New Timesscribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable
rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This
week, Wrestling with radio.
People frequently ask me what was involved in my job as a record company
promoter. Aside from the occasional glamorous episodes generally described in this
column, my duties mainly consisted of trying to get my company's music
played on the radio. That was back in the day when product was issued in
the form of 45s, which, for those of you not old enough to remember,
were these black, shiny discs that were spun on a turntable, not only by
deejays, but by everyone else as well. This was long before the advent
of MP3's, streams, downloads and even CDs, when the music industry, and
the world for that matter, was a wholly different place.
Still, the job description given above makes the entire gig sound deceptively simple. Radio stations, then as now, would generally "add" very few new songs to their playlists in any given week -- at most maybe one, two or three, but just as often as not, the program directors and/or music directors wouldn't choose to add anything at all. The theory was that their listeners preferred to hear only what was already familiar and would switch stations if something they didn't know -- or didn't like -- wouldn't suddenly intrude on the airwaves. This explains why "Stairway to Heaven," "Free Bird" or "More Than a Feeling" are still heard with such annoying frequency. Programmers perceived that their audiences had a comfort zone, that they only wanted to hear what they already knew and that there was great risk in breaking in something new and untested. Why mess with the formula?
Of course, as a promotion guy, that way of thinking was the antithesis of everything I held dear, my paycheck included. Without the exposure radio could provide to a new piece of music, exposure was extremely limited. Before Al Gore invented the internet, there was no Facebook, YouTube or MySpace to help spread the word about an artist and his or her music. Even MTV was in its infancy, although the video network did appear in time to help me gain traction with one of my newer charges, Duran Duran. As a result, the record companies were dependent on radio to introduce new songs, and in turn, prompt their listeners to go out and buy them. Then as now, the music business, hinged on an outside entity to help promote their product, one reason why the industry eventually crashed and burned.
This inevitably created an adversarial situation between the record company reps and the radio programmer, one in which the promo guys were always at a disadvantage. Often times, in order to get music played, we would have to rely as much on begging and coercion as on the important stats that affirmed the song's credibility. And with literally dozens of record reps, each bearing some five or six personal priorities, competing for such a precious few new slots on the playlist, the best analogy might be likened to a scenario where hundreds of cars wait in line to try to squeeze into a single lane tunnel. Obviously only the first couple of contenders are going to succeed. Such was the challenge and frustration I felt at the time. Add to that a boss in New York or Los Angeles demanding that those records get played -- often screaming and yelling and threatening to fire anyone who couldn't comply - and you had the making of a very tense showdown whenever record and radio reps would converge for their weekly music discussions.
This was never more evident than on the very first radio call I made shortly after I was hired for my very first record company gig. I was working for a local music distributor and I was fortunate to have a great mentor in a gentleman named Bob Perry. Today Bob owns one of South Florida's best independent record stores, Blue Note Records, but at that time, he was a highly reputable promotion man with an esteemed and well-deserved reputation. Consequently, he accompanied me on my radio visit, which happened to target one of South Florida's preeminent rock stations at that time, Zeta 4. Now mind you, being a novice, one that was raised on free-form radio -- i.e., radio that wasn't restricted to any one genre or format -- I figured that if a record sounded good, regardless of style, it ought to qualify for airplay. Now Bob didn't warn me that, in fact, radio did have its specific parameters and that the Smokey Robinson record that I was toting for consideration didn't have any chance in hell to get on that rock radio station. I suspect he was trying to teach me a lesson about knowing a little something about the station I was about to pitch, figuring a verbal slap would wake me to reality.
As it transpired, I did get rebuked by the program director. I recall the conversation playing out something like this...
Me: Hey, this Smokey Robinson sounds great! Play it!
Program Director: What?! Are you crazy? Have you ever listened to this radio station? We play Journey, Styx, REO Speedwagon... However, we do not play Smokey Robinson! You're an idiot!
Program Director: Next!
Me: (unintelligible due to non-stop weeping)
Fortunately, I learned from that grievous error in judgment, but it didn't make the job any easier. The competition for airplay was always intense, as was the pressure to succeed in situations where someone else - specifically, a radio program director - was ultimately responsible for my success or failure. With South Florida being at the forefront of the dreaded disco craze, my actual rock records -- Bob Seger, Steve Miller et.al. -- would rarely get any pop airplay, even after they became massive hits elsewhere. Sunday nights became notable for the threatening phone calls I'd get from my bosses.
Frankly, it was often difficult not to take it all personally. For example, I remember taking a new Paul McCartney record into a local Top 40 station and being told that the song would not be going on the air -- not now, maybe not in the future. For someone who idolized the Beatles and thought that they set the standard, collectively and individually, it was an incredible shock to be told a new McCartney record was not - in the business jargon - an "automatic." Never mind that the song, "Mull of Kintyre," was the biggest hit ever in the U.K. up until that time. Sadly, it didn't repeat that success in the States. If you've never heard it, suffice it to say, you're not alone.
At the time, I couldn't fathom the fact that the program director wouldn't want to march right into the control room to put that record right on the air. Unfortunately, he wasn't the type of person who liked to be pushed. When I persisted, he promptly ordered me to leave his radio station. This time, the conversation went something like this:
Program Director: @#$^%*@!
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Program Director: #%@^&*$%!
The music biz often doesn't make more sense than that.