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26 stations later: media legend Grant Hislop's new Tauranga venture mixes radio and records, coffee and tech

Bay of Plenty music fans are getting a new sound to feast their ears on as The Station goes to air on 105.4FM. Not only is it a new station, it'll feature new music and is structured around new radio ideology. We speak to Founder Grant Hislop about where it all started, launching artists, local music and reconstructed formats.

Step into a record store and you’ll see walls lined with album art, hear music playing throughout and music fans flicking through the collection to find something that piques their interest. The same goes for Tauranga's Vinyl Destination where while you browse you can enjoy a coffee made by a staff member who's likely to also be live on air.

The Station is a new Bay of Plenty radio station that launched this week on 105.4FM and it’s based is the record store. Founder Grant Hislop says it's a fresh and meaningful take on media and music as there’s no set genre or era that allows it to play songs that mainstream radio has missed and also great music that no longer gets radio time.

He also hopes that flexibility will allow it to be a launch pad for up and coming local artists.

At a time when there’s a perception that traditional media is dying, or at the least slowing down, Hislop admits he’s had some eyebrows raised at him for buying the frequency and starting a station. But he’s standing by the research and the GfK radio survey results, which in the latest release showed of 3.35 million New Zealanders listen to commercial radio on a weekly basis. And given that’s up 48,000 since the previous survey, there’s no sign of a loss of momentum.

For Tauranga, where Hislop says the radio market has always been good, the results showed 137,800 people tune into their radios each week, up from the previous survey's tally of 136,300.

Hislop says there’s a real connection in the regions between the people and the radio and he hopes to harness that for The Station.

He recalls when he started in radio in 1985 that there would be six phone lines coming in and there was a lot of off-air talking between the DJs and listeners.

“You were really in touch and people wanted to ring the radio stations,” he says. “ They'd say: 'We want to hear a song’, ‘what time does the All Blacks game start?’ You were an information centre.”

However, Hislop has seen that change as he's moved around, and The Station marks number 27. He founded The Rock, Coastline FM and KiwiFM, and also worked across the country at local and national stations, including 2XS in Palmerston North, LakeCity 96FM Rotorua, The Edge in Hamilton, The Box in Wellington, and Classic Hits. He also co-founded Radioworks.

The last 12 months have been spent establishing the business model and vision for Monarch Media, a ‘conscious’ media and music company driven by a community-minded vision and a desire to make a difference – all the while delivering a great music experience. It incorporates Vinyl Destinations, The Station and an online video stream.

The latter is the result of purchasing a library of 15,000 broadcast quality music videos that will allow it to stream online the videos of songs being played on the radio. He’s surprised existing stations aren’t doing this already and he thinks it’s a nice twist to be able to watch it at home and then get in the car and continue to listen.

Music for all

Following the purchase of The Station, Hislop and a business partner went looking for a space to call home, with the aim of finding somewhere that would facilitate a connection between The Station and the public.

What he found to his surprise was Vinyl Destination, and its combination of a record store and coffee shop was the perfect fit.

"When I first visited Vinyl Destination, it was apparent that something special was happening. It's a treasure trove for real music lovers. Broadcasting The Station from the shop provides a physical presence – something not often possible in radio – along with a chance for listeners to connect – both with us and each other."

Hislop kept all the existing staff on board but increased their skill sets so they can now all make coffee and be on-air. They can even do both at the same time as there’s a mic to the barista station.

The desk itself also encourages interaction throughout the entire store as it’s on wheels with a 30-meter snake meaning reaches outside if someone was inclined to broadcast from in front of the shop.

One of the first visitors who came into the store to visit The Station and see what it was all about had worked on the previous station to run on the frequency, Paradise 105.4FM.

It launched in February last year and provided an alternative to mainstream radio play for listeners aged 35-65 through a mix of Americana folk type music. Hislop says he was a fan of the station and it played some great music but it went a bit left of centre and that was its downfall.

He hopes the story won't be replicated with The Station as being in Vinyl Destinations provides the ultimate setting to see what people are interested from what they pick up off the shelves and what they talk about over coffee.

That viewpoint also gives Hislop a unique take on The Station’s demographic. Having worked in radio for 32 years, he was waiting for the question of its audience to come up so he got in first to say he doesn’t believe in demographics when it comes to music.

“If you stand in Real Groovy or you sit in our record store, there is no demographic of people who love music."

He gives the example of a young teenager who was in the store looking for a Bee Gees record, while plenty of others have been in looking for the likes of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. There have also been people looking for recent music like Kendrick Lamar on vinyl and the staff have been able to introduce them to a new way of experiencing music.

“It’s kind of magic, really,” Hislop says.

Committing to local

Helping in its mission to launch upcoming artists, Hislop says The Station has committed to playing 30 percent local music

“If there was one thing I’ve done in my career since I was 17 and got my first job as a radio announcer, that’s been my mission,” he says, adding he’s always played 20 percent on his station.

There is, however, the exception for his time with ZM. When he took over the station’s programming, local music wasn’t on the spectrum and it was playing just over three percent local music but 18 months later, he had that up to nearly 17 percent. It was at that point he was poached to work at Warner Music so he was unable to get it to 20, he reflects. 

His transformation of ZM is similar to NZ On Air’s reflection of the radio industry as when the organisation was formed in 1989, less than two percent of music on the radio was local. Today, it’s around 20 percent.

Hislop believes there’s still room for improvement across radio stations in general, but he does acknowledge that it’s not what the radio stations are about.

“The bottom line is that it’s irrelevant to most commercial stations. I don’t mean that unkindly, it’s just not what they do.

“While I’m a music person who got into radio, most in the industry are radio people first. And while music is important to them, it’s not the main thing.”

Despite that, he does say there’s a satisfaction now to sit at the Music Awards these days and think: “this is what we were fighting for back then.”

“All the things we said were possible back then for New Zealand music are actually happening right now and it’s not just in one genre. There’s a whole bunch of exciting stuff happening everywhere.”

And for Hislop to continue to play a part in that, Monarch Media is committed to developing local Bay of Plenty artists.

Alongside his work in radio, Hislop has also worked to manage and develop New Zealand icons such as Pluto, Goodshirt and Opshop among others. He’s worked to bring them from leftfield across to mainstream media and it’s now something he can continue to do for other artists with the added benefit of giving them exposure through The Station.

Trying something different

Those artists will be added to The Station’s lineup, which has a format that’s been designed especially for The Station. Hislop wants to take listeners on a journey of discovery by hearing recognisable hits, current music and songs that are challenging so he’s reconstructed the traditional radio format by starting with the listener in mind and working backwards.

He explains the art of radio programming is based on clocks, with each having categories of music, ads and DJ banter ordered throughout it. While other stations typically use a one-hour clock, he's extended his to four hours.

By making it longer, not only is Hislop encouraging a longer time spent listening, he’s reducing the chance of repetition on the station, which is one of the objections he understands people have to radio.

Another objection was invasive commercial content and to get past this one, Hislop has again adapted traditional radio advertising to create his own formula.

One of the problems with radio ads is that not only are they being written outside of a station, they’re often intended to run across multiple stations so don't always fit the tone or feel of a station.

He says in his time in radio, he’s always fought hard to making the creative part of the programme by bringing in his own production team and the same goes for The Station.

“It’s not about playing no ads, it’s about how you play them and the production of them and the writing and so on…”

However, on that note, he does say it can afford to play only four minutes of ads an hour because of its overheads compared to other station’s eight, 10 or 12 minutes.

It’s also in the unique position in that Vinyl Destination provides another revenue stream and it can use The Station to sell products in the store.

Having the confidence to not only build his own radio formats but also to start The Station in the first place is something Hislop credits to the years he’s spent in the industry.

He says his thoughts about radio haven’t changed over the years, he’s just reached a point where he’s more confident about them and can now carry them out.

But it’s not about going “I’ve seen enough” he says, as he’s still looking for the next best thing.

“You do have that [experience] under your belt but you’re still open minded and absolutely open minded to do things differently and in a new way and I think that’s the key thing.”