10 Questions with ... John Vernile
July 28, 2014
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
I started working in college radio during the great period of the late '70s on WUSB. I went onto manage an eclectic NPR hybrid, WYSO. Subsequently I managed the start-up of an alternative public TV station in Philly, WYBE-TV 35. After that experience, I joined Forest when there were just two employees! I later moved on to the West Coast to work as head of promotion at Windham Hill/High Street (BMG). When they moved to L.A., I stayed in the Bay Area and worked as head of IT at the Gavin Report, launching their websites and chart portals. I also ran promotion for Bonneville and Koch as a side gig. Went back home to New York City to work for Sony Music in various capacities at Sony Classical, Columbia and Legacy, ending up as SVP of Artist & Catalog Development. Did a stint at EMI and went on to found Public Media Service. I started working with Forest again about two years ago, after managing a major U.K. phone hacking lawsuit against News Corp.
1. How did you become interested in the music business?
As early as I can remember I have always been surrounded by music, hearing my Mom sing, with perfect pitch, the heart-breaking Florentine songs of her homeland. In '64, my Dad taught me how to tune in an Emerson tube radio and I started listening to WMCA-A. In that time, you could hear the Beatles, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, Sinatra, locals like Dion & the Belmonts, and great labels from Motown and Stax to small ones like Cameo Parkway. MCA's announce team, "The Good Guys," were a promotion powerhouse that gave you a living context to a world that was joyous and eclectic. As a bilingual kid trying to figure things out, the sound coming out of that three-inch speaker destroyed all the narrow confines of my world in the Bronx.
From that point, the power of what music could do stayed with me. It became second nature to be evangelical about a song or a great group. I wanted to share it, whether it was just playing it loud in our apartment, or spinning vinyl on my college radio station at USB in Stonybrook, NY. Later, when the opportunity presented itself to manage music campaigns that would launch new artists or re-launch amazing reissues at both indie and major labels, I was doing what I loved first and loved best.
2. Who were/are your mentors?
Many great folks have helped me grow through the years. I wish I could name them all. The main one for my media life is Norm Prusslin, the man who started WUSB and ran the Intercollegiate Broadcast System for years. Also, if it wasn't for the guidance and love of Jeb Hart, I would have never survived and thrived in the corporate music world. The Galliani and Zimmerman brothers were also big influences in my life.
3. Tell us a bit about the Forest Incentives.
Forest is a Philly-based media company and fulfillment center dedicated to serving non-commercial radio and TV. For over 30+ years our company has been dedicated to finding the best combination of product and pricing so our stations get the best net impact for their fundraising dollar.
We were the first company to get special market pricing established for public broadcasters, a huge savings for stations that were buying releases at full retail. We represent pretty much all the major and indie book publishers, record and media companies. If you donated to your local PBS station and got a copy of the Downton Abbey DVD or the recent Suze Orman special, you most probably got it mailed to your home from us.
4. You must be very excited about this new Forest Music Express initiative. Tell us about that.
The thing about Forest Music Express is that I feel like this is a giant give-back to the world of radio and records, which has given me my livelihood for all these years. Basically, we were able to crack the code and devise a way for public radio and TV stations to incorporate legal, paid downloads into their annual membership campaigns. The artists get paid -- it's integrated into the record label system so they know what's going on -- and the stations, who have all of this accumulated trust with their listeners, can help connect their donors with artists.
5. Are all the songs available catalog items or will there be new releases as well?
A lot of everything is in there, 20 million or so tracks. New releases and catalog. It had to be that way because public radio listeners, in particular, are GIANT music consumers. Of course, everyone immediately thinks that's only Triple A, Classical and Jazz listeners, but the public radio News/Talk listeners are huge music fans, too. I'm sure you've all heard of a little thing called NPR Music ...!
6. It seems to me that the public media sphere is where much of the opportunity for growth is these days. Do you see that from your perspective?
Absolutely. Having witnessed as a GM the catastrophic effects of broadcast deregulation in the '80s we lost a lot of what was good about U.S. commercial broadcasting. All that has played to the growth of public broadcasting in the last 30+ years. Public media is the only place where you can hear in-depth news, an eclectic mix of music and truly creative radio. You get localism, a fair and intelligent approach to news and opinion, and dedication to the public interest and needs. Listeners vote with their ears and with their wallets. That's why public radio is now a billion-dollar business with a huge national audience and influencing more new music discovery. It is supporting and developing talent in many ways the old radio and music business used to do. And I'm sorry that we have lost that for the most part, but heartened that public media is doing great things.
7. What do you view as the most important issue facing public media today?
The challenges are to keep up with the ever-changing nature and needs of Americans. Work still needs to be done broadening the service options to serve new, younger and underserved audiences. Technology can help some in terms of delivery, but there must be a strong commitment to developing new programming to meet those needs. The tent needs to get bigger. Diversifying the revenue streams and increasing the net revenue is a key to making this happen.
8. Having been involved with the Triple A format for many years, what are your thoughts on its current evolution?
It's funny how most of the basic ideas of Triple A have not changed radically over the years. Before it had a format name and a chart, it had values, passion, a group of artists and local live venues that made it work. That still remains solidly in place where Triple A stations have survived and thrived. The key is staying locally focused and relevant to your audience. It's a blend of both leading and following, giving space for developing new artists, but also supporting what resonates locally. For some it's more roots, for others it's a rock edge, or when you are lucky, it's pretty eclectic.
I am blessed with having two cool commercial Triple A stations home in upstate New York: WDST and WKZE. Both these stations have a unique sound and energy. The true key for success for them is staying hyper-local. It strongly bonds them to our community and develops the local economy. They draw almost all of their advertising money from local businesses. WKZE makes a point of regularly stressing the "buy local" movement and shuns nationally produced ads. It has paid off well for them; they run tons of spots and make great ad revenue.
9. What is the best advice you would give to young programmers/promotion people?
Follow your passion but use your head. Technology, new delivery channels, metrics and technique are important to master and stay up on, but people still experience music with their ears, hearts, head and feet. Stay focused on what attracts and truly motivates people to support the music you are promoting or the station you are working on. All good music has an audience. It's up to you to do the detective work and find those people and use every means necessary to get them to hear it, then foster that community. Make it fun and meaningful and they will support you.
10. Fill in the blank: I can't make it through the day without ....
... Listening to the Avett Brothers and drinking decaf (so I don't get all Al Cory on the nice Forest staff!)
Last non-industry job:
Working as a house parent with juvenile delinquents for the NY State Division for Youth. Perfect training for working in the record business.
First record ever purchased:
A 45 of "Wild Thing" by the Troggs
George Harrison, Billy Preston and Ravi Shankar at MSG in '74.
Favorite band of all-time:
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time away from work?
Working on my veggie garden in upstate New York and cooking up the results.