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Corporate Radio Gets a Little More Life after Michael Jackson's Death

TV Coverage of Michael Jackson's International Radio Airplay

TV Coverage of Michael Jackson's Radio Airplay

I’ve been combing through the web trying to get a handle on how radio has responded to the death of Michael Jackson on Thursday. There’s much anecdotal evidence to suggest that radio listenership was up, as fans sought out his music and news about his death from the radio. However, as listeners turned on their radios and TVs (and the Internet) to hear the sounds and see the images of the pop icon at his best, not all stations were able to deliver great programming from the outset. As Matthew pointed out on Thursday, many commercial stations with automated programming weren’t in a position to provide Jackson-themed music and commentary as the news broke.

However, an article in the Boston Globe today, “Live Radio Takes the Lead: Canned Programs are Set Aside as DJs and Fans Celebrate Michael Jackson,” points out that the Boston airwaves did have some success in terms of satisfying fans. According to the piece:

The death of pop megastar Michael Jackson brought new life to Boston radio this week, as local stations scrambled to capture the moment. Station managers called for all hands on deck, replacing automated voices with live talent to talk about the man and the music, take calls from nostalgic listeners, and saturate the airwaves with Jackson’s hits.

It was a historic day in an era of corporate radio, controlled play lists, and canned voices. At Mix 98.5, DJ Lady D played Jackson tunes and interviews from 7 p.m. to midnight on Thursday, the day of Jackson’s death. Caught in a week when the regular morning team was on vacation…the station called in three of its top personalities from around the clock, who sat together yesterday morning, live on the air.

In cars, living rooms, and offices, listeners set aside the solo experience of their iPods for a day and gathered around the radio to tap into something bigger – memories of college years, albums shared by millions across a range of musical tastes, dance hits two decades old that can still fill a dance club with another generation of fans.

“It’s a good reminder of what live radio can do, of the role that radio can play in bringing a community together,” said Scott Fybush, editor of Northeast Radio Watch in Rochester, N.Y.

Many stations no longer have live announcers, using canned voices for part or all of the day, and so can’t react to a major news event, he said.

Jammin’ 94.5 called back its morning crew for a second shift after the news broke. They talked about Jackson and spun his music until midnight. The pop icon was the only topic of conversation on Kiss 108 yesterday morning, and Oldies 103.3 played nonstop “Thriller,’’ “Billie Jean,’’ and other Jackson favorites all day…

The article also points out that some stations were unable to react, either because they didn’t have live DJs or didn’t have enough music in their collections:

There were some outliers yesterday, stations that did little to acknowledge Jackson’s passing, sticking to their usual focus and format. WBOS 92.9 fired its DJs last year and now features canned announcers between its alternative rock hits – “voice tracking,’’ as they say in radio – all day. It played just two Michael Jackson covers by other artists, said program director Ken West.

Most telling of all is speculation that this sort of communal grieving experience across radio may soon become a thing of the past:

Jackson had more fans across a broad spectrum of listeners than perhaps any pop figure of his generation, radio executives and music critics said. Fybush, the Northeast Radio Watch editor, observed that with more stations abandoning the live, local personalities of the past, “this may really be the last of these moments as far as music radio goes.’’

It’s so fascinating to me that the way that people listened to music on Thursday night may have been a radical departure from the way they listened to music on Wednesday. And, I agree, that it suddenly brought everyone back to the past, when radio was local, live, and communal. Is it possible that this will have any sort of lasting impact on radio?

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