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Reacting When an Artist Dies

Guest Post by Tony Lorino:

As broadcasters, we tend to have a lot more memories about exactly where we were when major news events happened, based on the city we lived in or the station we worked for at the time.

But perhaps for us, the sudden passing of prominent musicians is even more surreal, and catches us off-guard even more than major hard-news events.

For me, the first that comes to mind is the afternoon of June 25, 2009.  It was around 4:45 p.m. as I wrapped up putting tones on a couple of sweepers in my production room at WMYX (99.1 The Mix) in Milwaukee, and I was seconds away from hopping into my car to drive to a friend’s wedding six hours away. On Air with Ryan Seacrest was playing. Brian Kelly, our OM (and a great mentor of mine), walked into the room with a disturbed look.

“TMZ is reporting that Michael Jackson died,” he said.

“Uhhhhh, OK,” I replied.  “Let me do a break, and we’ll take it from there.”

Truth be told, I didn’t know exactly how to react, especially during a syndicated show.  I was supposed to meet my girlfriend (now my wife) later that night in Des Moines, so I texted her, then conferred with Mix’s imaging director John McDonough on a few items. We put some updates in, and some songs on the air. As a Hot AC, we didn’t have “Thriller,” “Billie Jean,” or many of his other biggies in the system. It wasn’t our best moment, but we shared the information, and did our best to share the emotion. 

After I left, two hours or so later than planned, I had a six-hour drive to Des Moines from Milwaukee ahead of me, and listened to stations throughout Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa to hear how they handled it.  The best performer: WMT-FM Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which promoted an hour of Michael Jackson songs at 9 p.m. and did a fantastic job.  Even Delilah’s team spiked in “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” into that night’s show, though her recording was probably already finished.

That experience taught me what to do, and how to prepare for the future.  When Whitney Houston passed away, and later Prince, our programming teams were ready with tributes quicker, and the music was ready to spike in at a moment’s notice. 

That led to the news on Friday of the death of Eddie Money, and late Sunday of the Cars’ Ric Ocasek.  As we’ve built Throwback Nation Radio from our first few affiliates a year ago into 15 strong (and growing) today, we’ve prided ourselves on adaptability, and were able to help our stations in minutes, not a day later.  While Throwback Nation is admittedly pre-produced to sound live, we were able to re-edit Friday night’s show with Eddie Money songs, listener requests, and tributes from Twitter, then resend to our affiliates quickly.

The announcement of Ocasek’s death proved to be a little more challenging.  My wife and I had just finished dinner. Not unlike the situation of 2009, I told her I was going to need to tend to a work emergency.  (I’m a lucky guy to have such an understanding spouse.)

I immediately ran into our studio, pulled up our Cars songs, and went to work to provide our stations – and their listeners – with the information we had.  Segments zipped through our FTP distribution service, and as the show aired, we received calls, texts, and messages about some of listeners’ favorite Cars songs, and their memories of growing up with Ric and other pioneers of new wave.

That emotional connection — our audience, the songs they love, and us as the intermediaries — is still what makes me excited about radio’s ability to not just survive but thrive in the 2020s and beyond.  And, it’s why I believe it so important for radio to turn on a dime when these things happen.

If you don’t have an emergency action plan set up for news events such as the death of an iconic artist, here are three tips you can put into action today to be ready when it happens next.

  1. Have a solid music library, and tell your staff how to access it.  You probably won’t need 90% of the songs in your on-air system, but load them anyway.  If you have a space issue, have your music library stored on another computer where you can load individual files.  iHeart, Entercom, and many other companies have assembled internal music libraries.  Tell your airstaff where they are and how to get to them when they need it.  Don’t think along the boundary lines of formats here.  If you’re a pop-based station (Top 40, Hot AC, AC, Classic Hits), have music of the superstars from all those genres.  If you’re an Active Rock station, have Classic Rock music at the ready just in case.  You play today’s Hip-Hop and R&B?  Cover the gamut of Classic Soul.  Never be afraid to have too much music on a hard drive.

  2. Always have someone on call. When you get the app alert, the text, or the call about an artist death, know immediately how you should react, and who can get on the air if you need to.  Many stations have learned to have contingency plans for severe weather, where someone is always in town and available.  Think about that for artist events too.  When the artist matters to your audience, you have an opportunity to connect emotionally and take advantage of an artist’s passing to further build the bond of your brand with your listener.

  3. Know your team’s strengths. If breaking artist news takes place while you’re fully staffed, don’t be afraid to pull other talent into the conversation.  If your morning team is available and you’re modifying your format on the fly and/or taking calls, perhaps they can lead the coverage while another daypart talent (or you as the programmer) help with social media and other duties.

With less time and more to do than ever, these may feel like things that you can put off until tomorrow.  But the more you communicate your plans with your staff — and have these items ready to go — the better prepared you will be to emotionally connect with your listeners, and help them remember, “I was listening to (your station) when I heard Eddie Money passed away, and they did a terrific job paying tribute to him.” 

And that emotional connection you just made is truly priceless.

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  1. jaypea5000 says

    Bingo, on all points.

    In the ’90’s, I was programming a small FM mainstream-to-soft AC/Gold station in Southern NJ, in an unrated market, programming against stations in Philly, Wilmington and Atlantic City, all heard in our area. At the time we did “Super Music Weekends,” where we’d sweep each hour from :22 to :38 with either oldies or timely tributes to core superstar artists.

    The morning of Friday May 14th 1998, I woke up to the news Frank Sinatra had passed. Though we were a million miles away from playing Sinatra, and without even thinking about how I’d do it, I called the morning jock and told him to start promoting once an hour a Sinatra Super Music Weekend starting at 3 that afternoon. I got myself together and immediately drove to Tower Records to get every Sinatra Greatest Hits CD I could find, plus a few other big Frank albums. Luckily, I grew up with parents who were Sinatra fans as well as having worked at a couple of Standards stations early in my career, so I knew what to look for.

    At that point, the only station on the dial that was doing anything that day was an FM Talk station in Philly that was the home of another legend, Sid Mark, and his “Friday with Frank” and “Sunday with Sinatra” shows each weekend, programs that started in the ancient times when the station was Jazz, and continued through the early 2000’s. He still does the programs on another station in town. But they were only talking about Sinatra with listeners at the time, saving the music for Mark’s Friday evening show. At least they did something though.

    Once I got to the station, the GM pulled me aside and said, basically, “Are you NUTS?” I answered “maybe, but we’ll soon find out.” I did know that Sinatra was an institution in contemporary music, and was part of the “musical genesis” of the format we chose to air.

    I grabbed the CD’s and created the music sweeps for the weekend, rotating the big hits with the better of the album cuts. I then created imaging to use at the start and mid-point of the sweeps. By 3pm, when my shift started, we were ready. Almost immediately the phones started ringing and continued right through the weekend into the early week a day or two after the special programming had ended. Listeners loved it, we got noticed by people that never knew we existed and we got a 2-3 new advertisers as well.

    I wish I could say the experience taught us to always be prepared, but six months later I’d moved on to a new non-programming opportunity in the big city and haven’t looked back. But I do consider it one of the best experiences of my time there.

  2. Sean Ross says

    That’s a great story. I would have enjoyed hearing that.

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