by Fred Deane
Jonathan Shuford and Josh Reich have natural chemistry as evidenced by the following comfortable exchange of ideas between the two of them. Both have also exhibited a high degree of professionalism throughout their careers, and both have risen to positions of prominence at their respective companies.
Shuford began his career in 2003 at WABB in Mobile, the historic secondary station that launched many a programmer’s career. In 2007, it was off to Tulsa to oversee both KTBT and KTGX. In 2012, iHeart shifted Jon to Louisville to take the reins at WNRW and WLGX. His next step was a bump up to power rotation at WRVW/107.5 The River, Nashville’s legendary Top 40 outlet, where he followed a predecessor class of some of iHeart’s most respected and accomplished programmers, and has been raising the creative programming bar there on a consistent basis since his arrival.
There’s a reason Josh Reich has ascended to such an integral role in the prestigious WB promotion department. Based in Chicago, Reich provides an ideal balance of job expertise, dedication and passion for the well-respected promo team. After spending 1996-97 in radio, Josh found his career destination path when he landed at Interscope/A&M Records in 1998 as a promotion assistant in his hometown of Chicago. In 2000, he sampled a taste of indy promotion as he relocated to Cincinnati and joined Tri State Promotions. In 2003, he joined current WB co-execs Peter Gray and Dave Dyer at RCA Records, when the latter two were promo exec players for that label at the time. At RCA he rose from Regional Rep in Cincy to National Top 40 Director based in Chicago. In 2011, Josh re-joined Peter and Dave as VP Top 40 Promotion & Digital Strategy, where their team synergy has been working on all cylinders.
Josh: When we met you told me that programming The River was your dream job. As a young PD what made that gig so desirable?
Jonathan: Well part of it is nostalgia-driven. Growing up near the Alabama-Tennessee line, I grew up listening to Y107/The River and always thought it sounded bigger than life. Then as I got deeper into the industry I came to respect how influential the station is musically and how many big songs and artists have broken off of this station. As a programmer who loves music above all else, that was a really desirable quality for a job.
You’ve been successful programming stations in vastly different markets with vastly different sounds. What did you learn in Tulsa and Louisville that’s helped you in Nashville?
I think that regardless of format or lean, the same basic rules apply: know your audience, super-serve them, and create a big can’t-miss brand that they feel connected with. For me, KTBT in Tulsa was a really good lesson in knowing your audience. We started with a very urban-leaning Rhythmic station but knew that the only way to grow our listenership was to start steering the ship to a more Pop-friendly approach.
WNRW in Louisville was a fairly new signal fighting an uphill battle against a heritage stick. It afforded me the opportunity to experiment with different marketing and promotional tactics and really learn how to create a brand that resonated above all the noise in the market. The success we had with that station will always stick with me as one of the things I’m most proud of.
Who have been the most influential programmers during your career and what are some things you’ve gained from each of them?
I’ve been really fortunate to work with and around some incredible people that all excel at different things. Jammer (now at WEZB/New Orleans) is a master of marketing. Alex Tear can make anything sound big on the air. Don Cristi in Tulsa is the best leader I’ve ever been around and I try to copy his approach with my staff whenever I can. Corbin Pierce taught me a lot about a work/life balance, which is sometimes the most difficult part of this job.
Since I’ve been in Nashville, I’ve learned an enormous amount from John Ivey, Michael Bryan and Gator Harrison about being an executive and being able to step away from the day-to-day grind and see the bigger picture.
You’ve started a pretty cool live music series. How did the River on the Rooftop series start and how were you able to scale it up so quickly?
Thanks for the kind words. Honestly, River on the Rooftop was sort of a happy accident. Over the summer of 2016, we had DNCE coming into town when they were opening for Selena Gomez. It was right at the peak of “Cake By The Ocean,” and we knew with their personalities we wanted to do more than just a typical lounge.
We have some really cool rooftop bars in downtown Nashville and we reached out to Hard Rock about doing an acoustic show on their rooftop. We invited a few VIPs to be on the roof, but then shut down part of Broadway so that it turned into basically a free street party. We learned way too much about city ordinances and permits in the process, but the reaction was amazing and we just felt like we were really on to something.
Since then we’ve brought in Hailee Steinfeld, Charlie Puth, Noah Cyrus, Jordan Fisher, Hey Violet, James Arthur, and more going into what will be our third year in 2018. It’s become a recognizable summer staple in Nashville and a lot of fun to put together.
Woody & Jim celebrate twenty years on 107-5 next year. How have they been able to connect with Nashville listeners for so long and with so much success?
Dude, those guys are the consummate pros. They’re easily the most accessible personalities I’ve been around. They truly do make our listeners feel like family, and are so quick to look for opportunities to be “Nashville’s morning show.” Everyone feels like they KNOW Woody and Jim, not just as guys on the radio but as friends. We’ve had so many perceptual studies done on the show, and time and time again listeners are able to create character definitions of Woody and Jim that honestly couldn’t have been more accurate had we written them ourselves. They’re also never afraid to evolve. I think it’s easy for any of us to get in a routine, but they’re constantly searching for ways to break the routine and make the show better.
One quick follow up regarding W&J. Can you elaborate on the latest prank they pulled on you…and will you ever take a vacation again?
Oh, man. I’ve never been so close to getting kicked off an airplane. My wife and I flew to Seattle for our anniversary the day after the CMAs. I logged on about two hours into the flight and noticed that #WoodyAndJimCMA was the #1 trending topic in Nashville. I tracked the hashtag and all I saw were angry (but really vague) comments about something they said about the CMAs on the show that morning. I got texts and emails from my bosses asking what had happened, but I couldn’t get answers from anyone.
My first thought was “Crap, I’m gonna spend my entire vacation on the phone trying to find a new morning show.” I definitely cursed very loudly on an airplane with several small children around me. Turns out that they had asked their listeners to help play a prank on me by pretending something terrible happened on the air. They even gotten my SVPP and Market Manager involved in the joke. Honestly, it was brilliant. They took ownership of the biggest night in Country music and made it all about them. They also shortened my life expectancy by ten years, but I can’t be mad at them for it.
Not every programmer I’ve worked with has dressed up as a donut for a promotion. How did that promotion come about, and should other PDs try being a stunt guy every once in a while?
Wow, that’s digging in the archives a little bit. I think I had been here for maybe like three months. It was right after the infamous Ariana Grande donut-licking incident, and we had her for a concert in a couple months. So we did a scavenger hunt to “find the River donut and lick it” every day for a pair of tickets and the chance to meet her.
It was the middle of summer and like 100 degrees so that donut smelled like death by the end of the week, so to whoever licked me on that Friday…I’m sorry. I don’t know that it’s necessary for the PD to be the “stunt guy” (although I did have a blast with it), but I do think it’s an important quality for leaders to be willing to do the stuff they ask their co-workers to do. If I’m not willing to wear a donut costume for a few minutes a day, why should I ask someone else to do the same thing?
Regarding music, how do you make local decisions that are best for 107-5 listeners, while trying to also keep an eye on what’s working nationally and within iHeart?
We’re fortunate enough to have research, which is a godsend, and I think with the sheer amount of data at our fingertips it’s important to make decisions based on a data collective basis as opposed to just one piece of information. Some songs will take forever to call-out but may stream and Shazam almost immediately. Others may react more slowly and you just have to trust your gut to let them evolve into a hit.
How do you deal with THE CHART and how much significance does it have on your music decisions?
The chart is definitely a useful tool for tracking the national landscape on a song, but it’s a reference point, not a programming tool. Too often on both sides of the industry we’re using the chart as the most important measure of a hit. Just because a song is in the Top 10 doesn’t mean that it has to be a power or sub-power on your station. And just because a song peaks at #11, it doesn’t mean that the song was a failure. I think we all get way too caught up in where a song is nationally versus how it’s being received locally.
We’re all talking about streaming these days. When looking at River music how does streaming (nationally/globally/in Nashville) affect your music meeting?
It’s a big part of what we do. Not every record is going to be a huge streaming hit, but it’s a pretty good immediate indicator of what songs people care about. Whereas callout usually takes six or more weeks to actually mean something, we can track how our audience is consuming a record almost on a daily basis using tools like BuzzAngle, and that information is gold for an industry that constantly has to be in the moment. It’s certainly not the only tool in the toolbox, but it’s a pretty important one.
The River has a long history of breaking a certain type of record. Do you think the labels idea of a “River record” fit the reality of 2018?
To an extent, yes. The perception is that if it’s a guitar-driven record or a singer/songwriter, it will be a hit at The River. I don’t think it’s necessarily that plug and play, but certainly those types of records have a tendency to react more quickly in this market than in others that I’ve been in. So, yes, the idea of a “River Record” is pretty accurate, but it doesn’t mean that those types of songs automatically work or that Hip-Hop songs automatically won’t.
Radio has an image problem. People think it’s dying. How do we fight that perception on a local and national level?
It’s a perception that’s been out there for decades, yet radio continues to be the #1 mass reach medium, reaching over 93 percent of consumers each week, so it’s definitely just a perception. Technology is certainly changing (it always has) and the way people consume radio will change as well, but radio as a medium will still exist.
Today, broadcast radio accounts for 90% of all listening. Digital listening accounts for about 10% of all listening (including ALL digital, not just iHeartRadio), but with our digital service, iHeartRadio, we are able to seamlessly extend our brands and the franchises people love to the computer, mobile phone, or any other device the consumer may want to use. Your cell phone is just another radio.
Remember that people thought radio would die when TV became a thing and families no longer huddled around the radio every night for “Fireside Chats.” Then in-car listening took off. And then the Walkman. And like mentioned, now we’re in the era of smartphones and in-app listening via iHeartRadio. What some may not see are the steps that are already being taken to make radio a part of the American fabric for years to come, even if the delivery method evolves.
What are your goals, both personally and for The River, in 2018 and beyond?
Personally, I’d like to sleep more. I think between the job and having a toddler that’s probably unrealistic though. From a career standpoint, I’d just like to keep learning but also mentoring other PDs where I can. I think where we as an industry can further grow is in developing new programming talent.
It’s critical to identify the next wave of programming stars and put them in situations where they can really fine tune their craft. For The River, the goal is to continue to grow into a station that becomes a “must-stop” for artists. We’ve developed a pretty diverse array of options to suit any caliber artist that comes to Nashville, and we really pride ourselves on being able to deliver a positive experience for both the talent and the fans. I really want Nashville to be up there just behind New York and LA as no-brainer stops for any artist’s promotional campaign.
Bonus question: Who do you hate more, the Cubs or the Bears?
Right now, probably the Cubs because they’re good. Hard to hate a football team that hasn’t had a legitimate quarterback since I was a toddler. But, let’s be clear about one thing, they both suck and all of their fans should be ashamed of their poorly chosen allegiance.