Now the seats are all empty
Let the roadies take the stage
Pack it up and tear it down
They're the first to come and the last to leave
Working for that minimum wage
They'll set it up in another town
Jackson Browne – “The Load-Out”
Guest post from Jacobs Media consultant, Mike Stern
You’ve probably never heard of Ben Young, Brian Diaz and Warren Johnson but Axl Rose, Mike Shinoda, Corey Taylor, Pete Wentz, and Taylor Swift know their names. All three guys are career roadies who have worked on numerous major concert tours. As you might imagine, they have seen and done it all.
Including forming their own band, Knifes. They released their first batch of songs in late 2020, they have an EP called Regression to the Mean coming soon, and they just dropped a new song called “Scammers” (embedded video at the end of this post). Profiled in a recent article in Loudwire.com, the guys shared the kind of insights that only come with being behind the scenes for some of the biggest and best bands in the music biz.
The Loudwire story lists 13 kernels of wisdom the trio have gathered that only comes with lifting those amps and getting them up the ramps. I've cherry-picked a handful of my favorites that stand out as great advice for radio program directors, often doing the heavy lifting at their radio stations. The skills and traits that Young, Diaz, and Johnson have amassed are the same ones great programmers and talent coaches have mastered.
Not all rock stars are great musicians: Ben Young explains that while most of the biggest stars are truly gifted instrumentalists, others are better song writers. The two are very different skill sets. Just being adept at one of them can make you very successful.
It occurs to me that another part of the equation is being a great entertainer. Yes, musicianship and songwriting represent the building blocks, the ability to bring it on stage is a critical component as well.
Good PDs understand the same is true about radio hosts. Some are amazing communicators, some are technically excellent in the studio, some are great talkers, some are strong on social media, or at their best in front of a live audience. Each is unique and not every tool in the toolkit is required to be successful. The job of programmers is to help identify and maximize each host’s strengths. Just like in great bands, strong airstaffs complement one another, bringing different talents to the station's air sound.
The music is the least important part of the day: Ben observes that “bands don’t get to the highest levels without having great songs,” however once the show starts, the music itself takes a backset. He instead focuses on paying attention to the musicians he’s working for to make sure everything is in tune, placed perfectly and sounds good so they can focus on performing. It's about prep, and putting in the pre-show effort that makes the magic.
Radio stations also don’t get to the highest levels without having great songs that have been tested and slotted into clock positions. But once the songs are locked into the music scheduler and the content is blocked out, they become background for great PDs who instead focus on the talent, imaging, promotions, and other elements that elevate the station beyond what the music alone can do.
Rock your hardest no matter how big or small the crowd is: Brian Diaz first learned this lesson on a tour with an artist that was playing to what he describes as “wildly fluctuating crowd sizes.” He discovered it doesn’t matter how many people are out there – they are paying customers who came to see the band and have a great time. Diaz has watched bands play hard every night regardless of crowd size, as well as others less enthusiastic when ticket sales aren’t great. Guess which have bigger fanbases today?
This advice has an obvious correlation to live events where the station was hoping for a strong turnout that didn't materialize. It’s important to deliver entertainment to the people who showed up.
But on a broader scale this also applies to times when the ratings aren’t as strong as you hoped for, or talent is working time slots where there are precious few meters in use or diaries on kitchen tables. Great PDs know it’s important to stay positive, rally the staff to keep making the content the best it possibly can be, and keep focused on the idea every listener counts. That’s how ratings grow.
Being in a band is a job / rock stars are people, too: One dirty little secret Ben Young reveals is that not every musician loves touring. Leaving families behind can put strain on relationships, but for most bands, touring is often the lifeblood of the business.
Brian adds, “Everyone always wants to believe that the artists are always these untouchable, unapproachable, mythical creatures, but at the end of the day, they have families, friends, feelings and interests, too.” The stars face the same emotional challenges as everyone else, all while attempting to put on an entertaining show every night.
This is true of radio hosts as well. While there is an expectation they will walk into the air studio every day and put on an amazing, entertaining show, many are suffering the slings and arrows every listener experiences. Empathetic PDs not only understand that hosts will have inevitable ups and downs, but also know how to support and help them mitigate the rough patches, while appreciating the good times.
Don’t go running to the band for everything: Another of Brian’s lessons centers on being prudent about the issues and concerns brought up to members of the band. Everyone has their jobs to do and not every problem, squabble, or oversight needs to become an issue. In that way, rock stars can concentrate on their performance, and the road crew can concentrate on making sure the show goes off flawlessly.
Savvy PDs know the airstaff doesn't need to hear about every problem and issue at the station. Complaints about budgets, revenue problems, company policies, the legal department, or the latest hairbrained idea from the consultant don't need to be shared concerns that only serve to unnerve the staff. The best programmers insulate the airstaff from internal and external pressures to bring out their best performances.
Fans will do ANYTHING for tickets: Warren Johnson is quick to point to what he’s been able to accomplish for his bands by combining free tickets and social media. Tweeting out requests for anything and everything his bands have needed – including bee pollen, a helmet full of cottage cheese, and other sundry items – in return for tickets.
This tip is as much for talent as it is for Program Directors. Allotting even a minimal amount of resources, be it concert tickets or station swag, to incentivize listeners to create content for the station can lead to some of the most memorable moments imaginable. This was true back in the '90s when stations would put up cash prizes for the listener who found the most creative way to expose the station logo, and it’s works today when social media has given your listeners their own audience.
Finally, one last tip that doesn't appear on Knifes' list:
Appreciate the people behind the scenes: It takes scores if not hundreds of pros – often folks we never see – to produce a great concert experience for fans. Yes, there are the roadies, but also the tech crews (sound, lights, effects), promoters and marketing staffers, caterers, drivers, the cleaning crew, and of course, gophers. They all play a role in pulling off the impossible night after night.
At the radio station – even those where staffs have been depleted – it's a team effort to produce and sell a competitive product 24/7/365. The trio from Knifes also serve to remind us that employees on the lower rungs could go on to become programmers – or rock stars – themselves.
Now roll them cases out and lift them amps
Haul them trusses down and get 'em up them ramps
‘Cause when it comes to moving me
You know, you guys are the champs
Jackson Browne – “The Load-Out
Here's the new single from Knifes, “Scammers.”
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