Inside Paul Shugrue's 'Out of the Box' Album of the Week
- Category: Featured - Radio
- Published: 30 March 2018
Along the walls, CD cases stack against one another on shelved rows. Cardboard boxes, plastic crates and pieces of paper congregate on desk surfaces and on the carpet floor that is colored with a muted teal. A radio softly fills the still air with its sounds. Compact like the discs that decorate his walls, Paul Shugrue sits at his desk wearing a black, long-sleeved shirt and light blue denim as he works at his computer. His office is a lair, and he has a flair for discovering captivating, new sounds in music.
“I guess when I was in high school I discovered music and that kind of got me started. I knew I couldn’t be a musician,” Shugrue says with a light chuckle. “So I picked the next closest thing to the music industry, I guess.”
Shugrue has worked in radio for his entire career. He got his start working at WUVT, the student-run radio station at Virginia Tech, in 1973. For the next several years, Shugrue would work in commercial radio and shift from city to city along Virginia. He eventually found himself working in public radio at WHRO. The host of radio show Out of the Box, Shugrue shares tracks that are just that—newly arrived music that has yet to grace the ears of many listeners.
In a world of music in which radio stations churn out the same songs over and over, he explains why it’s important to share music that is out of the box. To him, people can only discover music by listening to something they haven’t heard of before. Shugrue explains that commercial radio often prevents a new song from being played.
“We provide that first-listen experience because a lot of times you can remember where you were when you first heard a song,” says Shugrue, pushing back silver strands of hair behind his ear in mid-thought. “I was in commercial radio for a long time before I started working here, so it’s frustrating to have a new song and not be able to play it, you know? But now I can do that, so it’s been great to have that freedom.”
Commercial radio, he explains, has its restrictions. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for sonic exploration due to its ratings-driven nature. On the other hand, public radio is able to flourish through the fundraising of its audience.
In a sense, Shugrue is an explorer of sounds and a curator of tunes. The process for discovering gems, however, comes with its mining. Shugrue subscribes to a variety of mailing lists of music labels, music promoters and other people involved in the music industry in general.
The phone rings. After his conversation, Shugrue warmly apologizes and explains that his office hours are often spent talking to music promoters to fulfill his mission to find new music. Every week, hoards of CDs land onto his desk. He explains that he tries to get as much music sent to him as he possibly can.
“I don’t really physically have time to listen to everything I get in, so I have to make decisions based on, you know, what I get in and decide from there,” says Shugrue.
Shugrue always takes his task seriously and with a strong sense of passion. Whenever he plays music, he says that he's endorsing it. He doesn’t play anything that he doesn’t like or thinks isn’t very good, however, he’ll play music in consideration of his listeners. If his audience might enjoy it, he’ll play it even if he necessarily doesn’t. If the music appeals to him, he makes the assumption that it’ll appeal to others. He analyzes artists by performing a sort of comparative analysis. Shugrue groups similar artists together within sets.
“If I’m playing like an Americana artist, I’m not gonna follow that with a hard rocker or something like that,” Shugrue says, over a guitar singing from the radio. “I’m gonna play another Americana artist.”
Recommended If You Like is a phrase that is exchanged in the industry that explains this. For example, the promotion of a new artist sent to Shugrue would compare that artist to other similar artists. It’s a thing most radio stations often avoid altogether, even going as far as playing a song that sounds completely different from what was played before. Shugrue describes the theory is that since there are so many people listening, stations believe they’ll get more people listening by changing what they have on the air, rather than keeping it the same. When Shugrue plays music on the air, there’s a sense of intimacy, almost as if a friend is just swapping music with you.
“It’s like a record party,” Shugrue says with a warm smile. “That’s kind of like what’s so great about the show. [The show is] right around that time—dinner hour. People are just getting together that night. It’s a good time to be able to expose people to new stuff.”
When it comes to determining the album of the week, Shugrue considers what was released that week and then determines which of those albums he wants to feature. If it’s an album he’s playing on the show, it’s most likely featured as the album of the week.
“Sometimes, there are two or three [albums] that are out that week that I would want to feature, but I still just do one. Sometimes, it’s actually rare that there aren’t any albums out that I can play, that I can feature,” says Paul. “But I’ve had it be kind of close every once in awhile where there’s just one album, and I was lucky it came out that week so I could feature it. I stick pretty close to what is coming out that week 'cause I don’t want to be featuring an album that people can’t go out and get themselves right away.”
Shugrue has done this his entire career. If he believes the song is noteworthy, regardless of whether or not he personally enjoys it, he’ll play it. Having been the music director at most of the stations he’s worked at in the past, he’s confident in his ability to determine what a good radio song is.
“I don’t know why it is, but I always have enjoyed the idea of hearing something first, you know? Being the first person to hear a new song, you know? It just makes me feel like I’m that closer to that song,” Shugrue says, leaning forward from his chair. “Because I heard it before anybody else did, so I try to share that experience with other people on the show by doing something that other radio stations don’t do and play the music immediately.”
For Shugrue, sharing music is a passion. It is a way to deepen his connection to the tracks. “Album of the Week” gives listeners an experience they can’t get anywhere else.
“There are times where I will play every single song from the album during the week that I’m featuring it, and there are no other radio experiences where you can get that. It’s kind of a unique thing that we do with 'Album of the Week' by playing so deep into the album.”
Listen to the archives of Album of the Week.