A new podcast from Philadelphia’s WXPN caps a station initiative to elevate Black Americana artists, who often struggle to ascend in the music industry.
The Artist to Watch: Black Opry Residency podcast is the latest installment in the station’s collaboration with Black Opry, a website and touring revue centered on Black country musicians. WXPN received a $250,000 grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage to fund the project.
The station started accepting applications in November from artists across the country to participate in a residency. It received almost 100 applications, and a panel selected five musical acts to participate. The panel included producer and musician Nathan Tempro, Black Opry founder Holly G., singer-songwriters Rissi Palmer and Miko Marks, WXPN GM Roger LaMay and Bruce Warren, the station’s associate GM for programming. LaMay and Warren are also EPs on the project.
The residency program included weekly virtual mentorship sessions with industry professionals, a creative residency week in Philadelphia in March, a March 24 capstone concert, and the creation of a collaborative song among the selected artists.
Meanwhile, the Artist to Watch: Black Opry Residency podcast debuted in June, which was Black Music Month. Each of the five episodes focuses on a resident artist, digging into their musical journey and their experience with the residency.
The program stemmed from WXPN’s Artist to Watch program, which promotes a chosen artist’s music and tour on air and online. The station was seeking ways to engage more deeply with chosen artists when it landed on the idea of a residency program, Warren said.
“We were thinking internally, ‘How can we make more of a difference than just playing a record on the radio?’” Warren said. “What can we do different? How can we be additive? How can we use our place in the music ecosystem to help artists get even more access to resources?”
Warren said WXPN turned to Black Opry because most Black Americana artists are unsigned and independent. The residency program would give artists with less access to resources an opportunity to connect with industry professionals and reach more listeners, Warren said.
Access to ‘gatekept’ information
Holly G. said the residency program offers a way to “even the playing field” for marginalized artists, especially in a genre that can be difficult to break into.
“Radio, especially in the country-Americana space, is one of the hardest areas in the industry to get a foothold,” Holly G. said. “So I think it was really important for these artists to get the behind-the-scenes look at how radio works and also just be able to be seen.”
The musicians selected to participate were Tylar Bryant, Denitia, Grace Givertz, Samantha Rise, and The Kentucky Gentlemen, a duo made up of twin brothers Brandon and Derek Campbell.
Bryant said the residency gave him access to information that is usually “gatekept” in the country music scene. Throughout the residency, he said, he gained insight on how to navigate the industry, such as the need for an artist to seek legal help prior to signing with a manager.
“I’ve been doing music for almost eight years,” Bryant said. “I feel like I’ve learned way more in the six weeks that we were a part of the program than I have in all my years of doing music.”
Samantha Rise said they were grateful for how their podcast episode made them feel seen and heard. During the episode, Rise discussed their relationship with music, their experiences as an activist, and their identity.
“I just feel so grateful for the way that they were able to tell our stories,” Rise said. “It’s so nice to trust them and to go deeply in knowing that you’re going to be honored in the process.”
WXPN sensed an opportunity to support artists, LaMay said, especially as music labels are participating less in artist development. He said he feels more public radio music stations could take on the role of developing artists, and he looks forward to planning more residencies.
“Increasingly the public radio music stations are functioning in a different media and different competitive landscape than, say, what the news stations are in,” LaMay said. “So we have to innovate ways to connect with audiences and create added value for having a reason to be.”