Let's see if they'll play this

Randy Newman, Paul McCartney and Counting Crows were stars at this year's Gavin convention in Boulder, Colo. That's OK for a conference, but bad news for fans of good radio.

Published August 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Pleasant music, pleasant town. There's a reason trade magazine Gavin conducts its adult album alternative (Triple A) radio station summit in Boulder every year. The idyllic, peaceful and almost entirely white community nestled into the front range of the Rockies personifies the very flavor this struggling format tries to capture. "Familiar" was the term bandied about most frequently and enthusiastically at the conference last weekend -- fittingly, since the top two spots on Gavin's current Triple A chart belong to Santana and the Pretenders.

Close to 500 radio and music industry executives gathered for four days to talk strategy, swap secrets and listen to new music from 23 live acts and countless recorded cuts. The turnout was decidedly grown-up -- most were in their 30s, 40s and 50s, like their audience -- and about two-to-one male. The atmosphere was as casual as the music, with successful program directors in shorts and Birkenstocks eagerly advising the upstarts. All the really successful Triple A (or Triple A-leaning) stations were represented: Chicago's WXRT, KFOG in San Francisco, Cities 97 from Minneapolis and format pioneer KBCO in Boulder.

The biggest buzz belonged to blues rocker Shannon Curfman, who drew an ecstatic response from a packed house at the Fox Theatre, opening for Melissa Etheridge and Big Head Todd and the Monsters. "She will be this year's breakout, without a doubt," said Gavin's Kent Zimmerman, summit organizer. "It was the biggest opening act since Counting Crows [in 1993]. Counting Crows played their first gig across the California line here; that's what put [Triple A] on the map." The California band returned Wednesday to preview their October release "This Desert Life," headlining the opening-night show.

The hottest topic not quite embraced during the daytime panel discussions was the looming impact of the Internet. Zimmerman and a smattering of attendees tried to get their peers to take notice of the threat, but the majority of attendees still see the Web as a revenue stream. "We have one-minute separation between [commercials for] the dot-coms," gushed Chris Mays, general manager at Seattle's KMTT. "We try not to play them back to back, we have so many." But are they just selling away their future? "It won't be long before kids consider radio passi," said Mike Henry, managing partner of Paragon Research. "Why would I listen to what they want me to listen to?"

Although Triple A skews toward an over-30 demographic, Henry said the format is likely to be one of the first Internet casualties because its audience mirrors the white, affluent early-adopter profile of the Web. "Radio has been threatened by other technologies for a long time, and they've never really been hurt by it," he said. "That causes them to be myopic."

But Gavin participants really come for the music, and the darling of the summit was clearly Randy Newman, who played a short set to an awed room of 300 industry insiders back at the hotel on the banks of Boulder Creek. "I wanted to see how many people I could hurt," he joked about his acclaimed new album "Bad Love." "They don't like me anyway." He actually brought some of the hardened audience to the brink of tears with "I Miss You," a new love song written for his first wife from 20 years ago. "Another song written for the wrong person at the wrong time," he said.

The rate-the-record session closing out the conference produced the first real controversy of the conference, as well as the greatest insight into the identity politics ruling contemporary American radio. A dozen upcoming releases were rated, based on two-minute snippets, spun without artist-identification. The industry audience voted on hand-held electronic devices, rating each cut on a four-point scale from "No Chance" to "Chart Topping/Heavy Rotation." The audience panned a clunky rockabilly retread and then howled when it was identified as a Paul McCartney song. Even though it earned the second-worst rating of the entire session, several panelists admitted that they'd be spinning it on the air very soon.

"I was going to rate it a two [light rotation], but when I realized it was McCartney, I gave it a [maximum] four," said Jason Parker, program director at Seattle's KMTT. "You've got to put it on." That position provoked a flurry of debate. Which new artists would be forced off to accommodate the hoarse has-been? "If the song sucks, the song sucks," said one disgusted audience member. "It's a familiar voice; you want to give listeners something familiar," another panelist responded.

A few minutes later the room gave a resounding thumbs up to "Main Street," a derivative but catchy "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" knockoff. The song, the second-highest-rated cut of the session, was by Chris Gaines -- who is actually Garth Brooks behind a pseudonym and rock 'n' roll persona. "Is this a problem?" a panelist asked. "If Garth Brooks had a really good song, would you play Garth Brooks?" The room was again divided. "It does make me nervous," Parker admitted. "We're going to have to tell people this is Garth Brooks. How is our audience going to respond to us playing Garth Brooks?" The answer? Don't expect to hear Brooks on your local Triple A station anytime soon.

Perhaps more revealing was the reaction of some of the labels to the prospect of their top artists being rated without their good names attached, on the strength or weakness of their songs alone. "I'm afraid this might be the last [rating session]," Zimmerman announced upon its conclusion. He cited growing resistance from the major labels -- several refused to furnish unreleased material, or forbade its inclusion. A handful of label execs huddled in the hallway after the session, reaffirming their position. Most scattered at the sign of a reporter, but Ray Gmeiner, Virgin's VP of promotions, was happy to explain. "We were kind of gun-shy about what happened last year," he said. "We gave them [British band] Gomez and they panned it. [This year] they asked us for the new Bowie record -- you don't just give up the new Bowie. We said no."

By Dave Cullen

Dave Cullen is a Denver writer working on a memoir, "In a Boy's Dream."

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