How did radio stations decide what songs to play? 

If some on-air person told you they were playing their own choices, they weren’t exactly telling the truth.  Especially in a major market. Each station had program people for their formats.  In the old “Top 40” world of stations, the choices of songs to be played were your identity.  These programming people determined which songs were the best for their target audience. 

How did they find out which songs and future hits were available?  Record companies to the rescue!  

Giving you a CliffsNotes version of the business side of airtime for the stars, I’ll attempt to explain.  Any singer, singers, and all musicians who were priorities of the record company would be presented to a radio station for airplay.  Previous big sellers established entertainers, and the latest trends demanded by the public would be the “acts” promoted.

Labels had promotional teams all over the country to work on their product.  LA and New York were national headquarters for most of the major labels, and those people called the shots. Promotion people were some of the coolest people I ever met.  What a great gig!  Wining and dining radio people with fancy intimate lunches and dinners with famous entertainers. I have had, and have lost lifelong friends I met on the record side of the business.  

Motown Records representative: Wayne Fogel, left, and singer Lionel Richie, center share a laugh with Kelly McCoy

Being one of the programming people I mentioned earlier allowed me the pleasure of meeting these characters.  Having worked in different radio formats, I’ve met stars from different genres.

I have to say the smooth jazz folks are the most laid back.  How can they not be?  Look at the music they performed. One of my longtime associates who became a lifelong friend worked with the top artists in the world. Her name was Deborah Lewow.  She passed away from the most horrific disease on earth: ALS.  I could write an article on her to tell part of her story and some of the people she worked with in their management, and promotion teams.  People such as  Steely Dan, The Eagles, and then some performers you’ve ever heard of.  When she found her true niche working with smooth jazz artists, it was musical heaven for her and her talent. The world-class smooth jazz artists I met via Deborah are still making new music and touring as I write this.

If you don’t know the name Bob James or his group, Fourplay, look ’em up.  Your jaw will l drop. Great people.  Their individual talents and accomplishments speak for themselves.  Blend them together as a group, and there are none finer.  I’ve spent a considerable amount of “real” time with them on different occasions. 

Lionel Richie could be the nicest superstar I ever met.  Fresh from winning a Grammy with Diana Ross, he stopped by WQXI one day to hang out a while. I had him on the air for at least a half hour, pretty much unheard of with stars of the era.  They had to get to the next radio station, TV station, or record store for an appearance. 

Our station, known as “Quixie,” had a special place in his heart. In the days the Commodores were just getting started, the group would drive to Atlanta from Tuskegee, Alabama, to hear the station to find out the popular songs they should “cover” with their appearances. He stayed for another 30 minutes wandering around the station and freaking out people at their desks.  Can you imagine looking up to see Lionel Richie asking where the restroom is?  

Quite often we’d have dinner at 103 West, Panos and Paul, Bones, or another way-above-average dining establishment.  In past “From the Crates” columns, I’ve mentioned the concerts, backstage parties, and show-biz lifestyle the radio and record business used to provide.  I’m guessing it still happens today. 

What a way to make a living.

Kelly McCoy is a veteran broadcaster who worked for more than four decades at radio stations in the metro Atlanta market.