Future of Music Coalition is proud to participate in Public Radio Music Month, a monthlong celebration of the vital role that public and noncommercial radio plays in the music community. To mark the beginning of the campaign, we asked musician, entertainment attorney and FMC Advisory Board member John P. Strohm to reflect on the importance of public radio to artists, fans and the broader music industry. You can learn more here or follow the campaign on Twitter.
If someone had told me ten years ago that public radio would become one of my most reliable discovery sources for new music, I’d have had a good laugh. I grew up listening to public radio, but as a kid I thought of it as the antithesis of hip. My parents listened to news and classical music constantly in my childhood home. It was as familiar as the furniture or my father’s afternoon pot of tea. But to discover interesting new music in genres that interest me? Ridiculous.
I’m admittedly a bit of a music snob, and certainly a music obsessive. Growing up in Southern Indiana, I had to dig deep to find out about the punk, psych and hardcore records that struck my fancy. I read fanzines, I traded tapes with friends, and — once in a great while when visiting relatives in Chicago — I listened to college radio. From my grandparents’ house in the West suburbs, I could get the Northwestern station on the clock radio in the guest bedroom. I’m sure they wondered why I rarely left the bedroom, but I was on a mission. Through that amazing station I discovered some of my life-long favorites: Hüsker Dü, Mission of Burma, Joy Division, Wire, on and on…
When I moved to Boston in the mid-1980s for college, I quickly familiarized myself with the college stations. I formed a band, the Blake Babies, and one of the most thrilling moments of my life was hearing our song for the first time on WERS, the Emerson College station. I found out about another band I eventually joined, The Lemonheads, from their live performance on WERS, during which they played a song by my favorite punk band from Indiana, the Zero Boys. I had no idea anyone knew about that band outside of Indiana, and I later learned that they’d first heard the Zero Boys on WHRB, the Harvard station.
Those bands I played in became fairly successful in the 1980s and even provided my livelihood well into the 1990s. Our success was largely attributable to college radio. During those early tours, we’d arrive in a city or college town and go directly to the station for an interview. People listened and came to the show. Word spread from fan to fan, but the spark was always ignited on those daring, open-format radio stations that would take a risk on a little band from Boston.
I drifted away from music in the late 1990s into the 2000s, and a big reason was frustration with the very conservative formats of radio stations in my town. I’d followed my wife to her home town of Birmingham, which had no college or community radio. I hated most of the music the rock stations played, the supposedly “alternative” music, music influenced by the underground music of my era, but in my view generally lacking in creativity and innovation. I was in law school and we had a baby, so I wasn’t able to dig deep; but it seemed the underground music I’d loved and lived as a young adult had become just another bland commercial radio format. I didn’t have much time to worry about it, but for a few years I honestly didn’t know where to find new music.
These days I’m happy to be more deeply engaged in music discovery than at any other time in my life. I’m a music industry attorney, and talent discovery is literally part of my profession. If I don’t know what’s going on in the music underground, I will miss professional opportunities. Additionally, I’m more excited about music as a fan than at any other time in my life. For several years I struggled to come up with ten albums I’d enjoyed over the course of the previous year. These days I might get excited about ten albums in a single month.
Happily I don’t rely on commercial radio for discovery. That’s not where music fans go to find out what’s bubbling under the surface. Incredibly, nowadays one of the strongest, most reliable sources is public radio. I’m not even sure when it happened, but I think it happened gradually over the past ten years or so. I’m sure I’ve found out about as much music from shows on public radio such as “Fresh Air,” “All Songs Considered,” “Mountain Stage,” and “Sound Opinions” as I have from blogs or print magazines. Word of mouth is still the best resource, but I constantly hear the words, “Have you checked out what they’re streaming on the NPR site?” or “I heard this cool artist reviewed on ‘Fresh Air’…” The way I see it (and with due respect to college radio, which is still a force), public radio has really stepped into a role very similar to the role college radio used to provide — albeit with a much bigger influence.
I work with artist clients, and several of my clients have benefitted enormously from early exposure on public radio. It’s difficult to imagine what source would take its place if public radio went away. It’s getting to the point where we in the music industry take for granted their role. Public radio is always front and center in marketing meetings for new releases, discussions of how to get Song of the Day or how to get an album streaming from the NPR site the week prior to release. It’s as central to the conversation as traditional avenues such as mainstream print publications, commercial radio, and late-night television.
It’s surprising — but very exciting — that public radio has stepped into this position in our industry. The critical point is that they do an amazing job as a discovery source, including hiring some of the best music writers working today. As a fan and as a professional, it’s very depressing to think about all we would lose if that service went away.
John Strohm currently works for the Nashville law firm Loeb & Loeb LLP as Senior Counsel in their Music Industry practice.