Wieden+Kennedy gets real with online radio

by Laura Gunderson, The Oregonian
Wednesday April 15, 2009, 5:39 PM
Psychedelic flags fly from the ceiling. MEGA*CHURCH pumps its signature brand of frenetic, funky gospel into Wieden+Kennedy’s new online radio station. Staffers crowd the room, bopping their heads and swigging beer on a Friday afternoon.
As live video streams, real-time commentary flashes across computer screens all over the world. People riff off one another, saying how rad the band is, how fun it is to watch concerts on the Internet.

Somebody jokes about sticking it to the man, and another viewer chimes in: “um … how is sticking it to the man hosted by the largest independent advertising agency in the world?”

Wisecracks aside, it’s a provocative question. You’d expect W+K, Portland’s best known ad shop, to make commercials for clients like Nike, Coca-Cola and Levi’s — not launch a radio station that, at least for now, brings in no money.

But even as the recession clamps down on spending, the agency is investing in a new portal to broadcast music and culture. WK Radio stitches together W+K’s seven worldwide offices, serving as both creative outlet and creative spark for some 940 employees. They transform themselves as DJs, host studio performances and air a daily morning show that includes provocative outside guests.

Bill Davenport, who manages W+K’s entertainment division, sees intangible rewards after three-plus months on air. “Inspire our people. Get our name into the community. Meet interesting people around the globe.”

Large_wk2WK Radio grew from one employee’s brainstorm.

Janice Grube loved working at W+K, but the longtime singer-songwriter hadn’t found her niche during stints as a creative assistant and account executive. Last summer, she started thinking about the agency as a hub of all things artistic. How cool would it be, she thought, to harness that energy and put it on the radio?

Off the clock, she researched the idea and drafted plans with help from a neighbor, guitarist and audio engineer Radio Sloan. Last fall, Grube made a pitch to the agency’s senior managers. They said yes before she finished the presentation.

“It seemed like too big and good an idea to pass up,” Davenport says.

Grube became station manager, hired her friend Sloan as engineer and began the countdown to going live in January, at radio.wk.com.

To start, employees at W+K’s Portland headquarters took the helm, signing on as DJs or guest artists. Satellite offices in New York, London, Amsterdam, Delhi, Tokyo and Shanghai made a natural test audience.

But word has spread to other creative types through online networking, including blogs, Facebook and Twitter. About 1,000 people tune in on a typical day, with spikes for special visitors and performances.

“It went from just music to arts and culture,” Grube says. “And then it becomes the voice of Wieden+Kennedy.”
Large_janice grub
With the station’s initial six-month budget winding down, Grube will present long-term plans to her bosses Friday. She hopes to continue experimenting with technology and, eventually, go global with around-the-clock programming from W+K outposts. She’ll also explore sponsorship and advertising — a.k.a. revenue.
But WK Radio is already growing up, with the recent addition of full-time producer Ava Hegedus. She helps cultivate programming, bringing artists, writers and musicians to the station’s home at W+K headquarters in the Pearl District.

The agency’s icon status helps recruit prominent guests, Hegedus says. But she doesn’t always have to look far.

“So many people at the agency are involved in interesting, creative, relevant things,” she says. “You can pretty much dial a random extension and find somebody in a band, doing an art show, putting on a forum.”

MEGA*CHURCH, for example, includes W+K creatives Matthew Carey and David Neevel. After working the stage last Friday, the sweaty duo hung out with coworkers.

WK Radio has become an outlet for the staff to share outside interests, Carey says, and get to know one another better.

“There are people you’ve only been in meetings with,” he says, “and they totally open up on the station.”

Listeners have gotten acquainted with W+K music supervisor Shayla Hason, who hosts the “Morning Dose” twice a week as her musical alter-ego.

“Good morning. It’s 9 a.m., and I’m DJ Safi,” she announces, silky-voiced, settling into her chair in black heels, black leggings and a sleeveless silver dress. The studio is always muggy, even on a cool Friday in April.

DJ Safi wakes up her audience with a song by S. American Agriculture, “Don’t Use Your Mind, It Only Messes Things Up.” She bops her head, sips her latte and hops online for news on the Somali pirate situation, her latest fascination.

For her regular W+K job, Hason chooses songs for commercials. At the station, as DJ Safi, she crafts playlists that meander from indie to hip-hop to international. Her songs and interviews simply need to entertain.

“Hopefully people get exposed to some music they haven’t heard before and hear interesting conversations with thinkers and musicians and artists,” says Safi, who has DJed since she was 14.

On this particular morning, she welcomes Andrew Wagner, editor of American Craft magazine. Wagner, who’s in town for a speaking engagement, takes a red-cushioned seat and glances at a list of radio dos and don’ts — starting with “be prepared.”

“But I’m not prepared,” Wagner jokes. “Because I have no idea what you’re going to ask.”

DJ Safi says not to worry, they’ll talk about “craft and the rise of design in everyday life,” which they do. During a free-form interview, they cover Portland’s creative culture, the film “Handmade Nation,” the increasing acceptance of craft as an art form.

Before leaving, Wagner vows to tune in to WK Radio.

“But you guys just started,” he says, “so I’m not too behind.”

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