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. 


Since starting this column earlier this year, I've frequently referred to the fact that most of my backstage encounters had something to do with my job as a promotions rep for Capitol Records and a couple of other labels prior. To put it concisely, my job and my mission in life was to get my songs played on the radio. And yet, when I mention that to people, their first response is to ask me if I ever engaged in payola, the practice of exchanging pay for play. The answer both now and then is an emphatic NO. Payola was outlawed in the 1950s. It claimed the career of pioneering rock 'n' roll DJ Alan Freed after his involvement in a payola scandal reduced him to ruin. Dick Clark, host of the seminal dance show American Bandstand and later one of television's most influential producers, narrowly survived but was almost ruined the same way. 

As a result, record companies decided they wouldn't risk their

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. 


The

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. 


Of

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. 


Although

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

playlist. 


The latter tactics might not have

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

contenders.

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

progress.


My stress level was always at a peak. The job afforded

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. 


My

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.


Once

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. 


It was especially tough in

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

the process. 


I look back on those days with a

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

embraced. 


Even now, I dream that I'm still at

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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