Radio Bonnaroo

Sep 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Tom Kenny


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Ani DiFranco records live in The Hay.

Ani DiFranco records live in The Hay.

Radio has taken a real beating from music critics over the past decade, often with good reason as far as playlists, consolidation and lack of variety go. But even as the media world embraces the Facebook/Twitter global bombardment, it's important to remember that terrestrial radio still has tremendous reach — locally and across the country. It might not be the model for breaking a single, but it sure works for Bonnaroo.

Yes, Bonnaroo Facebooks and Twitters, pre-, during and post-festival. But for the 80,000-plus onsite, local radio station 101.5 in Manchester, Tenn., becomes Radio Bonnaroo, with live 24-hour programming to the grounds. A mini-station is also set up backstage, with six radio booths broadcasting out to the world, including stations from Nashville and L.A. All of the artist interviews and studio performances are recorded and cut up there, then sent out.

“This is our sixth year handling marketing for the festival,” explains Sean O'Connell, founder of Music Allies in Asheville, N.C. “Early on we created a network of allied radio stations to strengthen the Bonnaroo brand, and the studios here are just one part of a year-round campaign. It becomes an immersive broadcast that provides our partner stations incredible content and gives radio programmers and DJs the chance to live like rock stars backstage on a tour bus.”

Music Allies also builds an onsite recording studio each year, outfitting a trailer behind the radio station. Here artists come in one end and do a radio interview, then move to the middle where a fully functional recording room has been set up, with a living room feel. They then exit the other end of the trailer for a later performance onstage. David Gehrke of Nashville designed the trailer, dubbed The Hay, for as much isolation and treatment as is allowed, with assistance and support from Auralex.

“Oh, that damn Hay!” laughs O'Connell. “In 2004, our recording studio was incredibly small. Luckily, we were nestled in some trees and they absorbed some of the low end. The next year we built multiple broadcast studios and the on-site radio station, and it became apparent the soundproofing wasn't going to dampen the external noises — especially the low end — to give us the high-quality recording we were looking for. Out of frustration, I hopped in my car and took a long drive to decompress. As I was driving, I noticed all the farmland nearby had hay bales piled up. Something clicked in my head. I pulled over on the side of the road and waved down a farmer riding on his tractor. I bought 600 bales of hay from him and we've used hay every year since for sound insulation!”

Bonnaroo is that unique combination of old-school and ultra-hip, from the artists they select to their messaging to the world. “I have strong feelings about radio, both positive and negative,” O'Connell concludes. “My company does marketing through all kinds of media partners, and the truth is, when radio gets behind something, it has an incredible effect. The negative is that the companies that own these stations are run by some very short-sighted people. I am a music guy first and foremost and I am eager for radio to get back to being proactive and turning people on to music they love.”

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