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When a Music Legend Dies, How Does Today’s Mostly Automated Radio React?

Terrestrial stations don't always have someone in the building when a major figure passes, but there are fail-safes.

Aretha Franklin died on August 16, the latest music legend to leave the stage forever. Sadly such obits are appearing at a steady clip these days as aging musicians give way to cancer, heart attacks or years of alcohol and drug abuse. For terrestrial radio stations, properly honoring those artists with deep dives into their catalog poses a challenge, as does simply delivering the news.

In the analog days, when someone died, you grabbed a stack of LPs and created a tribute on the spot. There was always a jock on the air since radio was live 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That’s not the case anymore as consolidation and technology have simultaneously shifted radio stations from live talent to automated and pooled content.

At thousands of stations, airshifts are entirely tracked, meaning there are many hours of the day – and especially overnight – when no one is in the building. So how do broadcasters react when an Aretha or a Tom Petty suddenly passes?

Big radio groups along with the syndication companies that provide prep services for stations have a protocol. First in line is the station’s program director who is in charge of all content locally and can remotely break into the automation from anywhere, even a cell phone, if need be.

At Cumulus, which operates nearly 450 stations nationwide, the parent company also offers help. “We work with [production house] Benztown to develop special salutes to the artists; vignettes and pieces of information that people can play,” says Mike McVay, Executive Vice President of Content and Programming for Cumulus Media and Westwood One. PDs can decide whether to use the pre-produced material, which includes self-contained segments, interview clips, and music montages, but McVay notes that often it’s not just music stations that pick it up, but also news and talk stations in the Cumulus network.

Beasley Media Group’s Vice President of Programming Buzz Knight says they are blessed with a depth of talent at heritage rock stations like WMMR in Philadelphia and WDHA in New Jersey. Along with Beasley’s digital media team, the company mobilizes quickly when an important musical figure passes. “We try to pool our resources with the help of our format captains to be able to react,” he says, adding that today’s news cycle “is pretty rapid.”

iHeartMedia’s Chief Programming Officer & President of National Programming Tom Poleman sees his company’s role as that of a uniter. “We’re the platform for communities to both grieve and honor an artist that’s meant so much to all of us,” he says of the network’s 800-plus stations. “How we pay tribute can differ depending on the artist. For example, when Prince died, many of our stations immediately shifted to all Prince music. Stations took on-air calls with grieving listeners and also had interview clips and personal stories that they shared as well. There also was a Prince tribute digital station created on iHeartRadio, where we have a huge digital and social platform.”

Chris Booker, who hosts afternoons on Los Angeles’ KAMP, concurs with the communal nature of the radio dial. “While isn’t necessarily viewed a ‘sexy’ medium, radio is still the main place to gather when an artist passes,” he says, offering a recent anecdote. “I was in an Uber the morning when Aretha passed and KTWV was on. Pat Prescott, an African American woman who commandeers the morning show on 94.7 The Wave here in L.A. was sharing her thoughts on another black woman who literally changed the world. It was beyond moving. I didn’t know the woman driving my car, she didn’t know me, but we both sat silent listening to her share memories. it was a real connection and not just some shallow social media moment. Two breathing humans next to each other in a small space, being fans and feeling!”

Prep services can be a life raft in these cases too. Ira Robbins, a VP at Premiere Networks and the Editorial Director of Premiere News and Prep says he has “editorial staff nearly around the clock, and we’re all on constant standby, so we respond when the news breaks regardless of [what time] it does. We have been able to publish a full package within 10 or 15 minutes of the news reaching us.”

That goes for iHeart, too. “We are a 24/7 platform,” says Poleman. “It doesn’t matter when, we work in real-time.”

Of course, it never hurts to be prepared. Adds Premiere’s Robbins: “We have put some effort into identifying significant figures who are chronologically or physically in the risk zone and prepared obits with audio.”

Paying tribute by going deep into an artist’s musical catalog, however, can be trickier. Even if the shift is live, storage of an artists’ songs – likely on a hard drive – is not a complete archive of their work. Often, the station will have at their means only the most played songs by that artist, tunes that are tried and tested and maybe a little tired. So while “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” may be at the ready, the Queen of Soul’s game-changing “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What’s I’m Gonna Do)” might not be immediately accessible. Or conversely, a soft AC (Adult Contemporary) station may regularly play Franklin’s “Freeway of Love,” but her older Atlantic work, or even her 1986 cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” might not make their regular rotation criteria.

Indeed, music stations are so heavily researched, that even for the most-played artists, only a handful of songs get played. Classic rock and classic hits formats are not immune to this trend. And while we live in a time when practically every song ever recorded is accessible immediately through our phones, there’s not really a way to “plug in,” as it were, and access your Spotify account.

For its part, Cumulus has devised its own proprietary system called Stratus Music which gives program directors remote access to a huge music library for all formats and allows a simply drag and drop into the local station’s playback system. iHeart also has a similar system. “We are not limited on what we can play,” says Poleman. “If a station or personality wants to share a song from an artist that they feel is meaningful, they can easily do that.” And Beasley is working on a Wide-Orbit type system, which is mainly used to access and schedule commercials, “to be able to have that centralized library,” says Knight.

These fail-safes aside, there’s nothing quite like having a voice live on the air when an artist of importance passes. It’s an opportunity to open up the phones and engage with listeners, share memories, and play a lot of music, including – and especially — songs you don’t often get to hear.

“Losing a Queen like Aretha is a gut shot to music and to culture,” says Booker. “Knowing that there is a place on your radio dial where she has lived for, literally, decades gives fans a place to feel, rejoice and remember where you were when she was the soundtrack to your life.”

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