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AUSTIN DAZE: How has the economy affected your business?

JODY DENBERG: It’s just brutal. We’ve lost people. People that have worked here for a long time and it has just broken my heart.  Advertising is down. People are cutting back on what they are advertising, then they all want ads for much cheaper, than you have to try to run enough ads to cover your budget-from that point of view it’s been brutal. And really, regardless of whether you are a number 1 rated station or a number 12 rated station, it’s just difficult all the way around. As a programmer, you just find that the labels are not as free with their promotional dollars. So if you wanted to do a month’s worth of promotions where once a week you gave away a trip, it’s really difficult. This isn’t payola because this doesn’t come to me-it just goes to support what’s on the air. It used to be, “Yeah, you’re playing that artist and we can help you for that month and give you a prize to fly somebody to see the artist and get them air fare and hotel.” As the major labels find themselves becoming increasingly obsolete that kind of support just doesn’t really exist any more. And also, they have increasingly merged. It used to be several major labels you could go to-twice as many as there are now.  But I don’t want to sound whiny because I know every business is affected equally.

AD: You’ve been in the business a long time. A lot of people are saying, “This is the worst it’s ever been.” Have you seen it worse than this?

JD: I’ve been doing radio for 28 years this month and I’ve been a programmer for 19 years. What’s happening economically from the business point of view and as it relates to radio has been going on for some time now. Someone said to me, “The depression started in the music business years ago, now it’s just a similar situation with other businesses.” So the scenario that I describe at the outset was just one example. The bottom line is the recession/depression began 4 or 5 years ago with the advent of online digital music and piracy. So I don’t feel it anymore than I did then.

AD: That leads to our next question: the internet. You hear so much about how its affected musicians, and music labels, how has it affected radio? And are you learning to work within that new medium?

JD: Well we started streaming our station early on and so that was good for us because we “extended our brand”, to use the clichéd phase. The idea was that when people from Austin moved away they would hear us wherever they were and then if they came back and still liked us they would tune us in here. It’s not just the internet-it’s the ability to listen on your ipod; it’s the ability to listen to Satellite radio. There are a lot of technological advances that have become a challenge for local radio. I think the way to meet that challenge is to maintain being local. Cause if I turn on the radio I want to hear about what’s going on in Zilker Park or my community-that’s what those other options can’t offer.

AD: How do you feel about those other options?

JD: I love my ipod. But I’ve been in radio for almost three decades and I wouldn’t’ say I’m burned out on the offerings but I’ve done that. And I do the on air thing for 23 hours a week so when I go home I want to hear my stuff. That could be classical music, that could be Miles Davis, that could be Frank Zappa, that could be Yoko Ono, that could be things that I like that are pretty far outside the main stream of what we are which is Adult Alternative. So I take advantage of my ipod. I don’t have satellite radio. The times I’ve listened to it on airplanes I wasn’t that impressed except that I could listen to it commercial free. And I don’t really listen to anything on the internet. I’ll look something up on You Tube if someone says, “Hey you should check out this band that was on Letterman the other night.” Also, I have a lot more content that I can load onto my ipod that other people can’t. So it still comes down to music. Often, if it is new music that I loaded onto my ipod and it sounds really good I will probably consider it for KGSR. Or it’s, “Wow I haven’t heard that song in a really long time, I should play it on my Sunday morning show because it’s a lot mellower than some of the other stuff we do.” So the ipod does interface with my job in a positive way.

AD: How do you decide if something is good for KGSR?

JD: I know this sounds hard to believe but it’s what we think is the best music. Then you get more into, what’s best for our station and having a balanced play list. Like right now we have some really strong blues records from Buddy Guy and the Derek Trucks Band. So although I have another song from Taj Mahal that I really like right now, I’m going well, I feel like we have that covered between our library and our new music. And then we might go, but there hasn’t been any pop female singer/songwriters lately whether it’s Sheryl Crow or Sarah McLachlan, or Ingrid Michaelson, so we try and be more proactive and listen for an artist like Neko or this new singer we heard last night Gabriella Cilmi. So it is the music that we think is best and fits in with what we do.  So the answer would be: the best music and then try to balance it with what’s on the air at the time.

AD: Do you get a lot of listener feedback?

JD: We get it all. We solicit music feedback on a feature on the website called, “Rate the Music.” And we probably have 20 of the songs we are playing the most. We try to gage, and we do this every time we go into a music meeting, what’s most popular, what are people burned out on, and what’s most unpopular? And that can affect our decisions on whether we want to play something in heavy rotation, medium rotation or light rotation. We might add the Buddy Guy to our light rotation and it plays once a day. For three weeks in a row and it comes back number 1 on this weekly Rate the Music feature which means the audience is telling me they love this Buddy Guy record and I should play it some more. Or the opposite, we liked something when we put it on but it keeps coming out on the bottom, we should consider playing it less. There are only so many slots for new music. I think we have about 30 for the times you call for it in an hour. The more records you put on the less that song gets heard. So let’s say your new favorite song is Bruce Springsteen’s “Working on a Dream” and I’m only playing it once a day. You’re never going to hear it. So we’ll play it more often. In radio ratings there’s something called TSL-Time Spent Listening. I think the average time people spend with KGSR is about 7 hours. Then you have the people that only listen one or two hours a week and then you have the people who might listen 25 or 30 hours a week and going crazy. It’s a tightrope walk between all the various Time Spent Listening and you try and hit them in the middle.

This is just new music. Not library music whether it’s Van Morrison’s popular song “Wild Nights” or a more obscure song like Ben Harper’s album track “Mama’s got a Girlfriend Now.” For current music, a light rotation is once a day, medium rotation is twice day and heavy is three times a day.

AD: It seems every year there is that song of the summer that is on every 30 seconds. You can’t help but wonder, did they work that out with somebody?

JD: There are no contracts; there’s no payola; there’s no anything like that. It’s also a question of what songs are being played on different formats. Like right now I know we are playing Kings of Leon “Use Somebody.” I know 101X is playing it, perhaps so is KBLJ. So if you’re like me and you’re in your car and you’re pushing buttons you’ll hear the song five times in a day. People say that to me and I know we only played it once. But there are no contracts. We have a meeting every week and we have our lists.  We also look at sales in the marketplace. We’ll look at Waterloo sales, the National Americana charts. We’ll look at what is selling in the market. If people are buying it that means they like it and want to hear it. And then we watch to see how certain artists are doing. Did you ever see the Seinfeld episode where Elaine has this contraceptive she really likes called Sponges? They go off the market and she buys as many Sponges as she can. When she has potential lovers she tries to see if they are Sponge worthy. It’s like, “I kind of like him, but do I want to blow a Sponge on this guy?” That’s what it’s like for us. There could be a song we like, it’s Ok, but is it slot worthy? Do we want to put it on the radio and get it heard? It’s a commitment. We don’t want to just put something on and 2 or 3 weeks later say, “I don’t like that. Take it off.” That’s when you will hear from the record labels that will say, “Hey you added this record and we bought an in-cap at Waterloo to support your airplay and then you yanked it after 2 or 3 weeks.” That isn’t really fair to them if they start doing their marketing. But we lead the card, or whatever the metaphor is. It’s not like they say, we’re buying an in-cap at Waterloo will you play the song?

AD: Knowing you can help to support an artist that you believe in, that’s got to be a pretty good feeling.

JD: It’s a really good feeling especially when you want to expose something to people. Like Fleet Floxes. They are one of my favorite records from last year. We play them then people see them on Saturday Night Live and then they are going to go buy the record at Waterloo. If it comes out positive on the Rate the Music but isn’t selling, those are what we call in the business Turntable hits. Are they going to dig however much money out of their pocket to actually buy it?

AD: Were you always a big music fan? Big mix tape guy?

JD: Oh yeah. Always.

AD: Do you ever venture out to local bands performing around town? Or if someone sends you a CD? How does that work?

JD: There is a shelf in my office that is all local music that has been submitted to me. And I’m not talking about the big names-like Fastball which I don’t even consider a developing act anymore. When people send me local music, often it’s self-released or a demo, or maybe they are selling it out of their house, I ask them to send me their dates. I have a feature called the Daily Demo at 3:45 and I also have my Sunday morning show where I have total freedom. There I can play them and say, so and so is playing and where.  Sometimes in the music meetings I’ll listen to something and it will be like, I don’t know, it just sounds average. But then you put it on the air and it sounds great or the opposite can happen where it will sound great in my office and then I’ll put it on the air and be like, “This sounds lame.”

The local, self-released stuff, that’s how I’m exposed to it-that shelf, with the things people send me, and then playing one a day to hear it. Do I go out to clubs as proactively as I used to? No. I mean I’ve been doing it 28 years; I work till 6. I still go out and a lot of times I’ll see the opening act and that will turn me onto something I hadn’t seen before. A lot of times if I go out it’s to see something I just have to see like Leonard Cohen, or a friend is playing like Alejandro and I’ll go to see the opening act and things like that. Also, we have a staff. Andy Langer will come in and be really excited or Bryan Beck has a show every morning at 9:15 and will say, “I had this band on my show this morning they were really good you should check them out.” If they go to the trouble to make a recommendation I’ll take it seriously because they are exposed to so much stuff that might be OK but not Sponge worthy. Andy and Bryan and Lynn, our program director, are very proactive about bringing things to our attention.

Everybody has their own agendas–In a good way. One of my favorite records this past couple of years is this guy Sam Baker. He’s got this record called Pretty World that is just, I’m not worthy. I asked the lady at the label if she could send me a half dozen of them. And I would give it to people to get them to check it out.

AD: How did you hear about Sam Baker in the first place?

JD: Gurf Morlix told me about him. I took it home and said to my wife, “Barb, is this as good as I think it is?” And then I gave it to my neighbor and went back over there the next week and he has the words typed out and G Minor and F and I’m like, “What are you doing?” He says, “I had to learn that Sam Baker song.” We all get passionate about things. I love Fleet Foxes and Raphael Saadiq-he’s a soul guy but not nuvo soul more like a Smokey Robinson soul but thin with a contemporary feel to it. I love the Derek Trucks record. Robyn Hitchcock, I love and Neko Case, I love. There are so many ways now to get exposed to music. And I’ll tell you what, in our DIY kind of world there’s more music than anyone can ever really deal with in terms of a mail in kind of thing. It used to be people would send you in a cassette. So you would know it was a demo. Now everything comes on a CD; everyone can send you a CD; and not everyone is great.

You will always make people upset with you and sometimes you will make people happy with you. I try not to read too many blogs and things because you can just give too much credence. We have a CUM of about 100,000 people who at some point during the week will turn on KGSR. They may just turn it on for 15 minutes or they may be people that have it on at work all day long. So if you play more familiar commercial music your CUM might go up because the station is more friendly to more people but then your time spent listening goes down because other people are going, “I know that Jason Mraz song, I’ve heard it everywhere, what else is going on?” Then you get the people that say, “I’ve never listened to KGSR but I like this KGSR song. I’m a mixed listener.” You are always trying to balance these two things.

AD: Do you think over the years you’ve become more or less sensitive to trying to please people? Do you think your attitude has changed?

JD: I think I was a little more naïve when I started and thankfully so. I had this ideal that we could make this radio station and play Dwight Yoakam and Radiohead which was sort of a novel idea. Public radio can do that; KUT does an excellent job. But for a commercial radio station to do it…I was 22 and thought we could do this! And we did do it. And then as time goes on and you have to deal with the reality of what your ratings are and your ratings affect not only how many ads you can sell but how much you can charge for those ads and there’s some pressure to play a little bit more mainstream music. In that case, my journey has taken me from a naiveté to a more pragmatic approach that I try to balance. You start to think what can I live with? Personally, I don’t like that Jason Mraz song. But from a business perspective, it makes sense. It’s an appealing song, it’s got that Jack Johnson laid back feeling and I could bring people to the station. Ok, I can live with that. I’m not going to be as excited as when I play the Raphael Saadiq. And I’m not picking on poor Jason, it’s just something commercial.  I’ve got to be able to listen to the radio station and be proud. If I listen to it and I’m not proud then my stomach turns and I don’t sleep well at night.

AD: There’s a lot of pressure on you to keep it going and do the right thing.

JD: Definitely. I will agree with you. But I was the Program Director since the station started in 1990 and two years ago I stepped down from that position because it also involved personal management, and going to promotions meetings about what you are going to do to promote the station, and interacting with sales and things like that. After 16 years I told my superiors I couldn’t do it anymore. I don’t want to be in charge of hiring or firing I just want to focus on the music and they could have told me at that point that they needed to find somebody that could do those things and we’ll see you later. Instead they made up a name–they gave me a position called “Content Manager”. So I deal with the music and book Blues on the Green and Shady Grove and handle the Broadcast CD. So I’m involved with the content. And Lynn Barstow now oversees 101X and KGSR and we work in concert but he is my boss. He has the final say along with his superiors and I have to respect that because I made a conscious decision to not be where the buck stops. That’s fine with me.

AD: Let’s talk about that Broadcast CD.

JD: The KGSR Broadcast CD for the past 16 years comes out every thanksgiving and it’s a collection of live on air performances. For the last ten or eleven years the beneficiary has been the SIMS Foundation. Those ten or eleven years of volumes we’ve raised approximately 1.7 million dollars for SIMS. The sales have been harder the past few years because things have been different but we still sold 20,000 copies between thanksgiving and mid January. That’s pretty amazing. We’re really proud of it.

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