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Lia: "I Love Country Music" [2/17/03]

You could call Lia Knight—“Lia” to her three million radio listeners—a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll, but the Donnie and Marie reference would hardly do her justice. She is, after all, one of country radio’s hottest syndicated radio stars, and her roots are just as firmly planted in country music as a magnolia tree in the soil of the old south. Lia grew up surrounded by the sounds of Country music from the time she was born, and her early memories as a little girl growing up in Oak Grove, Kentucky, are of her father singing George Jones songs in his truck and of sitting in the back of the family’s nightclub, listening to honky-tonk and gossiping with touring musicians.

Although the music ran deep in her, she didn't see herself in a Country career. In fact, as a young girl she truly believed she was headed for a rock 'n' roll radio life—until her father suddenly died when she was 15 and she headed to Tacoma, Washington to live with her older sister. That was around the time when fate reached out its fickle finger and gave her a break as host of “Cryin,’ Lovin,’ or Leavin’” on KRPM, a Country station in Seattle. Lia went on to produce “Neon Nights With Scott Evans” for Broadcast Programming, and in less than a year she became the program’s host—and the “Lia” show was born.

The secret to Lia’s on-air persona—one of many, in fact—is that she considers herself a listener, not just an air personality. “This is all about life’s lessons being shared on a radio show,” she explains. “Those folks who are calling in, and those who are just listening, are able to take comfort in the fact that they’re not alone.”

“Lia,” produced and distributed by Jones Radio Networks, is now heard nightly—seven p.m. to midnight—on 186 stations throughout the U.S. And now, having come a full turn from her head-banging, rock and roll childhood in Kentucky back to what she calls “America’s music,” Lia says, “I love country music—and I thank my dad for that every day.”

INK: Let’s begin with your roots. You grew up a rock and roll fan in a house full of country…
LK: That’s right. I’m sure I liked rock so much because my dad liked country. I grew up right on the state line between Tennessee and Kentucky; I was born in Hopkinsville, KY and raised in Clarksville, TN, and neither is that far from Nashville. My father was a farm kid and entrepreneur, and he dabbled in just about everything. He had his own janitorial service, he had a junk store that he liked to call an antique store, and around 1981 he fulfilled a lifelong dream to open nightclub. I would get off the school bus in front of my dad’s club and go in and sit at the bar, surrounded by a bunch of drunk guys watching TV, and my dad would give me a sandwich and coke. He worked the bar, he worked the stage, and he tried to weasel his way in and play the banjo. He was self-taught, and I thought the banjo was the most hideous instrument ever. I really didn’t like country at all, but I was trapped by it. It was at his work, in the house, in the car on the radio.

How did those country origins came back to play such a major role in your life?
My dad passed away suddenly in 1983—he had a heart attack—and I moved from that area out to Tacoma, and my sister and her sister lived out here. I finished high school and went to college out here and decided I wanted to go into broadcasting. The very first internship I got was at KRPM doing promotions and doing some call-out research—and I had to listen to that music all over again.

You must have thought you were never going to escape it…
Exactly. But two or three weeks later the PD fired the afternoon guy and the morning show and moved some people around, and there was an overnight position open. I’d been dabbling on the air a little and when he asked me if I wanted it I said “sure, I’ll do it.” He let me play around on the air, and there was someone there teaching me how to do it, and he liked what he heard. Then a month after that he got fired, and Jaye Albright came in as interim PD and hired me on fulltime. I was getting paid a thousand dollars a month and I thought I was riding high. Eventually I got moved up to evenings, but I felt at that point that I had no business being on the air. I think it was because I was making minimum wage and would work seven days a week non-stop, while and I was still going to school.

Everyone who works in this business was bitten by the radio bug somewhere along the line. How did it happen for you?
I loved listening to the DJs. I had a fascination with the people who were on the air. It took me somewhere. I felt like I was lifted out of my reality for awhile. I have that dreamer complex, and radio has always been a great escape. Considering that I’ve stayed in it for so long I don’t know if I’m running from something, but even in my job I allow it to help me escape. I truly feel that my job is almost like a vacation.

As a rock fan, did you ever say to yourself in your early years on the air, “this is my dream job—but why does it have to be country”?
I’ll tell you, it wasn’t love at first sight. It was one of those relationships that starts out you don’t like one another, then you become friends, then it develops into something deep and meaningful and last forever. It occurred to me as I was playing songs that I knew all the words. I knew who was singing them and I knew their background. I can’t say that I fell in love with it, but I was so knowledgeable in it. It was intimate to me, and I was a fountain of information about country music—its history and its people. So it came very naturally to me, and it probably wasn’t until a couple years later that I realized—maybe not until I started doing the evening show—just how important it was. That’s when I started to really appreciate it and fall in love with it. Now I have so much respect for what country music is, and I’m really glad it happened the way it did. I’m glad I didn’t like it in the beginning because I don’t think I’d love it as much as I do now.

Besides, there’s an element of country music in most formats or genres today…
Rock and country are musical siblings. Country has its feet in almost every genre of music. Look at the band Everclear—the guy plays the banjo! If you look at any format you can detect a hint of country music in it. You can’t really hate one and love the other. If you are a true music fan you will appreciate every genre of music and appreciate it for what it’s given back. It doesn’t surprise me at all that kids come to country music for the same reason that I realized how much it meant to me—because country music tells stories. It describes love, and it helps people find the right words to say what they’re trying to say. It’s the best storytelling ever, and you don’t get it in any other genre of music.

So are you a country girl or do you still consider yourself a rock fiend?
I still love my rock and roll—I love it! But I can tell you, the CD that has been in my car player is the advance copy of that Keith Urban Golden Road CD. I’ll listen to rock, pop, blues, everything—but I always come back home to country. Essentially, country is descriptive. It says what I want to say. The cool thing about doing my show is that I get to listen to people call in and talk about things in their lives, and it’s amazing how these are the same things other people have gone through, and they’ve have written country songs about them.

There also seems to be a closer relationship between the country fan and artists than there is in other formats. Why is that?
There’s an equal amount of respect on both sides of that field. Country artists realize that what they do really affects their fans. Nashville has always been a very close-knit community, very protective not only over its singers but over its fans, as well. And if a country singer should pull some diva crap on her fans, she wouldn’t last. The artists who stay around forever are the ones who have intense, intimate relationships with their fans, and who fully appreciate what those fans do for them. While the fans help them make money, they also bring them fame and in some ways even justify that long winding road they’ve had to take to get where they are.

Are fans understanding of artists who sing outside the lines of what’s traditionally defined as country music?
By and large there is acceptance. There’s a wide space for everyone to expand. If you asked any country singer, they would tell you that they don’t only love country music. They just happen to sing country music, and it happens to be their favorite form of musical expression. But they love to try their hands at different kinds of music because they love music. There’s plenty of room for all different types of country music, just like there are all different kinds of rock and roll or blues—we just have to open our minds a little bit and accept it. It’s served the country music community well when we have singers like Faith Hill, who cross over into other formats, because it brings in some people who may be a little hesitant to listen to country.

That said, I have taken some phone calls from fans who just don’t understand. They want to know why the latest Faith Hill album doesn’t have even one country song on it, or why Shania Twain has to keep showing her belly button. But they’re still fans, And if Faith comes back with a full-on twang country album, she’s going to be embraced again, because she is what she is—and she will always be a country singer.

Country music sales were up last year while overall CD sales were down about 9 percent. Why do you think this is?
The wonderful and weird and protective feeling I get about country music really comes into focus when the country is in trouble, when people experience fear or trouble. When we’re talking about war, when the terrorists attack, it seems people come back to country music. That possibly had something to do with country music sales going up last year. There’s really an ebb and flow with any kind of music, and it could be Internet or TV or satellite radio that decreases or increases the sale of records.

Describe your audience. What are they looking for from you—and how do you deliver it?
Half the time I have no idea. Whenever anyone does a call-in show people automatically assume they’re going to call up and get advice. I don’t give advice, especially when it comes to love. I’m a divorced woman, and I’m the last person they should ask on how to keep a relationship alive. But the music is the key ingredient in the show, but for what I do, people just love the idea that someone is listening to what they have to say, someone who can give them an unbiased opinion. They call if they just had a baby they want to brag, or if they fell in love over the weekend and they want to tell the world. Also, I’ve made it pretty painless. People who would never ever call a radio show pick up the phone and call in—and then they call back to give me an update. People are looking for a place to say what’s on their mind and to listen to good country music. Even if they never call in they still hear other people talking about things that are happening to them, which they can totally relate to.

Is this connectivity missing from local radio?
I fully appreciate why some stations have to do what they have to do, because budgets are tight and they’re all owned by the same five companies. I get that. But I do what I do, and that is a listener-interactive show, and I know it works. The show is doing pretty darned well. If I can give any advice to anyone who’s programming a station out there, even if they’re voicetracking it at night, it would be to inject the programming with an element of intimacy. If you reconnect with the listeners you cannot lose.

What’s the great attraction in hearing other peoples’ stories…is it voyeurism, empathy, or simple rubber-necking?
I can tell you why I like listening to it, and I bet 95 percent of those who listen to it listen for the same reason. First, my life is really boring, and second, I’m also very nosy. I like knowing what people do, how they handle themselves. I like knowing what people are celebrating in their lives. I like to be able to lend a shoulder if they’re hurting over a break-up, or if their son is being shipped out to Afghanistan. I like that connection, I like feeling as if we’re all moving down the same path together. Of course, there’s probably also the train wreck factor, the rubber-necking, but most people listen because they hear people who remind them of themselves. It’s good to know there are other people out there who are going through the same things you are.

Is there one type of call that you receive more than any other?
I probably get more love calls than anything—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Whenever love is involved there’s a phone call to be made. If there’s a break-up, somebody’s angry. If there’s a marriage, someone is full of joy. Or if some man says “I met the most amazing woman in my life last weekend but I didn’t get her phone number, but she says she listens to your show,” maybe I can help. In each case, love is central. It is the motivating factor behind most of the phone calls I get.

Describe the mechanics of the show—how it all comes together each evening…
It’s like an orchestra. There are four of us here every night, and we all work extremely well together. I have an executive producer whose name is Jak Bruce; an assistant producer/engineer, John Edwards; and I have a call screener whose name is Alexa Tobiason. And we all have a roll to play. I am the talking head, Alexa is the gate-keeper for the thousands of phone calls we receive every night, she screens them looking for great stories. She talks to people herself, she gives out prizes at random, and she makes connections with listeners. Then she puts stories through to me and I talk to them. Then Jak, my executive producer, gets his hand on the tape and edits it nicely, and we sit down and put a show together. John is the guy who really runs the show. He keeps the time, makes sure relays get fired, and he makes sure I shut up if I’m talking too long.

Intertwined with all of this we do a large number of artist interviews. It’s all finely tuned, and everyone can do everyone else’s job, but we all do our jobs well. We’re like a family. We look out for one another, and I rely on those guys to make me sound good. Even when I’m having my own life crisis I have a staff that makes me sound like I’m the happiest woman in the whole U.S.A. We do it night after night after night.

To what degree do you tailor the show to eliminate its national scope—in other words, to make it sound local?
We take out local mentions or little things that give it away. We cut liners for every single local affiliate, and we’re pushing 190 stations. There’s a lot of work to make it all tie in together. I do whatever they want me to do that fits into those 12 spots in our hour where we allow local liners to be played. Then, with the live stuff, we take out local city mentions, and naturally there are lots of mentions from all over the country. We do have to tailor a lot of what we do so we don’t make local mentions, and most stations choose to not make the show seem national—they like to keep it as local as possible. Still, most people don’t deny it to the listener, or try to fool them. The key is whether the show is compelling radio, and local can mean many different things. Local can mean you talk about the potholes at Sixth and Main, or it can be talking about someone going through a heartbreak and having a million people relating to it.

How do you think consolidation has affected the way music is programmed on radio stations today?
Consolidation has affected the music to a degree, such as when there’s one person programming music for several different stations, and all those stations are owned by the same company. But good music is good music, and the cream always rises to the top. You go through those skids where music isn’t as good as it has been or as good as it will be, but that’s life. A good program director or music director knows good music, and whether they’re programming one station or five, they should have their head on straight enough to program great music. Cream rises to the top in every way. And in some ways consolidation has helped me. There have been a few times with certain companies where I’ve gotten on more than one station at once. So when that happens I have to make sure I do what I do as well as I possibly can, so they don’t feel like they’ve made the wrong decision.

Before consolidation some program directors were adamant that they would not run any syndicated programming. Do you run into much of that today?
Some PDs say they will never ever, ever take a syndicated radio show, and to them I say, fine, that’s fine if you have a local disk jockey or talent that’s just kicking some serious ass, do it. But if you do it just to spite syndication, that’s wrong. They just need to make sure they’re always doing right by their listeners and their radio station. If I had my way I’d say they took my show because I was great and they wanted me to be their night girl. Even if they take me at first for a different reason—such as if someone says they need to cut out salaries and do something different at night—I just hope that six months or a year down the road they say that was the best decision they ever made.

By Reed Bunzel, Editor-in-Chief

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