The “Great Radio Debate”

BpG6k4LCYAEOhgeChuck D of Public Enemy fame slammed one of the nations biggest urban radio stations, New York’s Hot 97, for its horrible representation of the hip hop culture (read it here). He goes in on the program director for this and goes into the usual diatribe about how corporations are the new plantations, etc. Hot 97’s program director Ebro and one of their top on air personalities, Rosenberg responded (read it here) by spewing the same old, we play what the streets want dogma. “I assume what he was trying to get at is what a lot of people say as far as blaming Hot 97 and radio in general for the demise of hip-hop culture,” is part of what Rosenberg had to say when talking to billboard a few days ago.

Just the other day I was listening to WGCI 107.5 here in Chicago when they were having a stop the violence conversation, and every time a caller mentioned that radio stations and their DJ’s need to be more involved in cleaning up the airwaves, all of the people who make a living from said station went into the same spiel, “we just play what the streets want to hear”! So the question should be, why does the streets want to here this type of music?

Most of you are probably unfamiliar with this debate, but it’s been raging on for decades now, and shows no sign of abating. The debate I’m speaking of is the “radio just plays whats hot in the streets” debate! You know, the go to phrase articulated by just about every radio DJ on the planet when the public conscious raises questions about what gets played day in and day out! It’s akin to the “what came first, the chicken or the egg” philosophical pondering, but with much less gravitas, therefore no one actually writes about it, until now!

payola-2To start lets take a brief look into early radio. To keep it short, I’ll just highlight a phenomenon that used to be called “Payola”, or “Pay to Play”. For those of you who don’t know what that means, it’s an industry term for that lets you know which radio stations had DJ’s who would accept payment under the tables to break new music. In short, if you pay us, we’ll play your music! It’s illegal and record industry execs claim that they don’t do it anymore, keyword, claim! As all they did was create a 3rd party system, called independent record promotion, to independently “promote” label artist.

In this Wikipedia article it goes into more detail about it, but it’s been around since the inception of the music business itself. As late as 2005 – 2006, Sony BMG, Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group were still going back and forth to court about the issue. They eventually had to pay fines to the tune of $10 million, $5 million and $12 million respectively! Then in 2007 four of the largest radio conglomerates were fined also for receiving payola. In 2014 they all claim that they don’t do it anymore, but seriously, the one thing that I’ve learned is that corporations will find a loophole when they need a loophole, period! But lets just say they don’t anymore, and leave it at that.

I contend that they don’t “have to” anymore, they’ve been able to sway the public opinion when it comes down to music for so long that they have literally programmed, pun intended, what the masses want to listen to anyway, so they don’t need to pay to get plays, listeners are asking for it!

I contend that what the people want was systematically programmed into their thinking via Payola. Let us remember, they just “stopped” doing it in 2007, but by that time the “bad hip hop” that Chuck D and other hip hop activist complain about had already been on repeat 10 times a day for 20 plus years. So radio effectively have two generations that have grown up on that type of music, what would you expect the streets to want to listen to?

They made sure that in the early days of hip hop, the artist that rhymed about street life and culture got major airtime. They kept groups like NWA and artist that rapped like them in the spotlight and pretty shortly thereafter the streets all across America started to change. Most will say that it was by coincidence, that the streets were ripe for the violent explosion that came along with what was dubbed as “Gangsta Rap”!

But living through those times and being a person that was more conscious thinking, I know that there were various other artist with great music that weren’t getting any airplay at all. All the conscious brothers like Common, The Roots, Slum Village, Dialted Peoples, Pharoahe Monch, Talib, Mos Def, etc, had dope ass songs that never got radio play. Why not? The streets knew about these cats, but the radio stations weren’t playing them. While Little Kim, Foxy Brown and Trina was getting all the airplay for women; Bahamadia, Rah Digga, Jean Grae, Lady of Rage and other non-sexualized female rappers were struggling to get on a late night mix.

There has always been a disconnect between whats played on the radio and what hip hop heads think is the real cultural expression, but when looked at closely, and knowing the fact that record execs were, and still probably are paying to get records broke using some “loophole”, it’s not a farfetched accusation to say that the industry engineered the “whats hot in the streets” mantra by paying to get songs that would have otherwise died a horrible death in a crate played continuously throughout the day. Thus creating a whats hot on the streets mind state in the youth.

If you think I’m reaching, ask yourself this, how many times have you found yourself nodding your head and singing the lyrics to a song that you know you don’t like? Then tell me whats hot on the radio is always whats hot in the streets, or does hearing a catchy tune repeatedly make it stick in your brain even when you don’t like it. Now imagine what a 5 year old in the back seat thinks about that catchy little hook and beat!

Lupe Fiasco wrote a song about it, (listen here) and guess what, it didn’t get any radio play, at all, and please don’t say it’s because of the hook and name, they could of made a radio version if they wanted to push that message!