10 Questions with ... Mike Henry
February 3, 2014
1. How did you become interested in radio?
I was just a radio kid from the get-go. My first book report in 5th grade was on a book called "Welcome South Brother" about the history of WSB-A in Atlanta. I began working in radio as a teenager, was GM of WUOG/Athens, GA by 19, and working at WSB-A/F by 22. In Athens, I was GM of the first station to play R.E.M. We were at the center of the "college radio" scene in the early 1980s that led to the Indie Rock and Triple A formats I still consult today.
2. What do you think of the current state of the Triple A format?
The Triple A format is evolving quickly. The push towards current music is undeniable. Triple A is the original and true music discovery format. The Grammys last weekend are just one indication. Lorde, Daft Punk and Imagine Dragons are among the latest superstar mainstream artists who started humbly on Triple A stations. There's actually a long history of this, going back to bands like Bonnie Raitt, Beck and Sheryl Crow in the 1990s, and Adele, Mumford and Sons and Lumineers in recent years. It's undeniable that Triple A is the music discovery format for broadcast radio, which is a big reason we've seen a rash of re-launches and new launches just in the past year or so. As of October, WFUV/New York is now "NY's Music Discovery" with a greater focus on new music. As of December, the new KTBG (The Bridge)/Kansas City launched and is spinning currents faster. As of last year, the newly launched KUTX is the "Austin Music Experience." This is an exciting time for Triple A.
3. How do you feel about the current climate of music?
The available new music just keeps getting stronger and stronger. Recording technology and easy paths to distribution have opened the floodgates to more and more great new music. Because of the new digital realities, I believe the cyclical new music patterns of the past are over. New music will remain a constant and critical component of Triple A from now on ... without major ups and downs as we've seen in the past. I love the fact that there are so many different styles and sounds now that are acceptable. Today's new music gives us a lot to work with.
4. You are working with a lot of noncom Triple As stations these days. How does interacting with them differ than working with a commercial station?
I started in public radio, so for me public radio is a vital component of broadcasting. The beauty of public radio is that ratings and advertising sales (underwriting) are just one piece of their puzzle. Membership, community service and local missions are also very important. I love the fact that we are able to temper and calibrate ratings-driven programming strategies for more important factors. This gives pub radio stations a sense of credibility and surprise that most commercial stations just can't touch.
5. With PPM affecting the way so many commercial stations now program, has this opened an opportunity for public radio radio?
Commercial radio's over-reaction to PPM is one reason why pub radio music formats are growing. Personally, I separate Indie Rock stations like KCMP (The Current)/Minneapolis, WYMS (RadioMilwaukee)/Milwaukee and the new KTBG (The Bridge)/Kansas City from Triple A stations like WFUV/New York, WXPN/Philadelphia and KKXT/Dallas.
Indie Rock is targeted younger and Triple A older, but they share most of the same current music with Indie Rock being more invested in currents. Both are highly committed to playing local music in regular rotation. Without being beholden to PPM, these non-commercial music stations are free to do the right thing by simply focusing on the local listener. I've seen noticeable PPM ratings increases by just focusing on the listener and being true to the brand.
6. Looking in from the outside, it seems the public stations that are seeing the most growth are the ones willing to adopt certain programming techniques from the commercial side. Is that a fair statement?
Yes, that's a fair statement. However, the sweet spot is the combination of public radio's and commercial radio's best practices. Everything from commercial radio's toolbox is not good or bad, and everything from pub radio's toolbox is not good or bad. The secret is in knowing the tools from each tool box to integrate for a unique brand proposition.
KINK/Portland, OR is a great example of a commercial Triple A that acts very much like a public radio station. They and the local NPR News station cross-promote each other on air. The recently re-launched WFUV and KTBG are great examples of non-commercial stations that aren't afraid to use commercial radio tools to grow market share while remaining credible.
KKXT is the most musically accessible pub radio Triple A in the country, and it's not surprising that they have had one of the largest cume audiences in the format because of that. Being in a much bigger city, WFUV has now leapt over KKXT in cume size because they aren't afraid to evolve by spinning currents more often and playing more hits, all-the-while maintaining local credibility and brand relevance.
So yes, non-commercial radio is taking advantage as commercial radio vacates viable adult rock positions in just about every market in the country.
7. What are some of non-com radio's biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge is breaking from their past. For a variety of reasons, non-com radio stations are sometimes slow to seize on their local opportunities because growing market share just wasn't in their DNA before. Many are owned by universities or community groups that don't have radio acumen. I've been pushing the audience envelope on public radio stations since 1979 and worked heavily in commercial radio too, so for me this is natural.
But, for many who have been in pub radio their whole careers, this is a hard pattern to break. You can do whatever you want musically as long as you fulfill the local mission and remain credible, and that creative freedom is challenging for some. Another challenge is that public radio has historically been for older listeners, but this is changing in large part due to the Triple A and Indie Rock music stations.
8. What are some of their advantages?
I've already talked about the advantage inherent when commercial radio essentially bows out of our way, and how pub radio can push the creative envelope without fear of being smacked in the face by the ratings. Another advantage is that they can do whatever is right for the local market and local listeners, without a corporate chain of command for approval. Pub radio invented the "pay for content" model that proves elusive to other media. It's not surprising that pub radio has attracted many successful PDs to the fold because they can return to their roots of just making great local radio. Mark Abuzzahab at KKXT, Jim McGuinn at The Current, Jon Hart at The Bridge, Matt Reilly at KUTX, Rita Houston at WFUV, Mark Keefe who just left RadioMilwaukee, Bruce Warren at WXPN and Sky Daniels at KCSN/Los Angeles are great examples. There are many others. I strongly believe pub radio Triple A and Indie Rock stations have some of the best PDs in the country, non-com or not.
9. Many non-com stations, such as WTMD/Baltimore, WYMS, KDHX/St. Louis and others are now funding and building multi-use "community centers" much like WXPN did several years ago. What does that say about the broadening mission for these stations in their markets?
Pub radio has the newest and best radio studios and facilities in the country, bar none. It's practically standard now to have incredibly outfitted live performance rooms for recorded and live on-air performances. These new facilities, and the fact that the facilities are funded by fans and local citizens, just underscore pub radio's success at being a valued local treasure. Each of these stations is the window of the world to their city, and their community center-themed buildings are a wonderful manifestation of how important that view is to listeners around the world.
10. What is the one truth that has held constant throughout your career?
If you can't program a great radio station without the benefit of research, then you can't do it any better with research. I feel lucky to have been given the keys to radio stations my entire career and to be constantly rewarded for taking chances and following my gut instincts, which have been honed by having my teeth kicked in when I was wrong. Here's another one truism: If you're going to be different, then be REALLY different. This is even more important today.
Last non-industry job:
Cooking fish at Long John Silver's in high school!
First record ever purchased:
"Tra La La" by the Banana Splits (!)
Tammy Wynette, Ronnie Milsap and the Statler Brothers (against my will)
Favorite band of all-time:
R.E.M. of course! My wife Susan and I attended their 2007 induction into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame to represent WUOG.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time away from work?
I spend as much time as I can with my wife of 30 years and four adult kids. I've been a Bronco season ticket holder since 1986 -- so go, Broncos in the Super Bowl!