New York's WKTU leans classic dance, letting its long time PD slide overboard

For the past 4-year’s, Jeff Z., program director at New York’s only dance radio station, WKTU, managed the to fill a giant void that’s existed in one of the largest radio markets in the country. Simply put, he programmed new dance music hits by pop and crossover dance artists, digested by young twenty-somethings who spend their summer weekends cruising the Jersey shore looking to hook up or driving into Manhattan to meet friends and go for a roll at the now defunct Twilo, Tunnel or Sound Factory nightclubs.

Recently, Jeff found himself jobless, as WKTU’s parent, Clear Channel, moved to not renew his contract. He will be replaced by Rob Miller of the popular Long Island, New York station, WALK 97.5 FM. Miller seems to have been able to keep WALK-ing to the #1 slot in the ratings on the Island, but it remains to be seen if the 17-year radio veteran can transition to the big city and really feel the “beat of New York.”

Although I’d heard about the shake up, it wasn’t really on my radar. Mainly, because I rarely, if ever, listen to FM, playlist driven radio. In its current state, the format is simply dead to me. Programmed by lopsided call outs to regional listeners, computers crunching statistics and special interest manipulation (can you spell P-A-Y-O-L-A), radio playlists are so tight and repetitive, I simply have turned a deaf ear.

In the car, I generally listen to talk radio. When I want music, I turn to satellite radio. Specifically Sirius’s dance music programming, if it’s available to me in a rental car. On my computer, I launch the iTunes radio guide, click on dance/electronic, and stream channels like Music One or one of the other web based stations to choose from.

A music industry colleague asked me if I thought fate had caught up with Jeff Z.; that he was on the chopping block because he played cookie-cutter dance music. I couldn’t really answer the question objectively, because I didn’t have much information to go on. I thought it was an important enough topic to go home and research. And, voila…this posting ensued.

The industry colleague of which I write, PR and Marketing guru, Lainie from Aurelia Entertainment, wanted to know if I thought he’d lost his job mainly because he generally played it safe by programming generic, pop dance hits and rarely, if ever, adding widely received records in clubland to the weekly morning and afternoon drive shifts. The same music introduced during weekend late-hour dance music mix-show’s programmed and mixed by high profile DJs likr Paul Oakenfold, Liquid Todd and Tiesto. If fans of the station were tuning in every Friday and Saturday night to hear the hottest dance music, then why don’t those records transition into regular playlist rotation? She pondered whether that had something to do with the change.

After doing some online research and brushing up on the topic, I learned that the almighty Clear Channel, the nation’s largest radio conglomerate, is moving KTU classic dance in order to compete with upstart, WNEW 102.7 FM, a competitor that experiencing recent success with the classic dance format. Although 102.7 has taken some market share, WKTU is still ahead in the ratings.

If one were to define the classic dance radio format, they might say it contains disco influenced music, including such greats as Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King’s, “Shame,” the Brothers Johnson’s “Stomp,” and Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough.” I’m going to assume the classic dance format will also bring back early-90’s club classics like, “Finally” by Ce Ce Peniston or “Show Me Love” by Robin S., but I can’t be certain, since, as I said, I don’t listen much to FM radio anymore.

The New York Daily News spoke to Jeff Z. about the change. He seemed to take it in stride, understanding that Clear Channel needs to make sure the station continues in its number one slot for the format. The higher the ratings, the more ad dollars for the station’s coffers. A public company, Clear Channel must report quarterly profits or face the ire of investors. When profits go down, complaints go up. And you thought arguments between two queens at the Roxy over whether Junior Vasquez is a better DJ than Danny Tenaglia were bad? Ha! Wait until you have to report to people who actually invest REAL money in what you do.

For someone who clearly loves to break new music (whether that music is good or bad is a matter of opinion), classic dance was just not a format Jeff is comfortable with. So, he’s agreed to move on and pursue other opportunities. Will those opportunities be in radio? Jeff says in the Daily News article, he’ll wait to make that decision when he returns from his October 21 wedding. Although he does say that he definitely wants to be working with new music, not old. And, he’s not sure if that even exists in radio, so he may look outside the radio industry to find it. Maybe, he goes to satellite, like everyone else seems to do. But, the emerging digital radio spectrum coming on line may improve Jeff’s chances of programming another dance station in New York City. Digital radio will allow a station to create four channels from it’s single digital channel, which will greatly increase the offerings on over-the-air radio, but that has not happened yet.

Turning to Lainie’s original question; now that I’ve done the research, no, I don’t think he was let go because he didn’t play enough NEW dance music. He was let go because he didn’t want to program OLD dance music. Usually, dance radio program directors and mix show coordinators are villified in the dance music community for not playing enough new dance music, lol. In this case, one clearly sees the opposite is true.

I’m sure you’re all wondering, why is KTU turning to classic dance? And, why is that important to the average Joe -radio-listener, tuning in? I think I know the reason; it’s not because I’m privvy to any insider information or that I truly understand the radio industry. It simply has to do with demographics and economics. Who’s your audience and how do you make money off of them?

Early in this posting, I mentioned all those crazy, club going kids, right? Well, those 18 to 24-year-olds have turned the corner and are now young adults with enough cash to buy iPods, purchase laptops and install satellite radios in their Audi A4’s and BMW 3251’s. They don’t listen to traditional radio anymore, because they can get music for free or at low cost (if they decide to pay for it, which I think a certain portion of them now do or iTunes wouldn’t be so successful). They can decide when and how they want their music, simply programming it in whicever rotation they feel and however they want consume it.

All this, of course, has a tremendous effect on the advertising market, which needs eyes and ears of those lost listeners to feed itself. But, the young, hip listener has since moved on to get their music from competing media interests.

(Note to dance music Interet sites: Get LEGAL! Start learning how to generate revenues from banner and audio ad networks. Stop living in the, “oh, I do this for the love of it” and learn how to make generate some revenues so you can give back to the industry and help it grow. Oh…and stop giving companies like Beatport and Numark banner trades, because they are out there making a killing while you slave over the HTML and give your ad space away because you get a free mixer or some free downloads. By doing this, you’re keeping the ad rates in the marketplace down.)

That being said, traditional radio corporations like Clear Channel are realizing the trend and are now looking to divest themselves of stations or target a different demographic. The Internet is chipping away at their monopolistic business model and with that goes their ad rate premiums. For growth and shareholder value, KTU has begun the switch to cater to an older older audience, not as tech savvy audience listening to radio in the car.

That begs another question: would WKTU survive if they were to program quality dance music like Kaskade’s “Here I Am” or David Morales’s, “How Would You Feel” in afternoon drive? We’ll never know now, will we? What we do know is that there are hundreds, if not thousands of Internet dance radio stations, legal and illegal, download or streaming, playing quality dance music. And, this is where the real dance music fan is, somewhere in a tangled maze of web sites on the Internet, trying to figure it all out.

Somewhat realizing it, but maybe with not enough business savvy enough to know, these small web casters and download sites, whether legal or illegal, have changed the paradigm in dance music forever.

(Note to dance music record labels and artists: if you’re not on the web, you should retire, because that’s where people listen to dance music. Stop wasting your time at radio and start building online web destinations that are meaninful. Support Internet sites, because that’s where your audience is.)

Despite all the amazing possibilities, the dance music industry online is both inconsistent and extremely fragmented. Except for the given few, many web sites are incapable of monetizing their platforms, and it’s all virtually untrackable anyway. When someone finally decides to invest the money in sorting this mess out, only then will we really be able to aggregate the information needed to fuel the industries growth. Without those mechanisms in place, we can’t prove anything to anyone, and that limits our ability to charge higher ad rates, or monetize listenership and readership, which in turn fuels growth of the genre.

By maintaining independent, ultra-competive, and at times, negative and self-destructive attitudes in dance music, instead of finding ways to cease fighting over the pennies on the dollar left on the table by hip hop, latin, country and even jazz/classical, the dance music industry will continue to shoot itself in the proverbial foot.

Because there is less money to go around in dance music, the nature of the medium finds a certain number of its leaders uneducated in the digital music business or general business practices on the whole. In a world of one hit wonders, dance music labels both rape and pillage themselves and their fans by forgetting to cultvate talented, passionate recording artists over the long term, signing one-hit wonder dance music producers who will never be able to connect with the mainstream audience in a meaningful way, simply because they just don’t sing or perform any of their music.

The other day, when I actually did have the radio on for a trip up to Morris, NY, I heard an advertisement for the “Roger Sanchez produced…” and the “Bob Sinclar produced…” such and such artist performing at such and such a venue in New Jersey. Truth be told, I forgot who the singers were, because I knew the producers better. So, how can we as a dance music community stand up and deliver artist driven records? I’m just not sure we can, since we are so immersed in the age of the producer as an artist. How do we resolve it? It takes time, and who has the time to lead the effort for positive change? It’s not that no one is doing it, it’s just that its happening in few and far between places.

One could attribute the stagnant growth in dance music to the millions of dollars needed to affect change amongst the mainstream music audience, which just isn’t there to. Hip Hop has that kind of money, but we dance music industry folk, do not. And that inhibits us from telling the story and growing the business.

Where hip hop has a “hip hop week” certified by New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, with performances and art exhibits, restaurant specials and parties, dance music is not tying the move to classic dance radio as a rallying call to introduce people to the history and culture of dance music, which could potentially give it some roots from which to grow again. Most people know the story behind Run D.M.C., LL Cool J. and Public Enemy, and they have followed Dr. Dre, Nas, Eminem, Jay-Z and Diddy through to today. We just don’t have that kind of interest in dance music.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t find much wrong with listening to producer-driven artists. If people want to purchase producer-driven albums with featured vocalists, be my guest. But, the days of developing song-driven artists, like Ce Ce Peniston, who’s album spawned two or three radio hits and crossed over into the mainstream; C & C Music Factory, who dominated the pop charts; and the Pet Shop Boys, whose early records received mainstream radio play, seem to be long in the past.

There are so many great dance music songs that just never make it to the radio, because people just aren’t supporting the vocalists as artists, they are supporting the producers as DJ gods who spin their own records from the DJ booth. I’m one of those guys, but I still love to play strong songs and am always excited when someone asks me who the artist was. There has to be room for both, so you can merchanise those artists.

So, that’s my opinion, for what it’s worth. Look forward to reading some comments!

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  1. Strobe says:

    First, it's a shame that KTU went the way it did, as a longtime resident of NYC, I was there when it switched from Country to Dance music. And yes, while the new dance it played was pretty much a “New York” dance sound (nothing wrong with it by the way) centered on remixes and original songs by producers like Johnny Budz, Hex Hector, Chris Cox, Peter Rauhoffer, and all that “every track sounds the same” dance rock phase, it did at least play new music. I can remember KTU before the urban influence of the r & b/reggaeton seeped into the format. It used to be a purely up-tempo and classic dance station but has unfortunately had to cater to a corporate interest, as well as a wider terrestrial listener base. It would have been nice if they had adopted a more global dance sound and played more music from producers like Dirty South, Mylo, and yes Kaskade. There are so many genres of dance music that were left untouched.

    Secondly, as you touched on, terrestrial radio has never had this much competition before. You have legal and illegal Internet radio and MP3 download sites, podcasts, iPods, satellite, digital music stations, mix CDs, etc… The average listener is no longer forced to choose just the radio or a CD. Why listen to someone else’s playlist when you can make your own and have 20,000 of the songs YOU want to hear at your fingertips. Apple’s iTunes alone has sold over a billion legit MP3s, and sold over 14 million iPods in the last quarter of 2005 alone.

    Lastly, I wanted to comment on your comment on producer driven dance music. All music, regardless of genre, is produced by some producer. Part of the division between producer driven and artist driven has to do with the artists themselves and the scenario. Many producers/DJs find new talent and break them which warrant the Producer featuring Artist scenario until that singer becomes an entity unto themselves. At the same time when you have someone like Ultra Nate, Colette, or Madonna you’re going to have them as the artist and the producer is more of a credit, especially when the artist or label hires the producer as opposed to the producer seeking out a vocalist for an original production. Take Madonna for example, her last album had her hiring some top producers including Grammy Award winning Stuart Price aka Jacques Lu Cont but it remained a Madonna album. Usually when an artist becomes established and has paid some dues they are given proper credit, usually, not always. For my latest singe, I enlisted 2 unknown singers in the dance industry Charles Berkhouse and Barry Snyder to do the vocals. I wrote, performed, and produced the music; all I needed was a vocalist, so putting them as the artist didn’t make sense in this scenario. They are not signed to me, they are not having an album produced by me, they are vocalists I hired for this project, and while it would be nice if they used this opportunity to springboard to other deals this project is a Strobe record not a Berkhouse Snyder record (although they have produced their own original tracks which should be coming out soon.)

    The dance industry is small enough as it is; I feel anything that helps keep it alive is all good.

  2. Lainie says:

    Well done 😀 I totally appreciate you putting it all on the table. Great blog! Oh and we have a suggestion….when I mentioned on the phone how hip hop fights in the media are stage to hype sales…..a colleague suggested – we should stage an Arming Van Buuren vs Tiesto gun fight…thoughts?

  3. Tony Zeoli says:

    To Strobe:

    You make a valid point about the record being more about Strobe than about the vocalists you're hiring to sing on the record. But, grant me this: why does it have to be about Strobe and not about the vocalist's who are connecting the dots for fans of the music? I'm not saying you shouldn't bask in the glow of stardom, but there's less revenue in it for you, if it's just you. So, you do a few DJ gigs, you sign some records, etc… But, where is the merchandising, where are the sponsorships, where are the 30,000 seat arena tours? As a DJ, only a very select few get to that level, if at all. Madonna can pack MSG six nights in a row, but Oakenfold sure can't. My point is, that dance music needs it personalities to be upfront, singing to the people, because that's what they really want. They want to know their artist instead of knowing a guy who's twiding knobs behind a DJ booth. The want to see and interact with the artist, who can speak to them through the vocals and be present with them by interacting with them. As a DJ, that's difficult to do.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm not slamming the fact that you're hiring vocalists to sing over your tracks. That's fine, if that's what you want to do. My question is, don't you want to do more than just that? And if so, why not commit yourself as a producer to developing talent instead of standing in the spotlight yourself.


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