May 3, 2013

WNRN/Charlottesville GM/PD Dave Benson
Jack Barton

Dave Benson

In 2011, after decades at storied commercial Triple A outlets including WXRT/Chicago, KBCO/Denver-Boulder, KFOG/San Francisco and, most recently, KMTT/Seattle, Dave Benson took some time off and re-evaluated where he wanted to head professionally. The result was a move across the country to Charlottesville, VA, where Benson took over as both GM and PD of Triple A non-comm WNRN, joining the growing ranks of notable commercial programmers who defected to non-comm, a list that includes Jim McGuinn, Mark Abuzzahab, Kevin Cole and many others.
          Benson recently took some time to talk to FMQB about the decision to “switch sides,” what he has learned about non-commercial radio, why he finds it creatively stimulating and how he can apply decades on the commercial side to lead a non-comm to greater success.


After a successful and respected tenure programming commercial Triple A and Rock stations, you recently “defected” to the non-comm side. What made you look at opportunities in non-commercial radio?
After all that time, and after having an amazing run at commercial radio, I took some time off, and hit the road. I just had this very strong disinclination to go back into that kind of work. The only thing that seemed interesting along the same lines of work would be someplace to do radio without doing what I had been doing to succeed in the commercial world. The obvious place is non-commercial radio. For programming-driven radio people, and especially along the mindset of what we all share in the Triple A format, non-commercial radio is the best opportunity to take Triple A, in it’s broadest definition, to the next level and to more people. So I just kept my eyes and ears open for opportunities in that world. And this opportunity popped up at one point, then went away, then it popped up again and I ended up here on November 1.

What is that broadest definition of Triple A?
We were in a room – I think it was in Boulder last year – where (WXRT/Chicago PD) Norm Winer said at one point that there is no “format,” there are only stations doing what they do. At this point that’s accurate. We’ve all tried for the longest time to convince people that there was a cohesive format; mostly to make the trade and record industry happy so that they had charts to put us on and budgets to assign, and also for corporate owners and national programming presidents to be able to put us on the correct spread sheets to make the organization look neat and tidy. It’s worked, but from a programming, what-does-a-Triple-A-station-sound-like standpoint, I don’t think we ever coalesced. So we have to stay under the broad definition of Triple A. It’s certainly not really necessary to define it.

It sounds like you’re referring to stations not being completely unified musically, as most Triple As are hyper-focused on their markets. Is that a bad thing?
It’s not a bad thing, but it’s an unfortunate thing that we never had a more unified image to present to the people who needed that image to get their business done. And with about a dozen exceptions, we never impacted as a ratings format, which also slows down the process of getting record label and industry corporate support. Mix all of those factors together and I would say that it’s unfortunate that the format isn’t stronger in its identity.

When we talk about ratings – and for that matter, all of the things you were very used to relying on as resources or decision drivers from the commercial side – do those factors enter into play as much on the non-comm side?
I know ratings are important for some stations in their fundraising efforts. But, in Charlottesville, we don’t have Arbitron because they don’t measure the market. So for us it’s both extremely liberating and slightly frustrating to not have Arbitron numbers to look at. Nobody in the market has them, so we’re not at a disadvantage in that way, it’s just not a tool we have.

There are a lot of different theories on what non-comm’s mission is in relation to its audience, which informs how each station programs music, how they promote themselves and every way they relate to their audiences. How does WNRN fit into these philosophies?
Well again, having only gleaned as much information as I could from my friends in non-comm and having done a little consulting work in non-comm, I’m not real aware of the details of the missions of a lot of other stations. I can listen and try to deduce it, but all I’ll say is that in the five months I’ve been here, creating a mission for this radio station has been a priority. It’s a great process to sit down and hammer out a paragraph that defines what a radio station’s mission is. I’m learning that you have to have a different mission profile with your board of directors than you do with your listeners.
           I can tell you that all of WNRN’s mission statements are under review because the station really hit the reset button a year or so ago, and my coming aboard is part of that process. With my programming background, I’m super interested in defining a programming mission for the station, and working to create a station sound. We have a very diverse format. It’s not like working at a Classic Rock station; it’s pretty easy to create a mission statement when you play the same 300 songs over and over again. We’re playing everything from deep, serious Bluegrass music to Goth Metal, and Electronic Dance music to The Lumineers. So it’s very hard for us to have what I learned to do in Seattle, which is to create a station filter. Some set of words that you can pass every idea, song and promotion through to see if it comes out the other end intact. It’s very hard for a station as diverse as we are. So we’re still in the learning process and we have a mission statement that we came up with in the last month. We’re letting that settle in, and we’re referring to it on a continuing basis. It may change. You have to look at the results of your fund drives and underwriting, you have to look at your membership, and you have to look at the happiness of the board. We tweaked the filter and we’ll wait a while and see if that fits.

While you were always the programming guy and had to report to a GM who would look at things through business/revenue-colored glasses, you have both titles at WNRN. What are the challenges of wearing both hats?
I said someplace before that one of the real challenges of this job for me is to find the financial fascinating. It is a challenge, yet the modern day commercial PD is much more aware of the financial realities and priorities. But this is such a small radio station that everyone wears multiple hats, and the beauty of the size, scale and structure of what we’re doing is it’s all about making it work together, so I haven’t found any real friction between my schizophrenic selves.
           When it comes to being a GM or PD or any other hard job, it’s really working with the staff to affect all the areas. I’ve spent a lot of time on engineering this week. We have seven different signals that the radio station is on and a network that runs up and down through Virginia. I realized this weekend – when I was literally trying to find a translator site that we have up in the hills – that as a program director in a major market commercial station I never really worried about engineering. I only worried about engineering or equipment when it wasn’t working, and then I just ran down the hall and yelled at somebody and it got taken care of. So now I have a very different process. When something isn’t working I need to figure it out and help my contract engineer with a solution. I also need to think about what it costs.

Is there a difference in how the non-comm audience relates to the station from listeners to commercial stations?
The public/community stations relationship is much more important, especially in a situation where you’re not distracted by Arbitron ridiculousness. We have 1300 donating members; 1300 people that have directly given money to the radio station in appreciation and support of the programming we do. If that doesn’t define what a P1 is, I don’t know what does. And since I’ve been here we’ve really worked at focusing the highest percentage of our efforts toward taking care of our members – membership has its privileges, members will get access, members will know that we hear them – and it’s very liberating. The relationship with your key audience is so much more important here because they do something that you never ask a commercial audience to do; reach into their wallet and give money. We all know that’s where the rubber meets the road in just about any situation. So it’s a re-education for me. It’s been a real eye-opener that our success or failure depends on a handful of people, depending on the size of the market and the size of the radio station. This is a healthier situation than depending on PPM results to look good…or not.

How do you continue to educate your P2s and P3s and turn them into contributing members?
That’s the job that I’m here to learn. We just completed the fund drive, and I will say that for the most part I listened and learned while my staff executed this fund drive. One of the messages I felt strongly about getting into the mix is asking listeners to become members. That’s the tipping point we’re trying to get people to. We try to get people to realize that being a listener and fan of the radio station is great, and we so appreciate that, but we need them to make that next step. We need them to become members if they really, truly appreciate the station.
           It’s a little early for me to understand the difference between somebody who uses this radio station on a day by day long term listening basis and someone who is connected because of one specific programming aspect, and that’s because of our Specialty shows. For example, I’ve got a four hour Bluegrass show on Sunday morning that has a very strong audience, but they probably don’t listen to the radio station much the rest of the week. And yet they think of WNRN as a very important station for them, and vice-versa. I’ve got all sorts of shows, so somebody that would show up in Arbitron as a P3 could be a dedicated, sincere, member of this radio station’s core audience. So it’s a little different from the traditional P1- P3 circle.

What can non-comm learn from commercial?
The best example is I was consulting a non-comm recently and we were going to make some library changes and re-categorizing. It was a fairly large project, so I threw in a deadline down of three weeks and there was sort of a silence and a look of discomfort, and someone eventually said “We thought we’d have all summer.”
           The reality of the commercial world is you would sit in a room on a Monday morning and talk about a format tweak or a format change, and you’d be expected to have it done by Friday. There’s a sense of urgency and there’s just a tempo difference in commercial radio, that I haven’t seen much of in public radio. You have a different set of stake holders. You have boards of directors and you have all these other factors, while the GM of a commercial station just looks down the table and says “I want it Friday,” and you go do it. There’s not a lot of “Well, we should meet with the Citizen Advisory Committee before we do that.”
           I’m used to that “commercial” tempo, so I’m learning the realities of the tempo and mindset differences, and both worlds are pretty guilty of being insular unto themselves. There’s tremendous opportunity for public radio stations to bring in best practices from other venues, and I think you’re seeing that with what Bruce Warren is doing at WXPN, what Jim McGuinn is doing in Minneapolis (KCMP), and what Mark Abbuzahab is doing in Dallas (KXT). It’s amazing; sound-wise, it’s not that far off from what a good commercial Triple A might be doing. These are some really good examples of the benefit of bringing in programming expertise to fit it into the non-comm presentation. Guys like Paul Marsalek, Mike Henry and Bruce Warren have been talking about this for years. It’s not a revelation. I just think there’s a lot of opportunity for that to happen. I’ll be really interested to see what Rita Houston does as Program Director of WFUV (New York). There’s a station that really is in such a great position to become contemporary leader, and they’ve been an old line, old school public radio station. Rita’s really has a chance to become a leader and that’s exciting.

So with that in mind, talk about the future of radio as a music gatekeeper for the general public.
If I could predict the future, I’d play the horses.

You’re in radio, it’s the same thing.
Yeah, sometimes it feels like it. But anybody that says they know is trying to sell you something. We’re just going to have to wait and see. To observe where we are today, I would say I don’t think the technology and the presentation of music on FM radio will disappear, but I fear there’s too many signs that mobile technology and the dissemination of information and entertainment over the internet on mobile devices is going to continue to evolve and splinter. I just don’t know how transmitter sites bolted to the ground with limited broadcast areas will survive that. We’re absolutely still a music gateway for people, and if people 25 and above spend enough time being culturally connected to radio, it’s still an option for them. We just have to do a good job of finding an audience and super-serving them. It’s not as bad as reading Mark Ramsey everyday would lead you to believe, but I know it’s not as rosy a future as NAB pundits you read about would have you believe either. So we’ll see.

[eQB Content By Jack Barton]


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