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Mark Keefe: Programming 88Nine Radio Milwaukee

Jun. 15, 2011
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This spring Louisville, Ky., native Mark Keefe marked his first year as program director for WYMS-FM 88.9 Radio Milwaukee, a position that has tapped his two decades of experience in both commercial and noncommercial radio.

What attracted you to Radio Milwaukee?

I liked the way the station integrates public service and stories about Milwaukee into the mix. In your standard commercial radio station, it's par for the course that program directors will meet their public service requirement by just burying that content. So you listen to those stations and you hear that public service show at 6 a.m. on a Sunday. I hate that. On Radio Milwaukee, we do five public-service initiatives a year and actually integrate them into our music programming. We're really proud of that; that's a model that I always thought could work if it was done right. Plus I love that we play a lot of Milwaukee music. When I was a kid growing up in Kentucky, you knew about local bands because the radio played them, but that stopped in the '80s when radio stopped playing local bands.

What changes have you made to the station?

I think that one of the things about the station in the last four years is it's had a lot of different people at the helm, different program directors who have brought their own take on what the station should be, and what should be played. But some of them didn't sit in the chair long enough to implement those changes. Since I've been here a year, I've had the luxury to sort of evaluate the entire playlist and say, “Well, this probably doesn't belong.”

What have you cut?

Take the Rolling Stones, for example. We had 40 different Stones tracks in our library. There were a lot of them that were getting played, but once every two years, so you have to filter through that pile and say, “Let's concentrate on a few of these so people will hear them.” There's sort of a theory in commercial radio that the tighter, the better. My last gig was as a commercial program director. I ran essentially four radio stations as an operations manager, and my classic rock station played 350 tunes, period … That station did well for the same reason that people continue to go to McDonald's: because people know exactly what they are going to get. The Big Mac you had 10 years ago is the exact Big Mac you can have today. So what we have to do is find that happy medium of introducing listeners to music they aren't familiar with, but doing it without turning the Big Mac into a giant plate of sushi where nobody knows what they are eating.

That must be a tricky balance, since there are changes you could probably make to grow your audience, but they might undermine the station's mission.

Let's put it this way: Do I know how to get more people to listen to my radio station? Absolutely. Would I change things tomorrow to get that to happen? Absolutely not. There are proven techniques, proven ways to get people to tune in more often: You spend more money, you have a 350-song playlist, and you go after a set demographic. But we're not interested in that. Our goal is to be good stewards of the community, and play music that really reflects this city.


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