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Jeff Cruz Interview

Jeff Cruz
Vice President of National Radio Promotions  
Provident Label Group

Career Capsule: I started in radio as an intern for a music director at the local top 40 station in my hometown of Birmingham AL 30 years ago, in spring of 1987.  That job lit the rocket on my love of radio and my love of music programing strategy that continue to this day. After several years in mainstream radio, (primarily country and pop radio) I took a job at a new CCM music station in Birmingham called REALITY RADIO (well before there was ever “realty tv” by the way). I had been a believer and loved CCM music, but until that experience, had no idea what Christian music radio really could be.  From that point on, I focused on that format entirely. I also worked for a time with Arbitron as they were rolling out the PPM ratings system. It was fascinating to learn from behind the scenes what the ratings system really looked like.  Over the next 12 years, I was APD in Orlando for Dean O’Neal at Z88.3, Program Director at WMHK in Columbia SC, then Network Program Director at Shine.FM network in Chicago/Indianapolis. Then about fifteen months ago, I changed gears a bit, to head to Nashville in order to lead the Radio Promotions Dept at Provident Label Group and giving me a chance to focus on the part of the business that lured me in from the beginning… my love of music and more importantly the love of seeing the song and the artist connect with the radio listener in a meaningful way. That is the spot where everyone (radio station, label, artist, songwriter, and the fan/listener) all win. That is the moment I live for and get to help find all the time now!

Jeff, Tell us about what’s new with you, your latest adventures, happenings at PLG?

Things are always moving really fast here at Provident, and now is no exception.  I have been here 15 months now and in that time seen a lot of things change and adjust – from the staff, to the leadership’s vision, to the music we have to share… all for the best!  The radio team has been solidified and ready to go.  Charles Van Dyke returns to the team helping me lead Sarah Anderson (formerly with Word), Justin Benner, and Lindsay Crane. This group has years of experience in a wide variety of industry areas, and incredible passion for the music and format, creating a powerful team ready to serve radio well.  And then on top of that, we have many of the biggest acts in CCM right now, and some of very best music Provident has ever had to put out, with even more on the way! 

Since you have such a busy schedule, how do you best manage your responsibilities and priorities?

That is the most difficult part of this job for sure, and the answer in a word is Teamwork. There are many areas within the label that work closely with the radio team, plus all the artists, their managers, all the radio station program directors, music directors, promotions directors, and there are details on tours, singles, albums, etc…. it is impossible for one person to manage it all.  That is why the people within the organization are so critical to success.  I have been able to surround myself with the most amazing team of people, and work alongside all of our other talented teams to make sure it is all not only moving forward, but in a way that helps everyone win.  We have great people here who are more passionate than ever about great songs from great artists out to radio and fans. 

Complete this sentence: The best way to get a new artist recognized is to____________?

Release an amazing song.

There is not really anything new to music in this regard. I mean yes, you can get exposure in new ways beyond radio now, like YouTube, streaming services (Spotify, Apple, Pandora), or you could even get them connected with large audiences – like when Tauren Wells had a couple songs used by the Dude Perfect guys on their videos… but in the end, it ALL comes down to the fact that it has to be a great song.  Chain Breaker by Zach Williams is a perfect example.  Yes, of course Zach is a talented singer songwriter, has a cool look and great stage presence. Our art department designed cool logos, art and photos for him, and our PR department worked hard to get the word out about him, but the reason anyone knows who he is right now, is because of the song Chain Breaker. There are tons of great artists. There are lots of them released into our format every single year, but to breakthrough, you need a great song

Generally speaking how do you see the state of Christian radio?

I see Christian radio as growing and maturing about the same as it has been in the past few years. I love that more stations are doing a better job of managing their playlists, and getting new music to their audience a little quicker.  And in doing so, finding creative ways to lessen the risk of new music, while embracing the music discovery aspect of radio within their audience which we know still exists.  The stations who are slower/safer tend not to have quite as much growth as the ones who are trying to stay out in front of what their audience likes and wants from them. And of course there is more and more competition so there is less room for getting comfortable.  The days of just “doing it the way you always did it and keeping the audience around because they have always listened to you” are over.  Stations have to work to connect with and keep their audiences, both on and off the air. 

I also see more and more stations diving into and exploring what “on demand” and other content is for them. I have no idea what the right answers are for the format in this regard, but sure do applaud the stations taking those first steps into an area that the CCM will have to go eventually. I also love to see how hard some stations are working to create new space for their younger audience. And I am not talking about just putting a stream on the website and playing every single rock song that comes out, in a jukebox style… but actually doing an actual radio station as a companion to their main signals and serving those audiences with real radio, researched music and on air talent of their own (who fit the format).

Regarding record sales how has it changed ….please explain?

People are choosing more and more to “rent” their music instead of buy it.
Every format (though thankfully less in CCM than others) has seen a decline in sale of physical CDs, but now even the digital services like iTunes and Amazon are slowing down with the rise of streaming services. So we are seeing more and more of the “consumption” of music today being via Youtube, Spotify, Amazon, Pandora and Apple music. This has also furthered the song by song interaction from consumers/fans that began with iTunes.  In the past, folks who liked a new song or two from an artist would buy the album. Then they would just download those songs from iTunes. Today the just stream those favorite songs, and add them to a playlist for further use if they really love them.

I know some folks worry that streaming is a replacement for radio, and while I do think it will affect the way radio is programmed and managed, I believe it is more a replacement for the record sales.  What I mean is, before when you heard a song you liked on the radio, you bought it (at a store or online) and now it means that you stream it (and maybe save it).  Radio still wins as the format’s music discovery tool. It is still the local relationship and served with things that streaming just cannot provide but that will take work to make sure you are doing what cannot be done by the streaming services. If you just play music they can get elsewhere, and provide no other reason to connect with and stay with you, they will NOT abandon you for Spotify… but will find another radio station.

What promotions with radio have you been involved with personally that are most memorable?

I have given away lots of stuff since I started in radio 30 years ago. I have given away, trips, cash, cars, concert experiences, and truck loads of Christmas and Thanksgiving items. BIGGEST radio station promotion I was EVER a part of was when I worked in Country radio in the early 90s in Birmingham Ala.  WZZK was the #1 station in town and we gave away a fully furnished house!  It was called the Dream Home promotion. It got local and national press. Almost 3000 people showed up at the final give away just to see who would win. Massive.

But the one I think I was most excited about was at WMHK when we gave away College Scholarships.  I was through a partnership with the college that owned the station and it was a $20,000 opportunity for someone that wouldn’t normally qualify for a high GPA award or athletic scholarship. This was more about mission and passion than anything else.  It was so successful and had so many people apply that the school matched it with several other $10,000 grants as well.  Education is something we could get behind easily, matters to everyone, expensive no matter who you are and extremely valuableDo you feel the record/radio relationship is still as important as it has been in the past………..explain how its same/different?

The process is the same as it has been as long as I have been in radio. Weekly phone calls and occasional visits with radio stations to tell them about our songs and our artists. I think it is as important as ever since there is more and more competition for the time and attention of “Becky” these days.  And while “Becky” may be the CCM radio “listener” she is also the CCM artist’s “fan” and the CCM record label’s “consumer”.   So you see, we are all trying to find a way to connect with that same person.  I liken it to a three legged stool.  We are all trying to reach/support the same top, and honestly can’t really do it without the other legs.  Ok sure, there are talk radio stations who do not play music and there are artists doing indie careers without a record label, etc but in CCM music, radio needs the artist’s music. Artists need record labels promotion. Record labels need radio’s broadcast.  We need each other.  We all serve the same folks.  Our business models may be a little different but the goal is the same… and then on top of that, add in the Christian mission aspect of all three, aiming to share the Gospel message with as many people as possible through music, then we really are all in this together.

What advice would you give to someone jumping from radio to records?

Don’t do it unless you really do love people and the mission of Christian music radio.  I have become more focused on music testing and tastes of Christian radio listeners than I ever had been even as a programmer.  That is humbling to say because I really did think that I had focused on that a lot, but not nearly as in depth or as strategically as I have in the past year and a half.   And I have probably talked about and learned more radio programming philosophy than I did from 20 years of GMA and CMB seminars too, because I have been talking about it every week now with 100 or so different radio programmers all around the country.  All these amazing men and women I have been privileged to call friends for all these many years, are all serving their local radio audience in the way that they have learned works best for them.  In fact, on a recent week-long radio promo trip I took along the east coast, through the southeast and into Texas, I had the artist say to me at the end of the week, “I had no idea that there were so many different styles within all these Christian stations. I mean like every single one of them was really different and the program directors were all really unique too. You have a hard job!”  Talk about having a laugh!  They believed that all we had to do was just tell “radio” there was new music and to play it, because they were all basically the same, but after spending quality time with so many in a row, it was eye-opening to see that it was not that simple.  Thankfully I love getting to talk to and spend time with all those great radio folks about all these artists and songs I am so blessed to be able to be connected with. That is why I believe it is good fit for me.

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