This past week I had the honor of interviewing Mr. Bruce Warren, assistant general manager for programming at WXPN, one of NPR’s most successful and cutting edge radio stations. In addition, Warren also serves as executive producer for World Café, contributes to Paste Magazine, and writes for WXPN’s All About The Music blog. His more personal blog, Some Velvet Blog, reflects Warren’s own diverse listening preferences as a hardcore music aficionado.
As with newspapers, and practically any kind of printed media, radio is feared to be going the way of the Dodo. Not so with new media entrepreneurs like Bruce Warren at the helm. With his guidance, WXPN has taken the blogging world by storm, integrated internet radio services, and navigated the waves of technological evolution with surprising grace. Any readers under the presupposition that National Public Radio is what “old people” listen to, better be ready to re-evaluate that thought, because NPR may just be the wave of the future.
GRASSMAN: A naïve reader might think, “NPR? That’s classical music and news talk.” But in reality you guys are on the frontier of a movement that’s offering listeners an artsy alternative to Top 40 radio, where they can discover new and under-recognized gems like My Brightest Diamond, St. Vincent and Suzanne Vega (who’s not new, but definitely under-recognized!) So, how do you view yourselves in the music industry? Are you pioneers, educators, art curators, cultural benefactors, or all the above? What’s your mission?
WARREN: Let me try to answer these questions separately, but they’re all related systemically. Starting at the 35,000 foot view, at WXPN our mission is to connect musicians with audiences. That’s the basic philosophical operating principle. At the heart of the XPN community is this idea of musical discovery, and that is a powerful driver of all the activity we engage in with our community. To that end, I think is where the educator, curator and benefactor ideas come in. What artists and records we decide to play, who we decide to book for World Cafe, what audio and video we chose to put on our web site, who we book for our weekly live music concert series with NPR Music, the bands we pick for our Artists To Watch, the musicians David Dye features on World Cafe: Next; all of this activity is seen by our community as them learning about something new (education) and our role in filtering what to feature (curation). In the social world where there are endless amounts of choices to be made, curation is a powerful activity. But it has to be credible curation, trusted by our community. I think this is a value that you’ll find many stations in public radio, of our format (however broadly defined), have in common. We take it seriously. How do I view us in the music industry? I think we’re viewed as a very positive anomaly by my colleagues. XPN and my public radio colleagues are highly respected for what we do. And for good reason; we help artists quit their day jobs.
GRASSMAN: Indeed! WXPN, could easily be considered the top most progressive radio station in the country. You’ve got World Café, Y-Rock, Kids Corner, and your station website is a veritable goldmine of underground and artsy music. What are some of the ways you discover new music (besides reviewing submissions)? Do you surf blogs, listen to online services like Pandora, or get recommendations from friends?
WARREN: The last several years my number one source of music discovery has been via passionate music fans and directly from musicians. The social world has replaced the old school traditional model of band makes record, band signs to label, label promotes record. That still happens, but it’s in the blog world and twitter community and services like Last FM that I am discovering most of the music. I have 400 or so blogs in my RSS reader. I review them every day. I’ve got several dozen folks in my twitter community whose opinions I trust. I like and use Pandora, but I don’t typically discover new music on that. I also have a tastemaker network of folks in the music industry who I talk with regularly about the “cool” stuff I need to check out.
GRASSMAN: You guys are no doubt inundated by music submissions from artists across the country who want you to review and air their songs. As such, you’re quite possibly more in the loop when it comes to new music than most major label A&R gurus! Is there a particular underground artist or group that you think music fans and industry pros need to sit up and pay attention to?
WARREN: There’s some cool new bands I am keeping my ears on. Lord Huron from LA, The Kopecky Family Band from Nashville, Reading Rainbow from Philly, and this psychedelic rock band from Australia called Tame Impala. They put out one of my favorite albums this year, however they’re not very well known and they should be.
GRASSMAN: The world of radio has changed drastically over the last decade. What do you think are some of the biggest hurdles WXPN and NPR Music have overcome, and some of the ways they’re using innovative new technology to keep up with the times?
WARREN: Some of the biggest hurdles WXPN has had to overcome have had to do with strategic decisions we’ve made, the impact this “new media” world had on our budgeting decisions, hiring, and technology investments. Funny – it’s not about the music here; it’s about the people and the platforms! The hurdles have been carving out enough money from our operating budget to keep pace with changes in new technology and to hire the best people to be able to make that happen. We’ve been quick to embrace stuff. I think sometimes we’ve been a little too quick, but we know our audience has early adapters in it, and they expect us to be leaders in the field in public media.
We were one of the first stations to stream, but more importantly we were one of the first stations to really understand why it was important to invest in new technology even though in early stages we weren’t able to monetize it as well as we’d like. Fundamentally at WXPN, there has always been the mindset that investing in new technology was important to remain relevant and competitive. It was either do it, or die. It’s always been, meet people where they are going.
I remember some of the early conversations we had around streaming at the station, and some folks would make the argument that if the streaming didn’t “pay for itself” then we shouldn’t stream. From a pure business perspective maybe they were right. But key investments in new technology are the cost of doing business. Hey, we spent several thousand dollars on iPhone apps. Have we gotten direct business support to offset those costs? Not directly. Were we not going to do iPhone apps for the station? No way. Our spending on new technology is absorbed in our overall operating budget. I don’t think we’ve ever seen our investments in new technology as a separately funded activity; that if we didn’t get the money we wouldn’t do it. Believe it or not, there are still managers at public stations that still feel that way. Crazy!
As for the use of these technologies, we’ve been pretty early with a number of them, including streaming, archiving on-demand audio, alternative internet radio services, alternate distribution and content production around that, and definitely in the social media space we’ve been very aggressive. We first started using twitter in 2007, about a year after it launched for a programming feature we did. People were like “what the heck is this twitter thing?” We’ve been blogging since 2005 (seems like decades in internet time). We think it’s important to meet people where they are going and to have conversations with them in all these spaces.
GRASSMAN: Speaking of blogs, I subscribe to your personal site, Some Velvet Blog, and through it I’ve been exposed to artists ranging from Neil Young and Gregory Isaacs to Grab A Black Taxi and Gold Panda. Pretty diverse! Many music fans like yourself are taking to blogging and creating significant buzz about the musicians they adore. How do you see the blog medium shaping the music industry now and in the future? Do you think 50 reviews on reputable blogs could someday be worth more to an artist then getting aired on corporate radio?
WARREN: Funny, just today I was talking to the manager of the Freelance Whales about this very idea. I discovered the Whales because an intern of mine was friends with a friend who worked on their first record. I went and bought the album and we basically just started playing it because we liked it and we thought our listeners would. He told me that while he appreciated what radio support the band did get, it was the videos that Bob Boilen [All Songs Considered] did with the band last year at SXSW, and that were on the All Songs blog, that made a huge difference. It was his feeling that having music sites like NPR Music and blogs were of the utmost importance. Yes, if a band is lucky enough to catch the blog buzz attention of Pitchfork, NPR Music, Gorilla vs Bear, Aquarium Drunkard, Stereogum, The Fader and various other blogs, that has a lot of impact.
Could 50 reviews on reputable blogs someday be worth more to an artist then getting aired in corporate radio? Yes. How are blogs shaping the industry? Blogs are the new A&R. Blogs are the best new distribution system for indie and even major music. Blogs are the new radio. So much, in fact, that blogs get music from bands even before radio does. That really pisses me off also. Radio still has impact. Sometimes I have to scream and kick at labels to get music for our listeners at the same time a blog gets the music. But that’s for another conversation.
GRASSMAN: I’ve noticed on many music blogs, including All Songs Considered and Some Velvet Blog, that posting streaming music and even free MP3 downloads is common practice. In your opinion, what’s the benefit for a musician to offer their music for free? Obviously, the listener gets a free song, but what’s in it for the artist, band or label?
WARREN: The benefit of free in a culture that expects and values free is promotion, marketing and attention. What’s in it for the artist, band or label is the hope that if a music fan downloads a song for free from a blog and they like it, possibly the fan will buy more music or go to a concert.
GRASSMAN: Despite new technology, which enables WXPN to reach a global audience, I’ve noticed the station has a passion for grassroots and community involvement. You recently launched a new local music show called The Key. Philly seems to be home base for almost an overabundance of phenomenal talent. Why do you think it’s vital to your community that WXPN emphasize local artists? Obviously, it’s a great boost for indies, but you seem to be aspiring toward an even greater cultural goal. Is that so?
WARREN: I think the answer here is simple: Community starts locally. It starts where you live. Sure, we live in a globally connected world, blah blah blah. Sure we webcast and people in some crazy town in a far off country can hear you. But from the perspective of radio, local is such a powerful idea. Local is also the differentiating quality, that if done right, will give you a competitive advantage over your “local” competitors. Culturally, there is something greater going on. Recently the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance did some really great research about local arts and culture, and they laid it out simply, yet powerfully.
Support of local enriches the lives of people in the community. Support for local is a vital and important economic engine. Support for local brings individuals together and builds communities. Local is a resource and contributes to personal, community and economic growth. So yeah, there is something powerful and important about local and it needs to be highlighted and showcased and supported.
GRASSMAN: Speaking of local support, most NPR stations host pledge drives and acquire sponsorships to fund their operations. How do you think modern technology and our current economy have impacted NPR’s operations, goals, and the various ways stations go about raising funds?
WARREN: There’s no doubt the economy over the last few years has made things challenging for us at WXPN. We’ve always been resilient and good at controlling expenses and making wise financial decisions. When times are tight, one has to pay even closer attention to the revenue and the expense side. Think about it personally; if you have a smaller paycheck coming in, you’re forced to best prioritize. Our goals haven’t changed at all during the economic challenges of the last few years. Investing in the production of the content and the distribution has remained the number one priority. As for fundraising, we’ve had to get more creative. We’ve had to be more tenacious. WXPN’s membership department is top notch. The fundraisers have been tough, but at the end of the year we’ve done OK. I tend to not look at fundraisers in isolation. That’s only one piece – albeit it an important piece – of the membership revenue puzzle. The biggest challenge for WXPN has been the business (coporate) support over the last few years. But there have been good indicators that things are getting better.
GRASSMAN: As an independent diva myself, I like to end every interview with a slightly selfish question: As you’re digging through mountains of CDs and wading through oceans of artist submissions, what is it that catches your eye (or ear) and makes you think, “Wow! This artist could be the next big thing, and I’m going to give them that chance?”
WARREN: Ultimately it comes down to the music; knowing what your audience may be interested in and knowing that you’ve got the trust of the audience in you for you to turn them on to something that they didn’t know or think they’d like. It’s all very subjective. There’s no secret: You have to listen. Then some kind of spidey sense goes off.
I am very grateful to Bruce Warren for taking the time to really sit down and discuss his area of expertise. He really gave me an interesting window into the world of modern radio and the digital revolution’s impact on his realm of the music industry. I hope you enjoyed hearing from him as much as I did!
If you would like to track down Bruce Warren online, check out the following links:
Y Rock: www.Yrockonxpn.org
Some Velvet Blog: brucew.wordpress.com
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