Airplay ain't easy

For local bands looking to hear themselves on commercial radio, the buzz must come first.

click to enlarge SHARK EYES: 97X Program Director Michael "Shark" Sharkey, whose station airs Tampa area bands on its Sunday night Local Motion program. - PHIL BARDI
SHARK EYES: 97X Program Director Michael "Shark" Sharkey, whose station airs Tampa area bands on its Sunday night Local Motion program.

It's the most joyous scene in That Thing You Do!, director Tom Hanks' paean to pre-psychedelic rock 'n' roll: Erie, PA beat combo The Wonders hear their single played on the local radio station for the first time, sending the bandmates and friends into a spontaneous, drive-time screaming frenzy. A band with a song on the radio, the scene says, is on its way to the top.

The film is pure nostalgia, but that scene is dated by more than mid-'60s cars and clothes. The corporate centralization of radio has all but ruled out local music — or any show of spontaneity, for that matter — from commercial radio.

Tampa's listener-supported radio station, WMNF 88.5-FM, is the primary outlet for Bay area performers to enjoy the jolt of hearing themselves broadcast.

For those who fit the formats, though, there are spots to be had on a handful of the area's commercial stations.

Hip hop, with its strong regional alliances, is the radio format most open to playing local artists on the air, occasionally even allowing them to break into the regular rotation.

Even then, though, radio play is less the start of something big than the culmination of plenty of groundwork.

"Radio is the last step in the process," says Christine Peters, music director at WiLD 94.1 FM.

For rappers, it's a matter of building a buzz on the streets and in the clubs. Only if the record is a hit with club crowds will it have a chance of getting airplay, Peters says.

For rock bands, the particulars are different, but the template is the same: Radio is the icing on a painstakingly prepared cake.

"A lot of bands will say, 'I'm only going to play once a month, I don't want to wear out our welcome.' I say, 'Play at the opening of an envelope,'" advises Michael "Shark" Sharkey, program director at alternative rock station 97X (WSUN 97.1 FM).

"When you get out and play, not only do you expose your music to new people but you get better at your craft," says Sharkey, whose station airs Tampa area bands on its Sunday night Local Motion program.

An informal poll of local musicians on Facebook brings a chorus of jeers for right-of-the-dial local radio.

"Radio knows there's a scene?" jokes one.

"The 'local' has gone out of commercial radio," laments another.

Others recall a bygone era, roughly 15 to 20 years ago, when WYNF-95.7 FM DJs like Russ Albums, Charlie Logan and Scottie Phillips offered on-air support for local bands such as Dolores Telescope, Stranger and the Bobby Friss Band.

"There WAS creativity and creative license back in the day," Albums says in response to the Facebook post.

"Charlie, Scott and I took a few liberties AND had a program director [Carey Curelop] who knew and understood," he continues. "We could give the local bands a shot and feature them at times."

The corporate takeover of the late '90s, led by Clear Channel, resulted in the straitjacketing of commercial radio stations, with playlists displaying all the regional flavor of a McDonald's menu.

Cox Media Group, which owns 97X, has a slightly looser grip, Sharkey says.

"A lot of other companies program from a central location in Atlanta or New York, whereas Cox Media Group's philosophy is that the local people make the best decisions for their community," Sharkey says.

As far as airplay goes, that amounts to the Local Motion program, presented by Jon "Husky Jon" La France, Sundays at 10 p.m.

"Jon is very connected with the scene, goes to a lot of shows and gets a lot of great recommendations," Sharkey says. "He's really our source."

The station's other means of spotlighting local talent is to give bands the chance to open for a bill of national acts at festival shows such as Next Big Thing. Ten area acts vied for the slot at this year's event, which takes place Dec. 3 at the 1-800-Ask-Gary Amphitheatre. The winner, determined by online voting, was Khora, a four-piece from Largo that names Incubus and the Red Hot Chili Peppers as influences.

At WiLD 94.1, Peters hears from loads of local acts every week. Then again, she asks for it.

One of the FAQs on the station's website asks directly, "I'm a local artist, and I want WiLD 94.1 to play my song. What do I do?" The answer links to Peters' email address.

Contacting Peters is simple. Getting airplay, not so much.

"It can take up to a year," Peters says, for a local artist to get a record on, if it happens at all.

"It's not really up to us what goes on," Peters says. A song "has got to be in the streets and in the clubs."

It does happen, though. Peters cites local hits such as "Buss It Wide Open" by Lil Kee, Famous Kid Brick's "I'm On It" and Javon Black's "Shawty Tear It Up" as examples of records that caught fire in the clubs and eventually made it into the 94.1 rotation.

Rival hip hop station The Beat-95.7 FM has played some of the same artists. DJ Sandman mixes live on The Beat Friday and Saturday nights and frequently includes local artists.

"The local music played on the air comes from the clubs," says Sandman, one of the cornerstones of Tampa's hip hop scene (see profile on p. 18).

Lil Kee and Javon Black "had giant records in the clubs that the whole community, the people who go to clubs and parties, they all supported that music," he says.

And for every Lil Kee there are countless others hoping to follow the same path.

"People send demos, they send me mp3s by email, on Twitter and Facebook, almost on a daily basis," he says. "It's really like overload sometimes."

Peters hear from plenty of hopefuls via email, and responds with an attachment explaining the realities of radio. Short version: Work hard and don't get your hopes up.

"Our job isn't to manage an artist or get an artist signed," Peters says. "Our job is to play the hits."

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