Backstage: Radio Promotion Days
Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week, working radio through fear and frustration.
employees getting embroiled in any illegal activities, which meant I
never had to risk my reputation by
practicing payola. I'd do my job by trying to convince radio station
program directors and musical directors that my records carried weight
and that there were legitimate reasons for giving
my music airtime. I would reel off the call letters of other radio
stations playing the record (stations in the bigger
markets like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago gave them greater credibility),
sales figures that had been generated by the airplay, and any other nods
or recommendations that would attest to the song's viability.
problem was that radio programmers firmly believed that listeners like to hear the songs they're
familiar with, and if you throw anything unknown into that mix, the
assumption is that people will almost immediately change stations.
course, there were certain artists that were considered "automatics" in
the '80s -- Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, et al. -- but for most
acts, getting airplay was a challenge. There were at
least a dozen local promo reps going after airplay at any given
station, each of them armed with four or five priority records that were
theoretically eligible for consideration. On top of that, there were
regional and national people who worked for the record labels, each of
them toting their own contenders. In addition, the independent promoters
hired by the labels would also attempt to assert their influence, using
the leverage they gained from personal -- and sometimes illicit --
relationships with radio's decision makers and the use of various
bartering tools that allowed them to wheel and deal.
payola was illegal, it didn't prevent record companies from hiring
these independent promotion people to strike a deal on their behalf. The
labels would turn their backs on whatever negotiations would take place
between these so-called "indies" and the radio people, thereby
separating themselves from any shady arrangements. The indies were the
bag men, and it wasn't uncommon from them to offer the program directors
certain "inducements," be it in the form of vacations, escorts, and/or
cash. Some incentives were less obvious, perhaps a promotion that would
bring the station's listeners to Los Angeles to catch a concert by an
artist that needed airplay or even bringing the artist to the radio
station for an exclusive performance. Even a box of albums that could be
used as giveaways was often enough bait to get a record added to a
been illegal per se, but they often they were enough of an inducement
to throw a wrench in the works in terms of blocking more worthy
Therefore, an "add" was never assured.
With South Florida considered a major market -- number 16 in the nation -- obtaining airplay was essential. Likewise, securing airplay on
upstate markets like Orlando, Tampa, and Jacksonville was an important
avenue to driving a song up the charts. Radio stations reported to
various trade publications like Radio & Records, Billboard, and
Cashbox, and consequently, their input had a great influence on a song's
a great deal of freedom and the opportunity to hang out with artists
and acquire new music, but inevitably, my performance would be dependent
on someone else's action. I could do a great job in prepping with
information and conveying it accordingly, but with the odds being what
they were and the added intangibles of indies doing deals behind the
scenes, the chances for success were generally slim at best. It was
especially vexing when I had a record in contention only to discover I
was thwarted at the 11th hour by a competitor who managed to make a
last-minute deal that successfully stole my slot.
week would start on Sunday night with a call from my boss asking me to
target certain stations and predict which ones would offer us airplay.
Of course, that was generally a guessing game.
So I'd estimate the possibilities as best I could and then fudge the
rest. Monday would be spent calling the upstate stations and pleading my
case in between visiting the local stations to make an in-person
appeal. Typically, there would be a set time for the record reps to come
by, and we'd wait patiently in the lobby and schmooze while awaiting
our opportunity to take our best shot.
in the music director's office, I would toss my 45s on the turntable,
hope they would get more than a perfunctory listen; spit out the stats;
and pray for a commitment that rarely would come. Tuesday, I'd call
around, get the list of "adds," and pray some of my songs were among
them. If they were, I'd phone in and report which radio stations
had added my record and note whatever progress my previous entries had
made on the stations' music charts. By Wednesday, it was over for the
week and I was either elated or deflated depending on how my music had
fared... and whether or not I had gone another day without my boss
threatening my job.
South Florida, where disco was king and big names meant very little. In
the rest of the country, Bob Seger might have been the number-one smash,
but the radio stations here were likely the only holdouts. I'd find
redemption when I'd work a quirky dance record like "Boogie Oogie Oogie"
by Taste of Honey, which broke big here and made me a homegrown hero in
mix of wistful nostalgia and relief at being freed of the daily
pressures. It was a great opportunity for a guy like me whose chief
desire was to work around records and introduce good music to the
masses. Yet ultimately it was enormously frustrating to work with a
medium that was so resistant to accept the music it ought to have
it, and I go into a panic thinking I haven't prepared or called my
stations or reported my progress. Then I wake up and realize that though the
past has passed, there are some memories so indelibly etched in my
brain, they'll likely stick with me forever.
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