Saving Radio: JB Hager gives his perspective on the state of Austin radio.

As little as a year ago I was a very defensive guy about my job in radio. Turns out, nearly everyone has a very strong opinion of my industry. The most common thing I’d hear is that “corporate radio sucks.” Yes, some highly paid and well-dressed professionals would stoup to use the word “sucks” often catching me off guard. Some would clean it up, but their message was very clear—they were done with the current state of radio.

I was lucky enough to get into radio just before deregulation, which led to large companies gobbling up radio stations. It was the end of an era. Gone were the mom-and-pop radio stations and programming from the heart. Because I witnessed this watering down of radio happen slowly over a 20-year period, I was in denial that it had taken place.

But here’s the truth: Radio listeners have left in droves because, as they put it, “radio has lost its soul.” And I don’t blame them.

The main reason I was in denial over the state of radio was that I was still part of a local radio show. In my mind it was more like a local business, not part of the giant.

But last year my radio show contract was not extended. Turns out, that day might have been the greatest day of my career. Only time will tell. While it didn’t feel like it at the time, the cleansing of that bad radio environment slowly started to unfold.

The day following the announcement of my departure, I received a call from Bob Cole and his partners. Bob, a corporate radio defector and Austin radio icon, has been recapturing that old spirit with the launch of KOKE FM. Unbeknownst to me, there were plans to launch another. Bob immediately reassured me. “I know what you’re going through. I’ve been there. But I assure you, it’s going to be just fine.”

Sandy, my radio partner of 18 years, rejected his offer to stay, and as he put it, “I didn’t want to see you go over there and have all the fun while I was stuck here.”

Wanting to make radio we were proud of, we launched a new station in April. The hardest part has been unlearning corporate habits. We have no boss, no committees, no daily criticism. Instead of our show’s financial success going to corporate, our profits, modest as they may be, now stay here in Austin. How refreshing. It’s revitalized my passion for the industry.

This career change has enabled me to look at the industry more clearly now, and see the true state of radio. Right now, corporate radio is all about the numbers and playing top-10 songs, not programming from the heart. It’s all mandates, conference calls and keeping your head off the chopping block. It’s a sad state of affairs for local and emerging artists.

Since becoming part of a locally owned—yes, mom and pop are there everyday—radio network, I’ve fallen in love with radio all over again. Now we’re trying something new and cool to preserve Austin radio and local culture, while giving listeners what they deserve, and it’s worth checking out.

Austin is a unique city and deserves programming that’s made for Austinites. If you’re looking for something more out of your radio station, check out The Horn, KOKE FM and The Fringe (105.3), which Sandy and I launched in April. A mix of new progressive music, classic alternative, rock and hip-hop, The Fringe is enough to make any corporate programmer cringe. But it sounds like a great day at ACL Fest, doesn’t it?

JB Hager can be heard as part of the JB and Sandy Morning show on 105.3, The Fringe 6-10am weekdays.

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