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Friday, August 20, 2010

Background on Folk-Americana on L.A. Radio - KCSN, KCRW, KPFK, from 2008

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This first ran in the Guide’s News Features on October 17, 2008…
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3) L.A. RADIO: LACK OF DIVERSITY = LOST BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES
Larry Wines, our editor, and the programmer / producer / host of radio’s “Tied to the Tracks,” says, “This is just a weird town for radio. L.A. prides itself as the center of everything for television and major motion pictures, yet the music used in all those TV shows and films can’t be heard on the radio here. All the CW Network’s mostly ex-WB TV series, and even shows like ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ on CBS and the late, great ‘Crossing Jordan’ on NBC have made prominent use of wonderful music by the best of today’s ‘acoustic renaissance’ artists. But try to find those artists or their music on L.A. radio.”
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Larry points out more inconsistencies. He says, “We are constantly told that the only demographic that matters for marketing is 18-to-24-year-olds. There are two things inherent in that which make no sense. First, what 18-to-24-year-old do you know who has any money to buy anything, and second, if that’s the target market for all those ‘youth-oriented’ TV shows and films that are placing all the acoustic music, why is there a disconnect between reaching that demographic on TV and failing to connect with it on radio, since the music from those TV shows isn’t on the radio?”
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Even beyond those points, L.A. is an inscrutably strange town for radio. Consider this: there are several proven and popular music program packages available to all NPR affiliate radio stations, nationwide, and a number of those packages include Americana and indie acoustic music. But the two NPR affiliates in Los Angeles, KPCC and KCRW, choose to buy only the NPR “talk show” packages. That may be because the cheapest radio programming you can buy, anywhere, is the “talk” package, thanks partly to the exorbitant demands from “Big Music” for payments on every piece of music that is played.
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Back to L.A., and its only two NPR affiliate stations. KPCC faced open hostility from its listeners when Pasadena City College sold the station’s operating rights in the ‘90s, and the new operators flipped formats and went all-talk. Those distraught listeners – who had also been station “member” contributors – caused the station to cut a unique deal to pry “A Prairie Home Companion” from its NPR music package so it could be aired on the station, where it is the ONLY music show of any kind on KPCC.
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Meanwhile, KCRW airs its own daily music programming under the banner of “Becomes Eclectic.” Numerous musicians in L.A. characterize it as “Becomes Annoying,” or worse. That station’s music programming is totally under the control of its Music Director and “Morning Becomes Eclectic” host NIC HARCOURT, and when he says they play only “hand-picked music,” it’s his hand doing the picking. Nic has a penchant for the experimental and, well, to any ear that enjoys folk-Americana music, Nic’s tastes run in the direction of industrial noise. Viewers of the A&E cable TV show, “Breakfast with the Arts,” had a similar response to Harcourt’s selections for that TV show’s music segments, in the final weeks before suddenly plunging ratings got it cancelled after 17 years on the air.
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Then there’s KPFK, L.A.’s “powered by the people” Pacifica station that takes no corporate or business-sponsor/underwriter grants, and is governed by a local programming board. That board represents disparate interests, including some seen as fringe interests. It works as a coalition, wherein each member gets a show that represents the agenda of their core interests, in return for allowing each other interest to have its show. That resulted, among other things, in their weeknight lineup of music programs being thrown overboard in favor of Spanish language political talk shows, largely aimed at immigration issues. The reality is that people who are undocumented – i.e., illegally in the US – want to keep a low profile to avoid deportation, so political talk aimed at them doesn’t resonate with the majority of its intended audience. Similarly, despite the fact that California is solidly in the Obama camp, KPFK’s penchant for opposing everything about the current administration has often taken the form of embracing every conspiracy theory, no matter how poorly predicated. But all of that is a result of programming-by-coalition, so it’s become part of the agenda of KPFK. The station isn’t competitive in the ratings in any time slot, on any day, and they don’t care. But they are dependent on contributions from listeners, and from the tone of the station’s recent appeals for financial support, their audience is diminishing, or at least less able to send them money. If they see that as a consequence of their programming decisions, they have yet to demonstrate it by offering programs like the music shows they cancelled.
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L.A. radio now has only one weekly folk music show, ROZ LARMAN’s long-running “FolkScene” on KPFK, and one bluegrass show, FRANK HOPPE’s “Bluegrass Etcetera” on KCSN, a station which, sadly, discontinued its web simulcast due to its recent financial problems. The latter station also recently cancelled CHUCK TAGGART’s popular “Down Home,” a weekly folk-Americana show that was known for its Cajun, zydeco, delta blues, and Celtic offerings. And KPFK effectively cancelled the replacement for retiring BEN ELDER’s “Wildwood Flower” bluegrass show, when MARY KATHERINE ALDEN’s attempt to revive her old “Alive and Picking” in that time slot was relegated to “occasional” status, approximately once every seven weeks. Despite growing popularity of music in the folk-Americana genres, as proven by its proliferation in live performance venues in Southern California, L.A. radio now offers one-third the broadcast hours that the music enjoyed a year ago.
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There are business dimensions to all this, Larry asserts. He says, “There is a vastly underserved market out there, but unless management and program execs at L.A. radio stations recognize that the disparity translates into a business and marketing opportunity, things in L.A. will continue to be bleak for acoustic music on the airwaves. And how do you reconcile that with the attendance at all the concert venues, and events like last weekend’s annual ‘Taste of Folk Music / Taste of Encino,’ and events like the ‘Harvest Festival’ Americana music series with its great line-ups, currently running every weekend in Moorpark? It really makes no sense, from a business standpoint, for L.A. radio to be the way it is, and ignore all the people who go to these concerts and events.”
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It seems irreconcilably odd. The nation’s largest radio market - with 14 million potential listeners - has so little diversity on the airwaves. Mostly, commercial radio in L.A., as Larry often says, “is fixated on the latest clone of sh-thump-thud / soundalike / Britney Lohan / revolving-door-rehab / pop-tart-du-jour recordings that are produced one note at a time, then ground-out like sausages by the big labels.” As for the “Britney Lohan” moniker, Larry says, “Why not amalgamate the names: You can’t tell them apart, anyway.”
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L.A.’s newest major commercial FM venture, 100.3 “The Sound,” does have a more interesting music mix than the “classic rock” it claims as its format, and it’s much better than the centrally-produced generic playlist of “Jack FM,” where the slogan is “Playing what we want,” as opposed to playing what YOU want. For many people, “The Sound” may be the most listenable station in town. But it is still the iconic JIM LADD at the ABC-owned “classic rock” flagship, 95.5 KLOS, who maintains his outpost with the last free-form nightly music show on Los Angeles radio. It’s a distinction celebrated by Ladd and his cadre of loyal listeners. Jim Ladd reaches far afield of what anyone would see as the station’s core genre, spinning everyone from old bluesmen to a sprinkling of acoustic guitar and mandolin and banjo and fiddle players as he builds his often-thematic sets.
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KCSN has gone to programming that retains their weekday classical music and adds what it calls “Americana Alternative,” but that’s not a term used anywhere else. Whatever it is, it’s mostly programmed by Cal State Northridge students. And given that station’s poor signal reach and cancellation of their web simulcast, no one we’ve asked seems able to tell us what their “Americana Alternative” is. Certainly, that station was the place where Larry Wines of “TttT” first advanced the argument for an Americana radio station in L.A. So, whether they “get it” or not, we don’t know.
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Meanwhile, even as L.A. radio stations with good signal reaches continue to ignore acoustic and Americana music, the “Acoustic Americana Music Calendar” proves, each week, that there are more live performances of music in acoustic / acoustic renaissance and folk-Americana genres here than the COMBINED number of L.A.-area performances of all other genres of music. And fans must be supporting the music in all those acoustic and Americana-friendly venues, because the venues continue to present it – despite the fact that it doesn’t get promoted like other music, simply because it isn’t heard on L.A. radio.
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As radio diversity has dried-up, plenty of people in L.A. have simply converted their frustration with local radio into opting-out. Larry says, “If what people say to me is any indication, then a growing number are finding music from other sources, like web radio, Myspace, their friends’ ipods, and, to some extent, satellite radio, and finding concerts to attend because we list and describe them in the Acoustic Americana Music Calendar. Concert attendance obviously generates money for the artists and the venues, but radio execs seem oblivious. As for the lost radio listeners who now listen on the web, that puts nothing into the local economy in L.A., and contributes nothing to the vitality of a shared sense of cultural community, the landscape that radio helped build in the first place.”
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