By, Lee Hubbard
Amoeba Records on Haight Street is full of shoppers as Martin Luther, an
up and coming San Francisco-based artist, gives a live performance off
his new debut album, The Calling.
In a performance that lasts 45 minutes, Martin Luther mixes the old with
the new to produce a sound that is a cross between Donny Hathaway and
Sly Stone, with a bit of a soulful twist. It's a sound that's been
rocking various venues, such as the Berkeley Community Theater, where
Martin Luther opened for the Grammy-winning group The Roots, at the
"Bringing Mumia Home" benefit fundraiser for Mumia Abu-Jamal,
and at Bimbo's, where he opened for multi-platinum recording artist Eric
Ledisi, a Bay Area artist who was one of the "lucky ones" to
get some air time on KMEL.
Photo ©2000 Erin Katelgy, Le Sun Music Productions.
Photo © 2000 Pat Mazzera
Up and coming independent musician Martin Luther.
Although his music can be found at Tower Records, Amoeba Records, and
some small record stores in the San Francisco Bay Area, if you are
trying to catch Martin Luther's sound on one of the many commercial
R&B stations in the Bay Area, you won't hear it. That's because his
music, like that of other promising local independent artists, is locked
out of the commercial radio marketplace because of the politics of
"It's no longer art for art's sake, or music for the sake of
music," says Martin Luther, in frustration. "Music
organizations and their affiliates have paid for airplay and
To understand the dilemma that local independent artists like Martin
Luther face, you have to understand the radio industry. As a result of
radio deregulation--starting with the Reagan era and climaxing with the
Telecommunications Act of 1996 under President Bill Clinton--radio
stations and formats have consolidated, leaving few stations with the
autonomy to program independently.
Clear Channel Communications is one of the big beneficiaries of
deregulation. As a result of a recent merger between Clear Channel
Communications and AMFM, Clear Channel now owns over 800 radio stations
in the United States. In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, Clear Channel
owns seven commercial stations, making it the 800-pound gorilla in the
Gone are the days when a radio station like the old KDIA was operated
and controlled by local businesspeople and local talent. This change to
nationally based ownership has caused a disconnect between radio
stations and the communities they serve.
At present, there are only two owners of hip hop/R&B/soul stations
in the San Francisco Bay Area market: New York-based Inner City Radio,
which owns KBLX (an old school soul and R&B station), and Clear
Channel Communications, which owns KMEL, KYLD 94.9 (R&B and hip
hop), and KISQ (R&B and soul).
"Commercial radio has lost its ties with the community," says
Sonny D, rap editor of the Gavin Report, which monitors the music
industry. "It's not like it used to be, where commercial stations
had a direct tie-in and worked with the community."
Martin Luther's sound could very well be heard on most urban radio
stations. (Although his music, more than likely, would be delegated to
KMEL or KYLD.) But station managers, intent on ratings, prefer to play
the known to the unknown and find it next to impossible to play small
According to Chuy Varela, music director at KCSM, "In
non-commercial radio, a person can knock on a door and personally give
the program director a recording and they may consider it for play. This
does not happen in commercial radio."
This disconnect between radio and the community is compounded by the
push from major record labels to get their acts on the air at all cost.
While program directors usually play what's "happening" with
the fans to create higher Arbitron ratings, record companies will do
almost anything to get their products played on the air in order to
generate sales for their labels.
One of the old ways by which record labels got air time was through
payola. This is the practice of paying DJs to play certain records on
the air, so the records can get into rotation and ultimately, increase
their sales. The practice first came to light in 1960, when a top DJ,
Alan Freed, was indicted for accepting $2,500 for radio play.
Subsequently, other top DJs, including Tom Clay (WJBK Detroit), Murray
"The K" Kaufman (WINS New York), Stan Richards (WILD Boston),
and even Dick Clark of American Bandstand, were also accused of
accepting payola. After Freed's trial, an anti-payola statute was passed
by Congress, which made payola a misdemeanor and brought the fine up to
$10,000. Since then, many radio stations and record company executives
have been brought to trial under charges of accepting payola, but it's
been very difficult to prove that money was accepted to play specific
Though illegal, payola, both direct and indirect, still goes on,
according to Wendy Day, director of the Rap Coalition, a national
nonprofit organization set up to protect and support rap artists.
"Music gets played by radio stations based on what stations think
their listeners will like and how much record companies pay them,"
says Day. Radio station managers claim that their choice of songs is
based on research--which can range from people's reaction to a new song
at a club, to how it's charting on various music lists, to how it's
selling at retail stores--and if a song "researches well" they
put it into rotation. But, Day adds, "One time I asked a label
executive what does 'research well' mean, and he said it's synonymous
for paying well. This made me chuckle, but I don't know how accurate it
While radio stations say they use research to break new artists and
hits, much of the research they use is very subjective, and this opens
stations up to corruption from various sources within the record
industry. One way this can occur is in the station giveaway. "When
radio stations start giving away thousands of dollars, is any of that
coming through any of the record labels?" wonders Varela. This
isn't necessarily illegal, he points out, but it does have the effect of
forcing some stations to give artists on major labels more play than
Another way corruption seeps into the play list of radio stations is
when companies promise the stations exclusive big time acts in exchange
for breaking their newer artists on the airwaves. Says Sean Kennedy,
head of Ill Trendz, an advertising and marketing company for record
labels: "Everybody wants to see Whitney Houston in concert. Some
labels will offer her up for free at a concert that a radio station may
promote." Stations are fully aware that one of the conditions for
the appearance by a big name star is the spotlighting of other acts on
the same label, claims Kennedy. A local DJ who wants to remain
anonymous, says that this is what labels pay out to get their acts
heard, and radio stations willingly accept it for the sake of high
ratings. "Record companies and radio stations are businesses,"
the DJ says. "They are able to create synergies where both of them
The unethical means by which record companies get their acts on the air
and radio stations' acceptance of them take away from the opportunities
for local independent artists to be heard on the air. And while these
artists rarely get played on commercial radio, it is not an
impossibility. One-time independent artists like MC Hammer, Too Short,
and E-40 started getting air time on Bay Area commercial radio after
selling hundreds of thousands of their records on the streets. These
artists forced a buzz on the streets that made it unbearable for
commercial stations to ignore. Ledisi, a singer who mixes the soul of
Aretha Franklin with the jazz of Ella Fitzgerald, was also able to make
a breakthrough on commercial radio by creating a buzz on the local music
scene. "I remember the first time I heard my music on the
radio," says Ledisi. "I barely listen to the radio, but I was
running around in downtown San Francisco and I turned the radio on and I
heard myself. When I first heard it, I was in shock. I was like, 'Whoa!
that's me on the radio.' Now I understand why artists push to get on the
Ledisi has been well known in the Bay Area for the past few years,
performing at various jazz clubs and at the Monterey Jazz Festival,
where she left over 1,200 people on their feet cheering last year. But
the exposure she received from being on commercial radio helped her
career immensely and got her a new fan base. She is now at a point where
big time success may be just around the corner.
"People love her sound," says Rose Mary Hart, programming
manager for KMEL. "We (at KMEL) believe in her, and we are
spreading (the) word as much as we can."
Ledisi is lucky, as major radio stations rarely get behind an
independent artist. "In the major arena, you will more than likely
not be recognized without major backing," says Martin Luther.
"This hurts independents, especially artists who are true to their
"Being an independent artist is very hard, because you don't have
the backing that you need," Ledisi agrees. "People are not
sure of you because you're not on a major label. But then they hear you
(and) the whole thing changes." If there is hope for independent
artists, it rests with non-commercial radio stations like KPFA in
Berkeley, KPOO in San Francisco, and college stations. In Varela's
opinion, "Non-commercial radio is used as a test market for new
acts." By giving air-time to local independent artists,
non-commercial stations can expose them to a new base of fans and act as
testing grounds for commercial stations.
Dave "Davey D" Cook, the public affairs director at KMEL and a
radio personality with KPFA, thinks local independent artists need to
develop a diversification strategy. "Most independent artists put
all of their eggs in one basket when dealing with commercial
radio," he says. "They won't take their resources and build up
viable alternatives like college radio and community-based radio."
"If radio knows that they may lose an audience, they will do what
is necessary to keep them, which may be playing local artists,"
says Cook. "But the way it is now, at the end of the day, the
consumer becomes a fan of the local station and not a fan of the
Consolidation in broadcast ownership and record production and
distribution has worsened an already exclusive situation. While the
average fan may not know why certain songs are on the radio, independent
artists are all too familiar with the twin barriers of major labels and
chain radio. Individual artists may need diversification strategies to
move their own careers, but it's equally clear that society as a whole
needs a diversification strategy when it comes to ownership in the
recording and broadcast industries.
Lee Hubbard is a staff writer for netnoir.com and a contributor to
numerous local and national publications.