March 25, 2015
Like most young kids who fall in love with radio, Jay Stevens wanted to be a DJ, just a guy on the radio. He had no real desire to be a programmer. His radio career began while attending the State University College at Brockport in Upstate New York, where he worked at stations in Rochester — and was fired for the first time. Welcome to the business, kid. He then moved on to Indianapolis as a music director, and then to Lansing where he landed his first PD job and came to the realization he really wanted to program stations and lead and teach others. He returned to Rochester to program WBBF and WMJQ before taking a job as PD at WQUE in New Orleans. Then it was on to Y95 in Phoenix. All that led Stevens to the nation’s capital, where he would spend two decades as VP of programming for WPGC.
AT WPGC Stevens helped take a good station and make it great. He loves radio today as much as he did when he was a little kid and his parents would take him to the mall so he could watch live broadcasts from a local radio station. “I guess I’m good at it because I’m so passionate about it and I love it so much,” he says. “I can’t get enough of it. The famous saying is, ‘If you chase your passion, you will never work a day in your life.’ So maybe that’s it. I just love what I do.”
Today, as senior vice president of programming at Radio One — a job he’s held since 2007 — Stevens is sharing that passion and spreading his programming philosophy throughout the 60 Radio One stations across the country. We picked his brain about becoming a programmer, whether radio is fun anymore, redlining the studio, whether live and local matters, and much more, including the latest format success to hit radio, BOOM. BOOM is a Classic Hip-Hop format started by Stevens and the Radio One team that is now being copied by several of radio’s bigger companies.
RI: When you became a PD, did you know right away you wanted to manage?
Stevens: Oh, yes. Absolutely. I was OK on the air, but I was probably going to be one of those midday DJs who, every two years, has to pack up a U-Haul and go to another town. I thought there was a little bit more stability, where I could control my own destiny, as the program director. I had a lot of good ideas. There was a period of time where I was on the air as a PD, and then I went from being on the air to being off the air and a PD in management. I’m not going to lie: To this day, I miss being on the radio. That was fun. That’s where you get to be creative, and the expressive side comes out. I do miss that, but I have never looked back. Never.
RI: Today you’re one of the most respected programmers in the industry. Why is that?
Stevens: (Laughs) I’m just sitting here doing my thing. I love radio. I’m passionate about what I do. I live it 24/7. This isn’t a job for me, it’s my life. If you ask my wife or my family, this is what I do all the time. I’m listening to the radio on an app somewhere, I’m on vacation and I’m sitting on the beach with an app on my mobile device, listening to one of my radio stations. I guess maybe I am good at it because I am so passionate about it and I love it so much. I can’t get enough of it. The famous saying is “If you chase your passion, you will never work a day in your life.” Maybe that’s it. I don’t know. There’s nobody you will meet in this business who is more “all in” than me, 24 hours a day. I cannot shut it off. I sometimes wish I could have an on/off switch on my brain to shut it off. I can’t.
RI: As a senior VP, have you ever called into a studio if you heard something you didn’t like?
Stevens: (More laughter) You mean on a hotline? Maybe now I would text them, absolutely. Now I won’t go as granular as calling one of our DJs on the air, because if in my role, I call one of the DJs, they are ruined. It’s bad enough if the program director calls, but if the senior VP of programming calls them on the air, they are going to be ruined. I would work through the PD. But there is no doubt, I will alert the PD if I hear something, immediately. Absolutely.
RI: What is the secret to programming a great radio station— not only what comes out of the speakers, but getting the talent to execute it in the way the company plans?
Stevens: I think that is through proper coaching. Our talent have room to maneuver within our formats, as they should. Their job is to be creating. They need to be capturing the moment. In other words, if something serious happens, they stop what they’re doing and they get it on the air. It could be a bad accident or one of the big freeways in town is shut down, and they stop what they’re doing to talk about that. It could be something horrific happens with ISIS. It could be something positive. If something positive happens, it needs to be reflected on the air.
On our younger stations, where new music is important, on the mainstream stations, that is not only pop culture news stories, whether it is Bobbi Kristina [Brown] being found in a bathtub in Atlanta, which is horrible, but it could be a new song we found on the Internet from a mix tape from Drake that we’re playing. That is all part of the urgent, compelling content that makes great radio. Back when I was on the air, the compelling content like that, youwould find on the old newswire. You would hear a bell ringing outside the studio door and you would go rip it off the wire. Now we find it on social media, on the Internet, from CNN on a TV screen in our studio. What I say to our program directors and our talent is, “Each quarter-hour is a show.” So if you do a four-hour program, there are 16 shows. Each quarterhour is a show within your show. So each quarter-hour, you’d better be creating compelling content, whether it’s new music, a factoid about the artist, a phone call, or a contest. The pressure is on. During these quarterhours you had better be creating compelling content. It doesn’t matter what format it is. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing Gospel or Urban AC or mainstream, it goes with any format — creating that compelling, urgent content 24/7.
Read more about Jay Stevens and how Radio One’s BOOM format came about in the current issue of Radio Ink Magazine.Subscribe to all 16 issues on your mobile device for only $49.00 per year.