‘What Was That Last Song?’ : Record Industry, Radio Deejays at Odds Over Song IDs


“When you play it, say it!”

That’s the current rallying cry in the record industry. And if it’s not exactly “Hell no, we won’t go,” the cause it represents has drawn battle lines between the record industry and the radio world.

The issue is “back announcing”--the practice of telling radio listeners what songs and performers they have just heard. With uninterrupted and unannounced sets of music--called sweeps--becoming more common on radio, record companies and retailers have launched an aggressive campaign, including putting “play it/say it” stickers on records sent to stations and petition drives in record stores.

“When you work in a record store and someone comes in and starts humming something and you’re supposed to guess what it is, that’s frustrating,” said Carl Rosenbaum, president of Flip Side Records, which operates 17 retail outlets in the Chicago area. In December and January more than 10,000 signatures were collected in Flip Side stores on petitions calling for more back-announcing of songs. Rosenbaum presented the petitions to the program director of Chicago station WYTZ-FM, which calls itself Z95.


“That’s part of radio’s responsibility,” said Rosenbaum. “If they’re playing the music, they should be proud enough to say it.”

Some radio programmers, though, object to the pressure tactics.

“I don’t think that’s fair, and I’m not sure it’s entirely relevant,” said Steve Rivers, program director of Los Angeles radio station KIIS-FM, often a target of charges that its lengthy “uninterrupted” stretches of music leave the listener uninformed about the songs.

“This campaign got started maybe because the record industry was having trouble selling new music,” Rivers said. “So they pointed the finger at radio: ‘Those gosh darn 10-in-a-row sweeps!’ Well, usually within a sweep most of the songs are hits, and we think it insults the audience if every time we played a Madonna song we said it was Madonna. You have to give the audience more credit than that.”

Rivers also said that his listeners prefer the momentum of the sweeps, which he said would be broken up by song announcements.

But “play it/say it” campaigners say the sweeps are often interrupted by spots touting the uninterrupted music.

“Wouldn’t it be better to say, ‘This is Martika, part of 10 in a row on KXXX,’ than just drop in a music bite saying it’s 10 in a row?” said Kid Leo, who last year became vice president of artist development for Columbia Records after 15 years as a deejay and later program director at Cleveland station WMMS-FM.

Said Mike Schaefer, senior editor of Hitmakers magazine, a San Fernando Valley-based radio trade magazine that has devoted much space recently to the topic: “Some of the top stations, the key players are the ones not playing by the rules. . . . In many instances when they talk it’s about a station promotion and they totally ignore the music.”

The debate officially started a year ago with a Billboard magazine commentary by Don Ienner, then executive vice president and general manager of Arista Records and currently president of Columbia Records. In the piece, Ienner called the lack of song announcing a music industry “virus.”

Since then the issue has snowballed, with the record side claiming radio has lost touch with its listeners and doesn’t respect the music it relies on, while radio counters that the record industry is looking for free advertising, and that if it wants more mentions of its product, it should pay for it.

It’s been the hot topic at recent industry conventions and in the trade magazines, and the Recording Industry Assn. of America and the National Assn. of Record Merchandisers have banded together to declare April “Back-Announcing Month.” During the month, petition drives will be held, and in some instances record buyers will be asked to call stations to demand song announcements.

As fuel for the campaign, the record industry points to a survey conducted last year by the Street Pulse Group, a New Milford, Conn.-based market research firm. The study showed that a large majority of Top 40 radio listeners want radio to provide more identification of songs and more information about new artists.

But many radio programmers argue with the results. “We do that kind of research and to be quite honest, song identification is not quite as high on the priority list of

listeners as other items,” KIIS’s Steve Rivers said. “People want a lot of music, so that’s why we do the sweeps.”

But Mike Shalett, who directed the Street Pulse survey, rejects Rivers’ claims.

“I guess somebody’s not telling the truth, and I know our research does,” he said, citing several radio programmers and consultants who have supported his findings. “Radio is saying ‘We do a good job,’ but our study showed that listeners said they don’t. Radio’s got a misconception that they’re satisfying needs. . . . I challenge any radio programmer who says that in their quantitative research people do not say they want songs announced more.”

Still, no radio programmer surveyed by The Times admitted to doing a less-than-adequate job of announcing titles, though some said that other stations fail in that area. But some programmers are looking for ways to cooperate with the “play it/say it” effort. Brian Kelly, program director of Chicago’s Z95, actually greeted Rosenbaum’s petitions with open arms.

“I’m glad they came to us first,” he said, claiming that his station already did better than most at identifying songs. “It was a painless exchange of some good ideas.”

The result of the meeting was that Kelly agreed to emphasize back-announcing of all new songs for a trial six-month period.

And Garry Wall, program director of San Diego’s KKLQ (Q106), has started an effort to devise innovative ways for record companies, retailers and radio stations to join in aggressively promoting new music.

“We’re each others’ golden goose,” he said. “Without their product, we wouldn’t have a business. And without the exposure we give they wouldn’t have a business.”

Still, Wall suggests that there is only so much radio can do.

“We say our call letters every doggone time we can, and still there are people who don’t even know what station they’re listening to,” he said.

Concurred KIIS’s Rivers: “Radio by the nature of it is a passive pastime. People listen to it and even if they really love the station they’re not going to pay attention to it the way (industry insiders) do. They probably hear the name of songs announced and still can’t remember.”

Still, campaigners believe that public demands will be impossible for radio to ignore.

“I’ll tell you what I think is going to happen,” said Shalett. “Radio stations like to place themselves as being better than the competition. Someone’s going to position themselves as ‘the station that tells you what it plays.’ That will be the hip thing for stations to say.”