“Don’t Be One-Dimensional”: Ebro Darden on Finding Your Voice

The Apple Music exec and ‘Ebro in the Morning’ host details the realities of succeeding in the media landscape.

Music 
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Ebro Darden takes his craft seriously. There’s more to being on the radio than speaking into a microphone every day — in fact, talking is just the tip of the iceberg.

Understanding both the “on-air” and “business” sides of radio, as Darden describes them, helped him advance his career from intern to a programming and music director, prime morning show host and the Global Editorial Senior Director of Hip Hop and R&B at Apple Music. While many are familiar with the on-air side thanks to Hot 97’s Ebro in the Morning and Apple Music’s The Ebro Show, the business side, Darden explains, is a whole different ball game: one must be a reliable, advertiser-friendly personality who gets great ratings and remains consistent. Unfortunately, not everyone can tackle every aspect at the same time. Working in radio may seem easy on paper but it’s not, “A lot of people don’t have the focus and ability to be consistent day in and day out,” he notes.

Knowing the media industry both on and off the microphone has become one of Darden’s greatest strengths over the past three decades. The media landscape may have transformed dramatically since he started, but Darden has never faltered: “My experience in radio, from being on air to programming to understanding how ratings work, et cetera, helps me handle my shows differently than someone who is just trying to be talent.”

“As a host, it’s not really about you. It’s about your ability to contextualize and communicate with the audience that you serve.”

What does it mean to be Apple Music’s Global Editorial Senior Director of Hip Hop and R&B in layman’s terms?

If I was to describe my job to someone who isn’t familiar, I’d say that I help manage a team of individuals programming playlists at Apple Music. There are other responsibilities, of course, but that’s the basic job.

Can you run us through a day in your work life?

I wake up at 5:00 a.m. and I’m on the air at Ebro in the Morning at 6:00 AM. I’m live on the radio until about 9:00 or 9:30 a.m., then we record interviews until about 10:30 or 11:00 a.m.. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I hit the gym for about an hour and a half, then I come to my office at Apple Music. On Mondays, I come to the Apple Music office at about 11:00 a.m, and begin to have meetings, do my radio show on Apple Music 1, do interviews, record content, et cetera, until I go home.

I’m still taking calls and meetings until probably 8:00 p.m. Those calls and meetings could be anything from planning meetings with features we want to have for Hip Hop and R&B in Apple Music to calls about artists and what their plans are, music they might be dropping or other tentpole things happening like Black History Month, Black Music Month, Latin Heritage Month, the holidays, Juneteenth — all of those things are constantly being talked about and planned. That’s what I’m doing all day, every day.

Tell us the story of the most memorable interview you’ve ever done.

There’s a few: Jamie Foxx when he told us about the Mike Tyson movie he was working on, 50 Cent and I arguing about who screwed up the New York Hip Hop scene. Anytime I’ve interviewed Erykah Badu, Janelle Monet, when Dave Chappelle took over my Ebro in the Morning Show just to host and bug out, when Travis Scott did that… There were a number of great times.

“You gotta be available, you gotta be accessible, you gotta understand the greater metrics for the business and help deliver on them.”

Did you always know you wanted to have the career you do now, and did school play any part in inspiring you to this path?

No, I did not. My story’s interesting, because I started when I was 15 and I knew I liked music and DJing and that sort of thing, but I didn’t really have a specific interest in radio. I knew people based on what I was doing when I was 15 — which was working in the mall and being a stock boy — and cats from the radio would come by and get clothes, so I was able to get an internship. The high school I went to had a radio station for the campus, so I was able to get credit at school for working at the other radio station that my job linked me up with. I guess high school played a part, but never college for what I do now.

What are the necessary first steps a person should take to build a career as a host, whether on the radio or otherwise?

I think the first step is knowing that you are not in music if you’re a host. You are a host in television, radio, whatever platform you are, right? You’re in that business. Music is just a different business. Covering the music business is what we do. We cover the music, we talk about the music, we critique the music. For example, a sports broadcaster is not in the sports business as much as they’re in the broadcast business covering sports.

The physical first step would be to get an internship or something of that nature at the television station or the media outlet that you want to be a host on so you can understand how hosting works. As a host, it’s not really about you. It’s about your ability to contextualize and communicate with the audience that you serve. If you want to develop something that is about you and your opinion, you can do that on your own time and hopefully it’ll grow enough for you to earn a slot with a media outlet that wants to give you space to be that person. Or you just become trusted enough to do so with the media outlet as you grow.

“Try to be as dynamic as possible in understanding all aspects of the business. Don’t just be one-dimensional.”

What lessons and/or work ethics did you only pick up after working in the music industry?

I think the work ethic that I have didn’t come from this media industry. I think it mostly came from my family and playing sports my whole life, of showing up every day, giving it your best, and being on time and ready. And that’s something that any field that you go into, you gotta be available, you gotta be accessible, you gotta understand the greater metrics for the business and help deliver on them. And if you’re doing that, then they’ll want you around because you’re working to help people stay employed and you’re working to grow the business. If you’re just selfish, nobody’s going to want you around.

What was the biggest challenge you’ve had to face so far, and how did you overcome it?

I think the biggest challenge that anybody that’s been in media long enough has had to face is evolving with the business, knowing when it’s time to pivot and knowing when it’s time to ask for help, take on new challenges and reprioritize. Business changes even faster now with so many different outlets creating content, so it’s not specifically about video or audio or about radio or streaming or whatever. It’s about taking your brand and distributing it across as many different platforms as possible, as well as having something that is of value to one of these businesses so they want to create a business relationship.

Is there a secret to career longevity in this industry?

Try to be as dynamic as possible in understanding all aspects of the business. Don’t just be one-dimensional. Don’t just be on the microphone. If you’re on the microphone, do you know how to write? Do you know how to edit? Do you know how to pick music? Do you know how to read the metrics? Whatever the measurements are to decide content selections or ratings? Do you respect the ratings and know how to be malleable and change in some way so that you can be ratings-friendly? Overall, we’re in businesses, so it’s about making sure that you can help make the business successful.

“Be open-minded to what artists are trying to do to express themselves, where the music is coming from and how you can help expose it is always what’s changing.”

What are some habits you follow regularly to always maintain a good headspace for work?

Exercise, sleep and great food and water. Always sleep.

How do you see your job evolving with the music industry in the next five years?

The one thing that’s always been ever-changing since the internet came around and now streaming and whatever social media, blah, blah, blah, is where the big hits and the new music are coming from. I think continuing to be open-minded to what artists are trying to do to express themselves, where the music is coming from and how you can help expose it is always what’s changing.

If not in the media industry, what would you be doing?

I would probably be a professor at a university.

Stay tuned for more features with music industry professionals — from managers to sound engineers, stagehands and others; the people who make the music world go round without standing behind a microphone.

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