Photo by Alan Levine via Flickr.

Arts & Entertainment

Confessions of a Dallas Radio Promotions Assistant

Why local hip-hop stations, too scared to innovate, will lose young listeners.

When I first heard and then broke the news of a certain North Texas radio station’s format change in November 2014, I could barely contain my excitement. The fact that this station was one of two frequencies testing a classic hip-hop genre reconfiguration had me belly-down on the floor, tuning my receiver dial back and forth like the days before the internet, before television. I’d broken out an old notepad, drawn a skewed line down the middle of a page and began to timestamp and record each station’s selection, on and on for hours, with the mission of determining the better, more true-to-form of the two.

By the time I’d made my judgment, I’d written two articles—one announcing the switch and the other, my case for the best of the two. For a freelance journalist, especially one whose true talent is his speech (writing comes as a more labor-intensive collateral), writing one story is enough work to dust your hands off and kick your feet up. To write two, and commit both to print? That’s the type of obsession-bordering-on-devotion one only has for something they’d much rather be doing instead.

So I stopped writing.

In supplying the article with enough facts to support my tizzied opinions and speculations, I’d contacted what I determined was the better of the two radio stations for comment, and—one thing leading to another—was ultimately offered a job. No, not as an on-air personality, but in the promotions department, the sort of first-stop, entry-level initiation phase of a radio career.

Now, there are plenty of success stories that have come out of promotions departments. Yes, my primary objectives outlined on Day One were driving that obnoxious station-stamped vehicle to and from contracted promotions, being one of the many shared social media handlers, and tending hand-and-foot to the REAL STARS, the on-air jocks.

But people like Rocsi Diaz, of 106 & Park, Entertainment Tonight, and HLN acclaim, began in the promotions department. Scottie Beam created such a formidable online platform as a promotions assistant at Hot97 in New York that she’s now known as a digital personality, and as a result, has 23,000 followers on Twitter and a booking email. And although I’d been explicitly warned that my position was not, in any shape or form, a launching pad to being the city’s newest on-air personality—“especially in a Top 5 market like Dallas,” a statement I tried not to roll my eyes at—I was also encouraged go outside my job description and capitalize upon the talents that got me hired in the first place: my experience in journalism and familiarity with the local rap scene.

Pushing the culture forward through thoughtful programming, online innovation, and integration of the local market aren’t concerns for Dallas radio.

I was prepared to earn my stripes, to be a scrub long enough to prove my true value. And within the confines of my position, I did just that. I connected with the personalities and the folks in corporate. I added value to the social media, driving web traffic to the radio. I even introduced the upper rungs to first-viral, then-commercial hits like Amine’s “Caroline,” “Bad & Boujee” by Migos, as well as pop culture phenoms like Netflix’s The Get Down and Luke Cage. I constructed a scouting report of local talent that gave artists like Bobby Sessions, Rikki Blu and Sam Lao an alley-oop onto the airwaves.

I quickly came to realize that being the first to play “Caroline,” or engaging with users and listeners, weren’t viewed as priorities by my department heads. Pushing the culture forward through thoughtful programming, online innovation, and integration of the local market aren’t concerns for Dallas radio.

Call me naive, call me a dreamer, but when I accepted my $11.50 an hour offer, I envisioned ushering in a new era of North Texas hip-hop, one that utilized my passions and abilities like I was told my position would. Even my most selfish ambitions, being on-air myself, were thwarted by fear and tradition. Fear from a programming director and his league of immediate subordinates that their 30-plus years of on-air experience would be erased overnight by some geek off the streets with no experience. Tradition that is corrupt and economically driven, doling out air time and rotation to the highest bidder, and the extortionists known fondly as record labels.

Now, I understand that bills gotta be paid, the lights gotta stay on, and there are tried and tested methods to ensure that this old, battle-worn leviathan named radio stays afloat. I also realize that my year in promotions gives me no authority to dictate the policies that have helped shape and generate success for many radio stations. But as a millennial and as someone who has heard first-hand the incessant complaints from 18 to 35-year olds (the market to whom urban radio primarily seeks to appease), my vantage allows me to see the ignorance in a station’s media coverage of a rap show lasting only until our minimal contractual obligation to the promoter is met—leaving just as the doors open at 8 p.m., but broadcasting live from a damn-near Hebron, TX strip club until 3 a.m. every weekend.

I can see the futility in rotating the same handful of Top 40 songs and 45 minutes worth of commercials in an hour’s worth of programming. I understand why young people would rather avoid the dial altogether when literally every personality is over 35, typically out of touch, behind the ever-changing tide, and saying a whole lot of nothing in the little space that they’re allotted to (I don’t know) actually BE personalities between Drake songs and features and Metro PCS advertisements.

So after the year it took to accept the heartbreaking reality, the horrendous true identity of what I once thought was my dreamgirl, I stopped showing up. I abandoned my posts as the designated driver for weekend club appearances, strip club promotions and pre-partying concerts, and here I am—back writing.

And if for no other reason, it’s because the vacuum in which radio exists blinds its authorities to the reality that every day more and more people hop into their cars and immediately self-curate their listening experience via aux cords, bluetooths and streaming services. I couldn’t see myself answering to people who are scared to innovate, afraid of losing the spotlight. If it weren’t for coming standard in every car on the road, radio would be obsolete, its slow and grueling death following the path of print, accelerated by Soundcloud and Spotify. In a time when our all of our senses are constantly being stimulated by physical and digital media, radio engages only one—and with it, radio chooses to roll over for record labels and SELL SELL SELL.

So, I don’t know, listening to the opinions and suggestions of a fresh and inexperienced 26-year old freelance journalist might not be the worst idea. It might just help you from losing listeners to that other hip-hop station. But what do I know?

Rodney Blu is the firstborn son of Blu From The Grove. He’s often unknowingly, yet unapologetically offensive and can be found championing Black arts and culture on twitter @RodneyBlu. Spiritually, he is a wolf.


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