Interviewed by Michael Laskow

This month we're doing an interview that comes from a whole different place. Instead of putting you across the desk from a record or publishing company executive, we're jumping to the other side of the fence — radio.

We've chosen Mike Morrision, Program Director of what is arguably the most powerful Adult Album Alternative (AAA) station in the country, KSCA in Los Angeles. Mike's an unassuming guy who represents the new breed of radio people. We hope you enjoy his insight as much as we enjoyed interviewing him.

We'd like to thank several of our readers for suggesting we do a radio-related interview.

Where did you grow up?

I spent the first third of my life on Long Island. I moved to Los Angeles when I was eleven and stayed here through high school. Then I moved back East for college—the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. So I guess I really grew up in New York and in L.A.

Did you have a normal childhood, or were you one of those kids who started opening the backs of radios at an early age to see what was inside?

I never opened the back of a radio—I just listened. I wasn't into radio so much as I was into music. One of the stories that was told more frequently by my family was how impressed they were when I was two years old that I would hold a record by its edges. That was apparently some sort of sign that I had an aptitude for music. But I did gravitate to a radio station—WABC in New York which had a cum (audience) of about 12 million people at the time—in the late '60s and early '70s. I was glued to it. I would just listen to those hits over and over and over again.

What was your first gig in radio and how did you get it?

My first gig in radio was as a DJ at the station that was licensed to my university. I talked my way into the training program. The thing was that all of the other students wanted to come in and play the Cars and the Doors and Led Zeppelin, and this was a very esoteric radio station. Because I started developing musically at such a young age, I had a higher sort of consciousness of music, and I could actually express some honest interest in Phillip Glass and some of the more esoteric things that they were doing. They had a punk rock show in which I was real interested because there were all these new songs coming out of that show. I remember hearing Pylon and the Cramps and the Psychedelic Furs very, very, very early on. This was around 1979 and 1980. I followed the radio station. I'd write their newsletter and I talked my way into their training program. I was interested in jazz music and they had a jazz block at night. That was all they needed to hear—that I knew who John Coltrane was (laughter). I got myself a jazz show on the station. The way the management of the station was structured, students held certain positions. Certain positions were held by paid professionals, but the program director and the business manager positions were held by students.

How long were you there before you became program director?

I think I became program director in my second year, but it wasn't really like being a "program director." My job as program director was to distribute the air shifts, and the DJ's were all community volunteers. I didn't really have much power. The music that was played was pretty much already established just through tradition and history. To call it a "program director" is to glorify it too much. After I graduated, the music director job opened up. The music director job was a paid job. I applied for that and landed it, which gave me more influence.

How long were you there in total?

I was there 14 years. I started in 1980 as a student and I left to come to L.A. in 1994. About halfway through my career a new general manager came in and he had a vision for what the station would be. I was interested in doing some of these new things and we ultimately developed what became a 24-hour adult alternative radio station, which is what it is today (WXPN in Philly). I was music director a long time. Somehow I became program director again, but this time in a paid capacity with actual real employees. We had started hiring real jocks to take the place of the volunteers and we turned it into a real radio station. That was really when I started my career that eventually led me to L.A.

What is the difference between a music director and a program director?

It really depends on the radio station. Some program directors very much rely on their music directors to discover the music and define music. Usually a program director will have the final say as to what records are going to go on the air. Some program directors are more musically astute than others. I happen to be very aware of what's going on in music so I don't really rely on my music director to hip me to new bands because I'm aware of them myself. Another difference may be that the music director is totally involved in music and the program director is really no more into music than your average listener and so has the music director play them a bunch of songs. Maybe the PD is more of a layman musically. The program director is really responsible for a lot more than the music. They are responsible for the overall sound of the radio station which involves production, marketing, jocks, what the jocks sound like, and what they say.

It sounds like the program director is similar to vice president of A&R in charge of the department, and the music director is like an A&R scout that goes out and finds music?

Yeah, at a lot of stations though, the music director doesn't always have a lot of say. Obviously if you can get the ear of the music director that's good, but if the music director likes something, it doesn't necessarily mean it's going to get on the air. If the program director likes it, it's going to get on the air.

Explain the chain of events that begins after a group or artist has finished their record and handed it over to the label. Who do you hear from at the label and how often do you hear from them?

There are a few different levels of promotion people at each record company. You have nationals and locals. Nationals tend to specialize in a certain format. The VP of promotion oversees all of the nationals. You'll have a national promotion person for Top-40 radio, one for Country radio, one for Alternative and one for Rock radio. Then in each market, you'll a have a local promotion person who is responsible for all the radio stations in that market no matter what format. There used to be more local promo guys out there than there are today. Very often now, a local promotion person will have a territory that could stretch over three or four states. For instance, the L.A. locals also service stations in Vegas, Phoenix, some of them go to Hawaii, depending on the label. So we'll hear from the nationals and we'll hear from the locals. There are also independent promotion people which is another layer. A major label has the ability to double the nationals and the locals on you and they may have three or four indies working the same record. One advantage that a major label has is they have a lot of people who can call a radio station. Their business is to develop a relationship with either the MD or preferably, the program director.

I picture a promo guy calling up and going, "Hey Mike, you gotta play my record. This record's great, babe, you gotta play it!" Don't they just drive you nuts?

That's the old school. There is still a little bit of that but I think what promo people have learned over the years is that you can't just ask somebody that you have no existing relationship with to do you a favor. My perception of what goes on in promo-land is that promo people look for ways to do favors for you first.

As in "I'm going to send you and your wife to Hawaii?"

Sometimes it's as blatant as that, but that's considered kind of sleazy. They don't hassle you for awhile. They do you favors. If you're the guy from A&M Records and I call you up and say, "Can you send me five copies of the entire Sting catalog because I'm doing a promotion for this Sting concert?" You'll say, "Yeah, no problem," and get that stuff for me. Then if a new artist comes out on A&M and we're playing the artist, you might call me up and say, "Listen, I want to do a deal with you. I want to bring the in band and I want to do some kind of special event where your listeners get to meet them."

Better yet if it's an artist that actually has some kind of profile like Tori Amos. If somebody comes to me and says, "We want to do a Tori Amos promotion with your station and we'll give you a [special event] and let Tori Amos play for 25 listeners. It will be exclusively your thing." These type of things build up. Then when the time comes, they're not necessarily going to say, "Hey I gave you that Tori Amos promotion, now you've got to play my Bobgoblin record." But they've developed a relationship with you. You feel a certain obligation to reciprocate in some way. In my case, I don't reciprocate by adding a record I don't believe in, but certainly a record that comes from that person is going to get higher up in the pile of things I listen to. I may go back to it more times. I'll take that person's call as opposed to somebody else's, because I can't talk to everybody. I, as the PD, can't talk to everybody, but I do talk to some folks.

What does it mean to you when you see that a label has hired indie promo to work a record? What is the benefit to the label? Is it just an extra person that you might have some sort of relationship with, or does it say to you, "I'd better listen to this record again because the label is obviously behind it?"

It really depends on the situation. Very often indies are hired just as a matter of course. I know a lot of people who work at labels who say, "I can't believe they wasted the money on an indie. They could have spent it on 'x.'" There is a lot of competition among label promo reps and indies. Whoever calls the add in first [to the label] gets the credit for it. A lot of times, an indie might call and take credit for an add that they really had very little to do with. Or a local promo person might call an add in that the indie was actually really responsible for—it was the indie that fed the key piece of information to the PD or the MD that got them to listen to it one more time, got them to hear it. Every station is different. Every station has different ears, different ideas of what could work, and want to know different pieces of information. It's the responsibility of these promo people, whether they're national or local or independent, to know [how the stations operate]. Every station has other stations that they look at. For example, an add on KFOG (San Francisco's major AAA station) is meaningful to me.

So it's probably somewhat analogous to what we do in the A&R community in that it's all about relationships and length of time you're doing it. If you have five relationships in your first two years, they're your friends. They're going to do you favors because you like to hang with them, go grab a burger and a beer with them. Ten years from now, that promo guy might have 55 guys like that so he becomes more valuable and more powerful. But then radio personalities change, so now the guy who was a younger guy three years ago and only had those five contacts, is now actually hotter than the older guy who becomes a "has-been" because all of his people have retired somewhere.

Oh yes, exactly.

How many slots do you have on your playlist, and how many are open in any given week? How hard is it to get into them?

I have about 50 slots for current songs. I think when we first went on the air, I probably had about 85, but I cut back considerably. Fifty can seem practically unfillable at times, and other times fifty can seem ridiculously limiting. Right now there is a Dave Matthews album out, there is a Hootie and the Blowfish album out, there is a Cranberries record out, there is a Jackson Browne album out, there is Sting. Being a self-respecting adult alternative radio station, I'm going to be deeper (playing more cuts than just the single) into those records than your average hit-oriented station. With Hootie, I've got three songs in, Dave Matthews I've got two, Sting I've got three, that's eight. Cranberries, probably two. So it adds up. Plus, once you go on a record, you need to stay with it. Tori Amos came out awhile ago, but you don't stop playing it just because a new record comes in. You want to make a commitment to a record and keep it in there for at least six weeks, preferably more.

How many spins a week does it get if it's in that fifty and you're committed for six weeks?

Minimally, seven to nine.

Any concentration on day-time versus night-time, morning drive versus evening drive?

The seven or eight spins a week records are more likely to be played mid-day, nights and overnights than they are in the drive-times. The fifteen spins a week records play all day parts. There are some who would argue that adult alternative/Triple-A stations should just crank their rotations up much, much higher.

What determines how a record moves up in rotation or on your chart?

It could be phones, it could be sales, it could be airplay in other markets or on other stations in our market, or it could be just that I like it. The first time I heard "One of Us" was when Joan Osborne played at Luna Park ( a local LA club). I heard it and said, "That song is a smash." I went back to the station the next day and put it on the radio. I think I put it in "power" [rotation] within a couple of weeks because I was so convinced that it was a hit. I was on the phone with Mercury everyday going, "What's going on? When's the video going to be done? Come on, you gotta get this! This is it! This is gone daddy gone!" To look back now and see that I was right is gratifying. No one told me to play that. No other station was playing it.

Do any stations have a voting system or committee process for picking what gets on the air, or does it really just boil down to the music director and program director?

Generally it's not voting. It's also more than just our ears. There are a lot of factors that go into whether or not we play something. I think one of the reasons KROQ (the nation's leading Alternative station—ed.) is so successful is because Kevin [Weatherly, KROQ PD] has kids on staff who are in the [target] demo[graphic] who he can rely on to give him an idea of what his audience would like. That's why you see these records that you've never heard of, like The Offspring. These kids go, "Yeah this rocks!" and the station says, "Okay, let's get it on there."

Do the DJ's ever get to pick what they want play?

No, it's all pretty much scheduled. The way our station works, though, is there are specialty slots which we pick together, so Nicole (Sandler—morning jock) will suggest stuff and I'll say yea or nay. For "Funky Friday," she'll get to pick out four funk songs to slot in one per hour. We work on that together so she gets her freedom that way. The music director Marilee Kelly, who also does the mid-day air shift, schedules her own show. I do the afternoon drive show, so I get to tweak my show the way I like it. Mimi Chen at night has the "Local Spotlight" show where she features one unsigned local band every night.

So many unsigned artists press their own CDs these days. Do these people have any chance of getting their stuff on the air on stations that count?

Well, there are always exceptions. We played Willy Porter from Milwaukee. He developed a following, got on the air and sold records in enough markets outside of Milwaukee [to come to our attention].

How did he get on the air initially?

He hired an indie radio promoter. She had a record that got the attention of certain key people—at least on a public radio level. He was a Milwaukee local who—through whatever stories were developed at other radio stations in other markets and from just hearing the song—cut through to me at a time when it made sense for me to put that record on the air. Dar Williams is another one. They're both on little independent labels.

Very often when an independent record comes in and my first question will be, "Is it from L.A.?" because I lower the standards slightly for things that are from here because I feel it's important for a station like ours to champion local music and to really seek out and find the cream of the crop and showcase it. But in general, we get submissions from a lot of artists and very often I find myself dismissing some of them as another city's local band. They're another station's responsibility, not mine. Most of the time, the music doesn't really rise to the level of say, a Willy Porter.

If the music is there and there is enough of a 'story' somewhere to peak your interest—it may be that only Milwaukee is playing the record and it's a Milwaukee artist, so that doesn't get your attention—but if it's being played in Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis and Bloomington, then you're going to wonder why those stations are playing it. You'll be curious enough to put it on, and if the music rises to the occasion, it gets on the radio. Is that how the fire starts?

Exactly. In some cases, we'll start playing something, give something a shot—Willy Porter is a great example again—and all of a sudden the Virgin Megastore is calling me and saying, "What's with this Willy Porter? Who the hell is he? Where do I get it?" Then "We can't keep them in stock!" That's exciting. Even if it's not like Alanis Morrissette, if it never gets to the Hootie level. If a guy like Willy Porter sells 50,000 records nationwide—if it gets to the point where it's selling a couple hundred a week in L.A., that's pretty impressive considering the distribution disadvantages of small labels compared to the majors.

How important is it to you to know that Willy Porter records are going to be in stores before you play it? Did you know if he had distribution out here before you played it? Did you care?

I believe we probably started playing it before it was in any stores. It wasn't so important to me that it was going to be in the stores. I was important to me that once we started playing it and people wanted to buy it that it was in the stores. It's not going to be the kind of record that is going to get into the big chains necessarily the first time out, but he ended up being signed to Private Music which is BMG distributed, and they were able to get it into any store that needed it.

Another example would be this Finn record [Tim and Neil Finn from Crowded House]. Crowded House is sort of a mainstay of our station's sound. The Finn record was out on import only, so it really wasn't in any stores. When you could find it, it was exorbitantly expensive, but still I think our audience wanted to hear it. It is still doubtful that it is ever going to come out here, so I don't regret having played it then (A few days after this interview was conducted, it was announced that the record will be released soon in the U.S.—ed). On the other hand, take the new Squeeze album, which for awhile didn't look like it was going to come out here. We got a copy of it, listened to it, and we needed a song to fill a slot. It sounded great and we started playing it. Then we got a call from IRS Records saying they acquired the rights to this Squeeze record and they were going to be putting it out in June. They asked if we would mind taking it off and waiting until they put the record out. In that case, it was not even a question, of course we'll do that.

Would you explain to our readers the kind of money, clout and effort that is required to break a record at radio on a national level?

It's very difficult to do as an independent. You need to be able to fill the distribution channels. You need to be able to manufacture the product—enough product to satisfy the demand. Do you realize how many records Hootie and the Blowfish sold their first week—400,000 records! What indie label can really handle that?

It has become very fashionable for bands to diss major labels and praise indie labels. What's your take on that?

I think the indie thing is overblown. I think there are some punk rock bands who have sort of very political principles that keep them on indie labels, but even they're falling. Rancid is going to a major. Rage Against the Machine—probably the most political band on the face of the planet—are on Epic. They figure, better to be on Epic as long as they can have complete control over what they do, and their message gets out to more people. The other thing is, a lot of these guys who ran indies are now working at major labels. What isn't getting signed by a major label that is so great that needs to be heard? There was a time like in '82 when Nirvana wouldn't even have been looked at by a major label. It would have needed the indie channels in order to get going. Now there is nothing that is too radical for a major label to sign.

It seems that Triple-A is a format that jumps on and gets behind new music early and is fast becoming a proving ground for new bands and artists who eventually cross over into several other formats and become these huge hits. Who are some of the artists or bands that you feel can really attribute their success directly to Triple-A?

I think the industry sometimes wants to give the credit exclusively to Alternative radio. Almost all of the bands that Triple-A discovered—Counting Crows, Sheryl Crow, Joan Osborne, Hootie and the Blowfish (which really was never played on Alternative radio)—were first played in any kind of real sense by Triple-A radio stations. But I think that Alternative stations have much bigger audiences nationwide and Triple-A airplay can only take you so far. Saturation-level Triple-A play across the board is not going to sell you the kind of records that you need to have a real hit. You need to crossover to another format. When KROQ started playing "One of Us,"—and I can't imagine any other reason that they picked that record up other than the fact that we were playing it and it was selling 600 records a week... but when KROQ started playing it though, it began to sell 3,500 records a week. But why would they have played Joan Osborne? She has nothing to do with Alternative.

Where do you see Triple-A going in the next few years?

I don't care very much about where Triple-A goes—I care where my station goes. I think that our station is an acquired taste. One of the things that most successful radio stations do is repeat songs ad nauseam. We believe as a Triple-A station that it can be done by respecting the music to the extent that we recognize that there is a history and a depth to it—not by beating music to the point where no one can stand to hear it anymore, and not by researching every single record that you play to the extent that it's no longer a question of gut and ear. That's our challenge—to do that and to get enough ratings to stay successful. A successful Triple-A station has the best quality listener of any station—the smartest, most affluent listeners of any format. That's a very sellable thing. We're getting there. It's not an aggressive, in-your-face kind of presentation.

What do you enjoy most about what you do for a living?

Putting together exciting events. One of the things that I'm really proud that I was able to do was lock down a Joan Osborne listeners-only show in September of 1995. The show actually happened before she started getting substantial Alternative airplay. If I had tried to put the show together at that time, it would have been much more difficult because once an artist has crossover airplay, the labels are very cautious about awarding something cool to just one station. But I knew she was going to go big and I made it my business to be on the phone every single day with our Mercury people saying, "Joan's going to be in town for the H.O.R.D.E. tour, does she have a window to come and do something for listeners-only?" I knew our listeners were starting to love her. We locked it down, and two weeks later KROQ went on the record, MTV went on the record and we had our show already scheduled and it was going to happen. It was the hottest ticket in town.

Do you have any advice for bands or artists out there who are trying to make it?

Develop a local following. I know that a lot of the bands that are getting signed and really making it are bands that have really developed a fan base, a sales base, and a mailing list at a local or regional level. Major labels are calling local retailers to find out what's selling and then going in and signing those bands. That's how Hootie got signed. That's the story. Collective Soul, the same thing. No one believed that Hootie could be a hit except the guys who knew that it was a hit because they saw it being a success on the local level.

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