Reaching New Audiences

& WFDU-FM’s TRADITIONS Playlist for May 1, 2016

Since WFDU-FM held our February fund drive, I’ve been thinking about the future of radio and folk music. Not to worry, I’m fine. Even though the show did not do as well as I had hoped it would, we did “okay” and my program will live to see another day. While the lower numbers have me concerned, my real worries come as I look at other recent developments in the “industry” of radio. I’ve also been having conversations with my peers about how we attract “younger” listeners to folk music – a question that is raised not only by radio hosts, but also by venue and festival operators and lovers of these musical traditions.

I recently read an article that indicated advertisers are pulling their budgets from AM/FM commercial radio and spending more on online media. Not a huge surprise. The thought is that the younger audiences advertisers are trying to reach spend more time listening to different sources for their music. I also read a more encouraging article concerning a survey (Jacob Media’s TechSurvey12) that shows only one in ten listeners say they are listening less to AM/FM radio and six in ten say they continue to listen “a lot.” Car radios seem to be the predominant listening place and choice exceeding other devices that are also available in cars, including satellite radio, phones, Pandora and other streaming devices. However, the same survey showed that new car buyers find access to smartphones, Bluetooth, CD players, wireless Internet, satellite connection and HD radio are important features. This could be telling for the future.

Public radio has its own set of issues. WFDU’s lower donor turnout is not unique, public radio stations like ours are finding fund drives to be more challenging as audiences age with younger listeners seemingly less interested in donating to shows. Folk music radio is especially vulnerable. It is easy to say that we aren’t appealing to younger listeners, but is that really true?

Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is “retiring” from A Prairie Home Companion, something that he did once before and he has talked about doing again for the past several years. This time it looks like it is for real – he is scheduled to tape his last show at the Hollywood Bowl on July 1 and it will air in the regular time slot the following day. On October 15, mandolinist Chris Thile, a member of the bands the Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek, will take over the hosting duties from the stage of St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater, the spiritual home of Minnesota’s mythical Lake Wobegone. Thile will host 13 shows in the upcoming season, about half the regular schedule that Keillor was hosting, and the other weeks will be filled with repeats and specially edited programs.

Chris Thile

Chris Thile

Thile hosted a few broadcasts of the show in January and February and appears to be working on appealing to a more contemporary (read the word “younger”) audience. His guests included singer-songwriter Ben Folds, Brandi Carlile and even music icon Paul Simon. The attempt to reach a new audience appears to be a trend that many radio shows and stations have been facing, especially in public radio. Yet many radio stations are still considering if they will continue broadcasting the series without Keillor, who has been the central focus for four decades.

The task might not be in offering shows or specific music that appeals to younger audiences, but rather finding and incorporating features of platforms that young people are listening to. They do not tune in to radio like previous generations. I walk around the office where I work during the week and most people are at their desks listening to Pandora or other streams on the Internet. There is a generational factor at work here, and radio needs to figure out how to get them back. Radio is in a similar situation to newspapers and magazines, growing numbers of people rely on online services they can read on electronic devices that fit in their pockets rather than carry around papers. To win these listeners back requires more than just a new song or the age of the artist being played. Introducing “folk” music via the radio to new audiences seems to be a formidable task.

You cannot force a change in taste or habits, nor can radio hosts risk alienating our existing audiences, but we can still present the “best” of what our contemporary folk community is creating. It should be pointed out that playing something just for the sake of playing what we think is “young” does not necessarily relate to the style of the show we built. I am overwhelmed by the number of CDs that I have been receiving this year. There are a number of young artists who are creating a sound that I am not sure is considered folk and I would not play. This doesn’t mean the music is bad, but it is not something that speaks to what “folk” music has been about. When you go to a Thai restaurant, you do not expect to be served pizza. When you tune into folk radio, you expect to hear something that has been defined as “folk music.” We can constantly tinker with the definition, but there comes a point where we also need to stand for something – or we end up with a corporate sound that has filled the commercial airwaves.

A good song does not have an expiration date, and folk songs by nature will last generations. It is a living tradition that people are always adding to by creating new songs that speak to a community. While the rural communities of yesteryear have been replaced by a global connection through technology, we still speak to a niche audience that expects to hear a certain style. We should never think of ignoring the past, but we need to constantly look for and share that connection that links contemporary artists with the great songs and artists that built the ongoing folk revival.

I find it encouraging to attend festivals and seeing younger generations flock to dance tents for contra dancing. This social activity seems to be a key. Every year I also see a growing number of young artists embracing traditional styles, and while they might be performing to audiences a generation or two older, the music has its place. Go to Brooklyn and you will see hip young audiences at clubs like Jalopy and Barbes. A new generation is creating their own scene, and radio can play a part in it.

I don’t have the answers, and if I did I would be a hell of a lot wealthier than I am now. My main points: radio IS changing and folk music continues to grow new traditions. As radio changes, folk radio hosts like myself need to take a critical look at our own offerings. This does not mean radical change of formats, but perhaps a closer look at how we can incorporate new technology, new sounds and new ideas. Some radio stations are slow to react, just like the newspapers. I would hate to see radio shows and stations being dropped because we failed to adapt. Regardless of where radio is headed, folk music will continue to survive, the question remains how will radio and folk music serve each other in the future.

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About Ron Olesko

For over 40 years, Ron has been a radio programmer with WFDU-FM in Teaneck, New Jersey. He created WFDU-FM's TRADITIONS in 1980, a show that he continues to host and produce every Sunday afternoon from 3 to 6pm Eastern Time. He's the president of and booker for the Hurdy Gurdy Folk Music Club in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and is a regular contributor to Sing Out! as well as the host of the Folk Music Notebook blog on this site. Ron can also be found emceeing concerts and festivals around the NYC/NJ area. A lifelong Mets fan and a rabid soccer geek, Ron is a Red Bull season ticket holder since their inception and will most likely be in his seat when not in the studio.


Reaching New Audiences — 1 Comment

  1. Hey Ron, I think that one real key will be for Folk Radio to adapt to new formats like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and to stream programs live. (And I am sure that there are other, newer formats I am at present clueless about.) The world is definitely changing quickly but I do think that there will always be folk music. And a second key is to also invite in new audiences by playing some of their music. I don’t mean playing “pop” – there are plenty of stations doing that, and we don’t need to do corporate America’s job for them. They have their own money. But how about when you are delving into some of the political subjects you do, to also reach out to some of the more progressive hip hop groups, and include their music – and let them know in advance so they can alert their fans? Some of this music is in fact, “folk” music in its truest sense; it is not made for the market. Of course if we define “folk music” as guitars, fiddles, banjos and the like, that’s another story. But if Balkan, Middle Eastern, Native American, various African musics, Indian music is folk music – why isn’t some community-driven rap and funk? A few years ago I did have one dj tell me that my music wasn’t his cup of tea, so to speak – which is of course his right (chacun a son gout, pardon the missing accents monsieur!) – but it was clear that he meant my use of latin rhythms and other non-trad folkie stuff on that recording. The funny thing is no one appreciates Woody, the Carter Family, Leadbelly, etc. etc. than me……but many in our community are closed to other “people’s music,” and sometimes I think that we’re in danger of just becoming a mostly white, comfortably progressive but isolated group. If we want others to join US, we also have to join them first. (And believe me, this is not just radio I am referring to; as a Steering Committee member of a progressive music organization, the Peoples Music Network (PMN), this is something I am painfully aware of, and something I am looking to “shake up!”)