by Fred Deane
Sassy began her career at Channel 963 in Wichita as a part-timer about eight years ago. Her talents were rapidly recognized and she quickly ascended to her first programming gig in 2014, where she joined 1037 KISS FM as PD/afternoon talent.
As a millennial PD, Sassy speaks for a new generation of programmers who are intimately in touch with a new generation of millennial and Gen Z listeners. Her understanding of the culture of these groups allows her to advance an agenda that all programmers are striving to capture these days…connecting with the younger audience!
Can you tell us a little bit about the radio and cultural features of the Chattanooga market, and what other markets do you feel have similar music tendencies?
It’s a crowded and competitive market with many local signals. Chattanooga is a melting pot that goes against the grain when it comes to the typical Top 40 listener. The listening audience consumes us in their cars heading to work or school in the span of 30 minutes on Interstate-75, and they aren’t afraid to give new music a try. Community involvement and relationship building are a big deals and KISS makes these a priority. As for my perception of similar markets, they would include Birmingham, Nashville, Knoxville, Atlanta and Charlotte.
How do these traits of the market inform your overall programming philosophy?
If something is trending locally but has not made it to mainstream Top 40 yet, I play it. Programming is curated based on the tastes of our local communities. Lil Tecca is a perfect example of this. I’m not going to wait until he’s #1 at Urban radio to start playing him. I played it immediately and now he’s making inroads in Top 40 overall.
Given the nature of your market and listening audience, what types of music do you generally feel most comfortable with regarding natural fits for the station?
It’s not uncommon for us to play a Country song that hasn’t 100% crossed over. Sam Hunt and Dan + Shay are examples that we played early and often. Top 40 and Country share a lot of crossover audience in Chattanooga, so the natural synergy between the two styles exists. Country superstar Kane Brown is local and we’ve played EVERY Top 40 crossover song he’s done. I met him recently and the first thing he said was “1037, right? Chattanooga?” When you’re local, they know!
Do you consider yourself more of a “gut” music programmer, or are you more data-oriented when it comes to evaluating music?
Shazam, local downloads, and streaming are all great tools. Social media allowed me to discover Blanco Brown before the label said anything to me.
I just knew in my gut that the Kane Brown & Marshmello song would connect. Once I heard “One Thing Right,” I thought this one’s it. We’ve had good success with Marshmello and I believed this is who Kane needed to colab with to have a crossover hit.
As a rule though, I’m a mixture of both. I’ll play the hits but there are some artists you just have a feeling about and you go with it. Lil Nas X is an example of me going with my gut on both “Old Town Road” and “Panini.” Lil Tecca was also a gut call. “Ransom” wasn’t even a thought at Top 40 and now he’s making an impression across the entire format. I felt confident in it.
You’re a relatively young programmer. Who have you drawn inspiration from throughout your career to help mold you into the programmer you are today?
If I were to mention all of the numerous people who helped shape my career, we would be here all day. I’ll mention some current ones who inspire me.
Michael Martin (smart programmer), Pat Paxton (strong supportive leadership), Justin Cole (patient, supportive, autonomy to his people), Howard Stern (pioneer), Mike O’ Meara (his transition to podcasting was inspirational), Weezy Kramer (leadership qualities), Brian Kelly (very astute programmer), Erik Bradley (great ears), Todd Cavanah (empowers his people), Kevin Weatherly (competitive spirit), Nathan Graham (perceptive programmer), Nichole Hartman (role model), Stephanie Callihan (positive energy), Pam Russo (innovative leader), and Mijo (strategic programmer).
I also have to mention Jeff Sottolano, Liana Huth and the whole Entercom digital team. I love both programming and digital, they are married to each other.
Of the multiple responsibilities you have, what aspects of your job do you enjoy the most?
Talking to listeners and meeting other programmers in the business. When I go to a concert, I’m excited to meet the performers and other industry colleagues.
I also enjoy the great relationships I’ve cultivated with label partners, many of whom I speak with daily. We’ve moved up in our careers and maintain close ties. When I moved to Chattanooga, Lucas Romeo was one of my local reps. Now Lucas is the VP of Top 40 Promotion at Republic Records! I still send him texts reminding him that he’s still my local and I don’t care how big he gets. I’m so proud of him. Truly.
In general, how have you adapted to the Entercom culture now that you have been two years under its wing, and what aspects of the company culture do you admire the most?
Two things stand out to me since I’ve become a part of the Entercom family. First of all there’s David Field, the Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Entercom. He announced he was coming to Chattanooga to welcome our market into the fold. I’ve never met the CEO of any radio entity in my life, but I’m a fun person so I sent an email to him as a joke that stated, “We are taking a selfie!” The next week David walked into my office and said, “You’re Sassy? Where is our selfie?” His time was short and he had meetings to get to, but the man who is the head of an entity with over 170 million people listening each month sat in my office and talked to me like we were old friends. I made an analogy to radio regarding his Super Bowl Champion team that year, the Philadelphia Eagles, and he said, “That’s a good quote.” He used my analogy during his talk with my Chattanooga colleagues while I was sitting first row and gave me credit for it.
If he needed me in Philadelphia, I would drop everything and go. You don’t forget moments like that in your radio career.
Secondly, there’s Brian Kelly. My first time talking to him he already knew my history with K-Pop and he brought it up before I did which I thought was so cool. I was bracing myself for the “play the hits don’t play K-Pop speech” and it never came. I met Brian, along with Michael Martin recently, and they both gave me compliments and encouragement. My heart jumped out of my chest but I had to play it cool.
You have long been an outspoken advocate for the significance of K-Pop music. What value have you and your station gained in supporting the K-Pop movement?
It’s amazing to be talking about this because when I started out playing BTS, there was a VERY small group of programmers playing them. I’m not talking “Mic Drop,” I go back further than that. I was playing their first attempt at radio, “DNA.” I had been listening to K-Pop for a while but it was something about THIS band and THIS era in music where I thought, “This is good…this can WORK.”
Now BTS is the biggest band on the planet and every programmer wants a piece of them. Because of BTS’ dedicated fans, ARMY, of which I’m proud to call myself a member, my station is one of the top TLH/audio Top 40 stations at Entercom. It’s also created new local partnerships like the one we now enjoy with our Triple-A baseball team, the Chattanooga Lookouts.
They put up a billboard birthday sign for a BTS member, J-Hope, and it caused a local and international buzz that even J-Hope himself acknowledged on his birthday while talking to BTS fans.
My radio station account and the BTS ARMY created a viral meme that involved Steve Aoki and Pantene. It was so successful we received recognition from Twitter at their summit from Pantene and by Steve Aoki himself who recorded a video. It never would have happened without BTS.
What is your vision for the future of K-Pop at the Top 40 format regarding more mass acceptance by programmers?
Radio is still resisting, and I understand both sides. BTS is singing and rapping in Korean and we are an English-speaking country, but radio also made “Despacito” a huge hit and it’s almost completely in Spanish.
The demand for K-Pop in the states is becoming bigger so it’s moving out of the niche genre and into the wider Top 40 genre. Look and observe how many K-Pop acts you’re going to see on Christmas shows this year. Their fans are passionate and willing to spend money to support them. I hope by next year the demand will be even bigger and more programmers will join me in playing K-Pop.
There are fewer female PD’s in our business relative to males, and there are even fewer African-American female programmers. Do you feel that women in general are making inroads in the industry regarding advancement in decision-making positions?
Women have made inroads in almost every other industry, but the graying of radio has been offset by a self-imposed talent drought.
From where I sit there IS an upside: nobody has been better trained to overcome an imposing learning curve more gracefully than women, especially women of color.
There’s more of an appetite for our flavor now than ever. Audiences still love radio and are also consuming more audio overall. They flock to digital alternatives as well.
Case-in-Point: Lil Nas X had the single longest-running #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. A gay, black Country/Hip-Hop crossover artist that represents Generation Z and now black culture, is now simply POP CULTURE.
The other piece is that America is more diverse and millennials and Generation-Z have grown up without the homogenizing effect of mall culture and artistic gatekeepers. Authenticity sells and no matter how carefully you research it there’s an experience that black Americans share that can only be tapped by someone who’s lived it. That translates to marketing, positioning, music selection, and even on-air delivery.
The industry needs more diversity in decision-making positions if it’s going to survive the next decade. I think women from all backgrounds are ready to step up.