10 Questions with ... Thomas Chau
April 26, 2011
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
I'm the Director of Programming for AOL Radio, overseeing the music programming of the 250+ AOL Radio stations. I also directly program the Pop and Dance stations and I created the popular comedy station, Comedy Attack. I also manage the AOL Radio social network communities on Twitter and Facebook, which combined have accumulated over 60,000 fans. Before joining AOL in 2004, I created and managed the movie blog Cinema Confidential, where I wrote film reviews, features and did celebrity interviews. I graduated from Cornell University with a Bachelor of Science degree from the School of Engineering.
1) How would you describe your first radio gig?
Technically, my first radio gig was when I was 15 and it was at my high school AM station on my school's campus, and accessible probably within just a one-mile radius. When the station was announced, my best friend and I signed up to do our own nightly show. In addition to playing songs from our favorite CDs, we actually discovered this thing called an "mp3" in 1995 that very few people knew about at the time. So we would download sound clips and use audio software to edit them to create various segments.
Our first stunt was when the movie "Space Jam" came out. We took clips from the movie as well as old Bugs Bunny sound bytes and re-edited them into an on-air interview with Bugs Bunny, and actually made an announcement to the student body at dinner that we were going to interview Bugs Bunny. The end result was pretty cool and even if nobody listened to it outside of our circle of friends, I think we were proud of the result. We had a good time laughing on-air, playing music each night and coming up with creative things to do.
2) How would you describe the Internet radio landscape?
Internet radio is evolving and changing every day and it's both fun and challenging to be a part of. There are new competitors popping up each day and everyone's using the latest technology to innovate. People are discovering new ways of listening to music and so the trick is really to make yourself stand out from the competition. How can you deliver music to people in a way that nobody else can?
3) What makes your stations unique?
The great thing about AOL Radio is our unique programming, which has kept our listeners a part of us for so many years. I went to college in upstate New York and I didn't have access to terrestrial radio so I actually used to listen to what used to be AOL Radio in the early 2000s, back when it was called Spinner Radio.
For our current-based stations, we can afford to think outside of the box and experiment with new tracks and gather instant feedback about how our listeners are responding to a song. The AOL Radio player allows users to rate songs that they hear and our music directors see those results in real time. We can usually tell what the reaction is to a song almost immediately after we put something in and adjust our rotations based on feedback. The trends for songs on AOL Radio often mimic how they do on terrestrial radio, but weeks ahead of time. Thus, we can usually tell if a song is a hit or miss on the charts in real time.
We're also able to program niche-based stations that allow us to be experimental and create audio experiences for people that they can't find elsewhere. For instance, I really believe that our comedy station (Comedy Attack) is the best free comedy radio station out there simply because of all of the work we've put in finding unsigned comedians across the country and keeping material on the station that our listeners deem the funniest. There are stations on the player that are solely dedicated to special genres - from Southern Rock and Indietronica, to Latin Jazz and Classic Disco. We also have many theme-based stations, such as stations dedicated to movie, TV and Broadway soundtracks. We even have a station called Breakup Songs if you're looking for something away from traditional love songs.
4) What is your favorite part of the job?
I'm a pop culture junkie and starting with my movie site and continuing with my experience at AOL Radio, I love being able to connect people with their favorite entertainment experiences. I understand the power of music and how sometimes, all it takes is that one song at the right moment to change your mood for the better, or help you get through that tough workout. I monitor what people write about us on Facebook and Twitter not only to get feedback about what we're playing but to also see how our listeners are affected by our stations. To know that thousands and thousands of people turn to us and make us a part of their daily lives at work or at home is a really cool thing.
5) Are you wearing more "hats" than you have in the past?
Definitely. I like to be involved in as many aspects of our business as possible and as technology changes so do your responsibilities if you want to keep up. In addition to overseeing our programming in general, I still directly program our Pop and Dance stations for fun. I'll come up with editorial ideas for the AOL Radio blog writing staff but will write a post myself from time to time. I also try to answer as much feedback as possible from our listeners, whether it's on Facebook, Twitter or e-mail because I want our listeners to know that there are people here who are listening to what they have to say.
6) What was your favorite station to listen to when you were a kid?
In the middle of high school, my family moved to Atlanta and I became a fan of the Alternative bands of the '90s through what was then WNNX -- 99X. The DJs were entertaining, I loved the morning show and I just remember being introduced to so many of my favorite bands at the time, like Bush, No Doubt, Blink 182, Smashing Pumpkins, Sublime, 311 and hearing favorites like Nirvana and Pearl Jam on a regular basis. To this day, '90s Alternative (which we have a station for) is still one of my favorite genres of music and it's pretty much due to the people at the old 99X.
7) Out of all the stations you oversee, which one is your favorite to work on?
I have a lot of fun with the comedy station, Comedy Attack, because I love stand-up comedy and the great thing is that you don't necessarily have to play "name" comedians. Whether you're Dane Cook or Joe from Iowa, as long as you're funny, it fits on the station. I love getting sent new material to listen to ... and it gives me an excuse to laugh out loud at my desk.
8) What music do you listen to when you're not working?
A lot of what I listen to after work is influenced directly by new songs or artists that I discover at work. Because I do a lot of walking around New York City, I like to keep my playlists upbeat, so usually a lot of Pop, Hip-Hop and Dance beats. So things like Usher, Lil' Wayne, Eminem, Drake, Lady Gaga, etc...
9) What's the coolest promotion you've EVER been involved with?
We did this thing where we announced that for one day, we would put together a radio station that was 100% programmed by requests over Twitter. If you tweeted it and we had that song in our database, it would go into a station that would be online for one week. The more votes a song got, the more often it would be played. For a 12-hour period I sat in front of my computer reading tweet after tweet. At the end of the day, we had something like 30,000 requests and our hashtag was one of the most used hashtags on Twitter that day. We made so many new fans that day and people thought it was cool that they had a hand in putting something together.
10) What is the one truth that has held constant throughout your career?
Do what you love to do. Everything else will fall into place.
What ringtone do you have on your cell phone?
"Song 2" by Blur. It's a song I never get tired of to this day.