Levi’s Lounge

Call it a perfect radio industry win-win. Listeners get to see established and emerging artists in a local once-in-a-lifetime can’t-buy experience. And stations can tap into lucrative sponsorship dollars while creating original digital content and cementing their brand in the community. This is the new reality of high-profile performance theaters.

A small but growing number of major market broadcasters now double as small theater operators with fully functioning state-of-the-art audio and video studios to host intimate concerts, exclusive interviews, client functions and community events. No more sterile conference rooms or cramming acts into a tight on-air studio, these eye-catching, ear-pleasing rooms have earned reputations among labels and managers, giving stations additional cache as must-play destinations for artists, athletes, newsmakers and other celebrities.

“It’s all about engaging and connecting with your fans on a one-on-one level,” says Mari Galaviz, director of Experiential for Cumulus San Francisco. In the historic music city, Cumulus opened the 50-person-capacity Levi’s Lounge in March 2016, equipped with 24 channels of recording and PA inputs complete with a Midas console, Pro Tools and a Clair Brothers speaker system. Capturing all the live video action is a Newtek Tricaster that does switching, capture and web streaming from four Sony HD Pan Tilt Zoom cameras. An elaborate lighting set-up provides an added theatrical look.

A similar operation in New York at Stage 17 Live lets Cumulus host 4-6 events per week ranging from performances by Mary J. Blige and Florida Georgia Line to an interview with Rob O’Neill, the former U.S. Navy SEAL best known for claiming to have fired the shots that killed Osama bin Laden. The combination of the 100-person Stage 17 Live and a four-station cluster that reaches 3 million listeners affords Cumulus greater leverage to convince labels to bring their acts to its radio facility on the 17th floor of 2 Penn Plaza, atop Madison Square Garden.

Alpha Media’s seven-year-old, 163-person capacity Skype Studio in Portland, OR hosts roughly 250 artist sessions per year, ranging from Alt-J and David Gray to Flo Rida and Jason Aldean.

In Chicago, CBS Radio now has two adjacent venues inside its downtown complex. The 80-person BlueCross BlueShield Performance Stage has held more than 500 events since opening its doors in 2014 while the freshly opened Culinary Kitchen serves up video cooking segments with well-known chefs, along with station disc jockeys and musicians who also happen to be foodies.

And in Detroit, CBS Radio this month will swing open the doors to MusicTown, an ambitious combination of broadcast and recording studio and performance space in the famed downtown Hockeytown Cafe (see separate story).

At the high end of the spectrum, iHeartMedia operates large venues in New York and Los Angeles. In L.A., the company gutted and renovated Jay Leno’s old studio to create the iHeartRadio Theater, with 21,000 square feet of space and seating for 550 guests. Its New York counterpart, which opened in May 2009 with a performance by Green Day, holds 250 guests. Both venues are used for album release parties and exclusive live performances by a who’s who of chart-topping acts, along with other functions.

Events Beyond the Music

These high-tech venues are home to more than just music events. Sports and news stations use them to interview athletes and prominent newsmakers. The BlueCross BlueShield Performance Stage has hosted roundtables on finance and cybersecurity tied in with “News Radio 780” WBBM. It also held a Small Business Grant Challenge that solicited business plan submissions from fledgling entrepreneurs, who competed “Shark Tank”-style for $10,000 to help fund their startup. “We appeal to a different type of lifestyle customer with these events beyond just the music and sports events,” says Megan Jones, director of Marketing, Branding & Promotion, CBS Radio Chicago.

The Skype Lounge has thrown season kick-off parties for the Oregon Ducks and hosted viewing parties for Portland Timbers soccer games, complete with suds from beer sponsor Miller Coors and grub from a local barbeque joint. In addition to music performances, the Levi’s Lounge can be configured for video production and conferences or training. Cumulus sports KNBR San Francisco hosted a meet ‘n’ greet with NFL legend Jerry Rice in the Lounge, which is also used for exclusive movie screenings and happy hours with performances by comedy acts.

Stations use a variety of distribution channels to push out the original content, including their owned and operated digital platforms, YouTube, and increasingly Facebook Live. Performances, both archived and live, are promoted on-air and through social media—sometimes in eccentric ways. When KFOG discovered that one of the members of Magic Giant was into salsa dancing, they produced a video of him dancing his way through the station’s studio complex and theater, posting it on social media to tease the indie folk outfit’s performance.

Not for everyone, venues such as Levi’s Lounge and the Skype Lounge cost around $1 million-$1.2 million to build and require additional staffing, regular maintenance and periodic updating. The Skype Lounge employs three full-time staffers. “It’s an expensive proposition,” says Amy Leimbach, VP of Sales for Alpha Media Portland. “You have to have enough revenue coming in to justify it.” Besides the big investment, radio operators need to consider the makeup of their cluster. Because they help launch new acts and enjoy close ties with labels and artist managers, adult alternative stations can help deliver the bands to fill the spaces. For example, adult alternatives WXRT Chicago, KINK Portland and KFOG San Francisco each have performance theaters in their cluster. And more than half of the performances at the Skype Lounge are KINK-programmed shows. KFOG has booked established acts such as the Lumineers, the Head and The Heart and Third Eye Blind along with lesser-known artists such as the 1975 and Andrew Bird, and numerous indie artist into Levi’s Lounge.

If the facility isn’t located in a major music mecca such as L.A, Nashville or New York, other formats may have a harder time booking acts, broadcasters say. That’s a big factor to consider when taking the risks of building something.

But while Leimbach cautions that clusters should think twice before jumping on the live performance bandwagon, she acknowledges that doesn’t mean you can’t capitalize on the idea. “There are other ways like partnering with a local venue, staging a special event series, festival or concert instead of going to the expense of building their own studio,” she says.

Still, proponents of performance theaters see them as playing an increasingly important role in the evolution of radio. Nothing woos a Millennial-aged prospective client or potential employee like a walk-through at a totally tricked-out performance studio. “It speaks to the evolution of radio,” says CBS Radio Chicago senior VP/market manager Tim Pohlman. “No longer are we just an audio medium. We’re also a video content medium. These venues help us remain relevant.”