10 Questions with ... Nik Carter
April 1, 2014
1. Being the host of a nightly Classic Rock radio show directly from the VH1 Classic headquarters in Times Square brings a lot of artists through the On Tap Lounge doors. Who has been a favorite?
Geddy Lee of Rush, who I interviewed last year both before and after Rush's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Over the years I've interviewed rock stars from James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich to Depeche Mode and the Beastie Boys, and everyone in between. I've also spoken to celebrities like Johnny Depp, Matt Damon, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Brady and on and on. So I'm not usually easily rattled but when I met Geddy, I tried not to go full-on fan boy, but I think the first time we spoke I failed. Geddy, being one who is known to not suffer fools, at the end of the interview turned to me and said, "That was great, I really love your energy." So I didn't feel like I'd made a COMPLETE dork of myself, which is nice.
2. What is the most interesting thing about working at VH1/VH1 Classic?
For me, it's that they still value radio as a medium. You have Tom Calderone, who is the kingpin of VH1 and before that, MTV for years, but at his core he is a radio guy. That's where he came from and he's still a believer in it. Everybody here seems to understand that the way that classic rock has been presented historically ... it hasn't really been the sexy format. It's become very muted and semi-bland in presentation, almost a male leaning AC, which is ridiculous when you look at the personalities who make up the format: the biggest rock stars in history were also the most colorful. So they've encouraged me in my presentation to make it come alive again and that translates into a lot of forward momentum and me essentially just being the goof that I'm known to be.
3. You seem to be pretty social savvy and on Twitter and Facebook interacting with fans during your show and at all hours. How important do you think social media is to what you do?
Yeah, I am a bit obsessive, I'll admit. I update Facebook and tweet throughout the show. We also have timed tweets that automatically go out throughout the show, billboarding what is coming up, and they're always re-tweeted by people. There's been a lingering perception that this demo isn't a huge consumer of social media, but I can tell you from my experience that they can be rabid social media consumers. I regularly will post things that range from videos of artist performances or demo-relevant memes, and they get shared, in some cases, over 500 times, but the average is about 200-plus shares.
The show has also been embraced by many of the artists who have come in to do it, so when we send out something about Kiss and it's re-tweeted by Kiss, it literally goes everywhere to the point that we have listeners from all over the world because that one tweet brought them to the table. We videotape all of our interviews and that content always goes a long way - usually it will just be a teaser video of the interview and fans of these bands are about as loyal as any on earth. In fact, we've had acts like Queen re-post things we've done onto the band's Facebook page. Paul Rogers, ZZ Top, Judas Priest and Foreigner have all done the same, which is insane.
There are a few radio stations following us who are not even airing the show; they are re-tweeting our stuff or "borrowing" things from our Facebook page (I see you punks! lol). As I say, I tweet/Facebook every night and that is actual interaction with listeners across the country - the thing is our listeners are really active on our Facebook page in particular, even when the show is not on. Every weekend, Saturday morning, I usually get up, have my coffee and post some sort of "what up, gang" message on our Facebook, often times I include a demo-relevant meme, and there are hundreds of people online then and before I know it, I've spend a good hour talking about music, some pop culture event or whatever is in the air.
I also happen to have a very patient girlfriend, who watches me every Saturday night while we're out to dinner, pick up my iPhone and tweet somebody back who has hit us up, and I often do the same with my coffee on Sunday morning to sort of say, "Yo, join us tomorrow night for Behind the Music Monday with one of your rock star heroes." I'm in the demo so often when I post something to my own Facebook, I slap it up on the On Tap Facebook page as well ... the Internet never sleeps.
4. On Tap really seems to take advantage of the access to the VH1 and MTV archives and the access to talent. The show has a lot of "bells and whistles." Can you briefly explain the process of putting together On Tap each night?
As bells and whistles go, I was emphatic that On Tap would be a show, not just a syndicated jock shift, because no one needs that. VH1 has access to talent beyond just the music realm, that's how we ended up with William Shatner in the rock lounge for an interview and even guest-hosting the show when I was on vacation, same thing with the cast of Anchorman 2.
The archives are a huge part of it because the exclusivity is a part of the foundation. The vibe to me is very important; somewhere along the line classic rock became weirdly serious, forgetting that it's rock and roll, it's supposed to be fun! So I wanted it to be tight, fast, and for listeners to feel like something is going on and I want to be part of it the way some of the great night shows made me feel when I was a listener.
I always think the more the merrier, so my producer Pam Landry and engineer Evil Ed Robinson are integral parts of the show, o-air and off. Pam is a 20-plus-year programming veteran, so she programs the music and combs the Vh1/MTV archives for performances, interview clips, and artist audio bites, which we sprinkle throughout the show every night, and she on occasion reels me in or provides a counterpoint voice on the air if Ed or I make utter asses of ourselves with our opinions.
Ed, in addition to being the guy who puts all the elements together, is often the funniest guy in the room. He's an engineer so by definition, he's a lunatic and he's made me laugh so hard at times that I've imploded breaks Jimmy Fallon style -- all part of the vibe! We record daily; Ed mixes all five hours in Pro-Tools so it's tight and out of sight, then it's on ... like Donkey Kong!
5. What was your first job in radio? Early influences?
I had an odd trajectory, my first actual radio job was in high school for PBS. I was a kid reporter for a national children's program called "The Spider's Web." I remember being 14 and interviewing Wynton Marsalis about Charlie Parker and not really fully comprehending exactly who either of them were in historical context. My first on-air position as a jock was at WFNX Boston (RIP), and I did the traditional climb up the ranks from part-time to full-time overnights, nights and finally middays.
Boston in the late '70s and the '80s in particular was a bastion of personality radio. Charles Laquidara on WBCN was a huge influence on me; his morning show "The Big Mattress" was music, comedy, social commentary -- the likes of which the world will not see again. The Late J.J Jackson was a mentor of mine and an enormous influence. Sunny Joe White was a lunatic showman who programmed probably the most ambitious Top 40 in history. Kiss 108 played everything from Madonna to the Sisters of Mercy; it was unreal to listen to. Jojo "Cookin" Kincaid was another stellar jock there who made an impression on me -- that radio was the soundtrack to the party, even if it was a party just for one. Jed the Fish was a huge influence ... and Greg Thunder... The latter two I borrowed from liberally when I was first starting out and had not yet found a way to channel my own personality on-air.
6. What led you to a career in radio? Was there a defining moment that made you realize "this is it"?
I was always a music dork. The way guys my age knew sports stats, I knew music: who produced which album, who was in which band, etc. I studied acting at NYU and while I always thought that would be my calling, when I was almost thrown out of the drama program because I had cut class so much to hang out at WNYU the radio station ... that seemed to be the fairly clear "this is it" scenario.
7. If you were just starting out in radio, knowing now what you didn't know then, would you still do it?
Yes I would; however I don't know exactly how I would get into radio. Budgets have been slashed so much that some stations no longer have jocks on weekends, and when most have been without a live overnighter, there is no place for young jocks to cut their teeth. I honestly wonder where management thinks the next generation of air personalities will come from.
8. What is the one truth that has held constant throughout your career?
Personality always wins, even in the PPM era.
9. Why do you think Classic Rock is so exciting and relevant to younger demos as well as baby boomers?
The easy answer for its relevance to younger demos is exposure through games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. But I've asked my interns at most stations I've been at because I was surprised to see how many were into Classic Rock. These are kids in their early 20s and even younger, and a lot of it comes from exposure to it by their parents who listen at home, or a lot of times in the car on long road trips, etc. They discover it that way, and can often hear the lineage between what Zeppelin and Hendrix were doing decades ago and what bands like the Black Keys, Foo Fighters, etc. happen to be doing today.
Kids also live for what they perceive as authenticity; they recognize the substantive and in a world where people can put Pro Tools on a cheap laptop, make a song in their bedroom and get a million views on YouTube, they recognize the effort it took to actually write and record songs and be an artist back in the day. Plus so many of the songs of that era, even if they're just about partying, have an undercurrent of "F the man," a message that will always resonate with what I like to call the angry suburban youth.
10. Why should a program director carry your show?
Not to be a total "company man" but VH1 and MTV are 500-pound industry gorillas with this mother lode of content -- four decades' worth of archival material from mind-blowing musical performances to interviews with people who are either inaccessible for one reason or another or simply won't talk to radio anymore. We want this to be the kind of show that Classic Rock PDs would air themselves if they had the money, time, and people to do it. It's funny ... in a time where PDs are juggling a billion things with ever-shrinking budgets ... sadly I know of some pretty big stations these days that have had to cut back on their night shows entirely. In addition to taking an entire daypart off your hands, we'll have lots of exclusive content on the "On Tap" website and our social media pages which will include audio, photos, video and more!
The biggest thing is this: Every station I have been at for the past 10 years or so has been desperate for marketing support or materials when there's no money in the budget for it! So this is big: Our affiliates' call letters will be featured on VH1 Classic, which is right in line with your station's demo. VH1 Classic is currently in over 61 million households -- that is a lot of eyeballs. To be honest, even I'm a little freaked out by that number! The music is as solid as it gets -- you're never going to tune in and think, "WTF is this going on my air?" Finally you're getting a little bit of personality in ratings-friendly chunks. We're not arrogant enough to think that we're reinventing the Classic Rock format, but we're definitely going to give it a kick in the hind quarters!