Kevan Kenney always knew he wanted to be a music host but speaking it into existence and manifesting itself took Kenney on a winding road from driving around New Jersey looking for any and all bars to pitch bar trivia to with sole purpose of honing his craft to within a short amount of time being an unlikely hire at Billboard.
Understanding that music programming had yet to evolve from its origins Kenney’s persistence on knowing what he wanted to and being undeterred has led to him becoming host of Billboard News, Billboard’s Hot 100 Top 10 Countdown, Build Series, TRL and New York’s ALT 92.3 FM. Kenney caught up with Millennial Magazine to share his story, career and where he sees music programming going forward.
Describe a breakthrough moment in your career?
I’d say a breakthrough moment had to be scoring the gig as Host of Billboard News. That’s when I crossed the proverbial guard rail and went from being a fan to someone who was interacting with the biggest artists of the day. In 2016, I was hosting trivia nights and tending bar out in New Jersey while ‘pretending’ to host an online music show from the spare bedroom in my first apartment out of college.
Through luck and happenstance, a guy who worked at my college freelanced with Billboard and recommended me for a different gig. I wound up not getting that show, but got a call back a few months later, asking me if I’d be interested in hosting their first ever daily music show called Billboard News. I thought about it for about half a second and said yes I’d love to and went from the dive bars to red carpets literally in days.
In an era where music programming can be seen as a thing of the past why go down this career path?
I’m not sure music programming is a thing of the past as much as maybe traditional means of distribution have evolved. Some of the highest viewed clips on YouTube are music videos and we can all probably name a handful of music brands thriving in the digital space when it comes to original video content. I went down this career path because I love music and I love people. Spending my life talking to and getting to know the people who make this music seemed like a dream come true and a fun way to make a living.
How did the hustle and grind of the New Jersey bar scene shape who you are today?
I think earning and connecting with an audience are the longest lasting lessons from that time. I would lug my big speakers, a table, a spinning wheel and my DJ equipment into these bars and restaurants and usually be set up in the worst possible corner of the room, and then I’d have to figure out a way to kindly interrupt everyone’s dinner with my trivia nonsense. There were restaurants in great neighborhoods, there were dives in others – I worked them all and had to connect with all sorts of people and all walks of life. When I’m on the set of TRL and we have an actress in act 1, a rapper in act 2 and a rock band in act 3, the same lessons apply. How can I connect with this person and what do we have in common.
What’s the biggest the challenge you face when interviewing artists? How do you get them to open up?
I’m not sure any challenges immediately come to mind per se. Interviews are conversations, so it’s important to be well read on your guest just as you should know about the lives and happenings of your friends if you were having them over for a dinner party. Know what to ask, know what’s important to the artist to talk about and what’s important for the fans to learn. The key to getting anyone to open up is just being real. We all know when someone is being real with us and it inspires us to be our 100 percent authentic selves around them. It’s reciprocal and makes for the best ‘interviews.’
Take us behind your process for interviews.
I like to spend as much time as I can with the guest beforehand as possible. Maybe that’s 10 minute in the green room before we’re live. Maybe that’s beers the night before after their show. A lot of times it can just be YouTube clips. From there I just try to ask the questions fans would want to ask if they were in my shoes. I know not everyone gets to stand up there and talk to these artists, so my job is to be a conduit for those fans and ask what they want to know.
Given all that you do with the many hosting gigs you have how do you avoid over extending yourself?
Recharging on the weekends. I’m a complete couch potato from Saturday to Sunday. I used to think I didn’t need an off button, but once I added my nightly radio show on top of MTV, Billboard and Build Series. I got completely run down. I think being from New Jersey where grind and hustle are instilled in you from a young age combined with working in New York City created this notion in my mind that every second not working was costing me opportunity. I realize now someone running at 90 mph over 5 days beats someone running 110mph for one.
What future do you see music related programming having?
It needs to evolve with the speed of music distribution and information. Interviews will need to become more substantial as basics like tour dates, album titles and track listing are readily available elsewhere. There’s still nothing like being in the same room as your favorite artist so experiential programming like TRL and Build Series will always have a place as long as there are music fans. We’re here to find and tell the stories behind the music you love and luckily for us, there’s never been more music for everyone to enjoy.