July 15, 2016
“I’m not testing the waters to see if I enjoy it; I’m all in. I’m approaching this like it’s my career, and I take that very serious.”
That’s Byron Kennedy, who – as of this writing – just completed week #1 as your new, fresh-faced Dir./West Coast Promotion for Wheelhouse Records, part of the Broken Bow Records Music Group.
OK, the fresh-faced part isn’t entirely true. Not exactly an industry rookie, Kennedy joined Wheelhouse after a successful, 15-year run as PD of CBS Radio Country KNCI/Sacramento. If I’m being honest – and, I don’t think I’m alone here – his decision to shift into record promotion came as a shock. Similar to last year – almost one year to the day, in fact – when Clay Hunnicutt left iHeartMedia after 20-something years to lead label start up Big Loud Records.
You see, there are some things in life that that you can always count on; things that will never change. The sun rises in the East; “It’s A Wonderful Life” is the greatest movie ever; the most beautiful woman in history was Grace Kelly; and nobody can possibly improve on the fundamental design characteristics of the Frisbee, the crowbar, the harmonica, or duct tape. And – guys like Kennedy and Hunnicutt are radio lifers.
I think Kennedy’s decision is a brave one. Think about it: You’re a major market programmer, stepping away from ALL the leverage to zero leverage, and out of a comfort zone where – after 15 years of being a PD – there’s almost nothing that you haven’t seen before. Now, you’re flipping the script for a total career change and, while you probably kinda, sorta, almost know what the job is, there’s a helluva lot more unknown for you than ever. That’s exactly what Kennedy told me a few days prior to his start at Wheelhouse, saying: “I know enough to get out there and start working. But I would never say I know exactly what this job is, because I haven’t done it. I have a lot to learn, and will not approach it like I have all the answers or know it all. This would inhibit my growth as a promo person. Thankfully, I have some great people to learn from over at Wheelhouse and BBR Music Group as a whole.”
Kennedy is one recent example of a seasoned radio programmer making this career and life decision. The other is former iHeartMedia WNOE/New Orleans and KAJA/San Antonio PD Don Gosselin, who just finished an interim role as Arista Nashville’s Northeast regional, filling in for Abi Fishbone while she took maternity leave after safely delivering a beautiful, bouncing baby boy named Harrison Steel Fishbone on Wednesday, April 6th.
In the immediate aftermath of his short promo stint – which ended Monday, July 11th when Fishbone returned to action – Gosselin told me that after years of interfacing with so many regionals, Nationals, and VPs, “I think I did have more of an understanding of what the position was, more so than most folks that are newer in the business.”
And yet, he quickly added, “There were definitely things I didn’t realize. For example, on major tours with Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley, everything is detail, detail, detail, communicating with multiple people about exactly who is going to be where and when and what they’re going to be doing. And all of this information has to be submitted two weeks in advance – I had no idea about that from the radio side! I just thought the label guys showed up with a pocket full of passes.”
We all know leaving radio for a career in record promotion isn’t exactly a new phenomenon; it’s been going on since dinosaurs roamed the earth and man first walked upright. But I do think it’s kind of uncommon when high profile, long term radio pros like Kennedy and Gosselin – or Hunnicutt – do it. In the case of the first two, the transition to regional promotion usually happens when people are younger. I’ve always felt the ideal age for a regional rep is between 25-40, when the travel, long hours, stress, and – frankly – high degree of unnecessary, yet unavoidable bullshit the job entails is more tolerable.
So, if you’re Kennedy and Gosselin, why do it now? Why the foray into what most people refer to as, “the dark side,” when you’re firmly established and entrenched as respected radio guys? In short: WTF?
For Gosselin, the label opportunity was a serendipitous one, and not what he initially set out to pursue after leaving San Antonio in May of 2015. “All I said to myself was, ‘I’m not going to restrict my search to radio only,’” he remembers. After keeping a wide search field, which included label, management, and – naturally – radio, Gosselin called what happened next, “The perfect storm.” It was one which involved two golfing buddies: Sony Nashville EVP/Promotion & Artist Development Steve Hodges and Arista Nashville VP/Promotion Josh Easler.“When Abi went out on maternity leave, Steve called and said, ‘Hey, we’re looking for someone to cover the Northeast region, and if you are interested in working on the record label side, this will give you firsthand knowledge. It will be very black and white as to whether it’s something you’d really like to do, and if it’s something you’re any good at. You know pretty quickly, there’s no middle ground.’”
Kennedy’s path was more direct; driven by his love of music and a desire to be closer to ground zero for the Country industry: Nashville. “This position allows me to become more involved in both. I also admire and respect what promotion people do. I have worked with many good ones over the years and have seen and felt how passionate they are about their artists. I love the way they fight for them. It’s not just a song to them. There is a person behind the song. Someone they believe in. Someone that is counting on them to deliver. When a new artist comes out, these reps are on the front lines actually helping make dreams come true for them. I can’t wait to experience the satisfaction of that! I can’t imagine many things more gratifying than helping to make someone’s dream a reality.”
Having spent 27 years in radio – most of them as a programmer – and then a cup of coffee on the label side as a regional for Arista, I remembered how my radio experience shaped my approach to PDs and MDs as a promo rep. I asked Gosselin and Kennedy how their radio history would form their respective styles.
Gosselin identified three things right away. “First, knowing firsthand the life of a Program Director and a Music Director and people on the radio side, I understand the demands and how many different directions they’re being pulled. So I never took it personally when people weren’t able to return my calls or emails as fast as I would have liked. Also, I never second-guess another Program Director. It’s their kingdom, and they’re the one that’s going to be held responsible for the performance of their radio station. And I never told a programmer they were wrong, obviously. Because they’re not wrong. That’s their world that they have to protect and do the right thing for. What I tried to share were experiences from my programming past when presented songs that may not fit what I was thinking.”
Kennedy believes his learning curve won’t be as steep, since he already speaks radio programming fluently. “Obviously, radio programmers are very passionate about radio; I am able to talk radio with these PDs, to really appreciate and understand it from their angle. That said, I have to remember I am not sitting in their office as a PD. I’m there as a rep to get music played. I have to find the balance, and not come off like I know their job, because every station and every market is different. I think it would be a turn off for me to come in acting like I know everything about their job. However, I know what – in my mind – makes a great rep, and I know what makes a not-so-great rep.”
I have to say, after talking with Gosselin about his recent experience, if I had to guess, this is a man destined for a life in record promotion. The moment we began talking, he was in full, nearly insufferable (said with love!) promo rep mode – very proud of a breakthrough day for LANco’s debut single, “Long live Tonight,” which garnered more than 50 adds on impact day. He remembered the angst leading up to add dates for both Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley. “Honestly, I fell in love with it,” said Gosselin of his experience. “I was on tour buses with Cam; I was in planes, trains, and automobiles jumping around the Northeast launching the Paisley record. In that three month time period, I got the full spectrum of what life is like as a radio promotion person, and I gotta tell ya, I’m pretty proud of what I was able to get done. My first add day was for Carrie Underwood ‘Church Bells,’ which we’re hoping is going to hit #1 on Monday July 18th. It was my first week, and I had 35 stations in my region, and I think I had two commitments prior to add day.”
This is the oxygen that keeps record reps breathing.
Kennedy’s script has yet to be written, but as we quoted him at the top, this is not a random career change or mid-life crisis. He’s all in, and ready for what is yet to come. “My plan is to deliver for our team and for the artists I’ll be representing. I’m not looking too far past that right now. My job is to get airplay and promote these artists, and I plan to be the best rep I can possibly be. I hope it leads to huge success for these artists and many wins for our team at Wheelhouse. I know I will enjoy it overall, and I’m happy about that. But it’s a job, and jobs come with days and situations that aren’t always enjoyable. I accept that.”
I think that’s the perfect and most healthy approach to what comes next for Kennedy in his new life at Wheelhouse, and I wish him nothing but success. As for Gosselin, with Fishbone returning to her Northeast role at Arista, he’s pondering what comes next. “This has been such an incredible experience working with Sony; it really gave me the full spectrum,” he said. “It could lead me back to radio. I’ll never rule out radio, because I’ve been doing it since high school. If I do go back to radio, I know this experience from the label side will make me a better programmer.”