Trendsetters & Tastemakers: Radio DJs as Curators

From Future Of Music:

This post authored by FMC Policy Fellow Daniel Lieberman.

June’s “Future of Audio” hearing got all of us at FMC thinking about, well, the future of audio. Listening to testimonials from music heavyweights like Tim Westergren of Pandora and Cary Sherman from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) left us wondering how the public will experience the soundtrack of tomorrow.

Over the past decade, music has gone through as many movements and changes as Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” As the medium of listening has evolved, so too has the manner in which we turn on to the artists we love. The digitization of the music industry has ushered in sophisticated means of finding new music — social media, video broadcasting, blogs, and algorithm-based platforms like Pandora are a few of the novel ways that music discovery has been revolutionized and arguably, liberated. Together, these services are helping consumers better ensure that they have the ability to listen to what they want, when they want.

By the same token, now that anybody with a laptop, a microphone, and basic audio software can record an album, there is simply more music out there. In turn, this places more emphasis on smart, efficient ways to find the right music for you at the right moment. As the old saying goes, the past informs the future. So when it comes to music discovery, we expect that one tried and true curation method will continue to play a part in the future of audio — the radio DJ.

We like to think of our favorite DJs as tastemakers, curators and experts — the musical historians that guide us through the crowded landscape of musical culture and point us to some of the most interesting landmarks. Kind of like the reassuring and very British voice of David Attenborough navigating viewers through the harsh environments of our Planet Earth (surely you’ve had that 2 a.m. couch experience?).

DJs are people who roll up their sleeves up and engage with music every day, and help point the musical zeitgeist to its next exciting destination. At their best, DJs scour clubs, festivals, theaters, arenas, and music conferences to report back to us what is worthy of our ears. They are the human element, the air traffic control for music, providing a service can’t be replaced by a series of ones and zeroes.

We think it should be easier for DJs to do what they do best. Which is why we’ve championed community radio and fought against further consolidation in the commercial broadcast sector. Radio is simply too important to our collective culture.

So, as your summer of love rolls on, allow us to steer you to a few radio DJs that are making sure the future of audio is a bright one.

1. Greg Kot & Jim DeRogatis

Where to find Greg & Jim: Sound Opinions Podcast, WBEZ 91.5

Why we love them: Like the Chicago Blues tradition they often cover, Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis are working man’s DJs. From 2 am podcasts at SXSW in Austin, asking tough question’s to lawmakers in Washington DC, to helping artists open up about their creative process, the Sound Opinions duo handles it all and makes it look easy in the process.

Oh, and they are prolific off-air. Kot has pushed the musical conversation forward with his work for the Chicago Tribune and his books Ripped and Wilco: Learning How to Die. DeRogatis also draws from his journalism ethos, blending pointed critique with his wide-eyed love of music. Like Kot, DeRogatis has taken up the pen, notably with his colorful portrayal of The Flaming Lips in Staring At Sound. At the end of the day, what makes these radio veterans so important is that they are all about the music.

Artist they helped us discover: Indie sweethearts tUnE-yArDs stopped into Sound Opinions last July and the conversation with lead singer Merrill Garbus was a intriguing window into the band’s African roots, their grassroots development, and the pitfalls of using a loop pedal during live performance.

2. Sway Calloway

Where to find: Sway in the Morning, SiriusXM, Channel 45

Why we love him: In the past twenty years no other music has experienced quite the meteoric rise and staying power of hip-hop. Constantly evolving, hip-hop is simply hard to keep up with because today it is a universal language, long removed from its once east coast/west coast regional production styles. And on this lyrical journey, Sway has been there every step of the way, be it on our television screens with MTV or more recently in our headphones with SiriusXM. An artist in his own right, Sway’s recording career undoubtedly serves as a well for the clear, thoughtful, and timely commentary he delivers on subject matter far broader that just hip-hop music. What other radio host can talk about Frank Ocean, a Nas comeback, and house music without missing a beat?

Artist he helped us discover: Remember that era when Outkast was on a hiatus from music and there was an unfilled void in hip-hop, particularly when it came to Southern rap? It was during this time that Sway pointed our ears to DJ Drama and the rest of the Aphilliates Music Group. We took Sway’s direction and the artfully crafted mixtapes have not stopped since.  

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