U.S. Radio Hangs Up On Madonna

Madonna is in the midst of a sold-out North American trek that may end up being the top-grossing tour ever by a female artist. But this on-the-road success is not carrying over to American radio airwa

Madonna is in the midst of a sold-out North American trek that may end up being the top-grossing tour ever by a female artist. But this on-the-road success is not carrying over to American radio airwaves. In the United States, the three singles from Madonna's latest Warner Bros. album, "Confessions on a Dance Floor," have not been embraced by mainstream top 40 radio.

"Hung Up" got middling airplay, "Sorry" was barely played, and "Get Together" has been all but ignored by pop stations. Naturally, this state of affairs has left executives at her Warner Bros. label -- and more than a few fans -- wondering, what gives?

More than 3,300 fans have signed an appeal at petitiononline.com. The "End the Madonna on U.S. Radio Boycott" petition is addressed to Clear Channel Communications CEO Mark P. Mays. Message boards at Entertainment Weekly and VH1, among others, are rife with everything from support for Madonna to conspiracy theories about why she can't crack the radio dial.

Warner Bros. was aware that the songs on "Confessions" could present challenges at mainstream top 40 radio, acknowledges Tom Biery, senior VP of promotions at Warner Bros. "Top 40 radio is so hip-hop-driven," he says. "We were coming in with a global pop star who made a dance record."

Guy Zapoleon, president of radio consulting firm Zapoleon Media Strategies, calls it an "interesting dilemma for the woman who certainly held the 'Queen of Pop' title for almost 15 years." Madonna's ability to redefine herself is well-documented, and Zapoleon says that this has helped her keep a "leading edge" to the new group of pop music fans that comes along every three to five years.

But this time, Madonna may have turned left while the pop climate was turning right. Other pop chameleons such as Nelly Furtado and Mariah Carey reinvented themselves with recent rhythmic/hip-hop-leaning singles. Madonna opted instead to return to her dance-pop roots.

According to Dom Theodore, regional VP of programming for Clear Channel and PD of top 40 WKQI Detroit, today's programmers consider each Madonna song on a case-by-case basis to determine if it fits mainstream top 40, adult top 40 or both. Or neither.

For Theodore, the sound of "Confessions on a Dance Floor" skews more retro-adult top 40 than mainstream top 40, while recent club tracks like Rihanna's "SOS" have "more hip-hop credibility." The Rihanna track may reference an early-'80s dance hit (Soft Cell's "Tainted Love") but Theodore believes it does not have the same "retro '70s feel" as the Madonna tracks.

Madonna has had no such airplay problems internationally. Since its release last November, "Confessions on a Dance Floor" has topped the charts in 29 countries and sold more than 8 million copies worldwide, according to Warner Bros. For the week ending July 15, the album's third single, "Get Together," had a radio audience of fewer than 1 million listeners in the United States (aggregate, based on market size and station share). Conversely, in the United Kingdom, where all three singles have been A-listed by BBC Radio 1, the single had 38.4 million listeners.

Except for dance radio outlets like KNGY San Francisco, KNRJ Phoenix and KNHC Seattle, Madonna is missing from the terrestrial radio landscape in the United States. John Peake, PD at KNGY, believes that mainstream top 40 radio programmers have completely missed the boat on this project. "When 'Hung Up' didn't get instant callout, the stations gave up on it," he says. "If they had given it more time, the callout would've come home."

"Confessions" has been healthy at retail: It has moved 1.5 million copies, already double that of its predecessor, 2003's "American Life," which has sold 666,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan. File-sharing stats from BigChampagne and support from MTV's "TRL" are also solid. But, Biery says, "Radio still looks at callout research."

As Warner Bros. gears up for the release of the album's fourth single, "Jump," Biery remains optimistic, especially since the song was heard in TV and radio spots for the film "The Devil Wears Prada." The label will take a different strategy with this single, Biery says. "We'll begin with AC and hot AC formats," he notes. "Our goal is to have a true hit record with callout and then bring it back to the mainstream top 40 world."