Stations try on new hat: music impresarios

Originally published in Current, Dec. 16, 2002
By Steve Behrens

Every year a few public stations take their chances with a whole different way to embarrass themselves, lose money fast or possibly drive an audience into musical ecstasy: they become music festival promoters.

Three of pubcasting's more prominent festivals turned out happily this summer and fall, creating in-person connections with music lovers and partner institutions in their communities.

  • Last month in northeast Ohio, WKSU-FM pulled 7,500 to the long-established Kent State Folk Festival with a roster topped by Bob Dylan, Rickie Skaggs and Roger McGuinn.
  • In Texas, KLRU translated its longtime public TV series Austin City Limits into a two-day outdoor roots music festival in September, attracting 75,000 in its first year with such acts as Wilco, Los Lobos, Shawn Colvin, the Jayhawks and the Blind Boys of Alabama.
  • And in northwest New York state, WNED expanded its Buffalo-Niagara Guitar Festival into a 12-day event in June with an estimated second-year attendance of 127,000.

WKSU took over the Kent State Folk Festival three years ago, this year mounting recitals in several venues around the region--Dylan in Kent, Skaggs in Akron, McGuinn in Cleveland and others rootsy and folk acts scattered across two weeks, Nov. 3-16. Regional acts performed for 1,700 students in elementary schools.

The folk festival, now in its 36th year, nearly went out of business after bad weather crippled the festival in its 30th year and Kent State students a few years later voted to drop their subsidy of the event, said Krista Andrews, festival director. The university gave responsibility to WKSU, which was a natural fit, she said, because it devotes its weekend evenings to folk music. The station handled the bookings except Dylan's, which required the deep pockets of a major concert promoter, Andrews said.

The Austin City Limits Festival, in contrast, is a brand new event, envisioned just last spring by a special committee of KLRU's Board of Directors that wanted to make more of the well-loved 28-season TV series, according to President John McCarroll. The station enlisted a local promoter, Capital Sports and Entertainment, to run the event. The two-day festival, filling six stages in a city park, drew nearly twice the expected crowd. An estimated 40 percent came from out of town, contributing some $5 million to the Austin's tourist industry, the city's visitors bureau said. With the big turnout, KLRU netted about $100,000, McCarroll said, and about half will go to the broadcast series.

WNED's guitar festival is also new--just two years old. Bo Diddley, Dickey Betts, Stanley Jordan, Coco Montoya and other rock, blues and classical pickers and strummers performed during 12 days, June 12-23. Downtown clubs booked dozens more guitarists as part of the festival. Five young performers from around the country competed in the North American Rock Guitar Competition. New York State sent tourism money. Gibson Guitars sent a music museum in a tractor-trailer.

The Buffalo News called the festival "a joyful carnival of music that could--and should--become a mainstay of the Buffalo summer."

That's an objective for WNED President Don Boswell, who wants a high-profile annual event on the order of Ft. Worth's Van Cliburn piano competition, which is closely associated with KERA, where Boswell used to work. For 2004, Boswell wants to add a classical guitar competition, working with the Buffalo Philharmonic.

So far, the new Austin and Buffalo events have had few byproducts on the air, but they may someday serve as lively settings for concert broadcasts.

In Austin, KLRU execs are talking about shooting parts of next year's festival in high-definition, McCarroll said. The first festival came together so quickly there was no time to arrange production and the money needed for it, he said.

In Buffalo, WNED taped Charlie Hunter, Junior Brown and a few other acts from the first two years, using four to six cameras and multitrack audio for each shoot. They've aired only locally, though one drew $20,000 in pledges one night. Boswell wants to tape enough star performances to start a national series on the guitar.

Now the station is looking toward its third guitar festival. It hired local promoter Eddie Tice as festival director last month. He and the station are going after big names while contracting the schedule from 12 to eight nights--June 14-21, 2003. They'll create a Guitar-B-Q out of Southern rock and chicken wings, and move the outdoor Great Guitar Gig from a standup site on the waterfront to a baseball stadium with seating. They may open the festival in a Toronto amphitheater to draw in more Canadians from the other side of Niagara Falls. Boswell hopes to move from modest loss to net profit.

"I'm hoping we'll be able to say it's better than the first two combined," Tice said.

KLRU meanwhile plans to expand its festival to three days, Sept. 19-31, 2003, McCarroll said.

Fans of the first Austin City Limits Festival expect bigger things and greater lore to come. Houston Chronicle writer Michael D. Clark had no doubts: "By the time today's infant Texans have their driver's licenses, expect the weekend's crowds to swell to three or four times the size, as the myths multiply."

Blues artist Ruthie Foster peers from backstage during WKSU's Kent State Folk Festival last month. (Photo: Bob Christy, Kent State University.)

For more about stations' festivals

WKSU's Kent State Folk Festival
KLRU's Austin City Limits Festival
WNED's Buffalo Niagara Guitar Festival

Other festivals sponsored by stations
WUMB's Boston Folk Festival
KBCX's Live Oak Music Festival

If you know of other festivals sponsored by stations, contact Current.


To Current's home page
Earlier news: Buffalo station plans its first guitar festival, 2001.
Earlier news: FCC chastises North Carolina station for links to for-profit music festival.

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