Radio Activity

The Positive Side of Hip Hop

Feb 22, 2006 at 2:06 pm
C. Matthew Hamby

Radio Activity
"I ain't gotta love it even if they play it a lot."

— dead prez

WIZF-FM Program Director Phillip David March barely winced when I told him that I hadn't listened to his station for nearly 15 years. In fact, the man behind the music at the Radio One-owned urban/mainstream station simply smiled at my admission that I'd taken potshots at The Wiz's programming in past columns.

Short of telling March how to do his job, I wanted to gain an understanding of the politics of radio and why urban-formatted stations seem unable (or unwilling) to break the pattern of playing unimaginative, Crunk-heavy Rap music. I anticipated a series of canned responses to the same criticism that all program directors have heard before.

Instead, I received candid, straightforward answers about, well, why his station plays unimaginative, Crunk-heavy Rap music.

March is no stranger to radio. Within a few years after his first on-air gigs in Louisville and St. Louis, March took the helm as program director for an AM Gospel/R&B oldies station in Columbus, Ga., and successfully grew the station's demographic and market share.

In 1999, March began programming The Wiz (then owned by Blue Chip Broadcasting) and, after creative differences about how to build WIZF's morning show, left after only seven months. Now he's back to settle the score with a blueprint to embrace a more mature audience and deliver the type of music that most people want to hear.

Of course, there will always be cynics like me. Quoting Public Enemy about commercial radio's tendency to shun music containing positive or politically-inspired messages, I asked March if he knew of any orchestrated efforts to keep such music off the air.

"Yes, I do," he said. "In fact, a perfect example is the Youngbloodz' single 'Presidential.' When I received an advance copy of it, it was called 'George Bush.' By the time it was released, the record label had changed the name."

While the Youngbloodz are far from the most politically inspiring act in the industry, consider the group's audience. Perhaps the concept of "dumbing down" is more fact than fantasy.

More importantly, March cites research as the primary reason that certain songs receive heavy rotation. In fact, the word comes up so often that I quickly determine the numbers game drives the industry more so than the actual music.

So let's say I show up at WIZF's studio with a professionally mastered CD, complete with graphics, liner notes and production credits. How simple is it for me to get my joint on the air?

"In order for a record to get played on WIZF, it has to go through (Music Director) Big Greg, to me, then to Radio One's urban music consultant and then to the VP of programming," March said. "I can definitely say, 'We need to support this guy.' But I'd better have a good reason. I need to be able to tell a story for the artist. Now, record labels are looking for self-contained artists that have already generated (independent) record sales. All they do is stamp their label on it and re-release it."

March explained that current programming is also a product of public demand. The discussion inevitably turns to the strangely popular D4L single "Laffy Taffy," which we both agreed should never have seen the light of day.

"I told the Atlantic Records rep that I have a moral obligation not to play that song," he explained. "It sounds terrible, like something you or I could have done on a Casio keyboard!"

The radio-edit version of the song — for the few fortunate who've yet to hear it — consists of sexually suggestive lyrics about various types of candy over an off-key synthesizer loop. March would eventually lose this battle as the single became one of the station's most heavily-requested songs in recent memory.

I'm compelled to paraphrase Mos Def once again: When we're sick, Hip Hop is sick.

"Laffy Taffy" notwithstanding, March is clear to point out that the strength of WIZF exists in his ability to create personalities who reach out to the community.

"The game plan is to be a community-connected radio station," he said. "The big thing for me is (to) create on-air talent that people want to listen to. To me, without that, (it) would be the death of urban radio."

As if on cue, March took a call from a local high-school teacher who needed a clean version of a popular Rap song for a student's dance rehearsal. March assured her that he'd have one of his mix show DJs return her call.

"They wouldn't do that sort of thing up the dial," he said, taking a quick jab at KISS (107.1 FM), The Wiz's primary competitor for the 18 to 34 urban demographic.

I appreciate March's community-minded attitude. Now if he can just do something about all that crunked-out music, I might even give my iPod a rest. ©

5 5 on theledge

The "How Did This Get on the Radio?" Edition

· "My Baby Daddy" — B Rock and the Bizz

Lyrics like, "Who that is? That's just my baby daddy" make this single the "Laffy Taffy" of the 1990s.

· "Tip Drill" — Nelly

"I said now come on girl, you know what we came here for, 'cause you a tip drill ..." Wow, this cat must really hate women.

· "Wait (The Whisper Song)" — The Ying Tang Twins

I guess as long as they're whispering kids shouldn't be able to hear it, right?

· "Stay Fly" — Three 6 Mafia

I was surprised to see a reference to "kush" in the lyrics, but somehow I don't think guest-rapper Eightball is referring to ancient African history.

· Anything by Lil' Kim.