NON-COMMvention 2024 Brought Together a Resilient, Evolving Triple A Format

noncomMUSIC AllianceCommunity, Curation, Discovery, Performance, Triple A

Photo Credit: WXPN

Noncommercial Triple A stations shared in their successes and community impact for the format during this year’s event hosted at WXPN’s Headquarters.

Every year, hundreds of radio station staff, music industry insiders, musicians, and radio listeners flock to World Cafe Live in Philadelphia for the NON-COMMvention, an event produced and hosted by the public radio Triple A station WXPN stretching over four days and blending live music and industry-focused panels. “There is nothing like NON-COMM!” says Roger LaMay, general manager of WXPN. Big and small stations alike have been making the yearly pilgrimage since 2001 alongside radio promoters, record label teams, and WXPN members and listeners, all eager to hear the latest music played live from the two stages at the venue, which also houses WXPN’s studios and offices. Each session, from the nightly sets that switch between the more intimate upstairs lounge and the larger downstairs Music Hall to the daily Free at Noon sessions are broadcast live on-air and streamed online (while also being later shown off on their YouTube channel) making it known that the event isn’t just a radio conference, it’s radio itself and tailor-made for the community.

The music might have drawn the crowds of WXPN listeners, but the event’s suite of far reaching panels kept the attention of the stations and industry partners throughout the week. This year’s focus was on expanding the digital landscape for noncommercial radio stations. With an ever-evolving media environment, radio stations find themselves looking to digital platforms and experiences as a way to connect with new audiences and rekindle support from both old and current members. Public radio, specifically the broadly focused noncommercial Triple A stations in the audience, has the freedom to explore bolder moves into the digital space. “What really jumped out this year was the optimism and sense of community among attendees,” explains LaMay. The crowd heard firsthand success stories from stations, with advice shared by station staff who pioneered new marketing campaigns, development strategies, and audience participation platforms. Experts shared their experiences and tips on how to use social media to build, connect, and relate to their audiences, and industry leaders shared how to best wrangle the amount of music being introduced to them by labels and promoters. WXPN’s Bruce Warren dove into a fun exploration of the sometimes bewildering power of generative AI and helped moderate a lively debate around the complex role it could possibly play in radio’s near future.

In partnership with the noncomMUSIC Alliance, the NON-COMMvention’s cornerstone presentation provided a deep dive into research around topline trends in the Triple A broadcast audience–a critical topic for developing the future of the format. Leading the discussion was NPR’s Vice President of Audience Insights, Lori Kaplan, who helped develop and analyze the research. While the unavoidable fact of both commercial and noncommercial radio in recent decades is that on-air audience listening is shrinking, the research revealed that noncommercial Triple A radio was outperforming nearly all other formats. The data bore out a truth that the format could find success in a way Kaplan described simply as, “Engage engage engage. Audience audience audience.” The other panels’ discussions that demonstrated excitement for new opportunities in the digital space provided a perfect proof point for this direction. Not only that, further research drawing from focus groups and one-on-one interviews found that noncommercial Triple A stations had a chance to be a source of joy during a person’s day, showing a celebration between a community’s artistic scenes and great music from across the country and throughout the decades.

Photo Credit: WXPN

That celebration, as always, came to life across the event’s stages. This year’s NON-COMMvention showcased 27 acts that gave a wide ranging review of the Triple A format and its expansive mix of genres and vibes.“Our common goal and organizing principle is that musical discovery brings people together,” emphasizes LaMay. Attendees and listeners experienced that in person as they caught sets from format stalwarts such as indie folk artists The Decemberists and Iron & Wine, big name acts The Black Crowes, or Americana troubadours The Old 97s. They also saw an expansive vision of the format, like punk storyteller Laura Jane Grace, the Afro-Latin beats of Reyna Tropical, or the powerful funk and soul of Brittany Davis, who explored their songs expressing the experience as a blind, Black, and nonbinary artist with World Cafe host Raina Douris live on Wednesday afternoon.

Seeing so much live music isn’t the only special kind of music experience at the NON-COMMvention. One of the closing events is the Music Meeting, where everyone is offered a truly unique chance to not only hear music that could be weeks or even months away from release, but to solicit their opinions about it. Pieces of paper with scores of 1 through 10 fly up after each song, with spirited comments for and against each song offered up across the room. Friendly promoters competitively poke fun at each other’s songs in the mix. Radio programmers rhapsodize their love of playing new music. Audience members express how much it means to enjoy that music and the atmosphere of the event. Hearing the conversation about the acts, the previous nights’ unforgettable moments, and the experiences they had keep the entire venue abuzz with an open, friendly energy, showcasing the kind of community spirit WXPN has fostered for decades. “We are grateful to have the facility, staff capacity, and partnerships to produce such an ambitious gathering that’s all about the power and presentation of independent  music. It’s our favorite week of the year,” LaMay says with pride as he and the station get ready for next year’s event, set for May 6-9, 2025. With a theme about looking to the future of the format and how to find new ways to connect to the audience, it’s the kind of event that has evergreen appeal: good music and uniting people together to create community.