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Inside the ‘Evolution’ of Record Label Radio Staffs, as Layoffs Hit Promotions Departments Hard

Inside the ‘Evolution’ of Record Label Radio Staffs, as Layoffs Hit Promotions Departments Hard

Beginning in September 2022, Ron Poore and his Atlantic Records radio promotions team emailed and called alternative-rock program directors for months to convince them to add Paramore‘s new single, “This Is Why,” to playlists. Their efforts paid off: The song hit No. 1 on the Alternative Airplay chart in February 2023. “You work that record for weeks and weeks and weeks, and all of a sudden it starts showing up in the research,” says Poore, then Atlantic’s senior vp of promotion, alternative and rock and a 21-year veteran of breaking radio hits by Death Cab for Cutie, Coldplay, Portugal. The Man and others.

“This Is Why” is an example of a classic record label promo story: an experienced major-label staff working radio connections to achieve chart success. But it didn’t end well for Poore. In February, Atlantic laid off Poore as part of an industry-wide downsizing that hit promo teams especially hard.

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“Five years ago, 10 years ago, it’s radio, radio, radio,” Poore says. “And now it’s the last thing we do at these labels.”

Layoffs at two of the top labels, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group, began in February, affecting dozens of employees, many in traditional media positions such as publicity, marketing and radio. (Sources say similar cuts affected Sony Music Entertainment as well.) The layoffs have had little to do with the companies’ financial health: Universal earned $12 billion in revenue and $1.3 billion in net profit last year, and Warner said it is coming off its best quarter ever. But top executives from both labels announced they were adapting to a long-running industry shift towards new technology. 

In a late February statement announcing layoffs of roughly two dozen staffers, Julie Greenwald, chairman/CEO of Warner-owned Atlantic Music Group, said, “The changes we’re making today are primarily happening in our radio and video teams.” And Lucian Grainge, Universal’s chairman/CEO, told staffers in January, before the latest layoffs, that the label would be “not just expanding geographically and leveraging new technologies” but “further evolve our organizational structure to create efficiencies in other areas of the business.”

From a practical standpoint, according to Diane Monk Harrison, a radio manager at Warner-owned distribution company WEA, who lost her job in mid-March, that meant the industry layoffs have been “disproportionately affecting radio promotion.” The broadcast business is shrinking: The biggest radio company, iHeartMedia, has been downsizing since the pandemic, including a recent wave in the last few weeks. That means fewer programmers exist for major labels to lobby for extra playlist adds. “Radio is still extremely important,” says Skip Bishop, a former longtime promotion executive at Sony and other labels who has been a consultant for more than a decade. “But it’s just an evolution. You don’t need six regionals, three nationals, two vps and an svp [at a label] when 20 to 45 people are making the decisions that 200 people used to make at radio.”

Adds a major-label source: “In the old world, you might have radio-promo people who were earning the same, or more, as the head of A&R. That’s not going to happen in the new world, for obvious reasons. What is happening is the labels are keeping the absolute very best radio people.”

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As listeners have shifted away from old-school radio stations in favor of on-demand streaming, the radio business has declined: According to Nielsen Media Research data, weekly listenership dropped during the pandemic, from 89% of adult Americans in 2019 to 82% in 2022. The medium’s most resilient advertising area is in digital sales, a recent Radio Advertising Bureau and Borrell Associates study shows, and not in AM-FM airplay. “The only portion of radio that’s growing is not dependent on music,” says Gordon Borrell, CEO of Borrell Associates, an analyst group that focuses on media advertising and marketing. “I don’t think the record labels are daft of what has happened to the industry in terms of listeners, and they’re well aware of the aging nature of terrestrial radio programming.”

iHeartMedia has more than $5.2 billion in debt and has been laying off personnel over the last few years, including a wave of reported layoffs in early 2024. (Audacy, another broadcast giant, filed for bankruptcy in January, owing $2 billion in debt.) As the number of radio employees decreases, major label staff who attempt to influence them have made proportionate changes. “It makes sense to shrink your radio promotion when there’s less radio people to deal with,” says Don Cristi, a veteran radio programmer recently laid off as iHeartMedia’s senior vp of programming in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. “I dealt with way more ‘nationals’ in the last few years [from labels] than what used to be called your regional guy.”

And many independent artists are going around both labels and radio entirely, having “already done the heavy lifting” to break on TikTok and other social media, according to an indie R&B and hip-hop music executive. “Nothing will ever go back to the way it was just five years ago,” this person says. “A label may shift from promo field execs to mobile digital execs, just as radio is now relying on its digital real estate to generate additional revenue.”

Still, the radio business has shown resilience: 82% of U.S. listeners is no small number, and a recent Chartmetric study shows radio maintains a powerful ability to break hits. Stations aired 7.4 million songs roughly 102.4 times apiece, for a total of 755 million spins, in 2023, and the top 10 radio songs earned major streaming boosts. And while rock, pop and hip-hop artists have become less reliant on radio in recent years, some genres, including Latin and country, remain attached to radio. “Music companies continue to be very important strategic partners with the entire radio industry and there are no signs that is abating,” says Wendy Goldberg, iHeartMedia’s spokesperson, in a statement. “Labels rely on broadcast radio to break new artists, because in order to introduce new music to the masses, you need radio and its unparalleled reach.”

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At many labels and artist management companies, radio and streaming teams are working in tandem, befitting the hit-breaking relevance of both media. “As for now, they’re both very valuable,” says Bob McLynn of Crush Music, which manages Miley Cyrus, Green Day, Fall Out Boy, Sia and others and employs radio and label veterans on its promo staff. “You could argue [radio] is not what it was 15 years ago. When you got a hit on radio, that was the all-being. Sometimes you used to lead with radio, and now radio comes later.”

Robust radio promotion departments have been expensive for labels to maintain: It costs money to send employees from New York, Los Angeles or Nashville to build relationships with programmers throughout the U.S. Still, these departments are where labels keep “boots on the ground,” as Monk Harrison calls them: employees with an understanding of how fans in Omaha or Detroit discover artists, attend shows and follow local entertainment from concerts to sports. “Relationships are still key and no algorithm can replace that,” says David Linton, a former executive at Capitol, Island and Arista who is a program director with jazz station WCLK in Atlanta. 

Ed Brennan, who was Atlantic’s vp of alternative promotion until he lost his job in late February, plans to use these kinds of relationships to build his own company, White Leather Projects, potentially focusing on artist management, tour marketing and radio promotion. In the meantime, he’s concentrating on more important issues. “The first thing I did when I got the phone call that my position was to be eliminated, I volunteered to chaperone my son’s field trip at school. He’s 8,” Brennan says. “I’m excited about the unknown future.”

Additional reporting by Gail Mitchell.

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