Reaching young people through music and listening: Interview with Derrick Ashong


I recently had the great pleasure of sitting down with Derrick Ashong – extraordinary musician, radio host and thought leader in the social change space. He shared his insights into how to reach younger audiences and what they want to hear.

Derrick Ashong & Harpo Productions:

SM: Derrick’s been doing some fantastic work with Oprah’s network, Harpo network. Could you tell us a little about that?

DA: Well I’m actually working directly with Harpo now, and basically we launched a show on Oprah radio called the Derrick Ashong Experience. That show looks at how a new generation (and by ‘generation’ we’re not just talking about age, we really mean by a way of thinking) looks at life: art, society, technology, pop culture, politics, business, the whole nine. We’re really trying to create an intelligent dialogue where we’re not coming in with a particular ideological perspective, but we’re encouraging people to talk and learn together and it’s been an absolute blast.

How radio needs to change:

SM: What are they major obstacles they’re encountering?  Is it just a mindset that’s outdated?  Are there any specifics you can tell us?

DA: Talk radio as a whole is characterized by this hardcore ideological perspective.  People are very, very extreme in their views and they use that extremity to get listeners. But because of that, my generation is completely uninterested in talk radio. We don’t tune in.

Artist vs. Journalist:

DA: It’s like “You want me to call in to reinforce what you already think?” and so I take a different approach – as an artist. I’m not a journalist. A journalist reports what’s happening and then you have commentators, and they opine and hopefully they can get people to reinforce it. I’m an artist. An artist interprets what’s happening in the world and we reframe it and put it back out to people. We’re always seeking truth. So through my show, my goal is to pursue the truth, not as an expert, but as an open mind and to wring it and put it back out to people and see what they think.

SM: Everybody is looking for the “angle” when there’s not really an angle, there’s an openness they need.

Reaching the youth market by listening:

SM:  If you were launching a new brand and want to reach out to the youth market, people say start by listening. Would you agree, and if so, then what?

DA: The first thing is listen. But what you want to do is integrate the listening and the doing. For example, your customers should be a part of the creation of your product. They should be continually involved and invested and touching it because nobody is going to care more about having a great product than the customer.

How companies take a risk and win:

DA:  Before it was more difficult to get that direct consumer feedback and build that relationship. It’s much easier now but people have created their models based on the way things were, so now there’s a certain fear of “what if they don’t like it,” or “what if they say something bad about my product when we’ve done all this work to build a brand.” Here’s the thing. If people say something bad about your product and you change it to address their concerns, that’s a massive PR marketing coup because people will not only say “We like it,” they’ll say “We like it and they listen to us. We’re a part of this.” That connection and that interaction and relationship is what is truly valuable this day in age.

Opening hearts and minds through music:

SM: Now, through the lens of music do you find that reaching an audience is a little bit easier, and how do those two come together in terms of what you’re trying to do?

DA:  Great question. Music is funny, it’s kind of a gateway drug. It opens the doors to everything else. It opens the doors to everything in life and you can use it for good things and bad things, but music is something that is a bed, it underpins whatever else is going on in your world. I really take this Bob Marley quote to heart: One good thing about music: when it hits, you feel no pain. So we use music as a way to open the dialogue, we use creativity as a way to draw people in.

SM:  They’re disarmed because they get in touch with their common humanity at which point you actually talk to them.

DA:  Exactly. Once they’re together, once they’re open, we can actually have a conversation.

How to connect with Derrick:

For an overview on how a brand goes social, click here, and please fire away with your questions or comments on how to reach younger markets.