Interview: McKenna Singh (Astro Hitz Station Manager)

Did video really kill the radiostar? JUICE has a chat with Astro Hitz Station Manager McKenna Singh on the station’s revamp, music policy and plans for the future. The station might not play Avril (yay!) but he will try and get your music video on air. Caution: words like “studies”, “market” and “product” were used in the course of this interview.

Could you tell us a bit more about yourself?
I’ve worked in Astro for about 12 years now. I started off as a PA, worked on production. I was always into production. When I was a kid, I used to play in commercials. I don’t get them anymore now. My dad was a musician. He plays in church and all that. I learnt the guitar from him and I had a band. That was during Butterfingers’ time. I was very into Nirvana and Kurt Cobain was my hero until he died. We had a few gigs. Ashryaf from Disagree, the guitarist was with us before. This was during in Form 3 to Form 5. Everyone needs a band at that age. After a while I moved into Astro and then we kinda got into dance music so I picked up DJing. I do DJ for friends’ parties and stuff, not at clubs. I can’t afford to go and play on a Wednesday, finish at 3 o’clock in the morning and then be here 9 o’clock in the morning.

Hitz TV is now Astro Hitz. What are some of the changes you’ve made? And is that annoying SMS chat window still there?
Before on Hitz TV, we had the SMS chat. We needed something trendy that the youth were into. But before launching this new product, Astro Hitz, we did some studies and found that a lot of people thought the music video screen size was too small. And almost 98% said they didn’t want to chat.

How do you pick your music videos?
First of all, we take directions from the Hitz.FM playlist. But they run hundreds of songs. So we see what kind of videos work and what don’t. We play a lot of mainstream [music] but there’s also an obscure video playlist. We have to open it up basically because we’re a 24 hour music video channel.

And just who gets to decide what music videos to play?
That would be me and Brian from Hitz.FM. For Hitz.FM, they have a certain format. We’re [Astro Hitz] more open in that sense because we’re not a radio station. There’s some allowance for us to play a bit more of 80s and 90s stuff because our age group is like 25. It helps bring back memories for them.

What’s your personal opinion on censorship in Malaysia?
It’s always been a grey area. Even bringing in Avril Lavigne, you know, it’s not about us. Avril to me is just a pop singer. But the government says she’s not very good. It’s pointless to get into trouble just because you wanted to play a video. I mean, they have a directive, saying this song or video is bad. We have to check as well, we can’t just play whatever we want to play.

TV and radio stations tend to play it safe. Repetition has made it very boring for a lot of people. Are stations not willing to take risks anymore? Wouldn’t it be better to break a new artist then to continue playing disposable pop videos?
For me, I would play it as long as it’s not about going topless and all that. Because I can’t really say that if someone doesn’t like this song then we are not going to play it. I am more open in that sense. But obviously we have the directive from Hitz.FM. These top 200 songs are what the market listens to now. Definitely, we’re going to insert some rare songs here and there. But like I say, if we put [on] Jap Disco, how many people are going to listen to that?

But I’m willing to do that. Other people say, “Why touch such a small genre?” To me it’s a going trend. Maybe only a thousand people are into it but I’m willing to take the chance. When you first listen to a radio station, there’s not much talking. It’s all about the music. Everything from A to Z, from my father’s day to today, everything’s there. But then sponsors come in and affect your numbers. End of the day, what are the numbers and how are you going to sustain yourself?

Will Astro TV support the local music scene?
Yes, definitely. There are (local-content programmes) Homeboys and Asian Potion. Some guys have approached me with homemade videos. To me it’s no problem. I’m okay with that platform. Even if you shoot it on your handphone, as long as your song sounds good, we’ll play it. There are a lot of bands out there with great recordings in terms of sound but no video. We can accept watching the news on Youtube, so why not? What’s more important here? The song or the video? Just because you don’t have a fancy video doesn’t mean I won’t play your song.

Does that mean you’re more open towards the content you’ll be showing?
I’m sure there are gigs happening every weekend. Just record the audio with it since it won’t cost you anything and just pass it to me. I will help you anyway I can. I’m opening up in that sense. I’m also aiming for user generated content like short movies, more lifestyle as well. I’m doing it in very nice, slow stages, doing it part by part.

Homeboys is a programme that shows local artists singing in English. Are you planning to segregate content based on language?
I have Indonesian, Taiwanese and other video clips in Asian Potion. I’m opening up the Asian region.

What’s your take on Blastoff? Many bands accused Blast Off for not supporting them after the competition. What are your plans for future ground events?

Blast Off was a competition with past winners like K Town Clan, Frequency Cannon and Bunkface. During that time they used the knowledge that we had given to them, like how to be on the stage, the presence and how to use their instruments properly. During that time, it was Hitz TV. But I definitely won’t be doing Blast Off like it was before. If I am going to do it, it’s going to be different. So, the past is the past. There wasn’t enough support. Right now, we have changed. We have a new family, direction and management; we are looking at things like a competition as well.

Astro Hitz is on channel 705. Tune in to check out the changes.