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radio discussion

Page history last edited by abogado 10 years ago

Up and coming independent musician Martin Luther.

Although his music can be found at Tower Records, Amoeba Records, and some small record stores in the San Francisco Bay Area, if you are trying to catch Martin Luther's sound on one of the many commercial R&B stations in the Bay Area, you won't hear it. That's because his music, like that of other promising local independent artists, is locked out of the commercial radio marketplace because of the politics of radio.

"It's no longer art for art's sake, or music for the sake of music," says Martin Luther, in frustration. "Music organizations and their affiliates have paid for airplay and recognition."

To understand the dilemma that local independent artists like Martin Luther face, you have to understand the radio industry. As a result of radio deregulation--starting with the Reagan era and climaxing with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 under President Bill Clinton--radio stations and formats have consolidated, leaving few stations with the autonomy to program independently.

Clear Channel Communications is one of the big beneficiaries of deregulation. As a result of a recent merger between Clear Channel Communications and AMFM, Clear Channel now owns over 800 radio stations in the United States. In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, Clear Channel owns seven commercial stations, making it the 800-pound gorilla in the radio market.

Gone are the days when a radio station like the old KDIA was operated and controlled by local businesspeople and local talent. This change to nationally based ownership has caused a disconnect between radio stations and the communities they serve.

At present, there are only two owners of hip hop/R&B/soul stations in the San Francisco Bay Area market: New York-based Inner City Radio, which owns KBLX (an old school soul and R&B station), and Clear Channel Communications, which owns KMEL, KYLD 94.9 (R&B and hip hop), and KISQ (R&B and soul).

"Commercial radio has lost its ties with the community," says Sonny D, rap editor of the Gavin Report, which monitors the music industry. "It's not like it used to be, where commercial stations had a direct tie-in and worked with the community."

Martin Luther's sound could very well be heard on most urban radio stations. (Although his music, more than likely, would be delegated to KMEL or KYLD.) But station managers, intent on ratings, prefer to play the known to the unknown and find it next to impossible to play small independent acts.

According to Chuy Varela, music director at KCSM, "In non-commercial radio, a person can knock on a door and personally give the program director a recording and they may consider it for play. This does not happen in commercial radio."

This disconnect between radio and the community is compounded by the push from major record labels to get their acts on the air at all cost. While program directors usually play what's "happening" with the fans to create higher Arbitron ratings, record companies will do almost anything to get their products played on the air in order to generate sales for their labels.

One of the old ways by which record labels got air time was through payola. This is the practice of paying DJs to play certain records on the air, so the records can get into rotation and ultimately, increase their sales. The practice first came to light in 1960, when a top DJ, Alan Freed, was indicted for accepting $2,500 for radio play. Subsequently, other top DJs, including Tom Clay (WJBK Detroit), Murray "The K" Kaufman (WINS New York), Stan Richards (WILD Boston), and even Dick Clark of American Bandstand, were also accused of accepting payola. After Freed's trial, an anti-payola statute was passed by Congress, which made payola a misdemeanor and brought the fine up to $10,000. Since then, many radio stations and record company executives have been brought to trial under charges of accepting payola, but it's been very difficult to prove that money was accepted to play specific recordings.

Though illegal, payola, both direct and indirect, still goes on, according to Wendy Day, director of the Rap Coalition, a national nonprofit organization set up to protect and support rap artists. "Music gets played by radio stations based on what stations think their listeners will like and how much record companies pay them," says Day. Radio station managers claim that their choice of songs is based on research--which can range from people's reaction to a new song at a club, to how it's charting on various music lists, to how it's selling at retail stores--and if a song "researches well" they put it into rotation. But, Day adds, "One time I asked a label executive what does 'research well' mean, and he said it's synonymous for paying well. This made me chuckle, but I don't know how accurate it is."

While radio stations say they use research to break new artists and hits, much of the research they use is very subjective, and this opens stations up to corruption from various sources within the record industry. One way this can occur is in the station giveaway. "When radio stations start giving away thousands of dollars, is any of that coming through any of the record labels?" wonders Varela. This isn't necessarily illegal, he points out, but it does have the effect of forcing some stations to give artists on major labels more play than they deserve.

Another way corruption seeps into the play list of radio stations is when companies promise the stations exclusive big time acts in exchange for breaking their newer artists on the airwaves. Says Sean Kennedy, head of Ill Trendz, an advertising and marketing company for record labels: "Everybody wants to see Whitney Houston in concert. Some labels will offer her up for free at a concert that a radio station may promote." Stations are fully aware that one of the conditions for the appearance by a big name star is the spotlighting of other acts on the same label, claims Kennedy. A local DJ who wants to remain anonymous, says that this is what labels pay out to get their acts heard, and radio stations willingly accept it for the sake of high ratings. "Record companies and radio stations are businesses," the DJ says. "They are able to create synergies where both of them get paid."

The unethical means by which record companies get their acts on the air and radio stations' acceptance of them take away from the opportunities for local independent artists to be heard on the air. And while these artists rarely get played on commercial radio, it is not an impossibility. One-time independent artists like MC Hammer, Too Short, and E-40 started getting air time on Bay Area commercial radio after selling hundreds of thousands of their records on the streets. These artists forced a buzz on the streets that made it unbearable for commercial stations to ignore. Ledisi, a singer who mixes the soul of Aretha Franklin with the jazz of Ella Fitzgerald, was also able to make a breakthrough on commercial radio by creating a buzz on the local music scene. "I remember the first time I heard my music on the radio," says Ledisi. "I barely listen to the radio, but I was running around in downtown San Francisco and I turned the radio on and I heard myself. When I first heard it, I was in shock. I was like, 'Whoa! that's me on the radio.' Now I understand why artists push to get on the air."

Ledisi has been well known in the Bay Area for the past few years, performing at various jazz clubs and at the Monterey Jazz Festival, where she left over 1,200 people on their feet cheering last year. But the exposure she received from being on commercial radio helped her career immensely and got her a new fan base. She is now at a point where big time success may be just around the corner.

"People love her sound," says Rose Mary Hart, programming manager for KMEL. "We (at KMEL) believe in her, and we are spreading (the) word as much as we can."

Ledisi is lucky, as major radio stations rarely get behind an independent artist. "In the major arena, you will more than likely not be recognized without major backing," says Martin Luther. "This hurts independents, especially artists who are true to their craft."

"Being an independent artist is very hard, because you don't have the backing that you need," Ledisi agrees. "People are not sure of you because you're not on a major label. But then they hear you (and) the whole thing changes." If there is hope for independent artists, it rests with non-commercial radio stations like KPFA in Berkeley, KPOO in San Francisco, and college stations. In Varela's opinion, "Non-commercial radio is used as a test market for new acts." By giving air-time to local independent artists, non-commercial stations can expose them to a new base of fans and act as testing grounds for commercial stations.

Dave "Davey D" Cook, the public affairs director at KMEL and a radio personality with KPFA, thinks local independent artists need to develop a diversification strategy. "Most independent artists put all of their eggs in one basket when dealing with commercial radio," he says. "They won't take their resources and build up viable alternatives like college radio and community-based radio."

"If radio knows that they may lose an audience, they will do what is necessary to keep them, which may be playing local artists," says Cook. "But the way it is now, at the end of the day, the consumer becomes a fan of the local station and not a fan of the artist."

Consolidation in broadcast ownership and record production and distribution has worsened an already exclusive situation. While the average fan may not know why certain songs are on the radio, independent artists are all too familiar with the twin barriers of major labels and chain radio. Individual artists may need diversification strategies to move their own careers, but it's equally clear that society as a whole needs a diversification strategy when it comes to ownership in the recording and broadcast industries.

Lee Hubbard is a staff writer for netnoir.com and a contributor to numerous local and national publications.

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