Originally posted on: All Access
Date: May 7, 2018


Mike Henry is founder and CEO of media consulting firm Paragon and a 2012 Peabody Award recipient. Mike has 35+ years of experience consulting radio, record labels, TV, cable, satellite radio, digital media, emerging technology, media lenders and buyers.

You have dedicated your efforts in Public Radio for quite some time now. How do you see Triple A Public Radio’s future?

I foresee a bull market for this format for years to come. The main reason is that we have the best PDs in the country. This is the hardest music format in radio to program, and the PDs in this format also are experts in live event management, artist relations, digital content, social media and curating a homegrown radio station from scratch every second of every day. Plus, they do all of that while delivering on their station’s local mission that impacts so many people in positive ways.

I would hold up Rita Houston, Amy Miller, Jesse Scott, Matt Reilly, Jordan Lee, Willobee Carlan, Bruce Warren, Mike Sauter, Kevin Cole, Jon Hart, David Christensen, Sky Daniels, Benji McPhail, Mark Keefe, Jim McGuinn, Brad Savage and the other PDs in this format up against any PDs in the country.

I started in public radio in 1979 at WUOG/Athens, GA during the early go-go days of college radio, so I’ve seen a lot of change in the last four decades. Change has happened in both directions. First, smart public radio stations have embraced the Music Discovery position by actively posturing for audience growth with more accessible content, local curation and compelling lifestyle engagements. Second, the changes in commercial radio — moving away from hyper-local music strategies and community building — and within our entertainment culture where there is a greater awareness and appeal for the Music Discovery proposition, have opened market opportunities that these stations are now serving. I don’t see these competitive or societal sea changes shifting any time soon, and in fact, the local opportunities only continue to increase for public radio music stations.

Give us the basic concept of Public Radio being a source of music discovery. 

Music Discovery means satisfying the listener on many levels. “New, Deep and Local” music are the basic building blocks against the juxtaposition of most commercial radio stations that don’t play much new music and play almost zero deep tracks or local music. Local DJs serving as a guide through the playlist is critical and a big point of differentiation. Live performances and access to unique artist experiences give core audiences a way to interact. My mantra of “When in doubt, always turn left,” reminds stations to not slowly drift into the safe middle space where you stand for nothing. Public radio Music Discovery stations clearly stand for these things and stand out on the radio dial. By eschewing the commercial radio cookie-cutter model with the Music Discovery model, each mission-driven station is very different and customized for the local market.

You were involved with the inception of VuHaus. How is that collective of public media coming along?

VuHaus has a great team including our president Erik Langner, PD Mark Abuzzahab, Marketing Director Michele Tharp, Technical Manager Hannah Eaves and Sponsorship Manager Chris Kirchner, and we mark our third anniversary at the 2018 NON-COMMvention. During this time, we’ve quickly evolved from a live performance video sharing platform to a peer group of 22 radio stations working together on many fronts.

We’ve published roughly 6,700 videos by 2,420 artists, and we’ve had 355 live performance streams, so we’ve accomplished our first goal to serve the emerging artist community.

Once we started working together as a collective of radio stations, the stations have found other ways to work together. There is group discussion of music rights, station best practices, and data sharing with the intent to raise all boats

VuHaus is all about empowering local stations and supporting their local and collective efforts to establish them as the unquestioned local Music Discovery leaders, and to also find greater distribution and sponsorship opportunities moving forward.

Tell us a bit about the idea behind Slingshot.

VuHaus began discussions in 2017 with NPR Music to find ways in which the local Music Discovery stations in VuHaus and NPR Music could start working together to support emerging artists and bolster public radio’s position as the Music Discovery source. Together we came up with the concept for Slingshot, which started in the Fall of 2017 with three artists, Big Thief, Jamila Woods and Lo Moon.

The idea was for the local stations and NPR Music to focus on these three artists for six months to see if we could help them move the needle at a critical point in their early careers. In January of 2018, we announced the first 20 artists of the 2018 Slingshot class, which includes Phoebe Bridgers, Mt. Joy, Jade Bird, WebsterX, Sudan Archives, Dermot Kennedy and others.

We’ve added more artists through the year and will hit 50 artists by year’s end. Stations contribute local content such as unique in-market videos, DJ takeovers, Instagram takeovers and various custom engagements. NPR Music contributes their feature content that can include a First Listen, a Tiny Desk Concert, a tour-following narrative interview, and all the things they are so great at producing.

Together, we are attempting to slingshot emerging artists to higher ground, hence the name Slingshot. VuHaus worked closely with NPR Music to book and manage three stages at the 2018 SXSW, which included a Slingshot branded stage at Stubb’s. We will have other VuHaus-NPR Music initiatives to roll out soon.

What is this new initiative noncomMUSIC Alliance all about?

The noncomMUSIC Alliance is a much needed and welcomed new effort to organize public radio music stations and supporters, elevate the unique contributions of this non-profit/non-commercial sector of the music industry, and address some policy issues. The effort is an indication that mission-driven public radio stations are growing up and getting serious about improving their service to musicians, performers and audiences, which will allow all of us to address their unique needs and challenges. I’m very excited to see the noncomMUSIC Alliance launch at this year’s NON-COMMvention. Mike Riksen from NPR, who is leading the effort, will be there to meet everyone and answer questions.

You mentioned in a recent blog about the three phases of Triple A Public Radio. What was/is Phase one? 

Phase 1 was the launching of new public radio Music Discovery stations with a focus on programming strategy, which continues with new station launches every year. During the start-up phase and for the first few years, these stations re-shape their operations to manage a new music station with a mission to support the local music economy. Some of these stations were birthed as a second FM from the local NPR News station, a la KUTX /Austin (from KUT) and KJAC (The Colorado Sound)/Ft. Collins/Denver (from KUNC). Other times these are one-off stations with no local sister stations or existing structure, such as WYMS (Radio Milwaukee) and KVNV (NV89)/ Reno. During Phase 1, the emphasis is on operations, programming and entrenching in the local marketplace as the source for Music Discovery.

Phase two?

Phase 2 is for those stations that have been on the air for a few years and have established their local relevance but have yet to maximize this opportunity. Phase 2 includes more sophisticated practices such as local market research, formal marketing campaigns and aligning with upper tier marketing partners. KEXP/Seattle and KCMP (The Current)/Minneapolis-St. Paul are masters at gaining marketing coverage through programming stunts that gain local and national attention.

In the past year, Radio Milwaukee and KKXT in Dallas launched external marketing campaigns that have already paid ratings and revenue dividends. Other stations should pay attention to what is working in other markets and develop their own local marketing strategies. The first key is internal budgeting to pay for the marketing, which most stations haven’t done yet. VuHaus is an example of Phase 2 marketing strategy and marketing partnerships with other stations and NPR Music. The noncomMUSIC Alliance is another example. But, the rubber hits the road when the station commits to a serious and formal local marketing strategy.

Phase three?

I can take a stab at Phase 3 by suggesting that the next generation of Music Discovery stations will have younger and diverse target audiences with programming centered around Urban Alternative music. Vocalo in Chicago is an early example of this targeting and programming strategy, which the CPB is supporting with a new round of research and consulting intended to launch new Urban Alternative public radio stations across the country. While the first round of pubradio Music Discovery stations have been targeted to largely older Caucasian audiences, the Music Discovery proposition itself has no age or ethnic barriers. I expect the coming Urban Alternative stations to receive great interest from younger and ethnically-diverse local audiences.

What are some of your biggest challenges for Public Radio station?

Awareness is by far the greatest challenge these stations face. Once more people become aware of these stations, many like what they hear and will continue to listen. This is why I suggest that Phase 2 of this format evolution is centered around marketing strategies to drive awareness and trial. Another challenge is acquiring new and younger on-air talent to the format.

What is the best advice you would give to young people who might want to get into radio?

Find your area of passion and pursue it! Some people are still fascinated in radio, but even more are interested in the narrow aspects of radio including live events, digital content, social media and music curation. To me, the narrow expertise’s of radio are more compelling to young people than simply “radio” itself. My other advice is, “do something.” Just follow your passion and start practicing in it … at any level to get you started. Bigger opportunities will follow. Future radio professionals won’t necessarily be “radio people” as in the past but will be experts in many facets with no delineation between broadcast and digital activities.

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