10 Questions with ... Brian Rickman
April 14, 2014
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
My resume reads like I did something wrong. I've bounced from major markets to small markets, to medium markets and back again. It's always been about the stations/the team/the challenge for me rather than the market size.
I began my career in News/Talk, first as a board operator, eventually as a producer and finally on-air as a news anchor. While I love Talk radio and it will always be my first love, I really wanted to work in music radio. After a few more news-related gigs, I landed various DJ gigs at formats all over the map -- Oldies, Top 40, Country, Soft AC, before finally settling in at Rock. As a "Rock guy," I got my first MD stripes, eventually leading to PD. Then, I was promoted to Ops, overseeing numerous formats (including some that I was a complete novice with at the time -- like Urban). Thereafter, it was a step up to a Regional gig. My past couple of jobs have involved overseeing multiple formats in multiple markets. I've been at URBan for nearly 10 years, which sometimes feels like some kind of industry record. Here, I'm in charge of every format you can imagine: N/T, Top 40, Country, Rock, Oldies, Triple A, Urban, Urban AC, Sports and have even been given the opportunity to create some cool "hybrids."
1. How did you become interested in radio?
As a kid, I grew up listening to WLS-A in Chicago at the tail end of the station's music heyday. Listening to personalities like Larry Lujack, John 'Records' Landecker, Gary Meier and industry giants like that really piqued my interest. Most of all, however, I was obsessed with music from a very early age.
In addition to raiding my father's vast vinyl collection, as I got older I devoured every "Rock & Roll Encyclopedia" I could find. To that degree, critics like Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau pointed me to artists I had not yet discovered via their extensive books and journalism. I started working part-time at a local radio station when I was in high school and, from there, I was hooked.
2. Tell us a bit about the parent broadcasting company that owns WMSR.
URBan Radio Broadcasting is based in Miami, and is owned and operated by a great guy named Kevin Wagner. We own stations in Alabama, Mississippi and Ohio at present. Additionally, we've made advances into the syndication side of things. Despite the company's name, we operate not only Urban formatted stations - we run the gamut. I oversee Country, Rock, Top 40, News/Talk and Oldies stations as well.
One of the things that I'm most thankful for, regarding this company, is that Kevin has allowed me as a programmer to do my job. We are encouraged to find market niches and never to blanket our stations with 'generic' programming. For example, we have a station in Columbus/Starkville, MS that plays a mix of Southern Soul, Blues and current R&B. That station, WACR, wins consistently because it's unique and tailor-made for the market. We could have just put on a standard issue Urban AC, but Kevin allowed us the time to research what the community really wanted and we built it from the ground up. We approach all of our stations in this way.
3. I believe the Triple A format was launched last August; how has the initial acceptance of the station been in the market?
Overwhelmingly positive (and this is not just the gushing of a proud PD). WMSR is definitely the most buzzed-about station in the area. We have more 'fans' on social media than any other property in town; the phones don't stop ringing and advertisers have really embraced it. For a long time, this area had been quite stagnant radio-wise. That having been said, the market has always proven itself unique. One of the heritage stations in town, for example, (WQLT, owned by the Sam Phillips family) has always had a difficult-to-define format. Is it AC? Is it Oldies? Who knows, but it has a massive signal and most of the market grew up listening to it. So, the community expects a degree of variety on their radio stations. I felt that a variant of Triple A would be a perfect fit for this very reason.
4. How would you describe the music on the station?
Definitely eclectic. Our library is unusual even for a Triple A-based station. We have taken a bit of inspiration from the Jack format in the sense that our library is much deeper than the "normal" radio station library. We have close to 7,000 songs in our library. Obviously, the majority of these songs are in a very "Light Gold" category and these songs might get a spin once every few months. However, it's this "oh wow" factor that keeps listeners engaged. I very much approached creating this library with the knowledge that our listeners are a generation that grew up listening to a wide array of music.
Checking any of our P1's iPod, you're likely to find not only songs by The Black Keys and Coldplay, but also Offspring, Nirvana, John Legend, Kelly Clarkson and more. Also, in this area, there is a passion for Alt-Country and Blues (Florence, Alabama is the birthplace of W.C. Handy, the father of the Blues). So, we incorporate all of that into our library, making it a very interesting listen. In order to make this work, my Selector library practically smokes when I tell it to auto schedule, there are so many strict sound coding rules that it must follow. I have a ridiculous amount of unscheduled positions every day, but that's okay. I takes work to make it work, but it truly does. We are a very forward-thinking radio station.
Our currents are generally pulled from both the Triple A and Alternative charts. We have a staff of music geeks who, weekly, brings music to the table and we discuss it. We're often very ahead of the curve as far as the Triple A panel is concerned. We add and drop songs a lot earlier than most other stations; we move things to recurrent sooner. We drive record reps insane. But we have to do this because our listeners are also music geeks. Before we came around, they were discovering music faster than radio. By the time a song landed at Top 40, they were already sick of it. They heard it months ago on YouTube, Spotify or Pandora, so when it comes to currents, we try to stay ahead of them.
Now, all of that having been said (and before my industry brothers and sisters think that I've gone insane), our Golds are obsessively well-researched and familiar. While we do churn our currents faster than most, we play it just as long as we need to. Tuning in, I think we've done a great job of making sure that the station is never "too hip for the room." It's really all about setting up your clocks correctly, truly utilizing the power of your music scheduling system and hiring engaging personalities who know and love the music. To truly understand how it works, I would invite readers to listen to the station at www.star94fm.net
5. Speaking of the market -- Florence-Muscle Shoals has a deep and rich musical history. How do you tap into that heritage?
It really does. In fact, we own an AM station in the market (WLAY-A) that plays nothing but music written, recorded and played by our area artists. Between FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, coupled with a staggering amount of talented musicians born and living here, it's just mind-boggling the amount of music that was made and played here. I highly recommend the recently-released, acclaimed documentary about our area, titled simply "Muscle Shoals." It details this wonderfully.
So, it's really just natural that part of our library encompasses that heritage. We are very involved in local music community. In regular rotation on WMSR are not only local residents such as The Civil Wars, Jason Isbell, Alabama Shakes, Drive-By Truckers, Dylan LeBlanc and Secret Sisters but also many of our up-and-coming talents. John Paul White and Ben Tanner (of Alabama Shakes) recently launched their new record label (Single Lock Records) in Florence, AL. We're working together with them to get the word out about the wonderful artists they've been signing by not only playing their music when appropriate but also promoting the concerts that they're bring to town. Alongside clothing designer Bill Reid, they have also opened a music venue in town and we're working with them to bring more national acts to the area.
6. Any hot local artists we should know about?
Tons. I've lived here for nearly 10 years and it always blows my mind how much talent is here. In other markets, when artists brought me their work, maybe 1 out of 10 would be good and worthy of air. Here, it's the exact opposite. When an artist brings me their work, it's strange if it's not incredible. In part, this is due to the level of expertise we have in the market. When your local studios earned the city the nickname, "The Hit Recording Capital of the World," and you record your demo with those same hit-makers, it's bound to be something special.
Among the bands to watch from Muscle Shoals: St. Paul & The Broken Bones, The Bear, Belle Adair, Hannah Aldridge, Doc Dailey & Magnolia Devil, Grace & Tony, Firekid, Lauderdale, Planet Ink, The Pollies, Red Mouth ... I could go on for days, no joke.
7. Other than musical connection, what others way are you plugging the station in the community?
We're very involved with a number of charity and environmental outreach programs. In addition to the music industry that is booming here, we have a number of artists, photographers and writers that have moved to the area in recent years. So, we're always involved with anything creative that happens here. Additionally, the University of North Alabama is based in Florence, so we do our best to stay plugged in to events happening on campus. We truly love this area and we consider it our responsibility to promote it for tourism purposes but to also always be mindful of preserving the integrity of the market and the wonderful people that live here.
8. I understand you have a syndicated show in the morning, but the rest of the air staff and local and live. Correct?
That is correct. Paige Holland does middays on the station, I handle afternoon drive, Michelle Lockheart is our night-time personality and Harley is our overnight jock. We all live here with the exception of Paige who is just across the border over in Mississippi (an area which we also cover - we're also very strong in Southern Tennessee as well).
9. What would surprise people most about the station?
Well, we've already covered the library and, I think, to us "industry types" that would probably be the most interesting. Maybe the fact that we have a newsroom and run local news and weather at the top of every hour 24/7. I think that's a little unusual for today's music radio. Nevertheless, our listeners, like us, are very plugged in to the community. They want to know what's happening. Shout out to Ron Jordan, our newsman extraordinaire.
10. If you wanted to completely change careers today, what would you do?
In addition to radio, I'm also a published author and playwright. So, if all radio stations suddenly vanished tomorrow, I'd probably try to make a living that way ... and I'd likely starve.
Last non-industry job:
Bartender. I make a mean margarita.
First record ever purchased:
I'm sure it was something by Kiss. Maybe Ace's solo record. Actually, now that I think about it, it might have been "Macho Man" by the Village People. Give me a break. I was seven.
First ever was Del Shannon and Chubby Checker at the Macon County Fair.
Favorite band of all-time:
That's really tough. It changes so frequently. But I'm going to with my friends in Clutch. They rock, they're literate and they'll rip your head off live.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time away from work:
Beyond drinking beer and spending time with my family (not particularly in that order), I'm presently in the process of restoring a 1966 Galaxie 500. So I can often be found working on that bad-ass.