My Music Row Story: CRS’ RJ Curtis

RJ Curtis

The “My Music Row Story” weekly column features notable members of the Nashville music industry selected by the MusicRow editorial team. These individuals serve in key roles that help advance and promote the success of our industry. This column spotlights the invaluable people that keep the wheels rolling and the music playing.

RJ Curtis is a 44-year radio veteran and music industry professional who started working in radio as a teenager, eventually logging 30 years in major market radio (Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Antonio) in program director, operations manager, music director, and on- air talent roles.

In 2007, Curtis segued to broadcast and music industry trade journalism, reporting on and providing analysis for all aspects of the radio and record label industries. His 13-year tenure in this sector included oversight of trade journal brands Country Editor, Radio & Records Magazine, and contributor to sister publication, Billboard Magazine. He also served as VP, Radio of All Access Music Group and VP, Radio of Country Aircheck.

Curtis currently acts as Executive Director for Country Radio Broadcasters, Inc. (CRB), an industry service organization responsible for staging the annual Country Radio Seminar (CRS), a three-day educational event which gathers key business leaders in various radio and music industry fields, featuring presentations on best business practices, emerging technology, personal career development, and new music showcases. In February of 2021, CRS successfully pivoted to a virtual event due to the pandemic. CRS 2022 will return to a fully live, in-person event Feb. 23-25.

Curtis, a recent Country Radio Hall of Fame inductee, recently spoke to MusicRow about his journey and some of his favorite career moments.

MusicRow: Where did you grow up? How did you become interested in radio?

We moved a lot when I was a little kid, but we got to Southern California when I was 10. So that’s my growing up experience. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, which meant Los Angeles radio.

I was always a radio listener. I grew up listening to some legendary signals, like KHJ. As I got older, I segued to the FM part of the dial, like KMET, KLOS, KFI, KABC…all of these big signals in Los Angeles with great personalities. So I really loved radio, but when I got into the seventh grade, I met a friend named Rick Minyard. his dad, ken, did mornings at KABC. I got to know Ken and I thought, ‘That’s a cool job.’ So it really started in the seventh grade.

I’m very fortunate because I knew early on that that’s all I wanted to do. I didn’t have any distractions about that. I was narrowly focused on radio.

RJ Curtis with Eric Church at CRS 2020.

How did you start your career in radio?

I started my radio career in Los Angeles. It was my first semester at Valley College, working at the campus radio station KVCR. For a project, I had to go visit radio stations, so I would leave my name and number [at the stations].

KBIG in Los Angeles is now an AC station, but at the time it was a beautiful music station—beautiful music was a big format in the ’70s. A lot of people would call it elevator music because it’s all instrumentals. I got a job there when I was 18 years old working what was called the music line. There was no back-selling and jocking as it were in radio, there were announcers. They didn’t pre or back sell any music, so they hired college-aged kids to come sit by the phone and answer listeners who asked, ‘Hey, what was that song?’ That’s when I learned all about the core artists for beautiful music.

So that was my first job, and I got to know all the announcers. I made some great connections there. Then after that, I got a job outside of Los Angeles in San Bernardino on the air.

What brought you to Nashville?

I was in radio from 1977 until 2006, so for 30 years. In 2006, I was programming KZLA in Los Angeles. It was owned by Emmis and they flipped the format to a rhythmic AC format called Movin’. It was supposed to overtake radio, but it didn’t. [In the meantime], I had been thinking, ‘Am I going to keep doing this? What’s next?’ I had a really great contract and I was compensated for the next six months, so I had time to really think about it.

Radio & Records [Magazine] had undergone a sale. Billboard bought them in the summer of 2006. Lon Helton left R&R after 25 years and they didn’t have a country editor. So I was contacted by Eric Farber, who was running R&R then. We got together and within a few months I was working at R&R as a country editor. I did that for three years. What brought me to Nashville was when R&R shut down, Skip Bishop other Butch Waugh from Arista reached out. Butch said, ‘Have you ever thought about record promotion?’ They moved me out here in 2009. I did promotion for about 18 months and didn’t like it. I kind of knew I wouldn’t, but I’m glad I did it.

It seems like your time at R&R opened the door for you to become VP, Country at Country Aircheck and then the Nashville Editor for the All Access Music Group.

When I was at Arista, I didn’t love record promotion and I didn’t miss radio, but I missed writing about it. I had really taken to it. When I left to KZLA and then ended up at R&R, I didn’t know what to expect from writing about it but not being in radio. But it was such a seamless, smooth, good transition. I enjoyed being exposed to [the whole industry]. When you’re at a radio station, you’re dialed in on that thing. You’re looking at your own station, your own market, and your own team, and you can miss a lot of things that are happening out in the world.

I went to Aircheck in the early part of 2011 and did that until Joel Denver called and asked if I wanted to run the Nashville office for All Access. I had a great time working with Lon and Chuck [Aly]but it was an opportunity to be the editor.

RJ Curtis with Carrie Underwood at CRS 2020.

In 2018 it was announced that you would be succeeding Bill Mayne as the Executive Director of Country Radio Broadcasters/Country Radio Seminar. How did that come to be?

It’s interesting because that journey really started when I first started going to CRS in 1985, although I didn’t know it. I went there as a radio person in 1985. Bill Mayne, who was my program director at KZLA, took me. I went the next year too and started getting involved in helping out with sessions, doing room counts and all those kinds of things. I did that for a long time and then I got on the agenda committee for two years in the late ’90s.

I was elected to the board in 1999. I was a 20-year board member, so I became super involved in the format. I became a member of the executive committee, and when you’re on the executive committee, you’re privy to everything. Within three years of being on the board, I was elected president of CRB. So I was a three-year president, a vice president, and then I chaired the Hall of Fame committee. Unbeknownst to me, it prepared me for this role. So in 2018, when Bill Mayne decided to retire, I said ‘I’m stepping up for this. I’ve taken all the steps necessary to be qualified for this.’ The transition from a board member to the executive director has been very seamless.

Next week is the 2022 Country Radio Seminar. How would you describe the work that goes into planning that conference?

I don’t know if it’s the greatest analogy in the world, but I remember growing up in Southern California and watching the Tournament of Roses Parade. Bob Eubanks other Stephanie Edwards would host the parade and they’d say, ‘Right after the parade ends, starting tomorrow, they start planning for next year.’ I thought that was ridiculous, it was a year away! but [what we do is] similar to that in that CRS ends, the staff takes a few days off, we come back in the middle of the following week and [review]. We break down this seminar into certain segments such as registration, sessions, and other things like that. We spend a few weeks deconstructing each of those components and then we start working on how to improve it the next year. So it really is a year long process—except we don’t have a parade at CRS—maybe we should?

When do you feel most fulfilled in your new role?

It’s not the only day [I feel this way], but there is a moment when New Faces ends and I’m with my team. I make it a point to say, ‘Hey everybody, after New Faces and after we do the pictures with the artists and all that stuff, we’re meeting in the bar and I’m buying everyone a cocktail. We’re gonna raise a glass.’ It is very satisfying.

Also the following morning, we typically have a board meeting and we spend three hours deconstructing on the immediate takeaways of the seminar. That’s always fun. Hearing feedback and talking about the event is very fulfilling because it’s a lot of work to get to that point. When it’s done and we know some things have gone exceptionally well, that’s a great feeling.

RJ Curtis at the Country Radio Hall of Fame induction dinner.

Who have been some of your biggest mentors?

Bill Mayne is a huge influence on my life. I met him when I was in my 20s, he was my program director for a while at KZLA and he recognized something in me as a programmer and a leader.

He handed me off to Larry Daniels at KNIX. I left KZLA to go work for Larry in Phoenix. He was an amazing example and mentor, he was terrific. He referred to me for my six years at KNIX as ‘his project.’ He was great: an amazing programmer, a fantastic manager, and a great person. In the same organization, Michael Owens what our general manager. He was an amazing broadcaster and incredible business man.

What’s some of the best advice you’ve ever gotten?

It’s not so much advice as it is examples of how to handle or approach certain things. Bill Mayne gave me some great advice.

Larry and Michael taught me this overall style and approach to radio of being prepared, taking care of every detail, and more. And in terms of the artists, it was treating every artist that came through the radio station with respect. No matter if [they had a label deal or not]any artist that came into the radio station was treated with a lot of respect.

What has been one of your proudest moments in your career?

It was in October, being inducted into the Country Radio Hall of Fame. I’ve been involved with that event for a long time. I’ve been on the selection committee and I’ve produced the dinner since 2007. To then be on the other side of it as an inductee was really wild. It blew my mind to be nominated and then to be selected… I’m really proud of that because when you look at the criteria of it, it’s about making a significant contribution and furthering the country music industry. To be considered one of those people, it’s still hard to think about because of the people that I know in the Hall of Fame—it’s hard for me to put myself in that category. It was a very wonderful night and really a proud moment.

LB Cantrell is Director of Operations & Content at MusicRow magazine, where she oversees, manages and executes all company operations. LB oversees all MusicRow-related content, including MusicRow’s six annual print issues and online news. She also heads up specific, large-scale projects for the company, facilitates the company’s annual events, and more. LB is a Georgia native and a graduate of the Recording Industry Management program at Middle Tennessee State University.

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