10 Questions with ... Tom Baldrica
July 17, 2016
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Tom Baldrica returned to radio last fall after more than two decades as a Music Row label executive. He arrived in Nashville in 1993 as a regional promotion rep for BNA Records, eventually rising to the VP/Promotion role in 1997. In 2006, Baldrica segued to VP/Marketing at Sony Nashville. He moved to Average Joes as label President in 2010, and in 2012 was named VP/Radio Promotion & Marketing at Show Dog Records Nashville. In 2014, a desire to be closer to family prompted a return to his hometown of Virginia, MN. Not long after, Baldrica was pulling an airshift at WUSZ (Radio USA)/Hibbing, MN - a station he originally put on the air in 1988. He's still handling afternoons there, while also voice tracking for Midwest Country sister KTCO/Duluth. In September, his role expanded to his current position.
1. Tom, Thanks for taking the time for 10 Questions. You officially joined Midwest Communications last September in the role of Corporate Country Brand Strategist - what does this position entail both in a broad sense, and in your day-to-day responsibilities?
Well, I sort of refer to myself as Midwest Communications Nashville rolodex. Between the contemporary Country stations, the non-contemporary Country stations, and the seven Duke FM stations, if there's something that they need - if there's an opportunity to meet an artist, if there's a show possibility, if there is a promotion - whatever the case may be, I'm sort of like the repository for that. Also, I'm dealing with the Duke FM stations, getting a lot of artist content, dealing with artists and managers, setting up interviews. We're integrating some newer music into Duke FM from the legendary Country artists, so it's sort of bits and pieces of all kinds of things. But it all just sort of swirls around the fact that I kind of have an inside track in Nashville and I'm able to get to places that a lot of other folks can't get to.
So on day-to-day, do also you have duties at a single radio station?
I'm on the air at two stations. I voice track KTCO/Duluth's afternoon show from 3p - 7p and then I'm live on WUSZ (Radio USA)/Hibbing, MN from 3p - 6p and voice track the seven o'clock hour. Ironically, Radio USA is the radio station I put on the air back in 1988, 28 years ago. It's crazy. Same time slot. I did the afternoons. I sort of feel like I'm a corporate citizen in the morning, and then in the afternoon I'm just an afternoon jock having a bunch of fun and just enjoying being back on the air. I get to wear two different hats - corporate in the morning and jock in the afternoon.
2. Joining Midwest was a return to radio after a couple of decades of high profile positions on the label side and deep involvement with the industry overall. Why radio again and why now?
I think that the old line is, "Luck is the residue of design." For me, that was a few years back when I made the move that I think startled a lot of people: to leave Nashville and head home and come back to Minnesota. The first thing and most important thing to me in my life at that point in time was to just get into a space where I could get centered about what was next. I loved the record business, and I had a great run in it. I enjoyed it tremendously, but there was a moment where the switch flipped, and I was just done. I've always been driven by passion. You know that, and anybody who knows me knows that. That's my hallmark. And I just didn't have it anymore. I had to find what was going to be next for me, and I had to do it at a place at being centered, and that was Minnesota. When I came back here it was not to get back into radio. I honestly didn't know what I was going to do. Initially I came back and was working with Show Dog, and when that was done - it was just not a good fit for me - it was time to move on. The radio thing just kind of happened out of an organic lunch with the General Manger of the radio cluster up here in Hibbing who was a sales girl there station 28 years ago when we put it on the air. She has been here all that time; she runs the cluster now and at lunch that day she said, "Why don't you come back? Why don't you get out of your wife's hair for a little while? You're probably driving her nuts. Come over, do afternoons and just have some fun. We'll put you on as a part-time guy," and we started with that. There were a lot of people up here in Northern Minnesota that thought they were in the Twilight Zone. Turning on the radio and hearing ME after all those years. And then it just sort of went from there. I got to know [Midwest Communications VP/Programming] Jeff McCarthy a little bit more, and got to know [Pres./CEO] Duke Wright. I spent some time with them and understood where they were going, their growth pattern, and what they were looking for in the future. it all just kind of rolled together that way. It was not part of my plan to do that. It was just let's see what I feel and let my instincts guide me, and it just sort of went that way.
3. Just as when you left radio and started record promotion, your experience gave you valuable perspective - so now back on the radio side, with a 50-yard line seat and no skin in the game - tell us what you're seeing when you look at the label business - specifically as it relates to Nashville and the Country music biz.
Well, you know, how do phrase that? I think the first thing that really strikes me - and I felt it certainly during the label days - where we felt like we were trying to put 10 pounds of sugar into a five pound bag. Right now, it feels to me like we're trying to put 50 pounds of sugar into a five pound bag. I am stunned on a daily basis at the amount of releases that are coming across, from the majors to the independents to the people doing it on their own. There is this constant onslaught of stuff coming on a regular basis. I always was concerned back in the day about the focus. People were always like, " alright well this is our priority." Then that record stiffs, and here comes the new band and this is our priority. And six months down the road this is our new priority. Well at some point in time, you've got to pick a real priority. And not the flavor of the month. That to me, is something that I think is really scary. I think the amount of participants on the field is really dangerous. It feels like in some sense throwing things up against the wall and seeing what sticks. I personally would love to see just a little bit more commitment to what you've got.
4. I also wonder, how long superstars' records cycle through? You've got Blake Shelton, Keith Urban, Luke Bryan, and Carrie Underwood and those people, and their records are ripping up and down the chart. I understand radio is playing those songs in a higher rotation. When they're getting into power, they're playing in a higher rotation than they ever were before. I have a theory that those songs - and artists - go up and down so fast that they're not truly familiar. That that music becomes disposable and doesn't' stick around and the music that does stick around is kind of all the rest of it in the middle that is somewhat faceless and unfamiliar to the fans. Thoughts?
I would agree with that one hundred percent. I have those conversations at remotes, events, and just sitting down having cocktails with friends. In some senses it's sort of really frightening what we think people are paying attention to versus what they're really paying attention to. I like to throw out specific song titles and specific artists, so I'll tell people, "Tell me who you're favorite artist is." Then, "tell me what their single is." And they don't know. I understand that. We get so caught up in it. We get caught up in all the stuff - the spin numbers, the download numbers, the Shazam numbers, the research - and on the radio side everyone gets so caught up in the production - the great segues, and "the song sounded great out of the jingles." Then when you get outside of our little circle, out there in the real world, it's just so far down the road of what's important. And to your point, when Blake Shelton is up the chart in 12 weeks with "Came Here To Forget," that's going to be forgotten. It just doesn't have time to sink in with people. Lives are busy, lotta stuff going on. I live in an area where the mining companies dictate the economy, and this year, there were a lot of layoffs in the mines, where people were on furloughs for three, six, nine months. I'll tell you, people weren't that worried with the new Blake Shelton song or the new Kenny Chesney song or what's number one or not. They're more worried about paying their mortgage and feeding their family. That's the piece that really kind of strikes me - yes it's important because there's a lot of money on the line on both the record and radio side, but it's not nearly as important to the consumer as it is to me and you. That's a real eye opening moment and has given me a completely different approach to the way I put things on the air, what I talk about, and how I try to tie it together so people get a little bit of perspective. Throw in some fun facts - where people are from and what they do - and hammer those things. Not just tell them once or twice, but over the course of the lifetime of the record. Because I think that's the part of all my experiences that I can bring to this to try to close that gap a little bit. I can tell you the gap is really wide
5. One thing we see being in the middle of everything is a slight shift in how music can be broken - examples like Kane Brown, Granger Smith, and similarly, Maren Morris and Steven Moakler, who had traction and buzz before airplay - where listeners lead the discovery and lead radio to the act. Will we see more of that, and does that change the A&R dynamic at the label level?
No question. I think we're just at the beginning of this process. We talked about this for a long time on the label side and in the meetings. It can't just all be driven by the songs on the Top 40 chart. We have this idea of everyone following what national hits are, but with social media, there's an opportunity to bust out songs on a regional level. For example: Michigan-based Gunnar & Grizzle Boys. As an act, they are tailor made for a company like Midwest Communications to cultivate, and generate interest.
Radio has an opportunity to find regional breakout hits. Not all local/regional artists sound as good as what comes out of Nashville, but some do. Radio can find and own them because regional opportunities are the world's greatest focus groups. Regional success stories lead to national opportunities. Stations and chains have a chance to make those happen - it doesn't always have to be iHeartmedia or Cumulus. If the acts are good, they'll cut through fast. If your radio station is the one connecting them to listeners - who will care about where they came from and what chart position?
Referring back to the point I made earlier about the sheer volume of things you have coming, economically, the labels cannot do what they used to do. Artists are looking at it from a different place, managers are looking at it from a different place. Look at what's going on with Red Light [Management], with Morris Higham [Management]. Those management companies are in essence their own labels when you look at the specialized people that they've got and all the functions that are controlled within the management company. Then you take it one step further and you see what's happening with Big Loud or what Big & Rich are doing. You know where John and Kenny are out there as their own promotion guys working with New Revolution, so I think all bets are off. That's the good news. The bad news is that you're going to have a whole lot more fish in the aquarium, and it's going to be harder to focus and harder to find the one that you really want. I think there's a double-edged sword. But just the economics will drive people to look for different ways, because there just is not the opportunity to spend the kind of money that's been spent on artist development over the years. That money just isn't coming back now.
6. Let me go back to a radio question for you. When you last did radio, it was a different world. Was the transition back to it difficult? Or, as some have always said, like riding a bike? Anything in particular that was especially challenging?
It actually came back very naturally and organically. Being back on the air the first few weeks was a little odd and I think intimidating. That last go-around, we were just going from the point of transitioning from playing carts to playing CDs. Now, 20 plus years later, everything [is] on a hard drive and on a touch screen. [It's like having] an extra hand in a sense that it's on automatic so that the next element is fired - having another screen that you can pull up information on, and then having another screen that you can pull up a music bed on. To use an artistic analog, back when I was here the first go-around, I sort of felt like maybe it was 24 Crayola crayons and a big white sheet. Now I feel like I came back and got the 128 box of Crayola crayons with the sharpener in the back and an even wider piece of paper to draw on. There are so many elements to be able to just do the radio show. Then there's the notion of Facebook, Twitter, and all of those things and that sort of instantaneous one on one connection while you're in the studio. All those things which I had been dealing with from the marketing and the promotion side for all these years and now looking at it from the opposite side. It took a minute with all the things that are there. But the core piece of flipping that switch on that microphone and talking over a 14 second ramp. or trying to be entertaining and tell a story that will make people laugh or cry or make them think. That came back to me very quickly. Now. some people will tell you if they listen like, "yeah you think you came back but you still suck." But in my own mind, I feel like it came back.
7. You have a strong involvement in the company's "Duke FM" brand - with a big shift toward younger artists and 18-34 focused stations on mainstream Country radio, is this format headed toward a divide - one unique mix of music for 35-54s and another for 18-34s?
That's a great question and I don't honestly know. I hear a lot of stuff now, and I work on two completely different radio stations. KTCO is a very new Country, hit-driven, play the heavies every hour - whatever it is - in a very tight rotation, versus a radio station like Radio USA, which has been up here in this area since 1988. Some people I can guarantee have never turned the dial different from 99.9 in all those years, so they want to still hear an old Brooks & Dunn song alongside a new Brandy Clark song. The third part about the Duke FM format is that you would think that that's just older people, and that's really not true. There's a younger end that's really digging this Duke FM format, and there's a couple reasons. One is because some of these kids have never heard of these songs before and they're like, "Damn, this is really good music." Then there's a whole other group saying, "Man, I remember listening to Diamond Rio with my mom and dad when I was growing up. I remember listening to Alabama, Mark Chesnutt," and you can fill in the name. So there is something happening on that younger end, and let me tell you, we see it across all these Duke FM stations in all the markets. It's surprising what's happening on the younger end, because they really love that music. We've always really sort of talked about whether that was the right thing in the "Young Country" days, but I don't know - especially with the economics as it is, and Country still feels like we have to fight off everyone else. If we have an A team and a B team, or an A format and a B format, to try to have to go fight everything else, I don't know if economically people will take those chances
8. Also - Country radio - the genre that has always scored so strong in "the place where I can find new music" now seems in danger of capitulating that position - is it one they SHOULD still own? Or are its priorities shifting?
If I look at it from a record executive perspective, obviously you want that discovery. When I look at it from the fan of the music, I would like that discovery. When I look at the economics of the way radio stations run and what the rules have been for all these years, I'm not necessarily sure that that's all that important. I would like to say yes, that I think it's an important position, but I think it's more important to me personally than it seems to be to a whole lot of people in the higher up situations. I think it's important that people can tune and in and hear things that they don't get a chance to hear in other places. Or that instead of sending them to go to other places to find it, they can find it with us. But I think I'm in the minority feeling that way. There are some people that really love that new music, and then there are some people that really want to be very comfortable. And I get the sense that there's a real divisive line. If you really are a music head, you are going to go to Spotify and Pandora and you probably subscribe to SiriusXM and troll YouTube. Then there's a bunch of people that will say, "I'm really happy just play what you play for me, because I've got it on in the background." I don't think that overall that music discovery position is important for our format, sadly. We live in an instant gratification world. Whether it's music, movies, or information - you have a question come up and you say, well hang on, let's google it. Instantly. You have this opportunity to go find this information. It's the same case with music. It's like, "Man I really would like to hear that new Florida Georgia Line song." Tune in to radio. "Man it's not there." Tune in to second choice of radio, "Still not there." Oh well guess what? I'll go to my phone because I want to hear it right now. I'm not going to wait on your time. I want to hear it on MY time. That instant gratification thing is tough to overcome. That's the thing that puts the fly in the entire ointment, because we have a society that wants things when they want it, how it they want, exactly when they want it.
9. Switching gears here - How do you think radio can find young, compelling talent in a world where millennials have other outlets for expressing creativity (Podcasts, Internet, etc.). How do we find younger people who are going to draw in listeners and be entertaining for radio?
If I had the answer to that question. and you had the answer to that question, I think we would be the two most in-demand guys on the planet. I look at the average age of the people here that are on the air. I'm going to put it this way, it's a 35-54 demo [Laughs]. Probably more toward the top end of that sadly. I have a lot of questions with my 16-17 year old nephew about music. He loves Country music, which is great, but he will also come back to me and tell me, "hey I heard this, I heard that." "Well where'd you hear it?" "Well, I heard it on Pandora or I saw somebody tweet about it," and he will always tell me, "It's great Uncle Tom that I can hear all this music and be able to do this - don't you wish that you could play whatever you wanted to play every day?" I just kind of smiled at him and said "Yeah, It would be a blast to come in here and just say, 'Hey, let's play some of this kind of stuff today and here's something you haven't heard before.' But the economics of the business don't go that way." I've also asked him if he'd ever think about being on the radio? His answer: "No. I don't listen to it that much. Maybe I would do a podcast. That'd be kind of fun to do my own video show, but I just can't see being on the radio." So you think, "wow okay." It's an issue now. It's going to be a bigger issue as we move on down the line, especially on the local level. On the national level, I think we're seeing what we know is going to happen: the larger chains and the terrestrial signals are going to start to become more network in their look and scope and feel. The localization is going to happen from podcasting, from different things within the local markets, from taking some of those talents and giving them another platform within the framework of the media company. For the small stations, that's a problem, no doubt.
10. And what about finding the next big talents in promotion? It used to come from radio - still true? Or should labels be thinking non-traditional and out of the box for that role too?
Oh boy. I don't know. I just think that right now the word "promotion" takes on a completely different meaning than it took on when I started in 1993. I think it's done completely differently. My personal opinion is: a great promotion man was the tie-breaker. A great song is always going to get played; a shit song is never going to get played. It's those ones in the middle that make the difference, and he (or she) gets the benefit of the doubt because he (or she) works a little harder, tells the truth, is honest, consistent, and persistent in what they say, what they do, and how they approach it. When the tie-breaker came, you would get the nod because of the fact that you worked a little bit harder, better, and smarter. Now I think there's a lot of leverage. I think it's about size, about "if I do this for you, what happens for me," and I think there's more of that than there's ever been. I don't know that you can change that because of the way this system works. The chart system still drives the whole damn thing. That's what everybody still looks at. That's what drives it: The Mediabase Chart, The Billboard Chart, and now certainly the Shazam Chart is coming in there. I think the whole game and the way that it's presented and scored - I think there's a big problem there. Honestly, it's one of the reasons that I got out. I really feel like there's a very large disconnect out there in the way that music is being worked to radio stations and what's important versus what's not, versus desperation versus "oh my god I have to have this or I'm going to lose my job."
1. Part of the reason for the move away from Nashville was getting back home to be near family. It seems this is perhaps the most satisfying aspect of your career shift, yes?
I don't think there's any question about it. I live 133 steps from the house that I grew up in, from my front door to my mom and dad's back door. My parents are still alive and well and vibrant and active, and at my age - 54 - to have both of them is fantastic. The fact that they're healthy and vibrant and that I get to see them every day is even better than that! That was a big part of it. I have spent so much of my life planning - I'm going to be gone these days; I'm going to be doing this; I've got this show to cover; I've got a promo tour; I've got this dinner; I've got this event; I've got this; I've got that. Now I'm in the space in my life if I put something on my calendar, it's something I really want to do with people I really want to do it with, and there is a real sense of satisfaction about that. This time with my parents is extraordinary. It's the greatest gift I've been given. I have one sister and her children are growing up and I get to spend more time with them. I get to spend time with my wife's family. I have a completely different look at what life is. Muhammad Ali had a great quote. "If you see the world the same at 50 you did at 20, you've wasted 30 years." I've gotten to the point of what really mattered to me. Being here and being in this moment - and we heard Keith Urban talking about being in the moment a couple of years ago at CRS. I don't think I understood what he meant. Now I do. I live day to day. I look for something to smile about and laugh about every day. I played my horn last night in the Virginia City band playing in the city park playing "The Stars and Stripes Forever." I'm sorry, but that is about as good as it gets for me in my life right now. It's fantastic. I am so grateful and it's hard to explain how it feels, but I can tell you, it feels great.
2. You and I have had the superhero debate many times. You will always believe Batman is more appealing than Spiderman. Discuss:
It's not just Spiderman that I think he's superior to. I think he's superior to all of them. That's funny; we've had that conversation for years. I certainly love the fact that the whole Batman thing has become an identity for me. I get the biggest kick out of the fact that when people see the Batman logo - especially in the Country music business - a lot of them think of me. That's fantastic. I guess it's that early-seeded memory as a kid, seeing that TV show and getting the trinkets. I love what he stands for. I love the fact that something happened in his life, and he was going to spend the rest of his life making sure that that didn't happen to other people. Using wealth for good and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and visualizing or manifesting what you would like to be and then becoming. I think that there's something really magical in that. As crazy as it sounds, that's part of the life lesson for me, manifesting what was important. And then I think there's also that whole dual identity thing. I think you can relate to that, too. There's one of you when you have the mask on, and then you have the other person when the mask is off, especially when you have a high level professional job and doing those kinds of things. I think there's a deep-seeded psychological thing that goes along with that, too. But I really do come back to the fact that it's about the lesson, when something bad happened, you decided you were going to do something to change the world, and you went out and changed it. I think that's pretty powerful.