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Hip-hop Treasure Hunt

Clear Channel's Rob Roberts and David Ross play matchmaker for Madison Avenue and the coveted hip-hop audience
Steve Satterwhite

Like any burgeoning hip-hop mogul, David Ross knows how to turn on the bluster. "You want to know my plans for Miami?" he chuckles to Kulchur. "We're going to kick everybody's ass! Is that clear enough for you?"

Idle boast or not, the music industry is paying heed. As Clear Channel Communications regional vice president for South Florida, Ross directed the New Year's Day format change of the Miramar-based WMIB-FM (103.5) -- just one of the national chain's 1244 radio stations and the latest to be transformed into an exclusively hip-hop/R&B outlet known as the Beat. The result is a three-way competition for listeners (and the attendant advertising dollars) with the similarly formatted WEDR-FM (99.1) and WPOW-FM (96.5). It's a ratings battle that rap music's chief tastemakers clearly want to be in on.

Though it's only lunchtime, Ross and Clear Channel regional vice president of programming Rob Roberts have already flown from South Florida to Manhattan and barnstormed through a string of high-powered meetings in the offices of hip-hop's leading record labels. Island Def Jam's Kevin Liles and Lyor Cohen, Murder Inc.'s Irv Gotti, and Bad Boy Entertainment's P. Diddy are all looking for airplay for their artists on WMIB. Let the schmoozing begin!

"It's a two-way street," Roberts explains as he and Ross huddle in front of a speakerphone up in New York, fresh from a tête-à-tête with Irv Gotti. "If an artist like Ja Rule wears a 'Beat' [WMIB] shirt in his next video, that's very important. It lends authenticity to the Beat brand. Obviously we're going to take immediate advantage of our strongly grown relationships with the record industry to give the 'Good Housekeeping' stamp of approval to the Beat. With artists backing this property, it gives us instant credibility."

Such moves leave WPOW's program director, Kid Curry, unfazed. Though his station is hardly a mom-and-pop outfit (WPOW's parent company Beasley Broadcast Group owns 41 stations nationwide; WEDR's Cox Radio owns 79), Curry relishes a David-and-Goliath comparison. "It all comes down to my decision as to what the hits are, versus their decision," he says. And he's confident he has a better feel for Miami's tastes than Clear Channel. Indeed his tweaking of WPOW's on-air sound -- de-emphasizing dance and freestyle songs in favor of harder-edged hip-hop -- recently put the station within a fraction of besting WEDR for the number-one ratings spot. "Trust in knowing that if I add the new Killer Mike record this week, [WMIB] will add it next week," Curry continues. "They don't scare me. When I see a giant, I say, 'Where can I kick him in the knees?'"

"He'd better have six legs then," retorts David Ross after Kulchur repeats Curry's boast. "He's a flea going up against a Super Bowl champ." But Rob Roberts quickly jumps in with a more magnanimous view: "Fresh competition is good for everybody -- it brings a new energy into the market; everybody's ratings go up initially. It's like when a pretty girl walks in the room: All us guys stand up a little taller and jut our chins out. And that's what radio stations all over Miami are doing right now -- making sure our bases are covered, our morning shows are solid, asking ourselves: 'Are we playing the hits?'"

Not everyone is so sanguine about this hit-making process, though. To its critics Clear Channel is a voracious beast that uses its formidable national clout to crush its rivals, pressure recording artists and their labels for further profits, and homogenize the airwaves. Last year industry heavyweight Britney Spears accused Clear Channel of extortion, claiming that after her managers refused to book her concert tour through Clear Channel's own promotion division, both her records and tour advertisements were banished to the overnight hours on the chain's network of radio stations.

Just three weeks ago Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) introduced legislation that would cap further expansion by Clear Channel, as well as order the Justice Department to investigate claims such as Spears's.

Also under attack by Feingold was what he called "the current shakedown system," wherein independent promoters often receive six-figure fees from record labels to help place new songs on station playlists. Payola -- cash payments to DJs for airplay -- may have been outlawed in 1960, but he opined little had changed since then: "If you don't have the money to play in the system, you are shut out." His bill's goal, Feingold declared, was to "roll back the power of these companies that are squeezing the life and vitality out of the radio and concert industry."

Don't take that tack with Ross. At the very mention of the word payola, his tone turns icy. "I'm not even going to go there," he bristles. "Our airplay is not for sale."

Kulchur gamely presses on, citing the chummy relationship he and Roberts have with Murder Inc.'s Irv Gotti. After all, Gotti sent his label's hottest star, Ja Rule, to Miami this past December just to perform at the "Y-100 Jingle Ball" concert thrown by Clear Channel's top 40 station here, WHYI-FM (100.7). Might there not have been some horse trading involved? I'll send you Ja Rule, you play Murder Inc.'s next up-and-coming act?

"There isn't a day in the world that I'm going to play a record to get a show," Ross snaps back incredulously. "Y-100 is a station that produces eleven to twelve million dollars in annual operating profit. You think I'd dare risk a radio station like that to play one record?"

Moreover, adds Roberts, payola isn't just illegal, it's bad for business. Playing songs that aren't popular, simply because you received an up-front fee, is going to cause listeners to tune out. Instead the playlists of both WMIB and Y-100 -- in fact those of every single Clear Channel station -- are meticulously assembled via "call out" research. Banks of telephone pollsters canvass the country, playing eight-second "hooks" from prospective hits. Songs that test well are added to a station's on-air rotation. And songs that bomb? Many record labels drop those artists even before releasing their music to the general public. There's simply too much money at stake to leave anything to chance.

So it's no coincidence that you're currently hearing a veritable deluge of mid-Nineties Tupac Shakur songs on WMIB, all prefaced with jingles heralding an "old school" classic. "There are a half-dozen songs by Tupac that we put on that were never played in this market," Roberts explains, "but they came back as some of our highest-testing records in our call-out research. Instead of just pandering, our station is a true reflection of its listeners."

Still, isn't giving listeners exactly what they already love the very definition of pandering? And if a 1995 Tupac cut is now an old-school slice of ancient history, what does that say about rap from the Eighties, which Kulchur came of age listening to?

Ross jumps back in with a hearty laugh. He's been programming top 40 radio stations for nearly three decades now, watching the turbulent emergence and subsequent mainstreaming of disco, punk, New Wave, heavy metal, and now rap. "You feel old?" he quips. "Just wait until you're 52!"


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