The Anatomy of a Radio Hit We take a look at how radio play makes and breaks hip-hop artists. It's often money — and not talent — that drives the charts.
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The Anatomy of a Radio Hit

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The Anatomy of a Radio Hit

The Anatomy of a Radio Hit

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This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

If you start turning your dial, and we hope you don't, at least not right now, you might run across stations playing urban hits. But who helps make that music so popular? It's the radio stations. Radio is a vital part of the rap music business, just ask Davey D. He co-hosts the San Francisco Bay Area's Hard Knock Radio and he's program director of the Internet show "Breakdown FM." Davey's also a long-time hip-hop journalist and columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and we use to kick it back in the Bay. Welcome, Davey.

DAVEY D (Co-host, Hard Knock Radio; Program Director, "Breakdown FM"): How are you doing, Farai?

CHIDEYA: I'm doing great. So you're in New York right now because you hail from New York originally but you are a stalwart in the bay.

DAVEY D: That's right. I'm back home in the Big Apple.

CHIDEYA: All right. So let's give the folks a little bit of history about you. You went to a really high profile situation where you were just not willing to roll along with some of the things that were happening in commercial radio. Why don't you fill us in on that?

DAVEY D: Well, to make a long story short, during the 2001 9/11 disaster, there was a lot of dissident voices about the direction that we would eventually take, among them was Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who felt that there should be a checks and balance if we're going to declare a war on anything. And she was the lone member of Congress to vote no to the president's bill. So she didn't have a lot of press that was willing to talk to her and give her a fair shake and we did, you know, on my show, a very popular show called "Street Knowledge."

And that show aired on a Sunday right after 9/11 or - yeah - the Sunday after 9/11, and then I took the transcript of that show and I released it on my hip-hop Web site and it went all over the world. The next week I was called in and I was told, well, we have to let you go after 11 years. Thank you very much and good-bye. And that sparked a whole lot of protest and outrage and the rest is history. And, you know, we eventually came to find out that there was kind of an underlying, unspoken type of approach for a lot of commercial entities to go along with the program to…

CHIDEYA: So that you basically shepherded out of commercial radio because you were doing some journalism. You're someone who deejays, and you deejay music but you also do interviews both with pop-culture figures and with politicians?

DAVEY D: Yeah, hip-hop and politics is my forte.

CHIDEYA: So, there's been a lot of talk and a lot of articles about investigations of payola in the commercial radio industry. What do think is going on these days?

DAVEY D: Well, payola has been here forever, and it shows up in various forms. I mean, you have the traditional form of, where people get money under the table in exchange for a certain amount of airplay, and then you get the other type of payola that's hard to tell unless you're really on the inside. For example, a lot of stations will have these big summer jam concerts, you know, whether you're in New York where they just recently had it on Hot 97 R in the Bay Area where I'm out with the big urban stations there.

Well, those concerts, if you don't know the business, usually net the station somewhere from a third to sometimes half their annual income because of the sponsorships that are tied to the concerts. Those artists know that when they show up at these events that they're going to do those events for free in exchange for airplay. I've sat in meetings at stations where we needed a new van. And our bosses would go or call such and such a record label and tell them we need a new van. So, all of a sudden, we would have a station van. And if you look on the side, you might see the record label's logo. So, that's kind of hard to figure out, you know, how that works. The list goes on and on. You know, comes under the guise of business-to-business transactions. It comes on the - sometimes, it's a little strong-arming situation, sometimes it's the label in the power position, other times, it's the station.

When I say the strong-arming position, let me give you another example. In the Bay Area, there was a competition to the main urban stations that are owned by Clear Channel. So, in order to protect their lead in the market, what they did was they sent out notices to the record labels in the urban divisions and explained that if they had any of their artists show up or cooperate or give station IDs or any sort of engagement with then competing station, then they would see their records no longer being played, not only on the stations in that market, but in other markets as well. Local artists were put on notice that is if they showed up and helped out the new station that they, too, could expect not to have any more airplay.

Now, some of the major record labels saw that and say, well, look, you know, we'll give you - we'll go along with your orders, but give us some extra spins, which is the currency, you know, the amount of time a record is played. Or why don't you give a lookout for a new up-and-coming artist who needs some extra exposure. So, those types of things take place on the (unintelligible).

CHIDEYA: So, you're saying that there's a lot of different ways that could pro quo, can happen in the industry. I want you to actually take me back a little bit. You know, you do hail originally from New York, and it's such a different game right now. Hip-hop is in terms of even getting radio airplay. Take us to a moment maybe when you first started performing as a DJ, and what were the outlets for hip-hop at that time?

DAVEY D: The, you know, the outlets weren't too much on the air, by the time I started deejaying in the early '80s, you had college stations and community stations, at least out in the Bay Area that that would give you a shot. As far as commercial radio, there was no outlet for that. That was just unheard of and that was just something that you just never imagine would be the case, so is nightclubs. Sometimes you make tapes, which now have evolved to what we call mixed tapes, and of course, the college radio scene, which I just explained.

CHIDEYA: How do you think the audience relates differently today hearing, for example - I'll just give you, you know, from a personal point of view, I used to go to a club called The Red Zone in New York. You remember that?

DAVEY D: Uh-huh.

CHIDEYA: All right. And then it became known as the Dead Zone because so many people got shot there. And that made a lot of people not want to see live hip-hop. But now, when you want to see big acts, I mean, you're talking arenas, and you're talking $200 for a ticket, and it's not the same as being able to get in for $10 or $15 and see an act performed in a smaller venue. And that looks back to what you're saying about these big tours that happen in conjunction with the radio stations. How does the audience's relationship over time you think changed to hip-hop?

DAVEY D: Well, there's two different things, such a saying, it's kind of mixing apples and oranges. And let me try to explain. There's a commercial side and there's been a strategy to reign in people who frequent commercial outlets. In other words, we call it learned behavior or, you know, cultivating a habit that will be impossible to break. That's what my bosses used to say. Make sure we make a bad habit, make the stations habit that people can't kick.

And so, what has happened is, maybe about 15 years ago, you saw a change where radio, as we're starting to play hip-hop, used to go the community would try to find - would follow the lead of its practitioners and follow the leads of its sense(ph). So, they would be really cool for a station to show up in East Oakland or the South Bronx. And you know, might be even cooler if they actually said a couple of the words or reflected some of the language in the slang terms, or even brought in some of the personalities to be a part of the radio environment. And so, what they realized is that they didn't want to build stations around the personalities of particular DJs or artists and what have you.

So the strategy was to make the station become - make the audience become a fan of the station. And so, over a 15-year period of time, we went from the station following the leads of the community to the community literally following the leads of the radio station. That's become a big problem. It results in folks now responding to material only if it comes across the commercial airwaves. So if we have a brand-new record, you will literally have people say, well, it didn't show up on my favorite radio station, so it doesn't exist.

CHIDEYA: Right, so there's a brand loyalty. So, what's the other part that I, kind of, confused?

DAVEY D: Well, there has been an underground movement that has rejected a lot of these, and has really made it a point to cultivate fans. And that part of hip-hop is very rarely shown. And in many cases, it's actually more popular if you go to a Coachella festival or some of these other festive occasions, you might see a group like Hieroglyphics, who actually outsells any of the commercial artists that are there in Bay Area. You might see a living legend, same thing for them. You might see a Rhymesayers or, you know, Definitive Jux, people of that label, where they just have these huge followings and a very loyal fan base. And that's where you start to find that these groups have really been able to capitalize off of the business. They do 40 and 50 city tours. They're known internationally. They've excelled in selling merchandise and they do quite well for themselves, but we wouldn't know that because they would never show up on the mainstream radio.

And I use Hieroglyphics as a prime example because they're in Oakland. They can do a show in Oakland or in the Bay Area and sell out a venue two times over from - and the venue is owned by the radio station, yet you will never hear that group with a new material on the station.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, you know what, Dave - we're going to have to stop it here. But you have a lot of perspective on the industry. Davey D, thank you so much.

DAVEY D: Okay. Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Davey D is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. He also co-hosts the San Francisco Bay Area's Hard Knock Radio and is program director of the Internet radio show, "Breakdown FM." He joined us from NPR's New York studios.

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