I Love Radio, Battling The Communications Industrial Complex


By Don Rose

I love Radio. At heart, I think we all do.


Radio was actually the first 'new technology' in media since the invention of the printing press. Imagine: rich streams of music, talk, live sports and weather available to anyone, anytime, for free. And it comes over the air, no wires. Like magic! (Look Ma, no hands!)

I don't even understand how it works. Not really.

My earliest relationship with music was from Radio. (My dad was a 'Radio nut' - always twiddling with the shortwave and jumping-up-and-down excited over the advent of FM, "Perfect stereo signal!" he would exclaim). We blasted the Radio in the car, and constantly argued over the station selection. Dad was always complaining about my choices of course ("They can't even sing!"), but giving The Beatles their due when it came to the ballads.

I was brought up in the '60s in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a town situated halfway between Detroit and Chicago. So big city sensibilities inevitably took root as I listened to Radio every night, falling asleep finally with my ear near the speaker and fingers near the dial. WLS Chicago, WKNR ('Keener') Detroit, and of course CKLW, the 50,000 watt powerhouse from Windsor, Ontario, were my bread and butter. Merseybeat and Motown ruled my world.



Then our local 'beautiful music' FM station began broadcasting the syndicated, 'progressive' sound of the 'Love Network' from San Francisco. My world changed overnight. Music went from black and white to color - psychedelic color, in fact!

That's where I lived, both geographically, and musically speaking. Then our local "beautiful music" FM station began broadcasting the syndicated, "progressive" sound of the "Love Network" from San Francisco. My world changed overnight. Music went from black and white to color - psychedelic color, in fact! Their network-launching track was "In The Court Of The Crimson King," by King Crimson. Game over! Then along the way came the J. Geils Band ("First I Look At The Purse"), Charles Mingus ("Moanin"), "Black Sabbath" by Black Sabbath, Traffic, Santana, The Small Faces - I could go on...

People ask me why I'm in the music business. I conjure lots of reasons, but THAT's really why. My subsequent music career (33 years) has always been about trying to recapture those moments of inspiration.

Fast forward to the present day - to the Communications Industrial Complex. Terrestrial Radio is dominated by large chains and overall listenership is under pressure. Many stations have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar, selling playlist adds and spins in return for "promotional consideration." Commercial playlists have become subjugated to the major-label "priorities," part of a move to enhance "non-traditional revenue sources." Hell, some even sold the rights to "exclusive access" to their programming departments to individual gatekeepers who became funnels for these unholy practices. Real damage has come at the expense of independent record companies, local artists, and saddest of all, music fans.

Have we really come so far from the days when Radio was the source for the fresh, the exciting, and the truly GREAT?

Sadly, I think that the answer is yes.



The key components to enlightening the Radio landscape are broader access to the programming process, and relationships between labels and Radio which are transparent to the parties involved, including the public.

In my current role as the acting president of the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM), I feel these effects most acutely on behalf of independent record labels. Sure, some play the game, because after all, selling records is their job. And a few are quite successful at it, and God Bless Them for it. But even then it's a costly, soul-deadening pursuit.

Many independents have given up on commercial Radio altogether, and limit their activities to the niche music genres generally left behind by the majors. We are fighting to level the playing field, but I'm here to tell ya it ain't easy...

The key components to enlightening the Radio landscape are broader access to the programming process, and relationships between labels and Radio which are transparent to the parties involved, including the public.

A2IM is taking this fight to the FCC. In the wake of the NY Attorney General Michael Spitzer's well-publicized investigation into payola, the FCC announced its own inquiry, which we applauded. Shortly afterwards however, it was reported that the agency was on a fast track towards settlements with the Radio chains under scrutiny. Involving only fines, we felt that this would do little to prevent such abuses from recurring in the future. So we have appealed to the FCC commissioners to take steps establishing the "rules of engagement" going forward. Two of the four sitting commissioners (Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps) have so far responded by inviting us to D.C. to discuss our views on radio promotion and its relationship to the independent label community.

Due to the likely nature of any eventual settlement involving a consent decree, we regard this as a unique opportunity to affect some meaningful change, in an environment where the legislative approach or further regulation has little chance of passage. Therefore we have proposed that we assist in the development of a set of "Best Practices" to guide the process of record promotion to Radio, and the commissioners have confirmed their interest.

So A2IM has convened a pan-industry "task force" to flesh out these principles and present them to the FCC and the public for consideration. Input has been sought from labels, Radio programmers and radio promotion companies. Our mission is to present our proposal in the next few weeks.



Is there hope? Sure, there's hope, because Radio needs a fresh approach to survive and prosper, and listeners need some new reasons to hang on, or to come back if they've strayed.

Independents will naturally play an increasing role in any transformation which may occur. Indies provide the vision and spirit to keep playlists interesting, and the time is now for programmers to re-examine recent practices and forge the path back to playing the best music. Nothing short of total commitment will suffice.

Is there hope? Sure, there's hope, because Radio needs a fresh approach to survive and prosper, and listeners need some new reasons to hang on, or to come back if they've strayed. Satellite Radio and webcasting are proving the point every day: provide a richer experience and they will come.

The past is the past and there's no going back - except back to the future. The values that the broadcast industry was built upon - knowing the music, exciting listeners and serving local communities (including reflecting local tastes) - seem as viable today as in 1965.

So here's my message to Radio - please come back, we miss you!

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Don Rose is a self-made entrepreneur whose career in the independent music business spans 30+ years. He co-founded the Ryko Corporation in 1983 and spent sixteen years as Chairman/CEO. Ryko operations included record labels, distribution, music publishing and international offices. The world's first "CD-only" label, Rykodisc originated the Ban The Box initiative in the late '80s and helped establish many of the parameters for CD content and packaging. Ryko reissued catalogue hits from Bowie, Zappa, Hendrix, and Elvis Costello and released albums by Ryko artists Morphine, Bruce Cockburn, Ringo Starr, and Grammy Award-winning albums by Ry Cooder/Ali Farka Toure and Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead.

In 1999, Rose merged Ryko with Palm Pictures Entertainment and became the company's Director of Business Development. Focusing on new media and online initiatives, he developed a groundbreaking Napster association. He also oversaw the company's sizable settlements with MP3.com and MusicNet.

While living in London from 2001 to 2003, Rose served on the International Committee of the Association for Independent Music (AIM). Other career highlights include stints as a music industry consultant and as an expert witness. He has been an artist manager, record retailer and on the Board of Trustees of the Berklee College of Music since 1996.

American Association Of Independent Music

Want to help radio not suck? Call FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein: 202.418.2300

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I Love Radio, Battling The Communications Industrial Complex