A Response to Robert Hilburn’s LA Times Article on Payola

Davey-D-purple-frameHey Robert Hilburn

I just peeped your July 29th article regarding payola in which you stated it’s the public that determines what gets on the airwaves.

I have to say I am disappointed in your analysis. It’s disheartening because you are someone who is well-respected and your stature in the music world in well-known. For you to parrot the deliberately misleading notions hawked by radio and label executives does a disservice to the public by dismissing and in many ways, actually covering up the way things really work behind closed doors at these commercial radio stations.

I also feel that your article runs the risk of stirring the public in another direction now that their eyes are starting to open as they question the real reasons behind repetitive, narrowcasted airplay. Now is the time that people should be raising important questions surrounding the issue of payola. Now is the time for people to put pressure on radio and record executives as well as the FCC and any other agency that oversees our public airwaves.

Unless I misunderstood what you wrote in your article, you seemed to suggest that radio station executives pay close attention to public demands. Station executives will gladly tell you that they look at a variety of factors including purchasing data and trends, call out research and requests. They also take into account their own Arbitron ratings to decide whether they should play it safe and stick solely with the hits or be a bit more adventurous and cutting edge. Yes, they do these things and to that degree what you wrote was correct. However, here’s where things get sticky and how the public can be misled after reading your article.

Music Industry Interests vs. Public Needs and Wants

What we often have is a situation in which insular music industry interests are competing with numerous interests of the general public. The most glaring way this shows up, is how radio stations offer their listeners a limited amount of music within a particular genre. So a station will get 50 records a week, will play the public just ten which are determined by label priorities, favors and agreed upon marketing campaigns. These executives will then sit back wait and watch to see which does best out of the limited offering and then go around making the claim that what you hear on the airwaves is based on public support. Having worked in commercial radio for over 12 years and being a radio programmer for the past 4, I can tell you first hand having seen with my own eyes and hearing with my own ears, that what you wrote is NOT entirely accurate on a number of levels. This is totally misleading.

What I often observed is two things first, what is usually offered on the airwaves via urban radio are records chosen from one of the five major label groups or their subsidiaries. In other words, the only ones who are allowed to sit down and break bread on music day and more importantly be allowed to pull up a chair to the proverbial card table determining airplay are those who have the chips (resources) to play and pay. Some stations will try and counter this assertion and tell you that they meet with everybody and that smaller labels go to the mix show meetings. This is not the same thing. Yes, you are in the building, but you are not at the table.

Now as I said earlier, particular records played by most radio stations are chosen based upon the requests of major labels that are launching marketing campaigns behind a particular artist. It is for this reason that when you start to check the play lists of radio stations all over the country they are virtually the same. With the exception of one or two songs, you would be hard pressed to know what city a station resided in based upon their playlists or what you are actually hearing. Behind the scenes we know this is all brought and paid for. You do business with the big guys first-make sure they get their piece of the pie then if there’s leftovers you open things up.

A few years ago during the FCC Consolidation hearings conducted by FCC commissioners Aldelstein and Cox, whether you went to San Francisco, Seattle or North Carolina you heard the consistent complaint that local acts and independent record labels had little or no opportunity to get heard on their local radio station.

Radio stations executives over the years have made the erroneous assertions that the local talent was not up to par with the rest of the industry or that there was no interest from the public. I can tell you first hand such excuses were cover ups. In cities like Boston, San Francisco, Washington DC or Houston which have large independent music scenes you found that demand for local acts was high if not higher then so called established major label acts offered by local mainstream radio. This popularity can be shown by competitive record sales and attendant numbers at shows.

So in a city like San Francisco I can see a group like Hieroglyphics sell out their shows at a Clear Channeled owned venue like the Filmore and do online sales to the tune of 2-3 million dollars and yet not get any airplay on the local Clear Channeled owned radio station KMEL or KLYD. This is in spite the fact that the crowds they attract hit station demographics. Similar scenarios occur with other Bay Area groups like Blackalicious, Zion I and Paris who sold more than 200 thousand units of his independently released ‘Sonic Jihad’ album.

In Los Angeles where you’re at you see similar scenarios with acts like Living Legends who like Hiero sell out shows, and do brisk sales on albums but receive scant airplay. Similar situations occurred with acts like Mike Jones in Houston until he finally broke through and got hitched to major label. In DC you have the very popular GoGo music genre limited to late night (after midnight) airplay on weekend nights. Rarely do you hear any of this music indigenous to the nation’s capital during the day.

When further pressed as to why these local groups do not get airplay, radio station execs will give every excuse in the book with the most popular being the nebulous they don’t fit the stations sound. This of course leads to the question as to what determines the sound of the station; the expert opinions of program and music directors or the public as you suggested?

In San Francisco which is dominated by Clear Channel two urban stations, it took a year long campaign called ‘The People’s Station Campaign’ to force urban giant KMEL to open up and start playing local acts. Now you hear local acts on the regular, but it should never had had to come to protests, letter writing campaigns and marches for a station to do what the public had long been demanding. Now what’s being looked into is whether or not local acts are being forced to curry favors or pay for their limited airtime. There are media reform organizations looking into this right now.

National Public vs. Local Public-Who Does Radio Listen to?

Going back to some of the points raised in your LA Times article, if we follow your arguments we can point out that over the years the sound and style of Hip Hop has changed moving from P-Diddy’s brand of jiggy music to the crunk and southern styles of acts ranging from Lil Jon to Webbie. There was a time when the crunk styles were roundly dismissed especially in places like New York which has long been resistant to Hip Hop outside the region. Now we have this style of music being played everywhere. How did that happen? You say public demand. I pose the question to you Robert-Which public are we talking about? Is it the national public that we attach to MTV or BET or the local public that stations are supposed to cater to?

This is an important question to answer if we follow your argument. Let’s go back to an example I cited with a group like Heiro which consists of Del,Casual and Souls of Mischief. They never get any play here in the Bay Area yet manage to sell out shows. Now according to station powerhouse KMEL their number 8 song on their charts is Webbie who has a cut called ‘Gimme Dat’. The video is on BET all the time and you always hear it on the air. The point I’m making its being exposed to Bay Area residents all the time.

If you were to hold a concert at the Filmore next week with Webbie being the main act and the local station hyping it, there’s no way he would sell out or even come close. Local acts like Hiero or Michael Franti would and do on the regular. So why no airplay for them if this is about public demand?

Over the years I’ve sat in many promotional meetings where the station would be throwing concerts featuring artists we were banging day in and day out and hyping the show with all our respective firepower only to find we had slow ticket sales to the point of not being able to sell out a two thousand seat venue. Internally station managers would call up a label and get more acts added to the bill to entice our audience and even then the show although packed, would not be sold out. Still those artists would continue to get airplay at the requests of the label that would need to spins to move their campaign to the next level. If it was determined that slow ticket sales was the result of another concert by a new promoter, the head honchos at the station would call up a label and demand that they pull the act and not let them perform in the market in exchange for another favor. That is a form of payola and it goes on all the time.

If a major label and radio station are not seeing eye to eye on their backdoor business arrangements, then the public will get screwed especially if the radio station belongs a to a particular chain which makes it the only game in town. I’ve watched so called hit records get yanked off the air under the guise of ‘radio politics’, meaning the station didn’t get their check/ favors fulfilled. I’ve watched how really wack records got enormous amount of spins and in spite the public’s rejection of the artist and song.

Your own newspaper via Chuck Phillips a few years ago brought this practice to life when Damion ‘Damizza’ Young was trying to force the artist Shady Sheist down our throats here in Los Angeles.

In the article it was revealed that Young and his parent company Emmis broadcasting were connected to the label as owners and investors. What Phillips wrote was revealing to the public, but folks who worked within the industry on the label and record side knew this and knew of all the other unethical connections that were similar to the one attached to Young and Power 106. In other words it was the tip of the iceberg.

Going back to the Webbie scenario, Radio execs will tell you that an artist gets played because of record sales or requests. Well when Webbie first started getting all his airplay there was no record for you to buy. You could download his single, but you couldn’t buy the album. Last I checked folks were looking at sound scan figures to determine popularity.

Let’s take this a step further. Many radio stations will tell you that they do all sorts of research and focus groups to come up with ‘what the public wants to hear’. At the end of the day you find that it’s true, the public does wanna hear artists like Beyonce, Game and Usher. But that public also wants to hear several songs off Beyonce’s or Game’s album which is unlikely to happen with any sort of regularity especially if the label sends the word that they are setting up a campaign for a specific song.

Case in point,and this is not an unusual scenario, I recall getting into a heated discussion and with a label rep that was pissed off that I was programming an album cut from one of his artists (Usher) and not the single that the label was pushing. I was told that such ‘violations’ (his word not mine) might result in us no longer getting service and their artists not doing anything for outlets. A couple of weeks later I got the word from my bosses to start playing the label’s priority in heavy rotation. This was in spite of the fact that the artist’s album cuts were actually doing better in our internal research amongst our listeners then the label’s new single. So much for public demand, it was really all about label demand.

Another case illustrating my point centers around the campaign that comedian Steve Harvey had to lead against his own radio station (KKBT) when the programming honchos refused to play artists like Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and India.irie All three have been nominated or have won numerous prestigious music awards. Well several years ago Harvey while sitting on a music industry panel revealed to the audience that his bosses who head up Radio One the nation’s largest Black owned chain refused to touch any of these artists music. He quoted one of his bosses as saying that Black women don’t wanna listen to this crap’. It wasn’t until Harvey himself went on the air and started complaining publicly and later chastising his own boss that these artists finally get played. It was a bold move on Harvey’s part which netted big applause from the audience which was quickly tempered by stern warnings from other program directors who made it clear that if any jock not of Harvey’s stature tried some crap like that they would be fired on the spot.

How this ties into payola is that Kedar Massenbuarg who was behind Badu and Irie was there complaining that he simply did not have the marketing dollars to help develop these new artists. Translation=He didn’t have the budget to pay these urban stations to play these new artists at the time they first came out. Yes, it was public sentiment that finally got them on but only after Steve Harvey took it upon himself to lead an on air campaign forcing radio One which controls 70% of the Black urban landscape to give these artist a shot. Why did it have to come to that if the public really dictates?

As for song requests, how many are talking about and who is actually calling? Internally there is a profile/category that most radio stations have for people who call in. We call them P1s-meaning they are active listeners. Conventional wisdom says you don’t play for your p1s you play for your p2s and p3s who are the majority of your listeners and are NOT likely to call. In addition, you also have a certain age range of people who are likely to call and request a song. They tend to be younger in age. Lastly at the end of a day you may have 500 to 800 total requests for all songs which is not a heck of a lot considering the large amount of listeners most major market radio stations have.

The biggest irony to all this is the fact we have this catch 22 situation meaning that generally speaking listeners tend to call in requesting songs that they have been introduced to by the radio stations or videos. The more you play something, the more requests you get. You are not likely to get someone calling in telling you not to play a song. Hence at the end of the day these song requests which stations like to put out to the public as a the end all be all argument justifying airplay, behind the scenes is used only as a guide or a reinforcement for what was already cast in stone and on their agenda.

In other words let’s say a radio station commits to play an artist like Mike Jones 30-40 times a week. There would be an expectation to have a good amount of requests for that song. If not it would be an indication that Mike is not doing that well and the station would research other indicators to determine whether or not they should continue playing him. If everything has been ‘brought and paid for’, they will figure out where to best position his song so it minimizes what we call ‘tune outs’. Only if the record is really bad and a station is in a serious ratings war will they immediately pull it off the air. Otherwise they will at least be given a shot. That’s a luxury not afforded to those who haven’t put money in the station coffers. And again in many markets you have to be member of the major label club to even have your money, favors or resources accepted.

2004 Urban Network Summit: ‘Nothing gets on the Air For Free’

To substantiate this last point all you have to do is go back to the 2004 Urban Network Summit in Palm Springs. During the Radio Power Program Directors panel moderated by Kevin Fleming, PDs representing all of the major urban radio chains spoke openly and frankly about what they were dealing with. In attendance were reps from all the major labels and over 100 people. This meeting went on for over and hour and half with the discussion centering around the deluge of bad music PDs were being forced to program. Label reps were openly complaining that the stations had raised their price to the point that it made it extremely difficult for labels to develop campaigns around new acts and new trends.

Many of the program directors talked about being handcuffed and having to play records that lack passion. They spoke about how major deals were being cut between labels, regional VPs of programming, and a group of people who changed their title from ‘Indies’ to ‘consultants’. The end result was a good amount of music being forced down the chain with local programmers having little or no room to develop new sounds, new artists and more importantly accommodate local artists.

What was said on that panel from the program directors themselves was that they oftentimes found themselves having to work with records that were weak for the market but made sense for the national campaign the labels and VP of programming and the ‘consultants’ had agreed to. All this was spoken at one of the industry’s premiere music conferences. How did you come to these other conclusions because what you wrote about public determination seems to fly in direct opposition to what these program directors were saying at this 2004 conference?

Lastly at that 2004 Urban Network Summit, they spoke about trying to find new ways for record labels to penetrate the market place and increase sales because playing songs on the air was not enough. The labels themselves were given direct orders to start showing up with marketing budgets and not promotional budgets so the stations could work with them to develop other marketing schemes including product sampling via street teams, concerts, club dates, websites exposure etc, etc. The main point of contention was that major labels were throwing a lot of their money at the various video outlets and increasingly some of the mainstream commercial giants while giving a fraction to the urban outlets despite the fact that it was the urban stations had larger audiences. In other words the debate which format and departments get the most payola dollars. Of course words like ‘promotions’ and ‘resources’ were the coded buzz words.

The final words spoken to the attendees from one of the older participants, I think his name was Sidney Smalls of AUR [American Urban Radio Network]. Anyway this gentlemen gets up and puts the record labels on blast by telling them point blank; “NOTHING GETS ON THE AIR FOR FREE”. This was spoken loud and clear and was directed to one of the label execs who were complaining that it was costing him too much to get his records on the air. This guy goes on to add; that it would be in the labels best interests to pony up their funds and start working with the radio stations so they can help them penetrate the market. He told them at the end of the day their good efforts might result in airplay, but that was not guaranteed. What was guaranteed that the only ones who would get airplay would be clients, meaning those who agreed to this newly proposed market penetration scheme.

From what I gathered these station heads were setting the stage to create public demand through elaborate marketing strategies. It would be bolstered by the understanding that in nowadays the music outlets that present the music are more trustworthy and better known then the artists they present. During that meeting this fact was brought. In nutshell because listeners are fans of the outlets, whatever the outlets present will be the public demand. It was broken down in those plain terms Robert, I’m not sure how these other conclusions can be suggested via your article when the industry heads are seemingly on an entirely different page in both how they think and ultimately act.

The bottom line is 50 Cent or Young Buck or Guerilla Black were going to be played in heavy rotation whether they did good or not for a period of time to satisfy the timeline and marketing efforts of the label. The records would have to be an outright stiff.. But if was anywhere from medium to great then it got played. trust me. I recall fondly all those programmers around the country who found themselves playing Guerilla Black the Biggie sound a like, granting him prime time interviews and mix shows around the country playing his record every hour on the hour despite the public’s rejection of him. That’s one glaring example which is often cited as an industry joke. Again, what I speak of is only the tip of the iceberg. The people over at organizations like Industryears.com can break this down even more. I would encourage you to reach out and speak with them to get another perspective..

In closing Robert, I’m hoping what you wrote was based upon naivety to the inner workings of programming at major radio stations. I would hate to think that the labels themselves contacted you and you went along with them to keep up good relationships and strengthen industry ties. I clearly understand, that there’s definitely a price to pay if you come out against them and one to made if you support them. Forgive me if I crossed any sort of line in questioning your integrity, but this is the type of business where we are approach all the time in major and minor ways especially when things are at stake. Our personal relationships within the industry and oftentimes our parenting companies personal relationships oftentimes makes it difficult to really come out and speak accurately about how things really work behind the scenes..


July 29, 2005

The public, not payola, rules the air
By Robert Hilburn, LA Times Staff Writer

I love a plasma TV as much as the next guy, but it’s naive to think payola is responsible for the music that gets on the radio. In other words, it’s going to take more than Eliot Spitzer to stop the commercial juggernaut of hip-hop and R&B.

Yet lots of pop fans who detest what’s become of mainstream radio seem to feel the New York attorney general’s settlement Monday with Sony BMG means “real” music will soon be back on the airwaves.

Don’t hold your breath.

Mainstream radio stations play hip-hop, R&B and teen pop because that’s what target audiences want to hear. The payola settlement isn’t likely to change that.

Critics of today’s pop music falsely equate the corporate admission that millions were spent trying to alter radio station playlists as a sign that the sounds now dominating radio are being forced on us.

It’s as if big, bad Sony BMG used its vast resources to keep “real” music (rock ‘n’ roll, adult pop, jazz, what have you) off the air.

Trust me, Sony and other major labels aren’t interested in keeping anything off the air. They are interested in selling records. They’d release an album of dog howls if they thought it would go platinum.

To think otherwise is as misguided as believing that all those heavy metal albums years ago really had satanic messages woven into the music.

You knew it was nonsense because if the record industry really had such power, the message they would have slipped into the records was, “Buy more of our albums.”

The hip-hop revolution didn’t start because record executives suddenly took a fancy to the renegade sound. Hip-hop artists sold millions of albums on indie labels before most major labels woke up to the music’s potential. It was a repeat of what happened in the ’50s, when rock ‘n’ roll too was born on indie labels.

The power in determining hits rests with the public, and no one knows this better than radio programmers.

Radio executives respond more to ratings than a truckload of plasma TVs, the sexiest of the payola gifts revealed in e-mails released this week as part of the Spitzer settlement.

Good ratings, good bonus.

Bad ratings and you may find yourself watching your TV at home while combing through the want ads.

That’s not to say that promotion (including practices in violation of anti-payola laws) can’t help an individual new record worm its way onto radio playlists; of course it can. But the record won’t stay there unless listeners accept it. If you could guarantee a hit through payola, major labels wouldn’t have to drop artists left and right because of poor sales.

My suspicion is many record company executives are privately pleased by the payola settlement because they see the practice as throwing money down a sinkhole, in many cases.

The only reason moguls haven’t quit on their own is the fear of what might happen if their rivals continue to play the payola game — a risk they can’t afford to take in today’s ultra-cutthroat environment.

One better way to spend the promotion money would be greater tour support, which should help rock acts who have the most trouble getting mainstream airplay these days, or long-term career development. Many of the major rock acts of recent years, including Bruce Springsteen and U2, depended in their early days more on touring than on radio.

The more likely scenario is that executives will soon be back with new promotional schemes that again test the boundaries of payola.

Questionable practices won’t stop, one executive said flatly Wednesday, until someone goes to jail. That would be the ultimate deterrent because it would shake up the upper echelons of the corporate culture far more than a $10-million fine.

Indie label representatives expressed hope this week that the payola settlement will enable their acts to get more mainstream airplay, but that too sounds a lot like wishful thinking. Major labels will still employ massive promotion teams that will work day and night to persuade radio programmers to play their latest releases. Indie labels can’t compete with that firepower.

And there’s no reason to think mainstream programmers are going to be more open to indie rock sounds as long as research shows today’s hit music is what gets the ratings.

If radio programmers were more adventurous, you might hear mainstream stations playing the best music of the day, regardless of musical genre — a playlist that might include 50 Cent and Bright Eyes, Alicia Keys and the White Stripes.

But it’d take a dramatic shift in listener tastes to make that possible — and that’s one change that’s most certainly beyond the power of the New York attorney general’s office.

Robert Hilburn, pop music critic of The Times, can be reached at Robert.hilburn@latimes.com