An Open Letter From Michelle S
Program Director of KMEL Radio

Common Sense did more on his 'Resurrection' album than predict the demise of Hip Hop with the track 'I Used To Love H.E.R., he also prophesied the fate of radio, possibly without even realizing it. And what's ironic , is that both are falling off to commercialism.

Common wrote in the liner notes of that record,
'The Revolution will not be on the radio'.

He's right

In 1977, radio has become so corporate and multi-conglomerate, that the artistic, endeavor is often last on the agenda of ANY major radio station. Instead, to uphold the massive billing expectations of each radio property, Ratings are the pursuit. Over art, over knowledge, over music.

Because radio has now entered Wall Street and has become profitable there, Radio stations are forced to keep up with the furious business pace. Translation: Quick results. Instant performance. Bigger and bigger shares.

That puts programmers -who often don't know better-in the toughest position of having to pander to the lowest common denominators to achieve the highest possible results. This very line of thinking is what created the phenomenon of the radio 'Reaction record', [often tiresome parodies and almost never a record of any artistic substance] and even more damaging- created the advent of 'research'.

Research. A blasphemous word to any true music person. But research is really not to blame. It's simply, the most misused tool in the history of radio.

As a radio Program Director I will tell you- I do depend upon research. I do use it. When you are broadcasting to over a million people at any given minute, you want to do what you can to move them and this is good information. But just like Designer clothes, or high performance cars- the price goes up with the Quality--and not all radio stations can afford good research from a reputable [and expensive] research company like KMEL can. That hurts radio and it kills the music. Research is also misused by radio programmers who do not know how to interpret the feedback. Doesn't matter how dope the information is if you read it wrong. I.E. Programmers often take it literally, and without balances like: gut instinct. This is the equivalent of reading the Bible and taking that literally. There is truth to it, yes, but you need to be savvy enough to read between the lines. Because most programmers don't, Research becomes oppressive. Just like religion.

I do not think it is a bad goal to become a number-one rated radio station. College radio's frequent criticism of commercial radio is on the basis of them being 'The Establishment'. What they fail to realize is that many people in commercial radio are simply graduates of college radio who want to take their music instincts and ideas to a higher level and get paid for it.

It's not a programmer's lack of passion that holds radio back-- it's the pressures of ratings. Commercial radio will never be as free form as community radio and it wasn't set up to be that way so get over it.. Radio was originally established as a free entertainment source, that is at it's core. A Business. Where radio got lost, I feel, is when it left the Music Business' and evolved into the Big Business of Wall Street profit margins. Another problem is the fact that there is a very small pool of true music people IN radio, because the money is on the record side. Several quality music people have been lured out of radio in the last decade- I was one of them. I left radio once because the pay was so low and the opportunity as a female, almost remote. All the female executives were on the record side of the business. I came BACK to radio however, because I was put into an environment where there was a lot of artistic freedom and total quality control. I won't front about corporate pressures-- there's tons of it. But I love music.

KMEL was a radio station that I literally grew up admiring. Back in the day, the station was owned by a small 'mom and pop' broadcasting company and the goal was to be a musical force in the San Francisco market. Representing the People. Alas 'The People's Station was born. Within months of it's inception, it was #1. Despite the fact that it was a mass-appeal radio station, The Programming agenda of KMEL was to always take risks with new music. The people in charge were committed to keeping it real, above all else. New ideas, different music, and the groundbreaking approaches to radio were encouraged. This was the first station outside of KDAY in LA to feature club style mixes on the air. It was the first commercial station to actively rotate hip hop music on the air [paving the way for the birth of 'crossover radio'] and it was also one of the first commercial radio stations to embrace talent wholeheartedly-- the previous domain of college and community radio. But KMEL did not do that to disrespect. Trust me, I watched from the outside- this shit was done out of LOVE for hip hop culture. And not just love from the Programming department.. but from every single person that worked there, from the air staff, to the mixers, to the board ops and interns.. Realness..

As Program Director of KMEL today, I can tell you that the goal is always to maintain this sort of integrity and passion for the music. Anything else I feel, would be absolutely disrespectful to it's heritage. But I can also tell you as Program Director of KMEL in 1997- where today the station is owned by a massive media company which owns not only its main competitor in the market, but 100 other radio properties across the country- balancing the commitment to musical integrity with the pressures of big business ratings demands is increasingly difficult. And under performance in this day in age is not an option.

Does that mean give in and compromise KMEL to the lowest common denominator? Absolutely not. There is a way to do both- and I feel radio should do BOTH. We may have to rotate the same tired #1 pop hits in a two hour rotation, but we'll balance that with making sure when Nuyorican Soul or Maxwell comes out, we don't turn our back on the music. We play fifty tracks by Puffy like all commercial radio does, but we don't forget phat up and comers like Common or the Whoriders who deserve the same love and respect. We might run generic slogans like 'Jammin' the most music', but we make an effort to balance that with a slogan like 'Promoting Consciousness in Hip Hop cuz it's all about Being Positive'. Radio can be a balance act between Art and Profit.

The bottom line as a radio Program Director is: You are in control of your own destiny. Any radio station is a reflection of it's Program Director- They control every aspect. Too many people are selling out. I don't believe any PD who tells me ' I can't do that'. There's two things wrong with that sentence: #1) You don't want to or #2) you don't have the talent to. Either scenario means you should get the fuck out of radio.. because you are killing it. Too many people are pandering to the lowest common denominator and forgetting their responsibility to represent the music in addition to getting great ratings. I think a few stations in some major-ass markets, need to seriously switch up.

I did not write this to diss every other programmer in radio. I simply want to WAKE UP this generation because the FCC deregulation of radio seemed to clip the wings of every PD out there. WAKE UP. You control your radio station. As the big companies continue to gobble up radio, stations get more and more bland as these scared Programmers try to hang on to their jobs.. And real music is dying and being replaced with shit like 'Men In Black' by Will Smith.. [Sorry Fresh Prince, but that record was WACK!!] There is a way to do both. Get your #1 ratings- that's what I'm trying to do. That's what everybody in radio wants to do: WIN.

But don't you dare lose sight of why you got into the business, because if you have reached the level of PD or MD in any major market you are in such a powerful position to seriously impact music. Your decisions matter -- so you should make the right ones, not easy ones. No one who truly understands the music business, actually EXPECTS commercial radio to morph into free-form college radio. That's unrealistic. But it can break new music.. It can single handily set the tone in it's market.. It can be used to educates very young and impressionable audience.. It can influence Pop Culture. Radio is the most powerful entertainment medium left, and programmers have a responsibility to do something meaningful and creative. Radio has that kind of power. Why do you think Wall Street is investing in it?


Let us know what you think of this letter...
All mail will be forwarded to Michelle S

Go To Hip Hop Article's Directory

Go To Davey D Home Page