Radio Radio

We search the airwaves for signs of intelligent life

A call Kay received in September from Rimes's label, Curb Records, did not quell his misgivings. A new regime at the Nashville label had decided it was time to transform Rimes from a child star in the fading country spotlight into a pop radio diva. To some, this would seem to be a slight distinction. But for Kay, it was a potential roadblock; at least two Twin Cities pop stations had passed on putting "Can't Fight the Moonlight" in heavy rotation the first time around, and they were still among the three stations that could break the tune locally.

"The song kind of went away," Kay recalls, noting that WLTE (102.9 FM) did warm to the LeAnn Rimes song "Soon" in the interim. But, he says, the label convinced him that "Can't Fight the Moonlight" had "untapped potential." So, a music-industry veteran of 35 years, Kay assigned the Rimes project to Main Street Marketing and Promotions, a company he started in 1986 to help labels get songs on radio stations around the Midwest.

As it turns out, video sales of Coyote Ugly had been quite strong. And the soundtrack, which features the Rimes song, was selling as many as 35,000 copies a week. More important, Kay found the song had "researched well," getting both recognition and positive feedback from listeners on the Internet and in phone surveys. Soon Kay was calling program directors in the Midwest, doing his part to launch Rimes into the Top 10. Within a month, the song was in heavy rotation on a station in Saginaw, Michigan; by mid-November, "Can't Fight the Moonlight" once again hit the Twin Cities' airwaves.

Kay's synergistic sleight of hand went unnoticed by radio listeners in the region, but insiders were no doubt paying attention. That's because Kay and other independent record promoters are the players on the fringe of a billion-dollar business. They chat up major labels for a piece of the action on up-and-coming artists, then they relentlessly schmooze local programmers. And every week, for better or worse, they stake their reputation on a handful of new songs in an industry increasingly dominated by conservative corporate conglomerates.

It's no secret that many music lovers think corporate radio sucks. And those of Kay's ilk don't necessarily disagree. They also know that what they do conjures up sleazy music-industry stereotypes. There's the stigma of the scandalous system of payola--in which promoters paid radio stations for airplay--that marred AM radio in the Fifties and rocked FM commercial radio in the mid-Eighties. There's also a perception that indie record promoters, no matter how "clean," are still just hustlers-- pawns in a cynical, bottom-line industry that cares nothing about good music. But Kay and his peers will tell you that they are the last of the true believers; the old-schoolers who have ridden the music industry's many ups and downs, still groove on the latest music, and can pick a hit a mile away. They listen to radio. They understand radio. They love radio.

"I like to think we teach people how to be better radio people," Kay says of his industry contacts. "I still believe that radio is the best way for music to reach people who want to hear music."

 

When Tom Kay is working the phone, his low voice and calm demeanor make it seem as though he couldn't give a whit about what song gets played where. He'll calmly call up a database on his computer, maybe tell a radio programmer in Milwaukee how many other stations have the new Nelly Furtado single in heavy rotation, then hang up. But that's all it takes. The seed is planted.

He'll call back in a week and the Milwaukee station will be playing the song 20 times a week. He'll call back in a month, and Milwaukeans will be hearing the song twice as much. All the while, he'll be doing the same in St. Louis or St. Cloud. Then he'll pick up Billboard magazine to find that Nelly Furtado has a Top 10 hit.

"Not a great profession sometimes," Kay says, adding with an amiable irony that he once played Beatles tunes as "currents" (industry lingo for new songs) around the state of Minnesota as a young DJ. "But I believe that integrity means something in this industry--still."

Surrounded by gold records and posters signed by the likes of Lenny Kravitz and Nikka Costa in his St. Louis Park office, Kay riffs cautiously about the rules of the radio game, but he lights up when he talks about how it's a "challenge like never before to find a hit for an artist." Finding a No. 1 song is like "trying to catch lightning in a jar," he says.

Ultimately, of course, money rules. And though Kay won't say what he makes annually, he will say that he works for five to ten labels on a retainer, pushing songs to as many as 150 radio stations at any given time. He notes that an "add" (getting a new song on a station) in the Twin Cities usually costs $1,000; and can run from $500 to $5,000 elsewhere, depending on the market. A label can spend $250,000 to $750,000 just to get a single song on the radio.

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