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Doubts on Diva's Airplay Numbers

Radio commercials for a Mariah Carey song fooled computers that tote up stations' spins.

January 18, 2003|Jeff Leeds | Times Staff Writer

Mariah Carey's new single, "Through the Rain," has stirred up a squall in the radio world with suggestions that the pop singer's record label tried to revive her career by inflating airplay figures.

Island Def Jam Music Group bought radio spots containing 53 seconds of the song, which fooled the computers that monitor and measure airplay, or "spins," for the recording industry. As a result, the ballad seemed to be building momentum in markets across the country when in fact it was losing steam.

An album's success can rise or fall on such numbers. If a song appears to be gaining airplay at some stations, others may jump on the bandwagon, adding it to their broadcasts or increasing its play. And that often translates into more sales for the label.

The Carey advertisements -- which aired last week on at least six small-market radio stations -- made it appear that the song from the singer's album "Charmbracelet" had picked up a healthy 163 more airings than during the previous week.

Monitoring firm Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems, whose computers are programmed to recognize snippets of every major single released by record companies, discovered during a routine check that the record had not gained at all. In fact, when Def Jam's ads were removed from the equation, the song had dropped by seven spins from a week earlier.

Def Jam executives said they did not attempt to scam BDS or distort airplay charts, which appear in trade publications and are dissected by radio companies and record labels. Def Jam said it bought the ads simply to get listeners into record stores.

"This was all about trying to connect to the consumer and sell albums," said Ken Lane, Def Jam's senior vice president of promotion.

Island Def Jam, a New York-based division of Vivendi Universal's music operation, has been under immense pressure to turn Carey's album into a hit. Universal signed Carey to an estimated $20-million, three- album contract last year. The deal was struck four months after Carey was dropped by another label after the dismal performance of her last album, "Glitter," and the reported emotional problems she was suffering.

Universal executives publicly predicted that the label would deliver a Cinderella-like comeback story. So far, however, the results are mixed. "Charmbracelet," Carey's first Island Def Jam album, has sold an estimated 804,000 copies in the U.S. since it hit stores Dec. 3 -- a solid showing but by no means a smash. That's why keeping "Through the Rain" on the airwaves is crucial for Def Jam.

Although Nielsen BDS representatives would not comment on whether Carey's label had tried to "game" the system, they said the firm has methods for uncovering errors.

"We have safeguards in place so that we can discern the difference between commercials and full airplay," said Mark Tindle, West Coast general manager of BDS. "Anyone trying to manipulate our service gets caught in the end."

Radio programmers said the monitoring service had found earlier instances of labels appearing to manipulate airplay numbers by buying ads in small markets where rates are cheaper and rivals are unlikely to notice the spike in reported airplays. Sometimes, the ads are packaged to run in the middle of the night.

Data obtained by The Times and interviews with radio executives show that Island Def Jam purchased its 60-second spots almost exclusively in small markets such as Green Bay, Wis.; Tulsa, Okla.; and Little Rock, Ark. Six stations in those markets accounted for about 70% of Carey's misreported airplay, executives estimate.

The ad, as heard on one Oklahoma station, opens with the announcement that "Mariah Carey is back" and then plays 53 seconds of "Through the Rain," prompting BDS computers to log the commercial as a bona-fide "spin."

At Oklahoma City pop station KJYO-FM, computers initially showed that Carey's song was played more than 50 times last week. Programmers at the station said they played it only 27 times.

"They're trying to raise the spins," said Jeff Blackburn, music director for the station, which has run the spots for several weeks. "It's misleading people."

Other radio programmers said that they too had suspicions about the Carey commercial.

"If you hear a spot that's 45 seconds of one song, it's for the purpose of picking up a spin detection," said Tod Tucker, operations manager at Tulsa pop station KHTT-FM.

Tucker said he played Carey's song just one time last week, even though sources said BDS initially had put the number at 29 spins.

Despite his skepticism, Tucker said labels may buy such ads to make a song more "familiar" to listeners so that it scores higher in telephone polls conducted by radio researchers. Def Jam, however, has purchased spots on at least one station that doesn't conduct such phone research, Little Rock's KLAL-FM.

Tucker said his station had been airing the ad since early December, raising the possibility that earlier reports of Carey's airplay were inflated and not revised, as was done with last week's numbers. Executives at BDS say they are reviewing the earlier data.

Lane, the Def Jam promotion chief, said his staff did not realize that the advertising campaign might have been boosting Carey's airplay for the last several weeks. He said he learned of the issue only when he received a call from a BDS employee Monday.

Lane said that he, like other label executives, needs accurate information to develop marketing strategies and would not intentionally undermine the system.

"If BDS is inaccurate," he said, "then we're all doomed."

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