Is Clear Channel selling hit singles?

Insiders suggest that the broadcasting giant gave an obscure singer major airplay to promote its pricey new market-research program.

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Is radio airplay sacred? Senior executives at Clear Channel insist it is. Facing accusations that the radio and concert giant uses its song playlists to reward its friends and punish its enemies, Clear Channel programmers deny they would ever tamper with what goes out over the airwaves in order to make a buck. Record company insiders aren’t so sure, and they point to episodes like the one involving pop/soul singer Eagle-Eye Cherry.

Last fall, when MCA Records was trying to launch a new single from the promising Cherry, the label turned to Clear Channel for help. Thanks to 1996 legislation that radically deregulated the radio industry, Clear Channel, with more than 1,200 radio stations nationwide, has become America’s largest broadcaster. It’s also become the most important and controversial gatekeeper in the music business today. “You cannot have a hit record without Clear Channel,” explains one record company chief.

MCA came calling specifically because Clear Channel had recently unveiled a new market-research program called PD Perceptual. With an unprecedented lineup of radio stations under its control, operating in every conceivable format, Clear Channel was looking for ways to gather information from its stations and sell that data to record companies. Designed to gauge early reaction from its programmers to new singles, the PD Perceptual program would poll its radio stations on behalf of record companies, for a price: $20,000 per song.

To promote PD Perceptual, Clear Channel reportedly offered the major labels a free test drive of the system. MCA promptly submitted Cherry’s “Feels So Right” to find out whether the song was a hit. Cherry, the son of late jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, needed the help. In 1998 he had managed a minor Top-40 hit with “Save the Night.” But the likable singer-songwriter hadn’t reached “TRL” status, where radio programmers would automatically notice (and play) his latest release. Without blanket radio airplay it’s almost impossible to launch a hit single, or sustain a career, in the music business today.

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Even more dauntingly, Cherry’s new single was released during the fourth quarter of 2001, a time of year when superstar artists typically ship new CDs in hopes of riding holiday shopping to platinum status. That meant the small number of open slots radio stations have to add new singles each week would most likely be taken.

Worse yet, Cherry’s album was turning out to be a commercial failure, selling just 1,200 copies each week in November, while platinum-selling acts might move that many units in a single hour. For radio programmers looking for evidence that a new single has momentum, that an artist cannot be ignored, and that fans are clamoring to hear a particular song, sluggish CD sales can doom any release.

Yet despite those difficult odds, during its first week of release more Top-40 stations added “Feels So Right” to their playlists than almost any other single in the country. Cherry scooped up more playlists that week than Janet Jackson, Jay-Z, Linkin Park or Nelly, who all had new singles vying for airplay. And who, combined, sold more than 10 million albums last year.

Which radio network was Cherry’s biggest supporter? Clear Channel. According to an industry source familiar with airplay logs, Clear Channel’s support for Eagle-Eye Cherry dwarfed the airplay that other major radio station group owners, such as Infinity, Entercom, Cumulus or Bonneville, gave the single. None of those station groups seemed impressed by the Cherry song, and all stayed away. Yet nearly half of Clear Channel’s Top-40 stations were spinning the single generously, an average of 10 times each week.

Clear Channel’s early advocacy struck some in the radio business as odd, since the company is not known for championing young, untested acts. More often, the conservative Clear Channel programmers wait for other stations to pick the hits and then add them to their own playlists.

The question being asked was whether Clear Channel was rewarding Cherry because MCA had submitted “Feels So Right” for a tryout of PD Perceptual. After all, with dozens of new singles released each week to radio’s various rock, country and R&B music formats, PD Perceptual program, if successful, could generate millions of dollars in new revenue each year for Clear Channel.

One radio source, who requested anonymity, insists a clear quid pro quo was in play: “They were trying to show labels: If you play ball with us, you get adds [on radio playlists]. Clear Channel appeared to be putting pressure, particularly on their smaller stations, to add a record that was in PD Perceptual.” The source says that Clear Channel programmers told him they were strongly encouraged to play the Cherry single, even though “nobody thought this song was a hit.”

Clear Channel Radio CEO Randy Michaels dismisses the accusation as “insulting and offensive.” He insists that the company only plays songs listeners want to hear, as determined by extensive research and testing. Craig Lambert, head of radio promotion at MCA, could not be reached for comment.

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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