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From WTSR to repping the stars

From WTSR to repping the stars

During his 30 years in the music business, Mark DiDia has gone from DJ, to record label exec, to artist manager.

Music industry veteran Mark DiDia ’80 has weathered 30 years of tumult—MTV’s arrival, the convenience of digital music, and the record industry’s collapse. Now an artist manager at Red Light Management, DiDia is learning a new angle of the business at an age not associated with second chances in the job market.

There’s no survival strategy, no longevity technique. DiDia, 54, calls himself lucky then adds, “I don’t know; I’m just fortunate.” Whatever the quality, it appeared long before DiDia’s professional career. As a college freshman, DiDia was majoring, he thinks, in chemistry so he could become a pharmacist. A 1976 trip to explore Kendall Hall led him to the basement home of WTSR.

Angels sang—or spun records—and a career in the sciences slipped and slid away.

DiDia’s countless hours underground led to an unimagined career. Instead of raving about Hall & Oates while filling prescriptions, he hung out with Daryl Hall. Instead of listening to Rick Rubin’s albums on his ride to CVS, he was the legendary producer’s longtime colleague.

“I’m a great fan of his and feel privileged that we get to work on things together,” Rubin says.

“It was a magic time in radio,” says DiDia, who was WTSR’s program director for three years. “Living in Trenton, you probably had the two best radio markets in the world [New York and Philadelphia] on your radio. For me to listen to WNEW or WIOQ and try to make my own small version of that…it was so much fun. It still is.”

WTSR days

The awakening in Kendall Hall loses its divine glow when DiDia describes his childhood. The house was a jukebox, as Mama DiDia played everything from Frank Sinatra to Jack Benny. While most parents associated the rise of rock music with the fall of Western civilization, she bought young Mark his first Beatles album and took him to see A Hard Day’s Night. In high school, DiDia—with his electrician father providing the wires—started a radio station. At night, he would fall asleep with his headphones on.

“I would have dreams of being on the radio,” he says.

At the musical playground known as WTSR, DiDia reveled in saying or doing whatever he wanted—”within reason.” DiDia, along with cohorts Greg Caiola ’79 (station manager) and Dave Silverstein ’79 (sports director), strove to make WTSR “a professional radio station, even if we weren’t,” Silverstein says. “But we were. It’s on the air, and there’s no difference between a college station and a radio station when someone tunes in…We got phone calls from all over. It wasn’t just a toy radio station.”

“You could see he was really determined,” Caiola says of DiDia. “Just from the early time I met him, he knew a lot about music and had an ear for what was good.” DiDia helped push WTSR into a 24-hour format, organized the annual Radiothon fundraiser, and even broadcast Lions’ athletics games.

“Because he had such a strong knowledge of music, and was so strong technically, he could do so many things that the rest of us couldn’t do,” Caiola says.

DiDia landed an internship at the Princeton-based WPST in his junior year and later landed other off-hours gigs. “He had the foresight and insight into the business to take advantage,” says Silverstein, who believes the internship has helped DiDia to this day.

A 30-year radio veteran, Silverstein, now operations manager for Roser Communications in Utica, New York, has seen the music industry’s instability firsthand. It takes drive, determination, and talent to survive, he says. Caiola, currently director of the Young Scholars Institute in Trenton, says there’s another reason for DiDia’s success. His old classmate possessed “an incredible passion” to make music a part of his life.

Breaking into the big time

DiDia’s first full-time job was as the board operator for famed Philadelphia deejay Hy Lit at Trenton’s WKXW. DiDia and Lit got along splendidly. DiDia did not enjoy the same relationship with Lit’s son, Sam, the station’s program director. Sam fired DiDia with the following prediction: “You’ll never work in radio again.”

Using that parting shot as motivation, DiDia became the music director at a daytime AM station in Lakewood, New Jersey. The turning point came as the music director and afternoon deejay at Atlantic City’s WMGM. “In the summer, all the Philly [radio] people would come down, and one of the guys from WYSP heard me and called me, and I ended up music director at YSP,” DiDia says. “That was my first big-time job.”

DiDia (center) is pictured with Joe Namath (left) and Paul McCartney, who DiDia described as his “boyhood idols.” DiDia worked with McCartney at Capitol Records, and did the Super Bowl halftime show with him a few years ago, which is where this photo was taken.

It wasn’t his last. WYSP ownership wanted to launch the same format in New York. “We don’t want to hire anyone in New York because we don’t want the word to get out,” DiDia was told, “so go up there and figure it out and get the music ready.” K-Rock’s 1985 premiere occurred on the night of Live Aid. DiDia was supposed to come back to Philadelphia. Instead, he became K-Rock’s music director, fulfilling his dream of working in New York radio.

In New York, DiDia called an old friend. “I wanted to let you know, I just started K-Rock,” he told Sam Lit. “Thanks for telling me I’d never work in radio.”

DiDia stayed at K-Rock until 1988, when he headed west to Geffen Records. “At the time, radio was becoming more formatted,” DiDia explains. “I wanted to stay closer to the music. I had bunch of record guy friends who were calling me to play their records.” As head of rock promotion, DiDia switched sides—literally—which was an adjustment. “You go from your phone ringing off the hook to being the one having to generate those calls.”

Also part of the Geffen family was Rick Rubin, whose new label, Def American, had a distribution deal there. Thanks to DiDia’s good judgment, K-Rock was the first radio station anywhere to play the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party),” which Rubin co-wrote and produced. The mock revolutionary anthem ended up a top 10 hit and put the Beasties on their iconic path.

Later, Rubin sought out DiDia at a convention and thanked him. In California, he hired DiDia as Def American’s general manager.

“At the time it was a risk for me,” DiDia says. “On one hand, David Geffen was telling me I should never leave his company. We were the hottest record company. We had Guns N’ Roses and Aerosmith and Whitesnake [at their heights]. Rick, I don’t know. We really got along. He had a small, cool little operation. He had a little band called Mr. Crowe’s Garden that turned into the Black Crowes that I championed along the way. I took a leap of faith with him.” DiDia wound up working at the company, renamed American Recordings, for seven years.

DiDia then headed to Disney’s Hollywood Records, enticed by the opportunity to get “to get inside a big company like that and learn.” Unfortunately, this was before the synergistic ka-ching days of Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers, when Hollywood was positioning itself as a rock label. DiDia then served as general manager at Capitol Records, where he supported popular bands such as Radiohead and Coldplay. Office politics and corporate downsizing made DiDia expendable there, but Rubin, freshly appointed as Sony’s “music czar,” made him Columbia Records’ general manager.

“That didn’t work,” DiDia says. “Rick battled and banged heads with the corporate types at Sony. Rick was more of an artist than an executive, let’s put it that way.”

There was a short stint at Island Records, but by then DiDia knew a career change was required. “The artist management side is the center and the power of the music business now, with the crumbling of the labels,” he says. “Artists’ income is mainly in touring now, and the artist manager participates in every facet of the artist’s career.” But the job also utilizes his talents. “He will kill for the artists,” Rubin says of DiDia. “He won’t take ‘no’ for an answer when the artists’ best interests are at stake, and he’s driven by love and belief in great music.”

At the Bonaroo Music Festival, DiDia ran into Red Light Management’s founder, Coran Capshaw, and convinced Capshaw to hire him. DiDia started last October.

“A label gig, I could do in my sleep,” says DiDia. “It was exciting and I loved it and I’d never exchange anything I did. I’d never look back and say, ‘I wish I would have done this.’ I’m fortunate because I’m literally learning new things every day. I’m working with different types of artists. I’m meeting producers and learning about vocal coaches and all kinds of things I never knew about. And then there’s the whole touring angle.”

Since joining Red Light Management, DiDia has signed American Idol darlings Pia Toscano, Haley Reinhart, and James Durbin as well as Grammy-nominated chanteuse Corrine Bailey Rae. A good reputation and innumerable connections have eased the transition.The new endeavor also covers old territory. “For me, I just try to follow my gut and find and nurture artists and music that I love,” he says.

“When you’re on the label side, you don’t really deal with the artist directly,” DiDia adds. “You deal with management and there’s always an agenda. On this side, your agenda is the artist’s agenda. All you can do is tell them the truth, which most artists don’t hear often…I think the best thing to do is to let them focus on their music, and I take care of everything else.”

He admits that making the switch to a family-run company is a tough one, but says, “I’m figuring it out,” adding that the biggest names in artist management have decades of experience. Rubin thinks DiDia will be just fine. “He will do great in anything he does,” Rubin says. “He always has.”

DiDia still isn’t in the music industry because of luck. “Passion and taste,” Rubin explains. “He knows the real thing when he hears it.” At TCNJ, DiDia was so floored after seeing Peter Frampton in concert—long before Frampton Comes Alive sold millions and hijacked the airwaves—he raved nonstop about the shaggy-haired guitarist on WTSR. More than 30 years later, not much has changed.

“The music,” DiDia says, “still needs to give me goose bumps.”

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