Radio Radio

We search the airwaves for signs of intelligent life

Which means there's enough going around for other promoters, like Michael Van O. at Midwest Music Alliance in Stillwater. When I call him on a typical weekday afternoon, Van O. comes on the line briefly, does a little jive-talking, then puts me on hold to take another call. Then another. In no time Van O. is juggling calls from two labels and four radio stations at once. Finally, his smooth baritone is back on the line. "With the last 26 years on the music side of the business," he says enthusiastically, "I know a hit when I hear one."

Van O. is a looser cannon than Kay, his rapid-fire cadence markedly more aggressive. Another difference: He doesn't actually work any radio stations in the Twin Cities market. An East Coast disc jockey in the Seventies, he went on to head promotions departments for such forgotten labels as Polydor and A&M in the Eighties. In 1990 he settled in Stillwater and has since promoted songs to about 30 "rock" (think perennials like Aerosmith), "active rock" (Linkin Park), and "alternative" (once R.E.M., now Sum 41) stations around the country.

"I love the stuff I hear even now," Van O. exclaims. "When a friend at Elektra played me the new Staind single over the phone I just flipped. We were yelling, 'Number-one record!' over the phone to each other."

The cash flow for Main Street, as for Midwest Music Alliance, is pretty basic: A label contacts the independent promoter, asks him to chat up a song to radio programmers, and pays a fee based on how long and how many songs a particular project might involve. If the label gets a hit out of the deal, they call again. If the station gets a hit, the programmer will listen to the promoter the next time he comes calling.

There is, however, an ever-shrinking pool of commercial FM stations willing to play new music in the Twin Cities (the 16th-largest radio market in the United States), including: K102 (102.1 FM), a country station; 93X (93.7 FM), an "active rock" station; B-96 (96.3 FM), an urban station that plays hits from Outkast or Brandy; Cities 97 (97.1 FM), an adult format that mixes David Gray and Hootie with classic-rock staples; WLTE (102.9 FM), another adult format, KS95 (94.5 FM), yet another adult format, the new Drive 105 (105.1, 105.3 and 105.7 FM), an alternative format of sorts; and KQRS (92.5 FM), which occasionally picks up new stuff from dinosaurs like Mick Jagger.

With the exception of K102 and KQ, Kay works all of the "contemporary" stations. None, however, has the power and influence of KDWB (101.3 FM), a brand-name Top 40 station with call letters that signify a proven, 45-year track record.

"KDWB will play maybe three new records a week, and when they do everybody in the country pays attention to what they are," Kay claims. "We're all after airplay on KDWB."

Rob Morris, program director for seven years at the station, says he and his staff use several sources to determine what songs will hit the airwaves, including phone surveys, requests, and industry trade sheets.

He has programming down to a science. Still, he will chat with Kay on the phone a few times every week. Beyond that, Morris is somewhat reluctant to say much more about Kay or other promoters who call him, maybe out of fear that it might look unseemly. "He's paid to talk about a record, but not necessarily to tell us what to play," Morris says of Kay. "We listen to everybody."

Morris estimates that each week KDWB has room for roughly 2,200 "spins." Of those, perhaps the top 20 songs get played 65 to 80 times a week. Another 20 current songs will get 10 to 20 spins a week, while 5 to 10 "gold" songs--say, "Kiss" by Prince--will be dropped in periodically. Though Morris says 30 to 50 new songs get sent to the station each week, only a tenth of them make it on the air.

"For us, it's all supply and demand," Morris concludes, adding that the station mostly targets female listeners, ages 18 to 49. "We play what they want to hear and we have a limited number of slots, so we pick carefully."

For the same reason, Kay and Van O. must choose their battles wisely to ensure that radio programmers get a hit in their hands. "Mostly we just fill in the blanks when there isn't a local or regional promoter from a label." Kay says. "Forget about payola. KDWB's charge is not to make money but to win a certain [demographic] based on songs we promote to them."

"[Kay]'s got his ear to the ground," Morris says. "The LeAnn Rimes one, maybe radio just missed that the first time around."

Still, "Can't Fight the Moonlight," available on the Coyote Ugly soundtrack, surprises even Kay. "They did everything right with that movie except for the movie part," he quips, adding that he is close to getting the song added to the play list at KS95 and WLTE-FM. But Kay doesn't want to push these stations too hard, for fear he might tarnish his congenial reputation.

Then again, he might not have to: By last week, the song was No. 12 with a bullet on the Billboard pop singles chart, poised to crack the Top 10. "With that one," he says, "I've done my job."

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