Radio Running Scared

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s probe into “pay-for-play” practices between radio chains and record labels has resulted in some unintended consequences.

Instead of opening up radio waves to indie labels and musicians, program directors are actually decreasing, in some cases drastically, the number of new songs added to playlists in 2006.

The Los Angeles Times spoke to several station PDs, most of whom insisted on anonymity, who said they have actually become more cautious in adding new tunes for fear of drawing unwanted attention to themselves while the “payola” investigation continues.

One who was willing to speak on the record was Tom Calococci, program director of L.A.’s KKBT-FM, who told the paper he still pores over new music for playlist adds, but feels pressure to take fewer creative risks.

“No programmer wants to draw attention by choosing songs too far outside the mainstream,” Calococci told the Times. “Spitzer has put a chill on everything.”

Statistics compiled by trade paper Radio & Records show a decline in playlist adds in virtually every format except country. Radio listeners are, in fact, hearing much less new music in the first quarter of 2006 than they were a year ago.

Of the major formats, CHR (contemporary hits radio) stations reported adding 14 percent fewer new songs to their playlists in ’06 than the same period a year ago. Urban stations decreased new adds by 16 percent; Hot AC (adult contemporary) dropped by 17 percent, and the hardest hit format was “active rock” with a 23 percent decline.

Only country stations showed an increase in the amount of new music played, with a 6 percent increase. Perhaps most telling, R&R exec Cyndee Maxwell told Pollstar, was in the number of reporting stations that added no new music at all in Q1 of 2006. Of the 860 stations nationwide that report new adds to the trade magazine, 169 of them fell into that category, an increase of 33 percent over last year’s 114.

And those decreases come even as the number of new album releases has increased, according to the Times.

Maxwell said she agrees that the Spitzer investigation has had a chilling effect on the radio industry. But she also points to a secondary cause that the concert industry is already familiar with.

“There’s also another element that nobody is talking about right now. That is the simple fact that there are so many other places for listeners to divide their attention from radio such as their iPods or other entertainment options,” Maxwell told Pollstar. “Radio needs to play fewer new songs, and more often, in order to reach critical mass.

“[The decrease in playlist adds] is also a natural byproduct of that, though it’s a secondary thing. I would say the Spitzer thing is the number one reason.”

Program directors are quick to blame the situation on Spitzer.

“I don’t want anyone to look at my playlists six months from now and speculate about why I added a particular song when our competition didn’t add it,” one programmer told the paper. “People have been fired for less.”

That sentiment is typical, industry insiders say.

The homogenization of playlists and repetition of play is not a new phenomenon, particularly since consolidation and the emergence of giant chains including Clear Channel, Infinity and Cumulus. But the reluctance of PDs to take a chance on a new record or artist has clearly increased since the Spitzer probe was made public last year.

One thing is certain, radio has become less of a factor in the promotion of emerging artists – a fact that hasn’t been lost on concert promoters and record company A&R reps for whom radio just isn’t much help anymore when it comes to breaking new artists.

Yet, radio is still one of the few “hot” media that can quickly introduce audiences to new music and drive huge album sales – as well as indicate the health of particular genres.

The drop in new adds in the “active rock” category, for instance, dovetails with an ongoing trend of some of the major chains to re-program rock stations to talk, Christian and Spanish language formats.

At first, Spitzer’s payola investigation was welcomed by many independents who thought it might level the playing field when it comes to new music airplay. Instead, they’re starting to worry, according to the Times.

“It’s for sure hard to get our songs played on radio,” Susan Busch, head of radio promotions at Sub Pop Records, told the paper. “The investigations put a scare into programmers. Before they squeezed in our songs. But so few new songs are getting added that we really stick out now. And no one wants to do anything that sticks out.”

– Deborah Speer