Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Los Angeles Radio

I travel around the U.S. quite a bit, and one thing that strikes me, no matter where I go, is how much better the radio stations are elsewhere, compared to Los Angeles. There is a dearth of decent stations in the Los Angeles area that play new rock and alternative music.

In the 80’s, there were three rock music powerhouse stations in Los Angeles: KNAC, KMET and KLOS. These stations were in close competition, and you could count on them bringing in new music to get as many listeners as possible. KNAC and KMET sadly bit the dust, to become Mexican Polka and smooth jazz stations, respectively. KLOS has soldiered on, but their playlist stopped adding new songs right around 1990.

KROQ has always been a source of alternative music, but their playlist has become stale. You can hear the same Greenday or Sublime song 2 or 3 times a day, which boggles the mind when you consider how much other music is out there to listen to.

It is not unusual in other cities to turn on the radio and hear Tool, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, or songs from the latest Flaming Lips album.

Why is this? I am not sure, but in researching this, I am pretty sure it has to do with money. Is that so surprising?

Well, the situation is not quite payola, which I always thought of as a DJ or program director accepting money to play a song on the air, but it seems pretty darned close.

It appears that there a couple of things at work here. The first would be the system of independent radio promotion, and the second would be a huge communications company that might actually be pushing the independent radio promotion folks out of the picture. Neither one of these situations is good for radio listeners that want to hear quality new music.

The independent radio promoters’ rise to power came about in the early 1980’s. They are the ones who are contracted by record companies to get radio stations to play songs. Apparently, the idea was to only have one window person (the promoter) for the radio stations to deal with, instead of representatives from every record company. The independent promoters are very expensive, and are usually paid for as “touring expenses” by the record labels, so the cost goes against whatever royalties the artist would have received. I guess this makes sense, because how are people going to buy a CD if they have never heard any of the songs? This is one of the biggest reasons why a CD costs $16.

But, how expensive is it for a record label to get a song on the radio? Expensive enough so that only major labels can afford it.

The only information I could find on this was from an article published by The article said that it costs record companies $800 per song in a mid-size market and $1000 (or more) in larger markets. The price can escalate to $5000 per song at the largest stations in major markets. Remember that this is per station, and most radio stations add between 150 and 200 songs to their playlists each year.

So, for the average rock single, record companies pay approximately $250,000 to get access to airplay on rock radio. It is even worse for top-40 radio, where it can rise to over $1 million dollars in promotional costs.

Surprisingly enough, these costs have actually begun to go down recently, thanks to behemoths like Clear Channel Communications. It appears that they are trying to put the independent promoters out of business. Due to the sad state of the industry (and the economy), the record companies do not have as much money to spread around, and Clear Channel is creating price wars with the independent promoters to capture as many of these dollars as possible.

More often than not, when independent promoter’s contracts with stations come up for renewal, the radio stations are no longer instantly renewing them but instead are taking bids from competing promoters. Clear Channel owns A LOT of radio stations, and these independent contracts represent a strong source of income for them.

This may be the worst of all situations, because we end up with one company controlling the majority of the airwaves and the concert promotions in major markets. Oh, and wait. They also happen to run a record company of their own.

The only hope we have is that the independent promoters AND Clear Channel are both starting to get the squeeze from our government. Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) reintroduced a bill to Congress that could hopefully close loopholes in the Federal Communications Commission's payola laws. The same loopholes that the promoters have been using for the last 30 years. Mr. Feingold feels that the current system has killed the quality of music we hear on the radio, and is decidedly un-American.

So, the huge expenses required to get songs on the radio could explain a bit why radio is so stale, and why the same tired songs are in high rotation. The only thing I cannot figure out is why is it so much worse in Los Angeles? It would seem that since this is where so much of the music is created, we should have it better than the rest of the country, not worse. Certainly, there are fewer English-language stations here than in other markets, so there are less stations to choose from to start with. If you add in the 8 stations that Clear Channel owns in our market, it makes the situation pretty bleak…

1 comment:

  1. Salon has an older article on pay-for-play here, and one by Courtney Love here. I have no idea why LA radio would be worse than anything else--I still much prefer it to the DC or Baltimore airwaves--but I think the 1996 Telecommunications Act goes at least part of the way toward explaining it. I'd hypothesize that Clear Channel's goal isn't profit, but market share, because the latter is what leads to homogeneity, which in turn leads to both profit and support for a corporatist/neocon agenda. If that's true, then it seems like LA is a good place to start, because if you can control the airwaves of sprawling SoCal, the rest of the country will fall in line.