Like many country-music-loving Quad Citians, our family starts its day with WLLR playing as the soundtrack. This past week I stepped behind the scenes to observe DJs Pat Leuck and Dani Howe perform their popular morning show from WLLR’s studio in Davenport, IA. I also gained some insights from mid-day host and Senior Vice President of Programming Jim O’Hara about what goes into choosing songs for the station’s play list.
Today’s Country WLLR 103.7 is owned by iHeart Media, which also owns WOC, plus Mix 96, KISS FM, Q106 and a few other smaller stations. According to Nielsen ratings, WLLR is the number one station in the Quad City market for listeners ages 12 and over, and has been for every rating period since Fall 1989. Leuck & Howe’s show has been #1 for the 6-10 AM period in 7 of the last 10 rating periods.
The studio is about the size of a small classroom, lined with large windows overlooking lots of trees. (I had envisioned a dark, basement-like space.) Dani Howe stands in the center of a U-shaped workstation with various mikes, keyboards, computer screens, plus a central mixing board at her fingertips. Her co-host stands nearby at a similar station.
The DJs each keep a close eye on screens in front of them to monitor a color-coded log or “road map” they follow as the show progresses. The log is programmed by the station’s traffic manager; it signals when the DJs need to introduce a new song, accept callers for a contest, thank a sponsor or fill time with back and forth quips. While I was there, the DJs gave away tickets to an October 8 show with Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy at The Adler and a Dustin Lynch show.
Dani moved to the Quad Cities 20 years ago, after attending broadcasting school and doing radio stints in Oelwein, Waverly and Clinton. Her interest in radio grew out of her love of country music. She also fronts the popular Dani Lynn Howe band, playing cover tunes at gigs a couple times each month. We chat about our favorite artists and songs. Although she routinely meets country stars at local shows, she says she nervously clams up each time she meets her favorite artist, Martina McBride. “She’s just so cool,” she says.
Pat grew up in Moline and says he was “incredibly shy” but felt at home in front of classmates during a high school speech class. “I made them laugh and I knew I wanted to do it again,” he recalls. After technical college to learn the radio biz, Pat got jobs as DJ at various other stations in the Quad Cities before joining WLLR as morning co-host in 2008. He regrets his parents are no longer around to tune in to his top-rated program. “They would have enjoyed listening to the show,” he says.
Dani describes how different things were for DJs before computers were used to track the radio show. She recalls when she had to manually start each element of the show. “Every commercial was on an cart deck and every song was on a CD and we had piles and piles of them,” she says. “We couldn’t be out of the room for longer than a three minute song.”
As ten o’clock nears, Jim O’Hara appears to start his mid-day stint right after Leuck & Howe. In addition to his on-air work, Jim is in charge of overall programming for the station.
I am curious how the 40 or so songs make it into the playlist each week. I ask Jim to explain.
To get on-air at WLLR, a song falls in one of two categories, he says. There are songs in their library – perennial favorites — and songs that land on their “current or recurrent” hit list. Each week, Jim and the station’s music director Ron Evans meet to discuss possible songs to add to the play list.
“We talk about most songs that are in the top 50 or so,” says Jim. About 35-40 wind up in the weekly playlist.
Jim shows me print-outs of a Billboard’s Top 25 chart, based on Nielsen research, and the Mediabase top 65 chart that lists up and coming songs. He’s highlighted songs they are currently playing. “These are just two of the charts we monitor,” he says.
Beyond the charts, he and Evans also pay attention to iTunes downloads, Spotify streams, Shazam and other ways people access music besides the radio. They also consider what’s in sound wise. He mentions that a Brantley Gilbert-esque, raspier tone is currently in vogue with popular newer artists like Tucker Beathard, Tyler Farr and Kip Moore.
Requests are also taken into account. Jim hosts a lunch time request hour which feeds into his decision. Ha, what happened to my request? Just a few days earlier I had requested Trent Harmon’s single There’s a Girl during Jim’s lunch hour show. But Trent is not highlighted.
I can’t resist asking, “What about my friend Trent Harmon? Are you ever going to play There’s a Girl?” (I don’t know Trent but became a fan watching him sing his heart out on Idol.)
“We’ll watch it – absolutely,” Jim says. “It’s an important song.”
Sensing my disappointment, he continues. “It is a chicken and egg thing. I could play 150 songs and you know what? I bet 148 of them would be really great songs. But when you get to this point, it needs to be the best of the best of the best. And the best ones are the ones you want to play the most frequently. That’s a basic tenet of country and top 40, all kinds of popular radio.” (Ok. Best of the best of the best. I’m betting Trent’s There’s a Girl has a chance…I’ll keep requesting!)
Jim pauses to give an on-air traffic report. “At 10:20, oh I am the bearer of good news. No traffic tie ups right now,” he says, then turns back to me.
I ask about fan clubs and whether they are important in measuring an artist’s popularity. “Yes, we appreciate hearing from the fan clubs,” he says. “They are the most loyal people in the world. They just have to understand we can’t play songs just for that club.”
We also talk about radio tours where artists visit the station to introduce songs. WLLR is a relatively small market, ranking 155th on the Nielsen Radio Market Survey. Record companies usually devote their attention to larger markets, Jim says. Dang, I guess I won’t hold my breath for Trent to show up for a station visit.
We talk about the “secret sauce” aspect of creating a radio show that people want to listen to. “Our goal is to play the most popular country songs available. We can’t go solely on the charts, or solely on our music research, or what a fan club wants to hear, or it is going to be lopsided one way or another,” Jim concludes.
When you consider WLLR has earned the #1 spot since 1989, I guess it is safe to say the recipe fits the local palette to a T. Thanks for letting me in on a tour of the kitchen.
I hope you enjoyed my behind-the-scenes peek at what goes into delivering a popular country radio show. Please consider following me here on the blog or at Karen Loves Country on Facebook or @fanmama1 at Twitter.