Nate Simpson was wise to the game. He knew that his song, "I Believe N U," needed radio play to be a hit, and he knew that you didn't get radio play if you didn't pay.
Simpson had already recorded the song in his made-for-ballads baritone, backed by symphonic instrumentation and a chorus of local kids. Producer Bernie Grundman, who's worked with industry giants ranging from Michael Jackson to Dr. Dre, mastered the final version, and his name lent the song industry buzz. Simpson even had a distribution deal to get the single into stores.
"The dominoes were all there," he says. "All we needed was for Radio One to come and touch them."
The nation's largest urban music chain, Radio One owns 107.9-FM WENZ, Cleveland's hip-hop and R&B powerhouse. The corporation's founder, Cathy Hughes, has long boasted that her mission is to give black people jobs and showcase black artists. Radio One, she likes to say, stands for "empowerment."
Which was fine by Simpson. The near-East Side native had been on the radio since the mid-'90s, when he released his R&B debut. He believed there was untapped talent in Cleveland, and he wanted his music to benefit charities.
In 2000, he produced a song called "Christmas Is" with the help of nine promising but fairly unknown local artists. Profits were to go to the Cleveland Clinic Children's Foundation. "I figured that since Radio One is always talking about community projects and neighborhood development, this project was a no-brainer for them," he says.
Simpson gave WENZ the CD. It never aired.
He couldn't afford to make the same mistake with "I Believe N U." He knew that if Radio One gave spins to his song in Cleveland, it might get picked up by the chain's 66 stations across the country. "Not a snowball effect," says Simpson. "A blizzard."
So, in April of last year, Simpson met with Radio One Cleveland General Manager Todd Burden and other station representatives. The two sides executed a contract, according to which 107.9 would broadcast live from nightclubs where Simpson worked as a promoter.
But Simpson says they also reached another, less formal agreement: He claims he slid Burden a stack of cash -- "Several thousand dollars." In return, Burden agreed to make sure "I Believe N U" got air time, Simpson asserts.
It never happened.
"I was supposed to get my song played -- that's why I greased his palms," alleges Simpson. "But he took the money and ran."
Radio One says that there was no cash payment and that its only deal with Simpson was a legitimate promotion. But the lawsuit Simpson would subsequently file exposes the murky dealings that are all too common in big-market radio.
"I Believe N U" was supposed to be Simpson's return to the R&B charts, a place he hadn't visited since the mid-'90s, when his debut single, "Minstrel Gigolo," was played throughout the Midwest. Simpson's picture appeared on the cover of Billboard magazine in 1994, advertising him as one of the top unsigned artists in America. The story praised his voice as reminiscent of Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross.
While artists like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony left for Los Angeles to find fame and fortune, Simpson was anchored to Cleveland. "I love this city. I love the talent that's here. I love the way the streets support the artists -- and that's how artists make it big."
But by the late '90s, the industry had become far kinder to boy bands than to crooners, and when Simpson's second album stalled, he began channeling his energies into producing and promoting.
With his industry connections, Simpson brokered deals between artists and nightclubs: A singer and her entourage would get free food and drink at a club after a show. In return, the club would generate the celebrity buzz that brings in crowds. Simpson, who claims he delivered such big names as Faith Evans, Montell Jordan, Missy Elliott, and Whitney Houston, got his cut for setting it all up.
Simpson says WENZ reps told him that if he gave the station a role in these promotions, it might help him get "I Believe N U" on the air. So his producer, Dr. Frederick Harris, paid the station $4,450, in exchange for which WENZ would stage 13 live broadcasts at clubs where Simpson was bringing in artists. WENZ would also direct artists to clubs such as the Millennium, where Simpson was entertainment director.
But Simpson also claims that he gave Burden additional cash, along with copies of "I Believe N U." In return, Simpson says, Burden guaranteed the song's play. "You give someone several thousand dollars," he asserts, "and it's pretty clear what it's for."
There is no way to confirm the transaction. The only other people at the meeting were Burden and a station salesman, and they're not talking. Burden, who was fired earlier this year, declined repeated interview requests, though he did say Simpson had "no credibility."
Radio One Chief Operating Officer Mary Catherine Sneed says that the company has "very strict policies and procedures about adding music to the playlist." Since taking money in exchange for airplay is forbidden, Sneed doubts Simpson's word. "I don't think this happened."
Radio One CEO Alfred Liggins did not return phone calls. Company attorney Bruce Batista declined comment.
Sneed says the company does accept promotional money, but those deals never have an impact on playlists.
Simpson's promotions contract with WENZ is the focus of his suit, not his allegations of payola. He says that WENZ aired commercials that contained errors and used the wrong DJs. The live broadcasts never happened. The station offered to repay Simpson's $4,450, he says, but he had already poured additional money into the project, and he believed Radio One should cover those expenses as well.
Roughly a month after the deal fell through, he claims, Radio One put the same promotional concept into practice -- only it didn't involve Simpson.
He says he lost not only his original payment, but all profits he would have reaped from the promotions. Simpson won't talk exact numbers, but court filings suggest he wants at least six figures.
Simpson thinks the fallout from the promotional contract led to WENZ's refusal to play "I Believe N U." The single was to be the first off his new album, The Long Road to Heaven. Because of the suit, Simpson won't release the CD until there's a settlement.
He isn't the only artist to assert that money, rather than music quality, dictates Radio One's playlists. Dennis Cash, who manages the R&B group Smooth Approach, says Radio One management told him that if he wanted airplay, he should contact an independent promoter in New Jersey. But he would have to pay for that meeting. "The lady's fee was $1,500 just to sit down with her," says Cash. "I figured it's got to be a lot more to get the song played."
Lamont Jordan, who runs the local label Undagruv Records, says he, too, has run into financial obstacles. "As far as getting on the air, they want you to spend money with them in other places, like on advertising or promotions," he says.
Jordan finally became so fed up with Radio One's treatment of local artists that he printed bumper stickers bearing the slogan "Fuk 107.9." Focus, a rapper on Jordan's label, even turned "Fuk 107.9" into an underground club anthem: "I'm wasting my money and time and sweat," it goes. "Ya'll niggas at 107.9 ain't ready yet."
Simpson believes that as money becomes the prerequisite for airplay, hordes of talented artists will go unnoticed.
Last fall, with his lawsuit still fresh on his mind, Simpson drove past the Odeon, where Fox 8 was staging a Cleveland Idol casting call for a local version of American Idol. The line of singers snaked down Old River Road.
"It made me think, 'There's a lot of people with dreams,'" says Simpson. "It's one thing not to help. But don't hurt people. And that's what Radio One has done."