Original Story posted in: Maximum Alternative Magazine
Written by: Mike Parrish
Date: August 2, 2018

One of the things we pride ourselves on here at Max Alt is music discovery.  Who doesn’t love that feeling of discovering a still unknown band and helping them along the way to a fruitful career?  Max Alt recently caught up with Paragon Media’s Mike Henry, who has quietly been building a conglomerate (our word, not his) of stations that are at the forefront of the developmental music ecosystem.  Dubbed “Music Discovery” outlets, this growing group of stations is becoming a subdivision lodged between the Alt Union and Triple A format.  

According to Henry, the defining statement for the Music Discovery stations is “New, Deep, and Local.”  Also, he says, “when in doubt, turn left.  Right is safe, left is bold.  We have to keep tacking outside of the mainstream.  That’s why commercial radio is in the state it is, because when in doubt, they turn right and play it safe.”

Operating in the shadows of the Alt Union, Max Alt spoke with Henry to discuss the concept behind the Music Discovery stations and help bring their story to light.  “It’s ironic,” he says as we get set to do the interview, “because I feel these stations have a close affinity to the Alternative format, but I don’t think the Alternative format even knows they exist.”

They will now after reading Part 1 of our two-part interview with Mike Henry….  


MaxAlt:  At a time when radio started going more conservative, what led you down the opposite path with some of the stations you consult?

Photo Credit: Luke Askelson (feature image as well)

Mike Henry: That’s a big question!  There are a number of things.  On a consumer standpoint, I think radio is out of step.  I don’t think radio has adopted a position that millennials have wanted them to adopt since we did the first millennial study for the NAB back in 2002.  What I found then is still true today.  Research continues to show that young people want radio to be a new music auditioning device.  They want radio to be a place where they can find songs, explore and put them on their playlist and bring the song in as part of their world.  Commercial Alternative stations are targeting 18-34, yet treat listeners like 25-54 year-olds.   It’s playing to a flawed research methodology in Nielsen, which the industry has to abide by, but that systemic rerouting of young people’s desires continues to hold radio back with young listeners. I’ve seen plenty of evidence that when you give young people something unique that they will come to it.    I don’t believe young people have given up on radio but that radio has given up on them.  On a pure consumer side, that’s the story.

Max Alt: The Music Discovery stations are mostly Non Comm, correct?

Mike Henry:  Yes, most of the radio stations I consult are non commercial.  We’re not beholden to Nielsen.  Public Radio stations have this wonderful pie with multiple slices.  A commercial radio station has a one slice pie and that’s ratings.  It’s the beginning, middle and end of the conversation for them, whereas the public radio clients have goals related to specific missions, membership, fundraising, and engagement related to the local music community.  And we track these things like a commercial station would ratings.  We track multiple metrics and ratings is only a part of that and is not the driver. So between what I perceive to be a flaw in Alternative commercial radio programming and the ability of public radio stations to be true to the brand, that’s what drives it.

MaxAlt: How much new music is exposed on the Music Discovery stations?

Mike Henry: The stations I work with are all over 50 percent current/recurrent and some are almost two-thirds.  I watch the Alternative format closely.  I helped start it back in the late ’80s and early ’90s.  I had spent four years at WUOG, the university station in Athens, where I learned the power of local music. While local music may not be a big deal to commercial Alternative stations, it is for the non commercial Music Discovery stations that I work with.  We feel that is our role in the marketplace – to be the outlet where local and emerging artists can come up and through.  All that can be mixed in a music discovery mode with familiar music that fits around it.  We don’t retrofit the currents into the library.  We fit the library into the currents.  I call this format Music Discovery.  I do not call it Alternative or Triple A.  This is a music discovery format.  In a way, we are this secret cousin of the Alternative format that they aren’t even aware of.   The growth and success of these stations is unmistakable and it’s why every year we put more Music Discovery stations on the air.

MaxAlt: I didn’t realize there was such an emphasis on local music.

Mike Henry: I got the local music gene early on in Athens and saw what it could do.  In the mid-2000s, I helped launch WRXP in New York, non commercial Radio Milwaukee, and The Current in Minneapolis.  In all cases, we started with a local music component.  In Milwaukee, it was hard to find three local songs to start with and today they have about 400 in rotation to the point that they have a local-only stream that is pulling a 0.4 share in Nielsen.  Every client I have averages at least one local song an hour.  It is important to put these songs in regular rotation and not isolate it into a local music show on Sunday night at 10pm.  When I started doing it, people thought I was crazy.   But when we launched WRXP in 2008, our local artists included The National, Santigold and Vampire Weekend.  No one was paying attention to these bands at that time and now they are established artists after we adopted them as local music.  Local music is a valuable component and I’ve seen the results of that time and time again.  St. Vincent out of Dallas is another example. And when an artist like that blows up, the station can connect with them on a level that others can’t because they helped launch that career.   And this has grown into an initiative with NPR Music called Slingshot, which is an emerging artist platform.

MaxAlt: How many stations are you consulting that have gone down the path of the New Music Discovery format?

Mike Henry: We have 22 stations in VuHaus right now.  Those are just the ones that I work with either directly or through Slingshot.   Overall, there are probably 75 stations in the country doing this, but only a third of them are in markets of significance and doing it full time. In public radio, this is still a new format.  Public radio is still all about NPR News, Classical and Jazz, but this format is showing itself as being successful and valuable.  Every year I am signing on at least one more.  I can’t tell you the number of commercial alternative PDs that I have on list who want me to call them every time there’s an opening.  They would die for the freedom to program a public radio Music Discovery station where they aren’t held to M Scores and monthly ratings and can play a valuable role in the music ecosystem.  These stations are arguably the most critical in America for breaking new music.  The cool thing about these stations is they will embrace an artist when they are a nobody.  There’s a lot of misconceptions about public radio music.  These stations are a lot hipper than people think they are.   There’s an over association with NPR to anything public radio, in assuming it’s old and white, but these stations are definitely on the cutting edge of discovering new music and that’s what they are known for.

MaxAlt: How do these stations do within the record community as far as competing against commercial Alt stations and even a commercial Triple A?  

Mike Henry: The Triple A record community has some of the best promotion people in the business.  Dan Connelly, Lisa Sonkin, Julie Muncy, James Evans, Brian Corona, Joel Habbeshaw… these are music lovers. These are people that buy tickets to shows.  They will work me on other people’s records just because they like a song.  They see these stations in the correct light. Two years ago, nobody heard of Nathaniel Ratliff outside of Denver and it was not a given he would be able to break out, but if we hadn’t given him the chance, then it may not have ever happened.  And we have dozens of examples like this.  Ironically, we are kind of analogous to Triple A baseball as it relates to artist discovery.  If you can’t make it at our format, then chances are you aren’t going to make it at a bigger level.  We see a lot of support from the labels for their artists to do creative things.

And we’ll pick up in our next issue with Part 2 of Mike Henry’s interview where we discuss the online outlets for that creativity… VuHaus and Slingshot… and wrap up our interview about the up and coming Music Discovery stations.  

Read original story here.