More entertaining talent needed on air: Musicmaster’s Joe Knapp

Joe Knapp, inventor of the MusicMaster scheduling system, has been observing radio from the inside for over three decades. He loves radio, but says the American industry has consolidated so much that “it has gone to the bottom.” He has been listening to Australian radio during a visit this week and talks to radioinfo about his perceptions of the industry in this country. Knapp also gives us his thoughts on the future of radio and the new technological developments he thinks will help radio survive into the future.


In America, radio “is just a job now… it’s a shame,” says Knapp. He believes the decline began when business people “took the show out of show business,” tightening the screws so much that they cut back on entertaining on air talent. “They stripped out the money, the talent and the entertainment out of it.”


The growth of the internet has also hastened the decline of radio because it provides so many more options for people than in the past. “When I grew up we had limited entertainment options, a few radio and tv stations and reading. Now kids have access to so many more options, games, the internet, hundreds of satellite channels, social media and so much more. Radio now has to compete with all of these.” Kanpp thinks free to air terrestrial radio is likely to be overtaken by internet radio and wifi/bluetooth connectivity in the future.

By contrast Australia appears to be a little different, says Knapp. “I still hear good people on air here. Your markets have fewer stations than we do, so perhaps companies are still able to make enough money, or perhaps they just believe more in the product.”

Comparing similar sized markets confirms his point. The Chicago market, with about 60 to 70 stations, is about the same size as Sydney, which has about 20 stations. “When there are so many stations in a market the pie gets sliced up too thinly.” He thinks the American market will shrink as more stations go dark and hand back their licences, reducing the market size by natural attrition. 



When he invented his first computer generated music log in 1983 Knapp united his music and programming skills with his engineering expertise to help change the way music was scheduled on the radio. Along with other radio scheduling pioneers, Knapp was there at the beginning of the technological change. So what technologies is he watching at the moment to see where the latest innovations are heading?


Crowd Sourcing is something he has been watching for a while, and MusicMaster is just rolling out interactive options for listeners to be able to shape the playlist by choosing their favourite songs. But Knapp cautions that getting it wrong can cause problems.

“To test one of those systems, one night I generated lots of user accounts and logged on to vote for the worst songs on the playlist. I changed that station’s playlist within a few hours.”

Stations should be wary of narrow focused music fans skewing their playlist, or rivals who purposely set out to vote for the worst songs and degrade the quality of the on air product. The MusicMaster crowd source option has learnt from Kanpp’s ‘experiment’ and will only give listeners the option to choose one of ten songs at any one time. Once they have voted for that it will select another category and give them ten songs to pick from in that category. Knapp says this prevents listeners from seeing the whole music universe and having wide open access to all the songs in the list and too much power to influence the feel of the station. MusicMaster’s new Blendella system takes advantage of some of these concepts.




Broadband WiFi players in cars will also make a big difference, allowing drivers to download podcasts wirelessly overnight when their car is parked at home, then drive to work with their favourite show ready to hear. The combination of timeshifting through podcasting, place shifting via mobile broadband and in-car entertainment storage systems will be transformative. “Radio shows may survive, but old fashioned terrestrial radio may not,” says Knapp.


HD Radio is “too little too late” in America. Knapp says HD Radio has confused people, and that not enough of the right type of receivers have penetrated the market. “If the government had forced a switch off of analog radio, like they did with tv, it might have worked, but that has not happened,” says Knapp. He is not familiar with Australia’s introduction of DAB+ or of the success or otherwise of other systems throughout the world.


Despite Knapp’s observations of industry decline in some areas, he predicts that radio advertising will improve as more radio shows go on line, because online players, podcasts and phone receivers can capture user data and tailor ads to things users are directly interested in. He says stations should look for technologies that allow them to collect user data and then present them with ads that are directly relevant. “With Facebook you can easily like or dislike something, fvarchar(15)une your messages and fine tune your target users, this is what radio needs to be doing to reach advertisers better.


In his travels has Knapp seen many interesting new formats? “Unfortunately not. No one seems to play 40s, 50s, 60s, Jazz or Classical formats any more. Some stations have  eclectic formats, album cuts or alternative rock, but most others are playing variations of Rock, Dance or Pop.”  His advice to broadcasters is “be live and local all the time, get on the streets, and entertain!”



MusicMaster is a music scheduling system used by over 4,000 radio, TV and the Internet broadcasters around the world. It provides all the scheduling basics like other systems, but has some unique features which Knapp says sets his system apart.

Customisation of the song data entry fields is a useful MusicMaster function for non-pop stations. For example a classical station may need fields which are beyond title and artist, to denote the part of the work, what century it was composed in, orchestral elements and many other information lines that are not needed in systems tailored mostly for pop music.

As well as its traditional radio scheduling functions, Knapp has also seen the Music Master system being used to schedule all aspects of tv, including supers, logo overlays and other visual elements. Many stations, especially regionals, are using MusicMaster in Australia.


Knapp invented the product about 25 years ago when he was chief engineer and programmer at a small station, WZZU, in Milwaukee. He used a Radio Shack TRS-80  (affectionately called the Trash 80 back then) to help him save time on his music scheduling, which had been done in the past by using a card file system.

A colleague suggested he sell the program to another station and Knapp was asked for a price. After being told his original figure of $50 was too low he sold that system for $1000. “They seemed to think it was good value, so for the next sale I put the price up again to $3000. When they thought that was good value I put it up again. By the end of the first year I had sold 13 systems.”



Joe Knapp began tinkering with radio electronics when he was aged eleven. His father, a radar operator for the Navy during World War II, showed him how to turn an old radio into a transmitter. Though the Knapp family struggled to make ends meet, John managed to buy his young son some used electronics textbooks, and then looked the other way when Joe, at 11 years old, built and ran an illegal radio station in his bedroom.

The FCC engineers, however, were not as forgiving and shut him down, but not before recognising his engineering ability and suggesting he get a technical licence and “do it for real.” Taking their suggestion, he brushed up on broadcasting law and passed the First Class license exam at 18 and quit his hamburger-flipping job to find work in radio. A year later, after working on mobile telephones for Ohio Bell, he landed his first radio job helping build WSUM-AM in suburban Parma, Ohio. He also took on the job of evening announcer.

Joe’s radio career next took him to WBKC-AM in Chardon, Ohio where he became chief engineer and afternoon drive jock. Soon he had landed his dream job, at Malrite’s WMMS-FM/Cleveland, a station he’d been a fan of since it moved to album rock.

His next project was doing afternoons at crosstown WQFM, which included programming, production and promotions. After getting fired, he tried in vain to find another programming gig but ran out of money. After reconsidering the stability of engineering, Joe became chief engineer for Booth’s WZZP-FM/Cleveland. He tried going back to WMMS, but they sent him to Milwaukee to rebuild the WZUU studios, which is where he began work on his music scheduling program after teaching himself computer programming.

Another change in Joe’s life came when Malrite sent him to New York to help build WHTZ (Z100). Eventually, Carl Hirsh put him in charge of the project. At 3:30 a.m., Joe’s voice was the first heard on that station doing a station ID, followed by “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra. He was asked to stay on, but Joe and his wife decided that Milwaukee was a better place to raise kids.

Back in Milwaukee, Joe continued improving his software and eventually licensed it to Tapscan to sell with their software as MusicScan. In 1994, following a bitter legal dispute, that deal ended and Joe formed his own company, changing the program’s name to MusicMaster and later rewriting it for Microsoft Windows.


Joe Knapp is in Australia all this week visiting MusicMaster clients around the country.


Disclosure: MusicMaster is a radioinfo advertiser. Click the link below to visit the MusicMaster website.