Fans have experienced all-too-frequent deaths of iconic music artists in the past two years. And if AM/FM is a community—and it is—then is it serving those fans in the best way possible during those moments? Many broadcasters react quickly with on-air tributes and social media. Others admit radio could do better.
Radio is America’s mouthpiece, and when an artist passes, it helps fans revisit song catalogs, share on-air memories with a unified voice and mourn with the collective spirit of a virtual congregation. And there have been too many excuses to revisit the wellsprings of late. Add, tragically, the name of Linkin Park lead singer Chester Bennington, who took his own life last Thursday, to a too-long list that includes Chris Cornell, Gregg Allman, Merle Haggard, Glenn Frey and Maurice White, along with the culturally iconic George Michael, David Bowie and Prince. A little further back, there were Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.
Radio is quick with a tribute, but perhaps “quick” is the operative word. Some suggest more could be done, that traditional AM/FM could do better, because of a lack of preparation or (perhaps worse) on-air voice tracking that is obviously not living in the moment. The essential question is, how do stations best handle these major musician losses? It is not maudlin to suggest that having a cogent plan in place to react to even the most shocking passing is an example of radio doing what it does best.
“We don’t necessarily have an A-B-C plan, where ‘this is how you handle an artist’s death’ or any kind of tragedy,” says Michael Martin CBS Radio’s senior VP, Programming & Music Initiatives and PD of CHR “99.7 Now” KMVQ and hot AC “Alice @ 97.3” KLLC San Francisco. “In any format, your goal is always to be living in the same world as the audience and reflect on what they’re feeling and seeing. Hopefully, you are in tune with that audience enough to know what you need to comfort them. Your reaction should be as unique as that artist is.”
Adds Jim McGuinn PD of public radio triple-A “The Current” KCMP Minneapolis, “We try to figure out the appropriate response for our audience. When David Bowie died [in January 2016], our deejays are all massive fans and they were open and honest about our sadness and respect. This generated great response from the audience, as our curation and care made The Current a great place for fans and just general music lovers to gather that day to mourn, but also to celebrate and explore his legacy.”
Channeling Feeling Into the Music
A disc jockey—given his or her obvious fandom—has a central line to those feelings and can relate all-too well to an artist death.
“Music equals memories. All of us have that song by an artist that impacted our lives. When we lose the artist that created that memory, it hits home,” says Jeff Murphy with consultant DeMers Programming. “And where were those songs first heard? On radio.”
And radio is instinctually where people have learned to turn for that exact reason. Dan Reed, OM, MD and afternoon host on non-comm triple-A WXPN Philadelphia (88.5) offers similar insight: “When a noted musician passes away and as radio pivots to instantaneously adjust programming, many people turn to radio for information and comfort, because it was on this platform that most first experienced their music.” And if a station has its eye on the ball, “listeners think of it as a community of friends and family,” adds Becky Brenner, a principal with Albright & O’Malley & Brenner Consulting. “Everyone can come together to share memories, enjoy the music that shaped their life, and help each other heal from the loss.”
But it’s the “how best to do that,” beyond the obvious, that requires more forethought. “For all of radio’s need for ‘artist ownership images,’ our responsibility is there from the cradle to the grave. Some of the artists we’ve lost over the last couple years are the tallest mountains in people’s music lives,” offers Dave Richards, VP Programming & Operations for Entercom Seattle. “There’s an emotional connection between the radio station, the artist and the audience—or at least there should be.”
Details about the artist’s demise, historical contributions, social comments and reactions from others in the industry—and playing their music: These are the essentials, according to Bill Weston, Beasley’s Rock format captain and PD of rock WMMR and classic rock WMGK Philadelphia. “We also take calls from fans to share their memories, from albums purchased to concerts seen, focusing on the positive nature of the artist contributions. Playing the music is the most relevant thing you can do, since it’s about listeners’ relationship with the artist and their music.”
Still, the breadth of such tributes should match that act’s stature within the format, locale and particular station. “The ‘Mount Rushmore’ artists would be those the PD feels merit a non-stop music marathon to last several hours on the day of their passing,” Murphy tells Inside Radio. “That level of artist might deserve an entire music sweep tribute when their death is announced, followed by hourly exposure for their greatest hits/album cuts that day. Lesser artists might be showcased in an already-scheduled benchmark feature, such as a lunch theme show or afternoon music sweep.”
Having a Plan
As is widely known, many national newspapers pre-write obituaries for more “mature” celebrities. This begs the question: As many of radio’s iconic artists—in particular ‘70s rockers—are dying with increasing frequency, should broadcasters pre-plan?
“Sadly, most radio stations do not do a good job of having materials ready for these tributes; therefore, it is a scramble to assemble the proper audio,” says Brenner. “The absolute best scenario would be to have a checklist for any artist you know is not well or aging to the point where their death could come at any time.”
Planning ahead by stations and/or radio groups can help avoid that last-minute scramble. Brenner suggests: a montage of hits, artist bio and photos for social media, prepared posts for Facebook, Twitter and the like, comments from other artists and celebrities, and imaging pieces to run throughout the day to share memories and acknowledge their contributions to the format. “With features running in a timely manner, stations can then solicit listener comments to add to the celebration of life.”
Murphy adds, “Especially since the 2016 deaths of David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Prince, we’ve encouraged library-based stations to begin planning for the inevitable loss of music legends by determining a tier-level for their format’s most important artists—the ones that merit benchmarked programming tributes.”
“When John Lennon died, and we all learned about it on ‘Monday Night Football,’ radio reacted and went wall to wall Beatles and Lennon. Today everything is real-time,” says Richards. “At what point will you react to internet noise and chatter? That was the case with Scott Weiland a couple years ago. Stations waited for confirmation. Sadly, I think 2016 probably taught everyone in our business to have an action plan ready to go, with everything from the credibility of the report, to image usage, to engaging in the social media discussion to how you treat it on the air. I know we do.”
But it’s not always quite so easy, or cut and dry. Another lesson learned came with the passing of Gregg Allman, whose death over the Memorial Day weekend caught many stations off guard in the midst of their pre-planned countdowns or other special programming. What then? “It’s difficult and often sloppy to throw together a tribute at the last minute,” says consultant Tracy Johnson. He points to Benztown Branding as one of the few resources that may fulfill that missing link: It provides affiliates with produced features and audio tools when an artist tragedy takes place. All the same, he insists, “every station should constantly be prepared to react quickly.”
Veteran programmer Marty Bender has orchestrated on-air tributes for two major rock figures since arriving as program director and midday jock for classic rock “The Fox” WOFX-FM (92.5) Cincinnati in Oct. 2016– Chuck Berry and Gregg Allman. Both deaths were reported on weekends and Bender says he got to the station “within minutes” of verifying the news and immediately went on the air with it, before launching into an hour of songs performed and/or written by the artist. While the tunes were playing, Bender got to work producing a short recorded tribute, mining sites like YouTube for interview snippets. “Once that is done, we play the tribute and one song per hour by the artist for at least a day or two,” Bender says. “Over that time, we can modify the recorded segments as we find better audio or more news comes out.”
Bender urges programmers to get ahead of the news and to be ready: “Load up the library with as many songs as possible for all artists,” he says. “It’s a good project for weekends.”
Being prepared is crucial because, with most events that impact a market or the nation, the masses turn to radio. “There’s something about having the shared experience surrounding a loss. It’s that ‘where were you when you heard about JFK’ thing our parents might have had,” McGuinn says. “Anyone can fire up a playlist on Spotify of Bowie’s greatest hits, but there’s something more when a host authentically crafts a playlist that connects the dots. It feels better to be together in those moments.”