#1 With A Bullet

September 24th, 1999

Top 40 is back with a vengeance.  In my years in this business,  I’ve presided over the demise of the format more times than Bisceglia said, “You get it?”  That’s a lot.  And I’m not that old.

The format is flourishing from coast-to coast.  Z100 New York and KIIS Los Angeles are leading the charge and their cavalry consists of hundreds of radio stations in between playing the hits.  Why is Top 40 doing so well?  Because the music sounds great.

It’s been a long time since Top 40 PDs have had so much good music from which to choose.  Record companies are producing hit records and Top 40 is responding.  What’s happening?

It was only yesterday that Top 40 was dead.  Again.  Record executives were tripping over themselves trying to sign every grunge band from Seattle to Biloxi.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the top of the charts.  Most of the bands weren’t able to deliver hit records.

For a record to make it into the mainstream, the audience has to love the music.  Love of the artist, outside a limited cult following, means little.  Unless the music reaches the mainstream, the artist will continue to be up a small creek without a paddle.

With the advent of consolidation, many predicted the beginning of the end.  Companies were more aware of the bottom line than ever before.  There was less money to be spent on developing acts.  The future looked bleak.

The opposite has happened.  It has become popular to spend less for a specific record and worry about nurturing an act later.  What most fail to realize is that hit records generate the revenue to nurture acts that aren’t quite there, yet.

I spoke with a respected promotion veteran last week who bemoaned the fact that six artists who reached #1 status this year didn’t break the Top 40 with the second release.  This gives weight to the premise that record companies are producing “throw-away” records instead of building artists.  Thus, the the end of the world is near.  However, history doesn’t prove this theory accurate.

We can’t predict superstars.  They are comets that light up the world with no warning.  record companies can, however, groom hit acts, but not at the expense of hit records.

In the golden age of Top 40 radio, the ‘70s and early ‘80s, things were much the same as they are today.  In the 1970s, 117 records reached #1 without follow-ups that broke the Top 40.  That’s almost 12 records a year.  Do you remember The Shocking Blue, Edwin Starr, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Looking Glass, Billy Paul, Vicki Lawrence, Maureen McGovern, Stories, Terry Jacks, Blue Swede, MFSB, Andy Kim, Paper Lace, Bo Donaldson, Billy Swan, Carl Douglas, Silver Connection, Sylvers, Bay City Rollers, Wild Cherry, C.W. McCall, Rhythm Heritage , Walter Murphy, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Rose Royce, Mary MacGregor, David Soul, Thelma Houston, Bill Conti, Alan O’day, Emotions, Meco, Debby Boone, Player, Nick Gilder, The Knack, M and Robert John?  All had #1 songs without a follow-up hit.

Through 1985, the ratio was 11 records a year to hit #1 without a follow-up, including forgettables: John Parr, Jan Hammer, Ready for the World, Ray Parker Jr., Patti Austin, Bonnie Tyler, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Irene Cara, Tony Basil and Vangelis.

Yet, at the same time, this system nurtured star artists like The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Three Dog Night, James Taylor, The Bee Gees, Al Green, America, Marvin Gaye, John Denver, Paul McCartney, The Eagles, Barry Manilow, Olivia Newton-John, Hall and Oates, Chicago, Fleetwood Mac, Doobie Brothers, Rod Stewart, Lionel Richie, Queen, Aerosmith, John Cougar and The Police, just to name a few.

What’s the point? Music is what makes Top 40…always has…always will.  Top 40 has never been a format to discover new trends, but to reflect the tastes of the mainstream.  Instead, of griping that radio doesn’t break more artists, maybe we should focus on artists who produce more than one hit record.

Don’t blame Top 40.  Today, more than ever, the format is breaking records.  It’s up to record companies to break the acts.  Maybe A&R people should be forced to listen to Top 40 and sign artists that are radio friendly rather than “artistic” groups that promotion will then have to “convince” radio to play.  That works about once every ten years.

Making radio-friendly records never hurt Madonna, Elton, Prince or The Eagles.  They never felt their integrity was sacrificed because their records were hits on Top 40 radio.

It doesn’t take a lot.  One hit and you’re on your way.  Two and you’re an opening act.  Three and and you’re a phenom.  Five and you don’t give any more interviews.

You’re a superstar baby!

500 Pound Gorilla

January 14th, 2000

For three years we’ve been trying to move the Network 40 Summer Games to another month.  Lake Tahoe is arguably one of the most beautiful places in the world, but in early June, it can get a little dicey.  The first year, it snowed the sunday after the The Games were completed.  The second year, it snowed three days before The Games began.  Last year there was a blizzard the week before The Games.  After three fantastic years, we managed to convince the people in Tahoe that record executives and radio programmers were nice people, would act accordingly and would bring no great harm to the environment or manmade structures. Last week, for the first time in history, South Lake Tahoe granted us a convention in August.  The most beautiful month in the world’s most beautiful place.  I was so excited that I prepared a wonderful soliloquy for The Network 40 Games IV (The Final Conflict) August 24-26 in Lake Tahoe. Nothing could be more important.

Then Ted Turner put his sex life in perspective, AOL and Time Warner merged and I decided to wait on the soliloquy.

Am I the only one who feels we’re out of control?  We’re spinning wildly into an Internet abyss where the future is so bright, we have to wear shades.  The only problem is we can’t really see.

That’s unnerving.

But it’s nothing to be afraid of it we have the talent to survive and prosper.  Years ago, I was taking my daughter through an amusement park.  She began crying because she was afraid to get on a ride. I told her she didn’t have to get on board if she was scared.  She frowned and scolded me.  “Dad, if you aren’t scared, it isn’t any fun.”

I’m having a blast.

The future of the Internet is now.  If there were any doubters, they all left the room this week.  AOL’s merger with Time Warner signals the end of the entertainment world as we know it.  A dream has become a reality and the only way to prevent it from becoming your personal nightmare is to strap yourself in, keep your arms and legs inside and enjoy the ride.

Bob Pittman, the innovative radio programmer and co-founder of MTV, is  one of the guiding hands that will steer this mothership into the millennium.  His counsel?  Forget radio and records as we know it.  There’s a new sheriff in town and his name is World Wide Web.

You can stop thinking about if records will be downloaded on the Internet.  Concentrate on when.  AOL, the company that petitioned against any particular concept of downloadable CDs, will now be leading the way in developing the technology and bringing it to the front page.

If I owned interest in a record store , I would get out now.  Retail outlets are in serious jeopardy.  AOL and Time Warner will lead the charge to toward online music purchasing and in the process, revolutionize the way we do business.  If you aren’t ready for the Internet, it doesn’t matter.  You can either ride the train or get run over.

And music isn’t the only part of our lives that will change.  The way we view and use television is going to change so drastically in the next couple years that the concept we now consider commonplace will be outdated before you can adjust the color.

No longer will you have to rush home for your favorite program.  You won’t have to remember to start the VCR. (Does any normal person really know how to get that flashing 12:00 off the LED?) All images will be stored by your Web TV.  Play back the whole thing or bits and Pieces whenever you have time.

Many see this merger as the initial hard step of the Internet actually affecting our lives in a tangible way.  Those who look at the computer as something to be afraid of will miss the boat.  How we use the information and services available will not affect our lives adversely, but will give us more time to enjoy life.  The computer and Internet access will allow us to use information and technology to make our lives better and less hectic…not more so.

If the rest of you think you’re safe, get ready.  This 500 pound gorilla is headed your way.  Your company will be sold by the end of the year.  Dot com companies that have been selling their future are now buying the real programming that makes that future a reality.  The time for the ostrich syndrome is over.  Pull your head out of your ass and get on board.  If you don’t know about it…find out.  You’ve got one choice: you can either be part of the future or part of the past…part of the solution or part of the problem.

It’s going to be an interesting year.  Now that I think about it, this is the perfect time to make your plans for the Network 40 Summer Games IV (The Final Conflict) August 24-26 in lake Tahoe.  This year, we’re really going to need it.

Are you scared? Then you’re having fun!

A Crazy World

8/22/1997

It’s a crazy world, but I live here…

Mac MacAnally, a friend and songwriter of some note, penned those words several years ago.  Since then, nothing has happened to prove him anything less than prophetic.  I was reminded of Mac this week when I read an article about the MIssissippi Sovereignty Commission.  Mac and I grew up near the shores of Ol’ Man River and shared many common experiences.

From the mid-1950s until 1972, an agency called the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission existed to protect the people of the state from “subversives.”  Actually, that’s a nice way to say the state government spied on its citizens to make sure they were living the good, clean, segregated life.  The commission was a secret…whispered about by many, but known about only by a chosen few.  Several years ago, under the Freedom of Information Act, the commission was officially acknowledged.  Bits and pieces were made public.  Some of this information was used to convict the murderer of Medgar Evers…documented in the movie, Ghosts of Mississippi.

All of the documents kept by the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission are about to be made public…including the names of those “sympathizers” who were spied upon and the informants who provided information.  Every person mentioned is being notified before the documents are made public.  Why are you reading about this in a Network 40 Editorial?

Because my name is supposedly listed in the documents as one who was sympathetic to the Civil Rights movement.  I was spied upon.

I find it amusing that anyone would bother spying on my “activities” as an elementary school child and teenager.  When I found the reasons why I was listed as a “sympathizer,” it became downright comical.

My parents, as most middle class families in Mississippi in the 1960s, had a house-keeper.  Lela Maye Woodson most definitely “kept” our house.  More often than not, it was Lela Maye whose approval I sought instead of my parents.  To say she “raised” me is not much a stretch.

Lela Maye had two sons and two nephews that she often brought with her to my home.  Nearly every afternoon, I was in the side yard playing some kind of sport with the Woodsons.  They played hard.  In that yard, the Woodsons didn’t teach me the difference between black and white.. I learned black and blue.  All four went to college on football scholarships and two made it in the NFL.

I recall several of the neighborhood boys objecting to playing with “coloreds.”  I didn’t.  I was always on their team and we generally won.  It was by ball…my yard…end of discussion.

I was branded a possible future subversive by the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission at the tender age of eight.  I wonder who turned me in?

Probably my brother.  He hated to lose.

In hindsight, I guess the commission was accurate in their assessment.  Who knows why…maybe through Lela Maye’s constant singing…but I was drawn early on to R&B music.  I used to lay awake late at night under the covers in my bed, tuning my little transistor to WLAC in Nashville and listening to the latest R&B songs spun by Big John R.  After he signed off, I spun the dial to XERF in Del Rio, Texas and the famous Wolfman Jack.

Something must have happened.  Years later, I was working the night shift on WRBC in Jackson.  The “RBC” in the call letters stood for Rebel Broadcasting Company and the station signed off every night with “Rebel Rouser” so you can understand it was no favorite of the Civil Rights movement.

I didn’t care.  I just liked R&B music.  So I played it…a lot of it.

My generation loved the music…of course.  I was a favorite on the campus of Jackson State University…the all black college located a few miles…and 100 years…away.

The Ku Klux Klan, however, wasn’t amused.  I got calls nearly every night from some redneck who objected to the type of music I was playing.  I wasn’t  worried.  I was young, cool and bulletproof…until one particular Friday.

The station was located on the outskirts of town, isolated in a huge field.  The control room was a fishbowl…I could see out, but others could also see in.  Since the station signed off at 1 am, I was alone in the building.

Just before midnight, I go another crank call from a particularly intelligent inbred who identified himself as an official member of the K.K.K. I asked what Kate Smith song he wanted to hear, then hung up.  He called right back.  “Boy,” he hissed, “if you don’t stop playin’ that music, we gonna fix you up.”  I told him to take his sexual aggressions out on his favorite farm animal and turned up Aretha.

A short time later, I noticed a glow coming from outside.  There, on the front lawn of the station, was a burning cross.

I called the police…who probably set the fire to begin with…and waited.  In the meantime, I went on the air live and described the scene.  Fortunately, a large group of Jackson State students came down to the station in a show of support. We even roasted marshmallows before sousing the flames.

This, according to the official who called, is duly noted in the documents set for release.  I was contacted because those who are mentioned may petition to keep their names from becoming a part of public record.  I don’t have a problem being labeled as a supporter of the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi, proud of it in fact…though I like the term “subversive” much better.

And I wondered why I didn’t get elected when I ran for Congress.

“It’s a crazy world, but I live here and if you can hear me singing, so do you.  I’m turning on my nights lights feeling satisfied that there’s nothing anyone of us can do…no there is nothing any one of us can do.”

A Family Affair

8/28/1998

The changing landscape of our business has generated a ripple effect that washes over all employees…from the president’s office right down to the sanitation engineers.  Being “well-read” in our industry once was quantified by a familiarity with trade publications.  Now, our majority pours over the Wall Street Journal.  Not long ago, a radio company could only own 12 stations total.  Soon, many will own that number in one market.  Record companies were owned by independent raconteurs who built their labels on a love of music and an astute business sense.  Today, most are owned by large conglomerates.  The music of choice is that generated by bells ringing on the cash register.

It’s big business, baby, and like it or not, we’re a part of it.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Big business brings an entire package.  Pockets are deeper for promotion, marketing, research and development.  In the short term, even the salaries are higher. But there is no free lunch.

Creativity can suffer.  Individualism is harder to maintain.  A Family Affair is no longer the company song.

In a relatively short time, we’ve gone from, “Your loyalty is being rewarded,” to “What have you done for me lately?”

Today, the catch-phrase is “What are you going to do for me tomorrow?”

Remember when we had those “five-year plans?”  With companies changing hands so quickly while stocks rise and fall like a Love Rollercoaster, those “five-year plans” are mostly obsolete.  If you’re lucky, it’s more like five months, or in some cases, five weeks.  And depending on how you answer questions in the department head meeting, it could be five minutes.

Record companies were once looked upon with envy by those in radio.  Where programmers notched their belts and judged their worth on the number of times they were fired, record executives couldn’t relate.  Most had never been terminated.

It’s hard to believe that from a personnel standpoint, radio is more stable than the record business.  More record executives have lost their jobs in the past few years than in the history of the industry.  And it’s not going to get any better.

Conglomerates are buying more stations and record companies.  For this concept to work, operating expenses must be cut.  Don’t believe that this means getting rid of a few computers and phone lines.  We’re talking about people.

This had to change the way we feel about our jobs.  There was a time, in the not so distant past, that people worked for people.  I wrote many letters to new employees that began, “Welcome to the (KHJ, WRKO, KFRC, etc.) family.”  Those words can’t be used today.  It’s all about business.  Family has nothing to do with it.

All of us need mentors.  As baby deejays or fledgling record executives, we need older, wiser, smarter people to teach us the ways of our business.  Those of us who have attained some measure of success can look back on those who helped shape our future.  Then, we can use the knowledge that we gain to pass along to others.

I was lucky.  I had three people who helped shaped my world:  Buzz Bennett, who taught me that creativity was the root of all success; Paul Drew, who passed along his passion for careful planning and execution; and Gary Stevens, who instilled an understanding of the business part of the puzzle.  Without all three of these lessons, my accomplishments would have been much less.  Creativity without planning and execution is a play without words.  Creativity, planning and execution, without a knowledge of how the three combine within the structure of business, is as worthless as a sail on a power boat.

Today, it’s more difficult to find mentors.  Too often, those with the knowledge are too busy moving their company ahead to take time to share and teach.

As for those needing to be mentored, it’s tough in today’s workplace.  There is no sense of family.  The motivating atmosphere is more a fear of failure rather than an excitement to succeed.

We need to understand the business and our part in it.  We all got into this business because of love.  We love music and we love the excitement of the entertainment industry.  That’s what drew us into our jobs in the first place.  Now, we’re driven by a company that is more about profit and loss than a love of music.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  It’s just reality.

We must be self-motivated.  We must continue to nurture the love we have within the framework of a business environment.  We should still work for and derive a great deal of pride from making our bosses satisfied, but the greater pride should come from within because of a job well-done.

If you work only to get accolades from the person in charge, you’re dooming yourself to disappointment.  The boss could be gone tomorrow.

Judge your worth and accomplishments on how you’re fulfilling your own goals.  Take pride in yourself.  But don’t confuse your job with your family.  It’s a job.  A good one, but nevertheless, just a job.

When you’re done for the day, then you can go home and sing all night long…that’s a family tradition.

A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing

8/15/1997

I had one of the most interesting conversations in the past five years this past weekend.  I got the opportunity to spend almost six hours with the PD of an L.A.station, and the information we shared was informative and enjoyable.  The first question you’re asking yourself is why would anyone spend six hours talking with me?  The obvious answers would be: my wit, my charm, my intelligence.  Of course, it was none of those.  The poor  fool agreed to go for a car ride and after the first red light, there was nowhere for him to go.  Trust me on this one:  There are no exit signs in a Porsche going 110 miles-an hour through the California desert.  He wouldn’t ask me to slow down…especially after I showed him the loaded revolver I keep in the glove compartment.

In the course of our conversation, we got around to the problems concerning the radio and record industries and how the two relate to each other.

One of the biggest areas of confusion is a result of the changes taking place at radio.  With stations being bought, sold and traded faster than Marvin Gardens on a Monopoly board, programming has adjusted accordingly.  To quote a phrase:  “It ain’t like it used to be.”

Many of the executives in record companies today worked their way up (or at least are familiar with the process) through the promotion ranks.  Although relationships still drive promotion, the way business is done has changed drastically.  Couple the buying and selling frenzy with the advent of BDS and SoundScan, and PDs have an entirely different set of criteria to judge music in the ‘90s.

Although most music executives pay lip service to the new criteria, many don’t know how the changes have affected the way promotion people deal with radio today.  it might taste like chicken…but it’s definitely frog legs.

Promotion people spend a lot of time explaining to their bosses why a record didn’t get added at a radio station.  The reasons are often quickly dismissed as excuses, when, in reality, those asking the questions don’t understand the answers.

I know someone who had a solution. Gather round the fire, my friends, and let me tell you a story.  Some of it is even true.

In the mid-‘70s, Mo Ostin was President of Warner Bros.  Records.  Although already a legend in the business, Mo wasn’t spotted at many conventions.  Programmers knew who he was, of course, but most had never met him. Mo let his lieutenants do their jobs.  He was occupied with signing some of the greatest acts in history. He didn’t have time to personally deal with radio.

Mo wanted each executive of Warner Bros. Records to know what was expected of the people under their supervision.  To know what to expect, you have to know the job.  And to really know the job, you have to do it.

Mo told each Warner Bros. executive to “work” a new release.  This meant the executive, not a promotion person, had to visit a radio station, talk to the program director and try to get the record added.  Mo chose the record.  Each executive was given a major Top 40 station to visit.  To make sure every executive knew the edict was serious, Mo even went out himself.  Once.

To my knowledge, I’m the only programmer ever promoted on a record by Mo Ostin.  I was the 17-year-old (I told you only some of this was true) PD at KHJ Los Angeles at the time.  When the local Warner Bros. Promotion person asked if Mo could come down and talk with me, I quickly agreed…not knowing what the conversation would be about…and not caring.  Meeting Mo was quite enough.

Mo came to my office and we spent over an hour talking about different aspects of our business.  I learned more in 60 minutes than I had up to that point in my career.  I’m sure Mo will tell you he learned as much from me.  (I told you not all of this would be true!)

At the end of the conversation, he told me of his plan.  He asked if I would listen to the record he had brought with him.  I did.  He then asked if I would add it.

At that time, KHJ was the flagship station of the successful RKO chain.  On a great week, we added maybe three records.  Usually, it was one or two.  Nothing…absolutely, positively nothing out-of-the-box.  If we really believed in a record, we would put it on one of our smaller stations first, then chart its progress before even thinking about adding it at KHJ.

So what did I do?

Added it right away.

Did I know it was a smash?  No way. I added it for two reasons.  First, I figured if Mo Ostin was asking, who was I to say no?  He had never personally asked for a record to be added and it was doubtful he ever would again.  I wasn’t worried about setting a precedent.  And besides, I figured if Mo Ostin can ask me for a favor and I say yes, maybe one day the favor would be returned.

Second, I knew that my adding the record would make the life of every other executive and promotion person a living hell.  I could see Mo going back to his office, picking up the phone and saying, “I got on KHJ, how did you do?”

If Mo could get the record on the tightest, most important station in the nation out-of-the-box, what excuse could any other person use?  I couldn’t wait until the local and regional people were working other records later to give Mo excuses.  I could hear him say, “You need me to go down there?”

It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up…an opportunity more record executives should option.  How often do you get to teach and learn in the same meeting?

Oh, did the song Mo worked become a hit?  Oh, yes.  The artist?  I won’t tell you…but I think he could dance.

A Long Strange Trip

7/23/1993

The Conclave in Minneapolis: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

The initial concept was mind-boggling by itself. There I was, on my way to the Midwest, a section of the country designated as a disaster area because of the worst flooding in history. I’m not particularly enamored with Minnesota under the best circumstances and the weather forecast was calling for more rain. And the only non-stop flight from Los Angeles was on Northworst Airlines.

I was doomed from the start.

But tickets had been purchased, meetings planned, rooms guaranteed and fights picked, so I had no choice.

When I arrived, the hotel was filled with nervous energy. Everyone was expecting fireworks at the first meeting Thursday night when representatives from all the trades debated their validity on the Charts Panel. Unfortunately, there were no knockouts. Billboard’s Michael Ellis chickened out and sent Kevin McCabe in his place. Kevin blamed any Billboard problems on BDS and any BDS problems on Billboard and was the unanimous winner of the “We’re Perfect Because We Say So” award. His attitude and demeanor exemplified Billboard’s recent adaptation of a “Holier Than Thou” posture. And the gum chewing was a nice touch.

Joel Denver wouldn’t fight…and who could blame him? He did bring another excuse to the table. Joel first stated that he granted reporting status solely on ratings. Since everyone knew that was bullshit, Joel quickly switched tactics and stated that reporting status was determined by a committee. A committee? What committee? Does R&R bus in a group of radio professionals every month to cast secret ballots on which radio stations will make it? Give me a break. The “old boys” just go to the back room, crack open a bottle and decide who they’ll beat on next.

Joel did an admirable job selling the company line on their vaporware. With a straight face, he predicted R&R’s monitor system would be up and running this fall in three markets. Joel was the only contestant in the “Beat A Dead Horse” category, but he would have won going away, even with the competition.

Hitmakers’ Barry Fiedel was eloquent as usual. Barry has such a command of the English language that it takes you a while to realize he isn’t really saying anything. Barry exemplifies his “Conference Calls.” The idea sounds good at first, but the end result produces nothing but hype.

The “Will Rogers Award” went to Dave Sholin for the 10th straight year. As soon as he leaves Gavin and joins The Network Forty, he’ll go smiling into the Hall of Fame.

I was confused. In this group, that was to be expected. Neither Billboard nor R&R could explain how they decide who reports in what formats and why. After their feeble attempts, I was still confused. So was the room. Evidently Billboard is still confused as well. They added 10 stations into their Mainstream Format right after Kevin defended their exclusion in Minneapolis. Is it just me or does this sound suspiciously like R&R’s many flip-flops? Could Joel Denver and Michael Ellis be the same person in different disguises? Think about it. Has anyone ever seen Joel and Michael in the same room at the same time?

After the meeting, all of the participants sponged free drinks at The Network Forty suite and vocalized what they wished they had said. No one was listening.

Friday brought on more meetings, more discussions and gambling at the nearby Indian reservation. Sholin lost $40 and cried all the way back to the hotel. Wayne Coy’s favorite number is 14. Tom Barsanti kept searching for the guy wearing feathers from the Village People and Joe Ianello still doesn’t understand why he couldn’t hit on 20.

A luncheon concert by Lisa Keith was well received as were the opening remarks by Rick Stone and the newly appointed Perspective VP Promotions Randy Spendlove. Nighttime found half the attendees avoiding the bowling tournament (the other half brought their own balls). The best-attended dinner was Steve Leavitt’s reserved table at one of Minneapolis’ finest restaurants, T.G.I. Fridays.

KWIN’s Bob Lewis hosted a simulated music meeting featuring input from both radio and record people. Although many points were made, the most notable was Bob’s remark that “this is why we don’t take record calls.” The reason? The session lasted over two-and-a-half hours.

Saturday morning’s Top 40 Format Breakfast was packed with people and questions. A funny thing happened at this meeting. We actually heard some answers. WKSE Program Director Brian Burns gave an effective explanation of how to conduct aircheck sessions; KDWB PD Marke Bolke told us how to successfully plan and execute promotions and WNVZ’s Wayne Coy went through the audience, giving jocks the opportunity to impress the programmers with their ability to do a break using what they had in their pockets. I think two of the guys were hired.

The least-attended meeting was “Time Management.” Most people couldn’t find the time to go.

Saturday afternoon, Dave Sholin and Joel Denver did a radio show on KDWB-FM. Dave did it for kicks. Joel did it because it was the largest market he ever worked in.

Most gratifying was an independent survey commissioned by The Network Forty. Mainstream radio people attending the Conclave were asked by an independent contractor, “What is your favorite trade magazine?” Respondents were allowed to choose more than one, which explains the percentages, but we sure liked who finished first:

The Network Forty                  74%

Gavin                                      51%

R&R                                        37%

Hitmakers                                13%

Billboard/Monitor                   08%

Hits                                         03%

Absent from the Conclave was the usual hype present at most other conventions. The good part was that most of the panels were well attended and well presented. The down side? A lot of heavy radio programmers didn’t show. But is that really bad? Most people at the Conclave are on their way up. They’re anxious to learn…willing to be trained. They aren’t afraid to ask questions. Quality time is actually possible. Friendships made in the congenial atmosphere will last. And many of those at tiny stations today will be in the majors tomorrow.

The bottom line? This was my first Conclave. It won’t be my last.

A Tale Of Three Stations

5/5/1995

Top 40 radio is dead. Mainstream Top 40 is losing ground. The audience is changing.

The nay-sayers are out in force. Record companies are looking over the horizon for the next format. What will it be? Who will discover it? How will we deal with it? When will it happen?

Top 40 radio has been dad and buried countless times in the past three decades. The format has died and been replaced by…Top 40.

I submit to you (okay, maybe I’ve been watching too much of the O.J. trial) that it isn’t Top 40 that’s in trouble, but Top 40 programmers. To loosely quote Willie Shakespeare, it ain’t the message, it’s the messenger.

You don’t have to look any further than New York City to find the format alive and well. Three different radio stations, all within the definition of Top 40, are all succeeding. Why? Because each is programmed exceptionally and uniquely by people who know what they’re doing.

On a visit to the Big Apple last week, I as able to listen to all three during all dayparts and find something I liked. Evidently, I am not alone. Judging from the ratings, New York is tuning in consistently.

In the early 1980s, Scott Shannon went to work at a radio station in Secaucus, New Jersey. The station went dark, then turned back on as Z100. Many in the industry thought Scott was crazy. (Okay, many still do, but that’s another story). You see, at that time, Top 40 was dead. That was the second time the format had been listed in the obituary pages. When Scott turned on the “Flame Thrower,” there was no other Top 40 in New York. You remember, Disco was the format of the future…then.

It wasn’t long before Z100 was #1 and Top 40 was alive and well again. Disco disappeared in a micro-second and suddenly, Scott had not one, but three other competitors biting into the Top 40 audience that was supposedly nonexistent only months before.

After a long, successful run, Scott left the East Coast to work his brand of magic elsewhere. After a sojourn near the Pacific Ocean searching for a pirate, Scott returned to New York and took the reins of WPLJ, one of the stations that had jumped into the Top 40 format years before. Scott adjusted the format slightly and skewed the focus toward the available upper demos. WPLJ steadily increased its audience and ratings and today, it consistently ranks in the upper echelon of the sellable 25-54 demos.

Scott rebuilt a radio station to fit the needs of the available audience.

When Scott left Z100, Steve Kingston took over the formidable task: maintain Z100’s position as the dominant Top 40 station in New York.

For a while, it worked. Then, as the audience began changing (and the music with it), Steve was faced with a much bigger problem. What to do with Z100 to cope with the changes? For months, rumors swirled around the station and its people. When the sale to Shamrock was completed, many in the industry said Top 40 was dead, Kingston would leave and Z100 would change formats. Instead, Kingston stayed and redefined Z100 to take advantage of the changes in the audience. Kingston took a big gamble and began mixing an Alternative blend into Z100’s music and suddenly, the audience and the ratings began building again and today, the station is the definition of Top 40 with an Alternative blend.

Steve took advantage of what the market had to give and adjusted his radio station to reflect the wants and needs of the audience…still within the Top 40 format.

And then came Steve Smith. When Steve arrived in New York, many in the industry said that his brand of radio would never succeed because he didn’t know the New York audience and had never programmed in such a large market. The Crossover brand of to 40 wasn’t working and Smith wouldn’t be able to bring enough of the audience into his camp to make his radio station successful in the metropolis of New York City.

Steve refocused Hot 97, defining his core demographics and playing specifically to them. Almost overnight, Hot 97 increased its market share until it out-distanced the Top 40 competitors in the 12+ arena and became the #1 Top 40 station in New York.

As a sidebar (not as much O.J. as a publishing term), Emmis purchased WRKS late last year and put Steve in charge of programming a station that, until he too over, had been targeting basically the same audience as Hot 97. Many in the industry believed Smith couldn’t program both stations successfully without one suffering.

Readjusting both slightly, Smith positioned each toward a specific target within the overall demographic and scored big. In the latest ratings, Hot 97 moved 4.8 to 5.4 and WRKS jumped from a 3.8 to a 7.4.

What does this tell us?

First of all, it tells us that “many in the industry” don’t have a clue. Most of those sitting on the sidelines making judgments about radio have no experience in the medium and are about as accurate in their predictions as those doing weather on your local channel.

In also tells us that good programming always finds a way. WPLJ, Z100, Hot 97 and WRKS can all be defined as Top 40 stations. All four stations are successful because each caters to a specific portion of the available audience. One does not beat the other in the classic sense. Each is successful in its own way.

Scott Shannon, Steve Kingston and “King Of The Hill” Steve Smith were not afraid to commit to their particular beliefs. Each had a different focus and idea. Each stepped forward without looking back. None listened to the conventional wisdom of “many in the industry.” Each came up with a specific plan designed for their radio station. They all win.

What’s their secret? All are different. But belief in one’s own ability makes these programmers winners.

And don’t tell me this phenomenon is specific only to New York. Somebody once said, “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”

Is Top 40 on life support? Or are many Top 40 programmers simply brain dead?

Perhaps you should consult Doctors Shannon, Kingston and Smith for the answer.

Adding It All Up

2/24/1995

How many did you get?

The question of the week for record promotion people everywhere. Every Tuesday. Every week. Of every year.

And the answer to that question determines the climate for the rest of the week. If you have a lot, “It’s gonna be bright, sunshiny days.” But, “Ain’t no sunshine when there’s none.” Or not enough. Of what do we sing?

Adds.

In the past two years, actual airplay has radically changed the face of the radio and record industries. It wasn’t long ago that radio stations were still making up weekly charts based on what they thought were the hottest and most-played songs on their stations. Records went up and down depending (in some cases) on the combination of sales, requests and rotations. More often, however, the number on a station’s “chart” was done on the whim of the program director or music director…and a plea for help from the local record promoter didn’t hurt either.

Now all that has changed. The guesswork has been taken out of the equation and the cries and whimpers from the LPMs don’t matter. It’s all “plays,” Bud, and begging and pleading doesn’t cut it anymore. There isn’t a programmer in the world who will increase your “plays” unless he or she believes in the record…no matter how pitiful the wail from a record company.

Honesty is the best policy. Has it really been 200 years since Ben Franklin said that? It seems like only yesterday. And like it or not, things aren’t going back the way there were…even if Barbra was as smooth as “buttah” in her comeback last year.

Wasn’t it only yesterday when “paper” adds were not uncommon and, in many cases, expected? Not anymore, Bud. If it don’t get played, it ain’t an add. Simple as that. And lunar rotation? Used to be you could appease your local friend by playing his record once a day between three and four in the morning. No longer. Monitored airplay made that game of “add-and-cheat” impossible to play.

What is played is what we get. Plays. Rotations. Spins. The old playlist is dead. Nothing remains from the decaying carcass of “how we once did it” except…adds.

How many did you get?

Kind of makes your skin crawl, doesn’t it? Unless you got a lot. Which happens occasionally, but not often enough to cure that epidermal condition most often associated with the lack of adds. Rumor has it the mysterious, flesh-eating disease that’s constantly in the news began at Columbia Records when not enough adds were reported and Donnie took it out on a national guy.

So, although we have new ways to monitor actual airplay, although the days of the program director or music director struggling to come up with a station “chart” are long gone, although we have a new, “90s” way of looking at the relationship between airplay and sales, one thing remains from yesterday.

Adds.

From a program director’s standpoint, most will agree that, as far as adds are concerned, their favorite song is, “I Believe In Yesterday.”

Most programmers want the freedom to test records from time-to-time without committing to an add. In the “old” days, a PD could put new records on his radio station and test audience reaction for a couple of weeks before deciding whether or not the record should be “added” into regular rotation. Now, it’s not a test.

BDS doesn’t differentiate between “adds” and “spins.” Neither do most of those in the record industry. “I don’t care whether he adds it or not, as long as he’s playing it,” is a refrain heard more and more often from VPs of promotion.

But they sure care about “drops.” Whoa. That’s a totally different ballgame, Bud.

It’s easy to explain that a PD is playing the record even if he didn’t add it. But try explaining that a station “dropped” a record when it was never an official add to begin with. It gets a bit hairy.

So, what is the answer?

Record companies, for the most part, still look at adds. How many they get is how they keep score. But it’s more than that. It is also an important indicator that they can use with other PDs to show that a record is real. If all these stations are adding it, there must be something to it.

Conversely, drops are also important. Although every PD wants you to believe that he adds and drops records depending only upon how the records are doing in his market, the fact is that how a record is doing nationally also makes a big impact. If a PD sees others dropping a record, the PD may decide to wait on the record. If all those other radio stations are dropping the record, there must be a reason.

Adds and drops are, for the time being, the most accurate barometer of how a new record is being received by radio…next to actual plays. If a record is getting a lot of adds, it must mean a lot of programmers like it. If a record is getting a lot of drops, it must mean a lot of programmers don’t believe in it. If a record gets a consistent amount of adds each week, a promotion team can paint a picture of a record that is growing. It’s hard to use those brushstrokes if the record is getting dropped after a couple of weeks of play.

Programmers who want the freedom to experiment and test records should be allowed that freedom. Trade magazines that publish charts and airplay information should let individual radio stations determine what is an official “add” no matter how many times a record is played. At Network 40, we don’t list a record as an add until the radio station informs us…whether or not the record is being played. Like it or not, there is a difference between “playing it” and “adding it.”

So, if the question is, “When is an add an add and when is a drop a drop?” the answer is, “When the radio station says so.”

Where is it written that because a station is monitored or because it supplies the industry with an accurate description of actual airplay, it must comply with certain rules it had nothing to do with writing? If we, as an industry, are going to put weight on adds and drops, should we as an industry let determination be made by the radio stations?

What do you think?

Adding It Up

4/4/1997

Several weeks ago, I wrote an Editorial that was highly critical of the Monitor.  Actually, the Editorial was critical of the policies of the Monitor… and the people of the Monitor who made the policies…specifically Howard Lander, Sean Ross, Kevin Carter and Theda Sandiford.  I said it would be harder to find anyone dumber than the Gang of Four.  I was speaking of their overall intelligence.  I assume each of these individuals are smart in their own way.  They’re just stupid when it comes to the radio or record business…despite the fact that they are in charge of a magazine that purports to support that very industry.

I owe the Gang an apology.  I know it’s not like me, but when I’m right (which is most of the time), I take the credit.  And when I’m wrong (which is almost never…ask anyone who works for me), I will take the blame.  I said it would be hard to find anyone dumber than the Gang of Four.  I was wrong.  After reading last week’s Monitor, I found someone.

Sean Ross.

The fact that he is a member of the Gang notwithstanding, Sean has separated himself from his peers with a column that begs to wonder if Mr. Ross is indeed on a spaceship circling the Hale-Bopp comet.  It proves he is totally out of touch with the realities of the radio and record industries.

Sean writes, under the the heading “Top 40 Topics” (golly gee, what a nifty name), about “Going For Adds Or Going For The Real Story.”  Mr. Ross wonders why companies still “go for adds” and schedule “add dates.”  If he has to wonder, Mr. Ross should wake up and smell the coffee.  However, I feel the mere smell of coffee certainly couldn’t pull him out of his evident coma.

Ah, what a warm-and-fuzzy world we would live in if there was no emphasis on stations “adding” a record.  There would be no more scheduling meetings because record companies could release everything on the same day.  Warner Bros. could gather up all their artists and ask, “Who wants to release an album next year?  Just deliver it by January 1, because that’s when we release everything.

“We’re not concerned with adds anymore, so let’s just throw all the product out there at the same time. Maybe some programmer will listen to it and play it.”

Wow, wouldn’t that be cool?

Actually, it might make it easier if every record company released all their records on the same day.  Then we could get it all over with in a hurry.  Oh, some artists would get lost and some hit records would never get heard, but that’s okay.  Shit happens.

How would we gauge a record’s early success?  We couldn’t.  But, who cares?  We aren’t in the business of promotion, we’re in the business of reality.  Unfortunately, what Sean doesn’t seem to understand is that reality is almost always a byproduct of promotion.

We have a Bill of Rights because a bunch of promotion people got it “added” to the Constitution.  We are able to break new acts because programmers commit to the music by “adding” the record.  Anyone who believes records “just organically happen” without a solid promotion and marketing plan should put a purple scarf over their head and become a part of Hale-Bopp.

Maybe a superstar act doesn’t need a group of early believers to ensure a hit—although most would even argue this point.  But certainly newer, unproven artists need early believers to shout the gospel by “adding” the record.

It is a fact of life that PDs look to others for guidance.  How many adds a record gets often decides a records’ fate.  Some may say it isn’t fair (usually those who didn’t get any adds), but the fact is that the system works.

Programmers depend on promotion people and information.  If a record gets added on 100 stations, it’s worth a listen.  And the reverse is certainly true. If a record gets only two adds…maybe it isn’t worth a listen.

Add dates are all-important in the internal set-up of a record.  Scheduling is king.  No one wants to release a superstar act the same time as another label’s superstar.  Nor does any company want to release a new artist if several superstars are coming with releases in a given month.  Companies want to schedule add dates with touring when possible, making tickets, artist meetings and other promotional activities possible.  Add dates are coordinated to make sure product is in stores.

All of these reasons would seem obvious to even the most ignorant in our business.  So what does this say about Sean and the publication for which writes?  Does Monitor not know…or simply not care?

Sean checked out the adds in his own magazine and found only a “few” that mention “add dates.”  Maybe it’s because adds aren’t important to Monitor’s readers.  Monitor prints information that has already happened.  Promotion  people and PDs are concerned with more than history…they must know what’s next… what records are coming…who’s going to “add” them…who has  passion for them.  You’ll find no passion in the Monitor.

You will find people with no experience or knowledge of our business trying to dictate formats and questioning record company practices designed to break new acts and records that make history.

The Monitor should hurry up and hire Tony Novia.  They need someone—even with his limited radio ability.  (Just kidding, Matty.)

In short, Sean Ross sucks, the Monitor blows, Network 40 rules.

I know I think I know everything.  But consider the other trade geeks and you have a better understanding of the saying, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king!”

Well, give me my eye patch and call me Snake.

Additives

7/22/1994

An uneasy alliance has been formed between the record and radio communities. It’s an alliance most won’t speak about out loud and some don’t even know exists. But it is a situation that grow more interesting with each passing week.

We’re talking plays…spins…spikes. Versus adds.

Interesting.

It wasn’t so very long ago that adds were all that mattered. Adds were phat, parallel status was where it was at and a chart could be rigged at the drop of a hat. At the very least, several dozen CD players. Or maybe a late Tuesday afternoon promise of a trip to Hawaii (which one Sr. VP of Promotion still owes me!)

There was a time when promotion people pushed hard for the add. Not that they don’t still push hard today, but airplay is the key.

I’ve heard statements recently that were never thought about six months ago. “I don’t care whether or not he adds it as long as he plays it. “ “I don’t want to push to hard for the add. He’s already playing it and I don’t want to scare him off.” Those are a couple that are in power rotation.

Maybe the entire process needs to be analyzed more thoughtfully. So often, the needs of both records and radio are served by the same purpose. And yet, many times, both industries seem to go out of the way to work against the process, rather than work together to accomplish that goal.

By and large, record companies have the ability to establish the ground rules of competition. Let’s face it, it wasn’t radio that created the parallel system. And if the system wasn’t exactly created by record companies, most welcomed it as a way to best serve their needs. With promotions and attention, record companies determine who and what is important.

It was the record industry that fostered adds. It was the way they kept score. It was how we found out who were the winners and losers. Under the parallel system, how many stations were on a record was all-important. How many times the record was played wasn’t a big consideration. Few in the record companies made it a priority, so at first, few ver asked. But soon, unfortunately, another practice became common. Because record companies needed a way to keep score and because adds were applauded like touchdowns, getting that add became all-important. So important, in some cases, that airplay wasn’t even mentioned. Many times, airplay wasn’t requested. Occasionally, it was suggested to programmers that airplay wasn’t even wanted. Just the add.

The system became more and more perverse.

A funny thing began to happen on this yellow brick road to terminal bliss. Many records that were most added weren’t hits. Not that there was anything wrong with that. I mean, who really knows what records are hits until they are exposed to the public? So, having a record that was most added not become a hit wasn’t catastrophic. In some instances, it was advantageous. At least you found out whether or not you had a hit relatively quickly.

That’s when funnier things began happening. Records that were getting a lot of adds weren’t getting a lot of play. The records weren’t becoming hits because the audience didn’t hear them. That wasn’t right.

Records that shipped Gold returned Platinum.

The practice eventually led to the downfall of the parallel system and, in a parallel move, to the downfall of those who promoted it. Record companies went “Back To The Future” to determine what made a hit. The bottom line is the bottom line: If it sells, it’s a hit. If it doesn’t, it isn’t.

We always knew that, but over time the words got in the way and our priorities were a little out of whack.

Suddenly, almost without warning, faster than you could say, “Plays Per Week and BDS,” the rules changed. The parallel system and the coveted award of “Most Added” began gathering dust. Neither was important any longer. Today, airplay rules. Whether or not a radio station officially adds a record is becoming a moot point. It is the airplay that matters.

Some programmers want to hold on to the power of official adds. It gives them the opportunity to test records without getting pressure from the record companies to add a specific record into a weekly rotation.

That power is a wisp of smoke.

Programmers have to place to hide. With the advent of Plays Per Week, BDS and honest reporting, record companies know what records are getting airplay…even by daypart. Who are we trying to fool by testing records during the week and not adding them?

Of course, there is a flip side. (Isn’t there always?) If record companies don’t care about official adds, then pressure for additional plays should be carefully guarded. If programmers are going to let what they play be their official list (and those in monitored markets don’t have a choice), then record companies must allow the programmers to experiment with records in various degrees. Playing certain records only in morning drive, adding others in a night rotation and spiking some sporadically throughout the week are ways for radio to research a specific record’s strength. Record companies must understand that a test is just that: a test. If a station is testing a record, record companies must have patience to work with the station. Screaming for increased rotations before the testing is complete can only hurt the record company’s relationships in the future. And it won’t do the tested record a lot of good either.

Record companies must understand that this type of honesty opens up other cans of worms. Sometimes a radio station will play a record only five or six times, then drop it from airplay the following week. Record companies must be ready to argue unemotionally for re-testing or increased rotations. It will sometimes make the job more difficult, but it is the way we will all be doing business in the future.

Both industries are after the same end. Both want to find out what records are hits. How we get to that end is what makes us different. Most record companies are concentrating on plays and spins, not adds. Radio stations should do the same.