Forever On Hold: When Bad Phone Messages Happen to Good Radio Promo Reps

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Record-label promotion reps spend dozens of hours every week calling radio programmers to talk up their records, but those calls don’t always go exactly as planned. In fact, they sometimes go comically awry, especially when the reps are trying to leave compelling messages.

Many veteran record promoters can attest to this, including The Talent Associates CEO John Ettinger, who admits, “I once had a music director make a couple CDs of my voicemails. Hilarious.”

In May, 1608 Promotions’ Suzanne Durham faced an unexpected encounter with some wildlife in the midst of leaving a voicemail for WCYQ Knoxville, Tenn., music director Opie Joe Creason.

“As I started to leave the message a skunk walked into my garage, and chaos ensued,” she says, resulting in what she calls “probably the craziest voice message of my career, and that’s saying something ... People who know me would be laughing, but I’ve not met this guy yet. Hopefully his PD will let him know I’m not crazy.”

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Sometimes the programmers’ rules about when and how to leave messages can trip up record reps like former Stoney Creek Northeast regional Penny Mitchell, now the evening personality/programming assistant at Westwood One’s Mainstream Country format. Mitchell recalls how she left a “spectacular”  message for Sue Wilson at WQMX Akron, Ohio. 

“She states on her greeting, ‘Please leave your phone number first,’ ” says Mitchell. “Even though I fully comprehend English, my mouth kicked in with other information. I got a couple sentences into it, remembered about the phone number and said, ‘Oh, shit,’ and tried to erase the message. I pressed every blessed number on the keypad and never hit the correct one to erase the message. I finally just gave up and disconnected. Of course I had identified myself first thing, so I didn’t even have the hope that she wouldn’t know who it was. After the ‘Oh shit,’ there was about 30 seconds of various boops and beeps and keys clicking and me finally muttering, ‘Dammit,’ before hanging up. It was not one of my finer moments.” Fortunately, says Mitchell, “She was super nice about it. Thank God for the Sue Wilsons of the world.”

During a PD or music director’s weekly call times, record promoters often get placed on hold waiting to speak with them. This once presented a problem for Jennifer Shaffer, now director of national promotion at Wheelhouse Records. When Tom Jordan was PD at KBUL Reno, Nev., he and music director Chuck Reeves only took music calls during a specific time frame, and if the caller didn’t at least get put on hold during that window, they were out of luck that week.

“I was working the West Coast for Atlantic Records at the time and was the last one to get put on hold that day for music calls,” recounts Shaffer. “I have no idea who they were talking to in front of me, but it was taking forever. While I was sitting there on hold, I realized that I really needed to use the restroom. So I left the call on speakerphone and ran down the hall to the ladies room. When I got back to my office, the hold music had stopped, so I knew they had picked up and, when I didn’t respond, they just hung up.

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“I must have really needed an add that week because I called back and left Tom this voicemail message: ‘Tom, that’s not fair! I was on hold forever, and I had to pee. You hung up on me when I was in the bathroom. You have to call me back.’ Well, I never got a call back, but the next time I was in Reno, I heard my voice on the air: ‘Tom! I had to pee!’ And then Tom’s voice came on and said, ‘Why does this girl leave me a message every time she has to pee?’ Apparently, I became a regular [bit] on his show. And he would introduce me to people as ‘the girl that always has to pee’ every time I came to town.”

Mistakes can also happen in text form. MCA Nashville’s Miranda McDonald has what she calls a “horrifying” story about that from the week of the Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas. One of her artists was playing a show for a local radio station, and although the show was acoustic, she sent a group text to the artist’s band members inviting them to come watch since they were in town for the awards. One of the members was named Dave, but instead of texting him, she accidentally sent it to a radio programmer with the same first name.

“Anyone who knows me knows I have very ‘colorful’ language,” says McDonald. “When I’m texting a group of band members I tend to really unleash the verbal beast inside me. In my attempt to be humorous, I sent a text that would make my mother slap me.”

A label colleague who also got the text called, laughing, to ask, “Who was the person who left the conversation?,” so McDonald checked the thread. It was KKIX Fayetteville, Ark.’s Dave Ashcraft instead of Dave Lapsley, the guitarist for Kip Moore. “I was mortified. That’s saying a lot for me,” says McDonald. “Thankfully, Dave [Ashcraft] is an absolute angel, has been witness to my sailor’s mouth before and wasn’t offended by my use of ‘hookers and Quaaludes’ — one of the few tame things I said in the text — in the same sentence. He found it amusing, but knew that I had copied him by mistake, so he left the conversation. Bless him.”

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In the very early days of car-mounted mobile phones more than two decades ago, Bill Heltemes, who’s now with Cold River Records, was driving through a roadway work zone while chatting on speaker with the music director of the former WZZQ Rockford, Ill., when a police officer pulled him over. He intended to end the call before the cop got to his window, but the music director persuaded him to let her listen in, with the promise she would keep quiet.

Heltemes managed to convince the suspicious officer that he was unaware it was a work zone. But just as the officer was handing him a reduced ticket reflecting only a speeding violation, the music director piped up and said, “Officer, he knew it was a work zone. He’s just trying to kiss your butt,” recalls Heltemes. “She was doing it to screw with me, [so] I disconnected her.”

Fortunately, the officer had never seen a car phone before and was more concerned about discovering where the female voice was coming from than he was about what it had said. Heltemes got away with only the speeding ticket — probably after having to assure the officer there wasn’t a woman in his trunk. 

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.


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