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L.A. TURN-ON IS A TOP 40 TURNOFF : POWER 106 Top Local Radio Station, but Dispute Over Trade Publications' Hit List Is Proving a 'Black' and 'White' Issue

January 08, 1987|DENNIS McDOUGAL | Times Staff Writer

The No. 1 radio station in Los Angeles has no impact on America's major Top 40 pop-music charts because the records it plays are neither "black" nor "white."

Billboard, Radio & Records and other trade publications that poll hundreds of stations each week to determine the nation's most popular records don't even consult KPWR-FM (105.9), despite the fact that POWER 106--as it calls itself--is the most listened-to station in Los Angeles.

According to the latest Arbitron Ratings Service survey released this week, more than 1.4 million people listen to KPWR each week.

"They pigeonhole us," KPWR program director Jeff Wyatt said. "We don't fit their categories so we don't report."

The rift between KPWR and the trade publications is the latest flare-up in a longtime debate in the pop-music industry over branding music as "black" or "white," and it raises anew the question of how accurate pop-music charts are.

Both Wyatt and KPWR General Manager Phil Newmark refuse to contribute KPWR's weekly listing of its most frequently played records to either Billboard or Radio & Records because both publications would use it in compiling their specialized "black" music charts but not their more broadly based Top 40 listings.

According to executives interviewed by The Times at both Billboard and Radio & Records, KPWR has an "urban/contemporary" or rhythm-and-blues format, not a "contemporary hit radio" or Top 40 format.

To put it more bluntly, KPWR is seen by the creators of America's pop-music charts as playing black music for black listeners and not simply pop music for pop-music listeners.

"They don't want to report to us because the way the newspaper is broken down, basically, would put them in the black urban category and they don't want to be seen that way," Radio & Records publisher Dwight Case told The Times. "They say they're contemporary hit radio and I'm telling you that they aren't."

"No, they don't report to us," Billboard associate publisher Tom Noonan said, referring to two other highly rated stations in New York (WQHT) and Miami (WHQT) that have a similar hybrid format of Top 40 and "black" music. "Those three stations are 'black urban.' That's our definition. These stations would not play a Huey Lewis or a Bruce Hornsby. We don't deny their power or impact or influence, but they don't fit our categories."

Because music categories in the recording industry have literally grown up over the past half century along black and white racial lines, radio music formats and pop-music charts have grown up the same way, Noonan said.

Until KPWR and a handful of similar "music mix" stations like those in New York and Miami recently gained large listening audiences, the status quo had never been challenged.

"They're very simplistic if they say we only play black music for black people," KPWR's Wyatt said. "We're playing Robert Palmer. We're playing Huey Lewis and the News. We're Top 40 radio that doesn't play hard-edged rock. I think you have to have a sensitivity to that."

Executives at both Billboard and Radio & Records concede that the KPWR format is a mix of both "black" and "white" music as the trade publications traditionally have defined it. But they contend that when they actually listen to KPWR, the music sounds more "black" than traditional Top 40.

In Los Angeles, more people listened to KPWR during Arbitron's 12-week autumn rating period than KIIS-FM (102.7) (No. 2 in the latest ratings), KROQ-FM (106.7) (tied at No. 7 with KBIG FM (104.3)) or any of the other mass-music taste makers in Los Angeles.

Yet Billboard and Radio & Records continue to weigh their pop music charts according to the weekly list of the most popular records played on KIIS, not KPWR.

While acknowledging that the categorizing has some impact on the credibility of the pop-music charts, Noonan contended that Billboard is less affected than Radio & Records.

The Billboard Top 100 and its other weekly charts, including its trademarked "Hot Black Singles" chart, depend on weekly statistics from several sources: air play of records at popular radio stations, reports of requested tunes at disco clubs, record sales at retail stores and record distribution reports from wholesalers, known in the recording industry as "rack jobbers."

Radio & Records, which compiles its charts based solely on air play reports from the nation's most popular radio stations, would be more likely to have inaccurate rankings on its charts, Noonan contended.

Case disagreed, saying his tabloid was founded a decade ago on the philosophy that radio air play is the truest measure of music popularity. Record sales--particularly 45 rpm singles--have declined in recent years as a genuine benchmark of the most popular records in the country, he said.

The rise of stations like KPWR may be yet another measure of major changes in how the charts should be compiled, Case said.

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