Radio’s Most Innovative: Austin City Limits Radio [INTERVIEW]
Exploring an innovative new partnership between Austin City Limits and KGSR/Austin, Jacobs Media sat down to chat with Emily Parker, the Program Director at newly created Austin City Limits Radio to discuss how the partnership came to be and where the station is headed.
Guest post by Fred Jacobs of Jacobs Media Strategies
Today, we dust off those coveted “Radio’s Most Innovative Awards” to recognize a new initiative that has nothing to do with technology – and has everything to do with partnerships.
Last month, Emmis' AAA formatted KGSR/Austin made a bold, innovative move, joining forces with the iconic Austin City Limits, known for its flagship TV show, music festival, and unique culture.
The creative branding accomplishment was made possible through a licensing agreement with Austin City Limits Enterprises, the organization that created and manages the long-running, award-winning music television show Austin City Limits.
This isn’t the first time Austin City Limits Enterprises has entered into this type of agreement. The annual ACL music festival is a partnership with C3 Presents/Live Nation. And the ACL Live concert series is presented in conjunction with the Moody Theater, an Austin concert venue.
Here's a 1-minute video that explains ACLR's statement of purpose:
To find out more about how the idea came together and what it means for the station’s future we spoke with Program Director Emily Parker.
Jacobs Media: How did this idea come about? Who dreamed it up?
Emily Parker: The idea to become Austin City Limits Radio came from our afternoon host and long-time KGSR staffer, Andy Langer who has known Tom Gimbel, the President of ACL Enterprises and GM of Austin City Limits, for quite some time. They actually had a passing conversation about the idea a few months before it happened.
After many conversations over the years about how to continue to evolve the KGSR brand to meet the expectations of the market, Andy and I were discussing another evolution of the playlist over the summer and talked about what we could do that would be significant and noticeable. He came back the very next morning with the BIG idea derived from his conversation with Tom.
JM: What was the initial reaction from management and what were the biggest hurdles inside the station and the company that you had to overcome to make this happen?
EP: Thankfully there were positive reactions from both our team here in Austin and across Emmis. The beautiful part is that once you grasp the real context of an idea like this; it’s easy to get buy-in.
There were certainly lengthy discussions about when and how it should be executed, but I think very early, we were all on the same page and wanted to see this happen.
JM: What concerns or issues did the people from Austin City Limits raise when you approached them?
EP: Austin City Limits has been an absolutely wonderful partner. They were easy to work with from day one, and I think we both saw the advantages of the partnership. For us at KGSR: association with one of the biggest and best brands in music, period. For Austin City Limits, a 24-hour radio station, based right in their namesake city, a place for people to consistently discover and interact with their brand.
JM: How do you see the unique opportunities for KGSR as a result of the partnership?
EP: Clearly our first opportunity is to better serve our listeners with the playlist. We’re now a true audio reflection of what’s happening musically in our city combing the artists that will be playing the television show, the venue and the music festival (and have played those entities historically) with KGSR’s fantastic heritage of incredible artists we’ve helped establish in the market.
Beyond that I think we don’t yet grasp all the opportunities that can come of this. For the first time (to my knowledge) you have, working in-tandem, a long-running music television show, music festival, music venue and now radio station. We’ve certainly had discussions with our other licensing partners but the full extent of how we’ll work together has yet to be uncovered.
JM: To your knowledge, is this a broadcast radio first?
EP: There have certainly been partnerships between, say, a music festival and radio station – but to create a multi-year branded partnership with such an established music entity – I’m certainly not aware of anyone that has done it before.
JM: Austin is an amazing music town, and the radio market is deep with stations trying to reflect it. What advantage does this partnership provide KGSR?
EP: The beautiful and frustrating thing about running a heritage AAA station like KGSR was that everyone had a different interpretation of what Austin “sounds like” and by extension, what KGSR should “sound like”. If you moved here or began listening to KGSR in 1990, your interpretation of the sound of Austin is drastically different than someone who moved here in 2008 or 2018. It led to a lot of conversations about music not being a “good fit” for the brand, and at times we were failing to play massive artists that were doing big things in our city. It was also such a challenge – one facing many heritage AAA stations – to both honor listeners who have spent decades with the brand and keep it modern, fresh and relevant for a rapidly expanding city.
Now, you’ll hear just as eclectic a lineup on Austin City Limits Radio as you will at the Austin City Limits Music Festival: Paul McCartney AND Childish Gambino; Hozier AND Metallica. We can also hone the playlist to reflect the Austin City Limits Television show tapings and airing schedule which, just in the last month or so, has featured Buddy Guy, Alessia Cara, and Khalid.
This puts a modern twist on the age-old “inch deep and mile wide” radio philosophy. We're playing a wide variety, but with a filter for quality and artistry that both KGSR and especially Austin City Limits have always been known for.
JM: With a music mix as wide as the festival lineup and Austin being a PPM-market, will this change make it difficult to generate ratings when more focused formats are the norm?
EP: The mix not only includes artists in the festival lineup, but anyone who’s played the iconic television show or the award-winning venue: ACL Live at the Moody Theater. We're able to really hone in on what matters in Austin but we're doing that with PPM in mind. It's important to us that the station sound modern and current without being so deep or eclectic that it's not accessible to the casual music fan.
In fact, I think this approach gives us a better position in PPM for two reasons. First, this alleviates concerns about the playlist being too “mainstream”. In a market like Austin it makes sense for Hozier, Nathaniel Rateliff and Elle King to be played next to Bazzi, Halsey, and Khalid.
Secondly, we're partnered with a worldwide brand, instantly recognized by true music lovers. I spent a couple of weeks this summer in the UK and saw an Austin City Limits t-shirt almost daily. So, if I'm packing my bags and moving to Austin, chances are my first radio preset will become Austin City Limits Radio.
And rarely, if ever, in 2018 do I discover a listener that stays in only one lane. In this age of streaming, we all hop from genre to genre and perhaps love Chris Stapleton as much as Kendrick Lamar. We're working to make this station a better reflection of that — the important music of our time — and less about a “format.” It's an aesthetic and a really exciting opportunity to program a radio station based less on genre and more on authentic music and musicians that are making a big name for themselves.
JM: And to that point, will the ratings be as important for the station down the road or will success be more about leveraging the power of both your brands?
EP: In the current environment – yes, ratings are crucial. That said – branding and music events, NTR, are equally as important. KGSR has worked for 28 years to build some of the best music events in the city: Blues on the Green, Unplugged at the Grove, and our annual live broadcasts from SXSW and the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Our drive to bring live music to the Live Music Capital certainly hasn't waned; and that will remain a critical way to connect with both our listeners and sponsors in this new partnership.
JM: What has the initial response from the advertising community been like?
EP: Overwhelming excitement. This is such a beloved brand in our community, and it's opened many doors for us from the outset.
JM: In your opinion, does this make the station more local, more of a national brand or both?
EP: From the outset – local. We've retained our amazing partnerships with local nonprofits like HAAM (Health Alliance for Austin Musicians), SIMS (which provides access and financial support for mental health and addiction recovery to Austin musicians and their family members), and the Austin Parks Department. We still plan to throw our massive free summer concert series, Blues on the Green.
The focus when we consider adding a song from artist A vs. artist B will be, “What's their impact on Austin?” “How do they stream in the market?” and “Do they have a show/festival appearance/taping coming up that our listeners need to stay apprised of?” That said, I think with the use of streaming applications, our listening base will be spread across the country. People who come to visit can take a piece of Austin home with them through Austin City Limits Radio.
JM: Speaking of streaming, how does this change impact the station’s digital footprint? How are you handling things like website, social channels, the mobile app, etc.?
EP: The transition to becoming “Austin City Limits Radio” from a digital standpoint has been relatively easy (though don't repeat that to our Director of Digital, Kim Douglass – she made it look easy). We didn't fundamentally change what the brand stood for – great music in Austin, Texas. So really what it meant was changing a few names and logos – and continuing the same mission, with a similar voice. We’re just working with a much larger footprint now with a lot higher ceiling in terms of the audience we can reach.
JM: Andy Langer now has the title of Brand Marshal. What does that mean?
EP: One of our most tenured staff members, Andy has always been very vocal about what is “on” or “off” brand for KGSR (and now Austin City Limits Radio). A true Austin music expert – Andy does an incredible job of re-directing the ship when we temporarily lose sight of our real mission and focus. He's the perfect sounding board for ideas and works diligently to book Blues on the Green every summer and sequence our “Broadcasts” CD series.
So, of course, he's protective of the brand. The title's also a play on “Grand Marshal.” Andy hosts a majority of our live broadcasts and studio sessions, has also hosted the Austin City Limits television show, and emcees Willie Nelson's New Year's Eve shows at ACL Live at the Moody Theater each year. If the city had a music parade, it'd probably be led by Andy Langer.
JM: And does this merger mean you get great seats for every ACL show?
EP: HAH! I expect that question quite frequently. Our licensing deal is with the parent brand, Austin City Limits, not specifically the festival or venue. We'll continue to do business as usual with the other Austin City Limits licensees- but with a new lens for the artists that fit the brand and make sense.
Thanks to Mike Stern for creating and producing today's blog post.