Sweet nothings

In the recent bytes of discussion taken up by the radio-promotion controversy, it occurred to me wonder: what precisely are the nature of the incentives, blandishments, solicitations, and other inducements these “ninja” promoters, as the sgmblogger aptly named them, use to get the results that they so obviously and pretty reliably get? A recent note from a dj/program-director/marketing-manager type at a gospel radio station shed a bit of light on the subject (and offered some other thoughts that I find worth repeating too):

Been wanting to comment regarding the whole Hendrix/K. Kirksey smack that’s been circling. I, too, received Ken’s attempt to silence the Hendrix. You may or may not have heard from folk on this issue, but since you solicit comments, I’ll give you one from a radio p.d., m.d., d.j.:

“Who cares!” That was my original thought when I received Ken’s notice that Rick was on the prowl. And, when I got Rick’s hand scribbled note on yellow legal pad paper, along with a live version of Heirline’s song and the party pass, I believe I recalled a thought of “cheesy” passing by somewhere.

Has no one mentioned the fact that Heirline, as a group, can’t sing, can’t find the tune/key? Even the song isn’t that great. […] Keep up the good work. Agree 100%.

Ok, so aside from the helpful statement of the obvious possibility that No. 1. or not, Heirline, can’t tote the mail - a possibility I’ve cloaked in euphemism (”little known,” etc) up to this point - I was really interested in the bit about Hendrix’s hand-written note on a piece of yellow legal pad paper etc. The writer is referring to a promotional push Hendrix recently undertook on behalf of Heirline’s song “You’ll Never Run Outta Blood,” one of two “offenses” for which he incurred the SN’s wrath and Ken Kirksey’s displeasure (I’ve described the details here). But is this the extent of the kind of thing we’re talking about? A handwritten note to djs scrawled on yellow pad paper? One dj sent me the text of the note Hendrix jotted down in promotion of the Heirline song that recently went No. 1:

Hey man its Rick Hendrix. I hope your [sic] doing good. Heirline “You’ll Never Run Out of the Blood” is closing in on #1. We sure could use your market. Here’s a “LIVE” version. Let me know [name of dj] if you can use it.

God Bless You
Rick Hendrix

[Sidebar: the note actually is a bit more savvy than you might initially think: click here for a closer reading]

The pitch didn’t work for my correspondent, who writes, “To me, the handwritten notes lack professionalism. I’m sure the idea is that, ‘hey, its me writing.’ But, a professional letter with a real signature (not computer generated) has better effect. … I can’t speak for the rest of the sg radio industry, but at [my station], these promo attempts have no effect. … If the group stinks musically, they won’t get played. [In the past six months], I’ve played the McKameys [only once]. And, that was only because of a concert giveaway.” Would that this were more widely the mentality among sg radio. But clearly it’s not. This dj is among the minority. After all, the handwritten note was one of the tactics that worked on enough djs to push “You’ll Never Run Out of Blood” to No. 1.

So what’s going on? A friend of mine and I were talking about this on the phone yesterday, and we found ourselves resorting to what amounts to a psychological profile of the radio type who would be persuaded by the kinds of enticements a promoter can offer: we ended up describing someone in early to mid-career in many cases (though a fair amount of the people in question are possibly well-tenured folks). Someone potentially making a less-than-generous wage that is only partially recompensed by the minor local celebrity status afforded an on-air personality. Someone perhaps not unaccustomed to feelings (varied in degrees of intensity) of toiling in obscurity for music he loves and/but who feels the music could benefit from his greater influence or his ability to play on a bigger stage. And finally - not least of all - someone who may feel underappreciated by the artists and stars whose careers our hypothetical dj (at a charting radio station) feels he helped make possible. Thus a promoter writes or calls up, a promoter touting a resume full of work with big names from country, gospel, pop, and R&B, maybe even cross-over stars who’ve been in movies and starred in television shows … and here this promoter has left Christina Aguilera waiting in the lobby and Sandi Patti on Line 1 to call or write to ME, a dj out in Bluetick, KY, at Cornpone radio … to talk about the music and the fine folks out there givin’ it their all on the road for the Lord and have you heard of the new group I’m working with … The Happy Times Quartet? Man, what a bunch of good guys who love the Lord and really deserve a shot to go all the way … and so on.

This hastily thrown together sketch is probably more suggestive of truth than descriptive of it. I mean, what I’ve just sketched feels more like a poorly written script for a made-for-TV movie about sg insiderism than anything else. But no matter, even if it only heads in the general vicinity of truth, it raises the stakes of the question I began with: What kind of enticements are we talking about here? What is it that’s pushing all the right buttons for a sizeable portion of sg radio workers? Because surely there’s more to it than just a phone call and/or a “personal” note clipped to a live recording of an Heirline song? Right? Well maybe not. Though the likes of, for instance, Kathy Crabb, who became renown the sg world over for building and banking all kinds of promotional capital with her radio stations by not forgetting any occasion or letting any special event go unnoticed in the lives of the djs whose favor could help move along the Crabbs’ career, hers was probably a case more useful for its anecdotal rather than representative value.

So I asked around: what - I wanted to know from djs, station managers, marketing and program directors - is the precise nature of the sweet nothings that promoters whisper in the ears of radio types … or, as Chuck Peters so nicely put it, “the daily romancing and attempted buying of charting points that goes on in private phone conversations and emails everyday”? My informal survey returned a list of incentives that is remarkable mostly for being so pedestrian and mundane. Here I was expecting tales about flowers from a promoter when a dj’s mother dies or balloons at the hospital when a station manager’s wife has a baby. And while I’ve heard of a few outlying cases where this kinda thing has happened, more typically people talk of pretty ordinary stuff:

  • Candies around Valentines Day to radio stations.
  • Canisters of cookies just before a promoter begins pushing an artist’s new song.
  • Assorted paraphernalia as diverse as clocks and beach towels promoting a tune or an artist.
  • Monthly phone calls, not just to check song rotation, but to encourage djs and programmers to play a particular cut. (The most common line seems to be words to the effect of, “This is the last month we’re working on this song, we’d like to get as much chart action as we can.”)
  • Promotional apparel, from artists or their sponsors, doled out during radio promotions.
  • Free tickets to release parties and No. 1 celebrations, where radio personalities and managers get fawned over and given $25 plaques with their names on them.

What to make of this? Well, it’s worth noting that this practice does have at least one non-negative side-effect. As the dj whom I quoted earlier wrote to me, radio promotion and artist calls or letters can serve as reminders to djs of particular songs that may have been forgotten or languished out of rotation for a while. After a promotional call, a dj might listen to a cut again off air and see if it’s worthy of a shot on the air. But beyond this (which I’m not sure is enough to redeem the practice’s many attendant abuses), on the face of it we’re left to conclude that for at least a preponderance of djs at charting stations, the remarkably incidental incidentals - cookies and candies and phone calls and personalized notes - somehow cohere into a sufficiently plausible “relationship” or the approximation of a bond between the radio person and the promoter (and so by proxy with the group) to warrant the dj’s special favor and merit when it’s time to fill out the chart survey.

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