10 Questions with ... Stephen Yasko
November 11, 2013
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
I am a 20+-year veteran of public radio. In 1984 I graduated from The American University. I worked at NPR for five years in member and program services, then launched the national distribution of WAMU's "The Diane Rehm Show" and later supervised other national programs. I am currently GM of WTMD and have been with the station since its shift to the Triple A format in 2002.
1. How did you become interested in radio?
Whippany Park, my high school, had a 10-watt FM station back in the '70s and I signed up to do the morning show with my friend Kathy. It was an AOR "hard guy" format with lots of Skynyrd, The Band and Motley Crue. Since the shift was 6:30-8a and the signal barely got across the street, we figured no one as really listening so we mixed in some disco. I got fired right after playing Donna Summer's "MacArthur Park" by the broadcasting teacher. I did get an A in his radio broadcasting class though. Luckily, the '80s came along to save me.
2. How has the station evolved over the past 11 years?
We started WTMD with $100,000 in a checkbook and we were told not to overdraw! Since then, we've professionalized the staff; fine-tuned the music mix to meet the tastes of the Baltimore -- and now DC -- markets; engaged the community in some very significant ways; and provided the Baltimore music community with place to grow their audiences. Now WTMD has a budget in excess of $1.1 million, 10 full and another seven part-time employees, produces a five-show monthly concert series with attendance approaching 10,000 for each show and has been named "Best Radio Station for Music" just about every year by City Paper and Baltimore Magazine readers.
3. Tell us about the new facility/studios.
This summer we moved from an 1,800 square-foot-basement facility built to accommodate student training (IE: no sound proofing!) in the middle of the campus core to an 8,000-square-foot state-of-the-art broadcast facility loaded with the latest technologies. We installed a Telos Axia Audio over IP network, Wide Orbit Automation and Traffic systems, and MusicMaster scheduling software. We're now located in Uptown-Towson just off the Baltimore Beltway. We're physically so much more accessible for our listeners and bands.
All of our studios, one air and two production, are capable of recording full bands, but the most exciting part of the new WTMD is our performance studio and community room. These two spaces are separated by a retractable glass and steel wall with an acoustical curtain. When closed, the performance studio can be used to record, and we plan on making it available to Baltimore bands at a low cost so more artists can produce their own work here. The Community Room can play host to anything from a children's music class to our fund-raisers. When the wall is retracted we have a 1,300-square-foot performance space where we can host concerts, dances, private and corporate social events, and more. It's even got a movie screen and HD projector for everything from a music video to a film festival.
The new WTMD is really a music, arts and culture clubhouse. It's more than a radio station; it's a place where our listeners can gather, meet and dive deeper into the music and station's mission than ever before. It's large enough to support so much.
4. What will you be able to do that you couldn't before?
Look out a window. Seriously, though, we can host up to four bands at the same time. We can produce more music and informational programming. Just about any event we can envision we can host. It's hard to list them all because our idea list is so long and we're just getting started.
We've already established our Friday Live Lunch Concert Broadcasts with wide ranging acts from the legendary Delbert McClinton to J. Roddy Walston and Business to new comers the Tontons. We're getting about 100 people per show.
Perhaps our biggest and most exhausting event so far was the 24-hour Rock and Roll Marathon. We kept the place open from noon on Friday with Black Joe Lewis and followed that up with 23 Baltimore bands who played overnight and the entire day was broadcast live. We had a huge crowd at 3a for E.L.M., one of the most creative jam bands in our city. The whole staff got involved with many of them napping between sets. It was just amazing to see so many people come out at the oddest times to support the station and the bands.
5. And that great ticker sign on the building is awesome!
It's an incredible addition to our community. While it looks and acts like a Times Square-style advertising sign, we're taking a more public service approach to the content. Sure, there's a ton of promotional messaging for WTMD and Towson University, but we're posting Amber and Silver Alerts, community organization messages and even a few personal ones for our leadership donors!
For bands it means added exposure. The sign displays now-playing artist and title information in real time and we post our ads on the sign weekly. Plus, bands playing Live Lunch, First Thursdays and our other events get huge exposure, especially since we face an A+ Luxury Shopping mall.
6. What is the biggest misconception about WTMD?
That we are student-run. The station has been around since the '80s and so our 10 years is really just a small part of the station's overall history. We counter that misperception by producing the best quality air product we can, producing meaningful events and marketing the station through various methods and channels. Once people listen to WTMD for any length of time they know the station is something special, and the programming and air-staff is remarkable.
7. What are some of your biggest challenges as a noncomm station?
Most people think the left end of the dial is for the traditional public radio formats and are surprised to hear the coolest music in town where they least expect it. Another challenge, and one we fully embrace, is educating the community about the value of WTMD not just as a radio station, but as a community cultural institution. People are already seeing us as great place to meet other music lovers, and as we grow into the new digs, people will really be surprised to see the service we provide and the economic impact we'll have on Towson and Baltimore.
8. What do you think of the current state of the Triple A format?
The format is vulnerable as is most of radio as we continue to deal with digital disruption. Commercial radio pretty much abandoned creative, community-focused music programming a generation-and-a-half ago. It's significant to remember that not only are today's 20 and 30-somethings bombarded with a new digital technology every week, they grew up in a time when commercial consolidation had already killed off the great taste-making stations like WNEW and WHFS. Many of them just accept manufactured rather than created music as the baseline.
It's a strange dichotomy. While consolidation has dumbed down the musical tastes of most Americans, we're seeing a huge surge of Triple A artists gain huge attention through television and Internet promotions. I'm worried that what commercial broadcasting gave us; they can take it away unless we become more than a well-guided music service available only on the Internet or over the air.
9. What is the one truth that has held constant throughout your career?
Don't s* where you eat. I'm from New Jersey, remember?
10. If you wanted to completely change careers today, what would you do?
Travel writer with an emphasis on hotel reviews. Or maybe renovate houses. How people interact with their physical environments fascinates me.
Last non-industry job:
Owned a pizza delivery shop
First record you ever stole:
Let It Be - from my younger brother
Beach Boys, Steve Miller Band and Pablo Cruise at the original Giants Stadium in 1978, but my mom used to take me to country music shows when I still in grade school.
Favorite band of all-time:
Bruce Spingsteen and the E Street Band!
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time away from work?
Exploring new cities, playing with my Golden Retriever, perfecting my Cosmopolitan recipe.