Business

Radio Consolidation May Spell Changes for Label Promo Departments

Illustration by George Wylesol

As conglomerates program more stations remotely, promotion executives will have fewer DJs to visit.

Radio promotion executives have always been the titans of T&E, jetting around the country to convince programmers from Miami to Milwaukee to play the new single they're working. "It used to be, 'Can we bring in the artist and put him on a Ferris wheel with the morning show?'" says Skip Bishop, a former Sony promotion executive in Nashville who now owns his own consultancy, Studio2Bee Entertainment. "But it's not about that anymore."

There just aren't as many programmers anymore. The pandemic has supercharged radio consolidation, and iHeartMedia, Entercom and other big radio companies are gradually replacing local personalities with syndicated shows and remote DJs recorded elsewhere. That could mean label promotion departments will focus on fewer programmers, mostly in big cities -- and highly paid top executives like Joe Riccitellli, a longtime radio-promotions exec who just lost his job as RCA Records' co-president, may be no longer crucial to label operations.

Labels "still need promotions people, but when you get to people who make seven figures, you start to question the sustainability of that," says a major-label executive.

The pandemic has also forced promotion executives to do their glad-handing over Zoom rather than in person. "Is there a need for someone in Denver to just cover Denver? No. Someone from the national team could just cover Denver on their own," says Risa Matsuki, vp promotions at indie Beggars Group, which has a small staff for radio. "Labels are going to let people go. It just doesn't seem fiscally relevant; the bottom line sucks for labels now when it comes to radio promotions."

After laying off over 100 programming staffers in November, iHeartMedia said in a statement, "Listeners care about what our personalities are saying, not where they're sitting." And while some of its rivals like Entercom and Townsquare Media say they're committed to a "live and local" approach, they're also sharing on-air talent among different stations. Says executive vp programming Jeff Sottolano: "We've got a lot of talent broadcasting from basements and closets and garages with no perceptible impact on the consumer."

Some at labels believe that broadcast changes are unlikely to change how promotion execs do business, especially post-pandemic. The idea of slashing promotion staff, says a major-label source, is a "very Chicken Little kind of sky-is-falling notion." Adds the source, "Sure, there's a reaction to centralized programming but it's simply to be prepared for it. The promotional department has the biggest T&Es, they stay in the best hotels, eat at the best restaurants while hanging out with rock stars.... So the knives are always out. This is not new."

This source says radio remains nearly as important as always for breaking artists and tracks: "These days, hit songs happen on the radio playlists and the streaming playlists at the same time." But Erik Olesen, head of pop radio promotion and radio strategy at Crush Music, which manages Lorde, Sia, Green Day and others, acknowledges radio is "not first base anymore" with the continuous rise of streaming and social media.

"It's so centralized, you're really dealing with the opinions of one, two, three or four people at a chain," Olesen says. "All of this was going to happen in the last two years anyway, but COVID sped up the process."

At the same time, the pandemic has shown labels and management companies they can save "millions upon millions of dollars by keeping people at home," says Matt Pollack, GM of Monotone, which manages Jack White, Vampire Weekend and others. And while he looks forward to the day when promotion executives can again meet with programmers in person, "we don't need to be flying around," he says. "We don't need to do that the way we did."

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 16, 2021, issue of Billboard.