media team, the company mobilizes quickly when an important musical figure passes. “We try to pool our resources with the help of our format captains to be able to react,” he says, adding that today’s news cycle “is pretty rapid.”

iHeartMedia’s Chief Programming Officer & President of National Programming Tom Poleman sees his company’s role as that of a uniter. “We’re the platform for communities to both grieve and honor an artist that’s meant so much to all of us,” he says of the network’s 800-plus stations. “How we pay tribute can differ depending on the artist. For example, when Prince died, many of our stations immediately shifted to all Prince music. Stations took on-air calls with grieving listeners and also had interview clips and personal stories that they shared as well. There also was a Prince tribute digital station created on iHeartRadio, where we have a huge digital and social platform.”

Tom Petty
Prep services can be a life raft in these cases too. Ira Robbins, a VP at Premiere Networks and the Editorial Director of Premiere News and Prep says he has “editorial staff nearly around the clock, and we’re all on constant standby, so we respond when the news breaks regardless of [what time] it does. We have been able to publish a full package within 10 or 15 minutes of the news reaching us.”

Paying tribute by going deep into an artist’s musical catalog, however, can be trickier. Even if the shift is live, storage of an artists’ songs – likely on a hard drive – is not a complete archive of their work.

For its part, Cumulus has devised its own proprietary system called Stratus Music which gives program directors remote access to a huge music library for all formats and allows a simply drag and drop into the local station’s playback system. iHeart also has a similar system. “We are not limited on what we can play,” says Poleman. “If a station or personality wants to share a song from an artist that they feel is meaningful, they can easily do that.” And Beasley is working on a Wide-Orbit type system, which is mainly used to access and schedule commercials, “to be able to have that centralized library,” says Knight.

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