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Gimme a Break
Local bands have a friend in Jason Keller, a commercial-radio DJ who's willing to help them reach the next level - and is fiven the freedom to do so.

Written by Kirsten Ferguson
Photographed by Joe Putrock

Keep'em coming: Jason Keller and his bin of submissions.

At Channel 103.1 FM in Albany, there’s a bin that holds an overflowing mass of press kits and demo recordings—all submissions to Big Break, the radio station’s weekly local-music show. Jason Keller, the on-air personality who hosts and produces the show, has a pet name for it: “I call it the bucket of hopes and dreams,” he quips. As word has spread about the program, which airs Sunday nights at 8 PM, bands from all over the Capital Region have responded en masse to the opportunity to have their songs played on commercial radio.

Although more than a hundred local bands have appeared on Big Break during its three-year run, from the Wait and the Erotics to the Lawn Sausages, the selection process is still quite competitive. (Although Channel 103.1 is primarily a hard-rock station, Big Break plays a wide range of musical styles.) Two bands per week are chosen from among hundreds to appear on the hourlong show, during which Keller interviews the musicians and showcases several of their songs. Adding to the selectivity of the show, Keller includes a small percentage of unknown bands from outside the Capital Region if they happen to be touring through the area.

As Keller explains, the interview format provides a much-needed focus for the show. “We’re not making the show some dumping ground for everyone’s demo,” he says. “For me, when I’ve listened to local-music shows in the past, I’ve felt like they were one continuous hour of confusion. When I interview the bands, you get a sense of their history, and we have a few laughs. It’s not just based on music. As a band you have to show people that you have a personality.”

The format must be working. Keller, who helped launch the show when he started working at the station in 1999, has watched Big Break grow from a 10-minute segment in 2000 to an hourlong program that now attracts its own advertisers. “The station puts a lot of confidence in me to pick the direction of the show,” Keller says. “I think playing unproven music to the masses is a gamble. A radio station’s job is to attract listeners. I have an extra job: to attract listeners to music they’ve never heard before. You can’t just shove unfamiliarity down people’s throats for an hour. There has to be some spark to it. We’ve been able to make a show that’s attractive to advertisers, which shows the strength of the material submitted and the focus of the show. If a show makes money for the station, that will keep it on the air.”

The show has proven successful enough to now have a daytime spin-off called Daily Break. Every weekday at 1:30 PM, Keller spins a song that debuted on the Sunday night program. “To get airplay in the daytime is a big deal—[the local bands] are sandwiched in between our most popular artists,” Keller says. “We’re putting a lot of confidence in the bands by dedicating three to five minutes to something totally unproven and without a record label. We’re showcasing the abilities that the area has.”

Keller speculates that the radio play has helped some local bands get record-label showcases or opening gigs for major-label acts. Local bands have also gained exposure from the station’s yearly “Most Original Band Contest.” The contest’s winning band receives an opening slot at the station’s Big Day Out Festival at SPAC, which last year drew 18,000 people. And the radio station (which is owned by Clear Channel) partnered with Fox 23 TV during the past year to produce the television version of Big Break, which aired on Friday nights at the end of the 10 PM news. The TV show, which combined live-performance footage shot at area clubs with Keller’s band interviews, is currently on hiatus. Keller would like to see it continue. “I think it’s a major coup for a band to get radio and TV coverage. We’re doing something that’s not done. I’m optimistic that the show will return. I’m hoping that Fox 23 sees the value of what they helped create.”

Keller now runs a segment after Daily Break called Channel 103.1 Scene, in which he reads off area club listings for the week. However, local musicians shouldn’t expect to get mentioned unless they do the work of submitting their upcoming show dates—an important lesson for bands interested in getting print coverage as well. “If you want to be known, you make it happen. We’re the vehicle,” Keller says. “We feed off the ambition of the bands. If you want your dates listed, send them to me. I can’t just go rummaging through the paper.”

Keller’s advice for local bands who want airplay on his station? He’s got lots. Although much of it applies specifically to Big Break, there are broader applications as well. In short: Ambition and persistence get you everywhere. Laziness and disorganization usually get you nowhere. “It’s not about talent half the time. It’s about getting noticed,” he says. “The show is for the bands that want to be on, who make the effort.”

Asked what makes a band one of his personal favorites, he says: “I see a drive in them that makes them want to get better. I work hard to do the best I can at radio. When I see that in bands, it makes me want to work harder. It inspires me.”

 

Here’s Keller’s advice for getting commercial airplay (ranked by us):

1. Shell out for a decent sounding demo (in CD format—no tapes). The show needs three to four songs, bare minimum, to choose from. “What keeps people off Big Break is shoddy recording. I can’t put something that sounds like ass on the radio. Who does that benefit? To play it would do a disservice to us all. When it chases me away on first listen, I’m pretty confident it will drive listeners away.”

2. Have your shit together when you submit your material. “Some bands right out of the gate shoot themselves in the foot. I’ll get a jewel case with no CD—there’s nothing in there. Or a CD with nothing written on it and no contact info. I’ll get contact numbers that are wrong. It’s unbelievable. When you send me a jewel case with no CD, it’s like, ‘Who’s in charge here?’ Somebody in the band has to be in charge of post office proofing. Research it. Get somebody’s name right. Little things. I’ve seen bands spell their name one way on the envelope and then a different way on their CD. It’s all very Spinal Tap.”

3. Be persistent. “I don’t go after bands. I have a tremendous amount of submissions. The bin keeps getting taller and taller. Do not be bashful. Following up definitely helps. Anybody who calls me or e-mails me gets a call or an e-mail back. Sometimes someone will get on the show quickly because I was impressed by their tenacity.”

4. Be prepared to give up some control. “Some bands get a little resistant that I pick the songs that go on the show. This is their first introduction to the music industry: You don’t always get to pick the songs. As someone who’s in radio, I deal with hit songs all the time. I use my best judgment to pick out the catchiest material. It’s all designed to make everyone look good.”

5. Use your connections. “I see so many bands that I like, and then they fizzle away. They need to remember the connections they make. Keep in touch. Radio stations, record labels and clubs—they need you. All these people are looking for the next big thing. If you think you’re it, let us know.

 



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