by Fred Deane
When you win the assignment to program The River in Nashville, it’s kind of like hitting the career lottery. It’s a station (and city) that exudes a very special music discovery heritage and environment that few other markets can match. The constant vibrancy of the city for the diverse artist community it possesses gives an opportunistic and imaginative force like Shuford ample opportunity to exercise his creative freedom and affinity, and apply it directly to the WRVW brand.
Jonathan recently celebrated his three-year anniversary at the station, and in that period of time he has managed to master the art of all of the aforementioned qualities and has established a further indelible imprint of The River into the fabric of Smashville, USA.
You’re just over three years into your programming stint at The River. In what ways has Nashville exceeded your expectations regarding the vibe and culture of the city?
Well my expectations were pretty high, as I’ve had a love affair with Nashville for a long time, but I think the one thing that’s taken me by surprise is how diverse the musical tastes of Nashvillians are. There’s still a reputation out there that Nashville is “Country music central” and it’s just not true. It’s a town that just loves music, no matter the genre. Someone you run into on the street could have a playlist with the whole Drake album, a slew of Taylor records, Luke Bryan’s entire catalog, and a handful of Leon Bridges songs. No one cares what “category” you put songs in, great music is great music. Plus, I know a ton of Country industry folks (and artists) who listen an awful lot to 107.5 The River.
You’re one of the more perceptive “music” programmers. How has your passion for music blended with the music tendencies of The River and also of Nashville in general?
I think my own musical tastes are (really for the first time) in line with the station I program. I love Pop and Alternative records, and that’s The River’s bread and butter, but I’ve also learned to appreciate Country music a little more. Not to say that I was categorically “anti-Country” before taking this job, but I never really paid attention to the format, and there’s some truly incredible artists on Country radio (Maren Morris, Dan and Shay, Kane Brown, Thomas Rhett to name a few) that are blurring the lines of what you would traditionally expect to hear.
You recently concluded the third season of your River On The Rooftop series. Can you trace your thought process back to when you initially conceived the idea?
Dude, I wish there was some really grand story here that made me look like some kind of a savant, but it was really (as most good things are) a happy accident.
Back in 2016 we had DNCE coming to town on the Selena Gomez tour. Lucas Romeo from Republic reached out and said the band wanted to do something “cool and unique,” not your typical station lounge. Rooftop bars were starting to become a thing, and I like alliteration so “River on the Rooftop” kept popping into my mind. We found a venue (Hard Rock) that saw our vision and let us basically do a lounge on steroids on their rooftop. We popped 75 VIPs on the roof and then closed off part of Broadway (an adventure in itself) to let people watch the show for free. We had no idea what we were doing or if anybody would come, but 1,000 people showed up.
Capitol wanted to bring Troye Sivan in a week later, so we pitched the same concept, and that one was sheer pandemonium, like 2,000 people down on the street and teenage girls chasing his car down 2nd Avenue. It was that second show with Troye where we really realized we were onto something.
Did you ever expect it to grow into such a grandiose event and have the impact it’s had on the audience and the city?
I definitely thought we could grow the series, but I don’t think that in my wildest imagination I ever envisioned it turning into what it’s become. This year especially was surreal. If you would have told me that in our third year we’d be putting on free shows on the biggest rooftop in Nashville with two Grammy winners and eight #1 songs, I would have laughed you out of the room. Part of that’s a testament to our team constantly striving to make each event better than the last.
But a lot of River on the Rooftop’s success can be attributed to our listeners and their passion and excitement for the music. Time and time again, artists have told me how they were blown away with how engaged and attentive the audience is, and how they sing every word to every song, even the ones that aren’t necessarily the hits on the radio. It’s just a very “Nashville” vibe, and I’d like to think that our stupid little concert series has done a little bit to help the city’s perception of being a mecca for all things music.
Explain how effective of a platform this is (and could be) for artists?
I hope and believe that it can be incredibly effective. We really have put a lot of effort into making sure that River on the Rooftop events are as good for the artists as they are for the station. For our headliners, it’s an opportunity to do a really unique event in America’s “it” city, and since we promote the crap out of them you get your music talked about a TON during the weeks leading up to the event. Plus, the crowd size is right in the sweet spot where you get great audience response and a huge social media buzz, but not large enough to affect their potential ticket sales for a future tour date.
For newer artists, it’s not only an opportunity to share the stage with some other really incredible acts, but also to introduce their music to a highly engaged built-in crowd. We’ve also had performances from several acts that are pretty new to radio promotion, and we take a lot of pride in making sure they leave us being excited about radio as a medium.
The station has a rich history of artist initiatives, how important is it for The River’s brand to consistently pursue artist involvement with the station?
It’s paramount not only for The River, but for every iHeartMedia radio station, to encourage as much artist-to-listener engagement as we can possibly create. It’s the most prominent advantage we have over every other medium, and if we ever lose sight of that we’re in trouble. But yes, as it pertains to this specific station, there’s a long lineage of great PDs before me that set the table for this brand to be synonymous with unique artist experiences like Acoustic Christmas, Star Parties, etc., and our audience certainly comes to us expecting those experiences.
How have you grown as a programmer in the past few years, and in what areas do you feel you’ve made the most progress?
I’m still relatively new as a PD, so I try to learn something new as often as I can. From a sheer programming standpoint, I think I’ve really developed more of an appreciation for reading records based on a variety of metrics and factors – not JUST callout or JUST streaming or whichever data segment you prefer.
I think the steepest learning curve for me though was the development of true leadership ability. I hadn’t really had a full staff under my watch before, and it’s hard to just walk into ANY business, much less a heritage radio station, and immediately get people to believe in your vision. There’s a very big difference between being a boss and being a leader, and I hope that I’m starting to become more of the latter.
As the current PD of this legendary station, there have been many accomplished programmers who have preceded you there. Can you comment on some of your predecessors who you’ve maintained relationships with?
When you really step back and look at the lineage of great programmers at this station, it’s impressive and a little intimidating. Rich Davis, Michael Bryan, Brian Mack, John Mayer. My goal is to keep carrying the torch a little farther down the path and not implode what they’ve built. Thankfully, I’m in contact with all of those guys on a fairly regular basis, and they’re a great sounding board.
I like to call The River “The House that Rich Built,” because the way he cultivated the brand (and Woody and Jim, our morning show) is directly responsible for the success the brand still has today. His fingerprints are still all over this station, and he’s one of the best that the company has to offer. Michael Bryan is Mr. Bigger than Life. A radio station shouldn’t just be a radio station, it should ooze lifestyle. Everything with MB is big. Big events, big imaging, big everything. B-Mack is one of the best guys in the country for analyzing data, and John had (and still has) some of the best Pop ears out there. It’s nice to still be able to work closely with all of them in some capacity.
You’ve always been an advocate of utilizing social media as a marketing tool. Are the social media platforms more effective today than in the past or have they plateaued to a degree?
I don’t want to say that social media has plateaued, but the way that we use it certainly has changed. It’s still the most effective marketing resource we have, but it’s not a spam and promotional free-for-all anymore. Facebook has become much more of a content creation platform as opposed to a promotional arm. Twitter is our absolute best way to create that direct artist-to-listener engagement that we strive for, and Instagram is the “cool factor,” the carefully refined brand-building tool and digital face of the radio station.
So yes, social media is still incredibly effective, as long as you treat each one as a unique opportunity instead of trying to use them all to accomplish the same goal.
How far do social media platforms go relative to your pursuit to understand your target audience better?
It’s our new request line and focus group all wrapped up into one. Such a large portion of our audience uses Twitter and Instagram as their primary communication tool. If we make an effort to engage them it cannot only help us understand better how to program to their wants and needs, but also deepen the station-listener relationship.
Given the current state of the Pop music cycle with all of the big hits leaning Rhythmic, how do stations like The River (and other like-kind stations) balance this trend with what your brand expectation is?
It’s a constant challenge and point of conversation within my peer group. It’s the balance of “play the hits” versus “brand essence.” Traditionally, The River has been a very adult-leaning station that thrives on Pop/Rock product, but to your point the big buzz records are all Rhythmic like Cardi B, Drake, Post Malone, Khalid, etc. They’re not the sound that our audience typically expects to hear, but they’re the biggest hits out there so you can’t ignore them. We just have to be very diligent in balancing the music by heavying up on recurrents that fall into our core sound codes. If you listen to us right now, you’ll hear a lot of Pink, Maroon 5, Taylor, Justin, and twenty one pilots in our gold and recurrent category.