10 Questions with ... "Elwood" Bjorn
August 19, 2014
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
- WPGU - 107.1 The Planet - Champaign, IL / 1998-2001
- WKSZ - 95.9 Kiss FM - Appleton, WI / 2001-2003
- WAPL - 105.7 WAPL - Appleton, WI / 2003-Present
- WZOR - Razor 94.7 - Green Bay, WI / 2006ish-Present
1) What was your first job in radio? Early influences?
I grew up between the Chicago and Rockford radio markets, so that meant Top 40 on 92.5 WDEK and 97 ZOK and rock on WXRX in Rockford and Rock 103.5 and The Loop in Chicago. I got turned on to Steve Dahl and Garry Meier just in time to hear their final show together, but that led me to other WLUP personalities such as Kevin Matthews and Jonathon Brandmeier. Johnny B was a huge influence. Something about his energy, sense of humor, and the way he interacted with people was infectious. I still pull out old audio of Johnny and crack up. His last day being of syndication on KZZP/ Phoenix is freaking GOLD.
My first radio gig was at WPGU - Champaign-Urbana's Modern Rock, 107.1 The Planet - while I was attending the University of Illinois. I'm incredibly lucky to have worked at such a unique station. It's not a typical "college radio station" that's run by the university for classes and college credit. Instead it was a commercial radio station that was run almost entirely by college students. Programming, promotions, imaging, engineering, news, sports, sales ... over 100 people on staff ... all kids attending U of I, working for the joy of it and the chance to learn every aspect of the business. And for free CDs. Even though a lot of them have left radio for gigs as firefighters, lawyers, and police dispatchers, some of the most creative people I've ever met in radio were at WPGU.
2) What led you to a career in radio? Was there a defining moment that made you realize "this is it"?
I was making "radio shows" on a tape recorder before I hit grade school. (Yes, one tape still exists. No, you can't hear it.) I've always been really into music, but not talented enough to make it as a professional drummer. I really considered radio for a while, but decided to go to college for Computer Science and a much higher salary instead. Two years of miserable grades later, I finally signed up for a gig at WPGU. A few months in, I was doing weekend overnights - midnight-6a on Sunday mornings - a great time to try new things with plenty of after-bar drunks and no bosses listening. The station's morning show host at the time noticed a bit I was doing and asked if I wanted to be the producer on his show. From that point forward I knew that radio was going to be my career. So I switched to a major that I could get through in four years (Economics? Why not?), and dove head first into radio.
3) How long have you been the PD for WAPL and WZOR and what makes these stations so unique?
I'm about to hit two years as PD since Joe Calgaro left to take the "Brand Manager" gig at The Hog in Milwaukee. Joe taught me a lot, and I'm eternally grateful for all the opportunities he gave me. Though I'm still a little bitter that he poached Borna Velic away from my staff.
Our uniqueness comes from both our competitive landscape and our corporate culture. We're part of two partially overlapping markets with Appleton-Oshkosh and Green Bay. As a 100,000-watt station, WAPL covers both. Razor covers Green Bay easily, but struggles in most of the Appleton-Oshkosh market. We've got competitors that cover one, or the other, or both, and as a result you end up with 7-10 stations that touch on the rock world in some way.
On the corporate side, it's awesome working for an ESOP company at Woodward Radio. There's a culture of inclusiveness where everyone's contribution makes a difference, and we're moving even further to recognize and share in our successes. I hate - HATE - mission statements. They're typically corporate BS double-speak. But I begrudgingly admit that ours - "Good People. Real Solutions. Shared Results." - actually means something here.
4) You have the dual role as PD for both stations and you do an afternoon show on WAPL. How do you balance your time so all these roles are effective?
It helps being single with no commitments outside of work. Honestly, though, I couldn't do it without my amazing staff. My WAPL Road Show co-host John Jordan is the creative force behind our show. He brings in a ton of content; he and I go through it together to choose what we think the best topics will be that day, and I do my best to keep the show tight behind the board. My Promotions Director, Roxanne Steele, is an organizational machine, coordinating with the sales team, and making sure every detail runs as it should. Razor afternoon host Cutter is working towards a MD title, taking on more and more responsibility on that side. It's the same with my Imaging Director, heritage morning show duo, and a kick-ass sales team. It ultimately comes down to having a team of people who know their roles and share the same vision for our stations. I'm really lucky to have that.
5) I know that WAPL plays some currents by Classic Rock artists and WZOR is pretty aggressive with new rock musically. When you listen to new music, approximately how important by percentage is gut, research, sales, video play, and chart position when determining the status of a record?
There's no hard and fast formula for me. It's about a balance of all those factors - taking each with a grain of salt and trying to filter out the BS. I follow my gut, but know that the stations need to reflect my audiences' tastes, not just my own. I also try to listen to new music repeatedly to see if it grows or grates on me. I've never been a person who can listen to a song one time and write it off completely.
We don't have a research budget, so any outside research we come across can be useful. Chart position helps a little with that - I assume SOME stations on the panel are basing their decisions on research - but I don't want to be a lemming playing a crap song just because everyone else is. Sales numbers really help at that point. If my listeners hear a song and are moved to spend their money on the music or live show, then it obviously matters to them. Those are the types of records I want to play.
6) What's your take on current Active Rock music? Is it as good as six months or a year ago, better, or about the same? Give us your take on the Active Rock format as a whole.
It's been a great 12 months for Active Rock - established artists have had really strong singles, and some newer bands like Royal Blood and Nothing More are having massive success. I was concerned for a long time with Active Rock (such a strange insider term that no one in the real world actually uses) becoming too narrow, too heavy. That's why it's great to see more mainstream and Alternative-sounding bands on the chart. Active Rock should not be afraid of a crossover hit. If you can share some listeners with the Alternative, Mainstream, or even Top 40 station in the market and get those listeners to stick around, it's obviously better for your station. Don't write off stuff like Kongos and The Pretty Reckless as uncool just because your little sister listens to them on your local Kiss-FM. Instead; make those songs the gateway drug to get sis hooked on the harder stuff. Program your station well, and maybe someday she'll be wearing a Slipknot mask and carving SLAYER into her arm.
7) WZOR has long had a reputation as a "tastemaker" station ... especially when it comes to new rock and metal. How do you balance that so it doesn't adversely affect the station's cume and TSL ... especially during the day?
Honestly, I think the "tastemaker" status has hurt the station's ratings at times over the years. At points we've gotten too new, too heavy, or just too unfamiliar for a broader audience to stick around. So we're always working to find that balance of still being the place to go for new rock and metal, while keeping the library familiar enough to bring in more casual rock fans. We've actually just launched a new Midnight Mosh Pit feature that will give us an additional opportunity to super-serve those die-hard metal fans, maintain our metal image, and give those harder songs a chance to develop before expanding them to our larger all-day audience.
8) What are your three favorite artists or songs of this past year and why?
Pop Evil - Such genuine, humble, hard-working guys. Razor has had a really great relationship with this band since early on, and it's incredible to see them take it to the next level with "Onyx," three #1 singles, and a live show that keeps getting more impressive.
A Day To Remember - I didn't have a clue about this band until Julia from Grand Pro-Mo sent me their latest album, "Common Courtesy." Wow. It's such a great combination of punk, metal, pop hooks, humor, and genuine emotion that I can't imagine ever getting tired of it.
I'm cheating with a 3-way tie here. All are recent songs I can't get enough of and am really looking forward to see what the bands do next.
Crobot, "Nowhere to Hide" - The most fun guys I met at Rock on the Range.
The Last Internationale, "Life, Liberty..." - Blew me away live at Sunset Sessions. I'm a drummer and a big fan of Brad Wilk from RATM, but Delila & Edgey's stage presence had me forgetting about Brad two songs into their set.
Islander, "Coconut Dracula" - I'm listening on constant repeat and looking forward to their performance at Razor Edgefest in September.
9) How much does WAPL and WZOR use social media like Facebook and Twitter to help enhance the overall listener experience?
Not enough, but we're getting better. With a veteran staff, it's taken a while to get out of the old mindset of finding some nugget of material and thinking, "That's great! I'll have to save that for on-air." Instead, we need to think, "That's great! I'm going to post it now." Rick & Len (WAPL's morning show) do a D.A.Q. (Dumb-Ass Question) twice a week for listeners to respond - it's a great way to crowd-source material. Putting that question out on Facebook and Twitter gives the audience a chance to interact with WAPL and Rick & Len, even if they never turned on a radio that day. It's a great way to interactively market the station, especially in diary markets where you're relying entirely on branding and recall.
10) Finally, I know that Ryan is your real first name. Where and how did Elwood come about?
I went by my real name when at WPGU. But when I got my next gig, my last name was a sticking point with my boss. Bjorn. Bee-yorn. Like the tennis player Bjorn Borg. Or Icelandic singer Bjork with an N instead of a K. It's tough to remember, let alone spell if you're hoping a listener will write it down in a ratings diary. So I went to my favorite movie, The Blues Brothers, and became Elwood. It stuck, and now I pretty much only answer to Ryan if I'm talking with my family.
What do you like to do for fun when you're not in radio mode?
There's a non-radio mode? I'm a TV junkie, so lots of Simpsons reruns and repeat viewings of Game of Thrones. Drumming and traveling, though I don't do enough of either. I also recently had a friend introduce me to Geocaching, so you might find me hunting through the city with my GPS in hand.
You're stuck on a deserted island and you only have five CDs with you. What are they?
- The Beatles, Abbey Road - All respect to Sgt. Pepper, but this one's way better.
- The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Axis: Bold As Love - Everything about this album is awesome, from Jimi's guitar to Mitch Mitchell's drums.
- Living Colour, Vivid - Insanely underrated.
- Foo Fighters, Wasting Light - This came out just after I got divorced, and it felt like Dave Grohl wrote every song on the album to help me get through it.
- Led Zeppelin, The Complete Studio Recordings - I know ... that's a box-set cheat. Zep IV ... no, Houses ... no, Zep II ... IV again... Physical Graffiti ... You know what? Screw this question. I'm bringing an iPod.