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How Music’s ‘Glass Ceiling Girls’ Broke Into the Boys’ Club of Radio Promotion

Says Def Jam's Nicki Farag: “I’ve absolutely had to work twice as hard as my male counterparts to get where I am."

Ever since its primitive beginnings as “song plugging,” radio promotion at record labels has been a virtual boy’s club, a haven for hucksters and quasi-thugs who, in the Wild West days of the music business depicted in Fredric Dannen’s 1991 book “Hit Men,” famously plied programmers with payola, drugs and worse in exchange for airplay.

Few women managed to penetrate the upper echelons of that macho sanctuary, but through the years there were exceptions, most notably the grand dames of record promotion: Atlantic Records EVP Andrea Ganis (pictured above, far left), who started at the label in 1980 as director of secondary pop promotion, and Interscope Geffen A&M president of promotion Brenda Romano, a 23-year veteran at the house Jimmy Iovine built. Other female promotion execs rose to head their own labels, from the late Epic Records president Polly Anthony to the label’s current chief Sylvia Rhone, along with current Atlantic Records chairman/COO Julie Greenwald and Caroline/Harvest Records GM Jacqueline Saturn.

The new crop of female promotion executives includes the likes of Def Jam EVP/head of promotion Nicki Farag (pictured above, second from right), Atlantic Records EVP of urban promotion Juliette Jones (above, far right), Epic Records EVP of urban promotion Traci Adams, Concord Music Group SVP of promotion & marketing Jill Weindorf and Caroline/Capitol Music Group SVP of promotion Marni Halpern.

“I’ve absolutely had to work twice as hard as my male counterparts to get where I am,” says Farag, who first joined the label 15 years ago and worked her way up the ladder to her recent appointment as the company’s first female head of promotion. “It would have been a lot faster if I wasn’t a woman. That’s not arrogance, just a simple fact.”

One of the first to break down the door was Judy Libow (above, second from left), who began at college radio then moved to rock at Atlantic from 1975-1991, where she climbed to vp of promotion & product development at the label after a stint at the short-lived New York progressive rock station WQIV (Quadrophonic Rock). Pointing to mentors like her original Atlantic promo boss, the late Tunc Erim, and the Barbis brothers (Dino and John), Libow says, “They embraced and watched out for me like big brothers. I always tried to be both honest and transparent. I learned from the best. They may have opened the doors, but I had to walk through them and prove myself.”

Libow and Ganis were both part of an extraordinary female promotion team at Atlantic under then-chief Doug Morris that also included Sylvia Rhone, Reen Nalli and Margo Knesz. Other pioneering female promotion execs at the time included Denise George, Lana Palmese, Suzanne Emile, Susan Wax, Roxy Myzal and Brenda Romano.

“If we hadn’t been insanely focused and dedicated to the job, I’m not sure it would be the way it is now,” remembers Ganis. “I’m proud to be one of the glass-ceiling girls and have worked hard to employ great women over the years.”

Ganis’ current Atlantic colleague, evp urban promotion Juliette Jones, was hired for her first promotion job at Jive Records by Larry Khan, son of the legendary “Hit Men” promo exec Joey Bonner, after taking over as an intern at New York urban station WLIB for Sean “Puffy” Combs, who left for a similar job with Andre Harrell at Uptown Records.

“When I first started, one guy even told me, ‘I don’t think women should do promotion, because once they sleep with all the programmers, then what?’ And I asked him what he did after sleeping with the programmers. That didn’t go over too well,” she laughs. “Still, I was trained to believe that all’s fair in love and promotion. When Larry asked what I would do if I had to offer sex to get a record played, I answered, ‘Of course… right after the men.’ He laughed and said I would do really well in this job.”

One area of promotion where women have been slow to make an impact is Top 40 radio, which is ironic since the audience is largely female, even if most of the promoters and PDs are men.

Caroline/Capitol’s Marni Halpern (picture below) has worked at two different labels with Jacqueline Saturn, but has never had a male promo boss. Along the way she’s worked with such mentors as Barbara Seltzer — a promotion executive for Epic, Motown and London/Sire, among others, who now, like many of her peers both male and female, is in real estate — and the late Polly Anthony, as well as Lisa Velasquez and Hilary Shaev.

“I have a very strong personality,” she says. “I speak my mind. When a male program director once told me he didn’t hear a record, I answered, ‘Of course not. You don’t have a vagina.’”

Marni Halpern
CREDIT: Courtesy of Caroline/Harvest

In “Rock Critic Law: 101 Unbreakable Rules for Writing Badly About Music,” Michael Azerrad sarcastically lampoons one of the hoariest clichés in journalism: “When interviewing a woman in rock, you MUST ask her what it’s like to be a woman in rock.”

So, in that spirit, is the actual job of radio promotion different for a woman than it is for a man?

“Only when you pack for the road,” laughs Ganis. “Promotion is a skill that’s about strategy, tenacity and personality — not gender. You have to figure out a way to turn that no into a yes, and you have to be built for it, since it’s non-stop rejection even when you know you’re right.”

Asked whether women have to downplay their femininity in favor of an alpha-male stance, Farag insists, “Women feel the need to be aggressive, but they gradually realize it’s better to be yourself and do things your way. It’s more acceptable than ever, in a room full of men, to quietly watch what’s going on and observe before weighing in. Maybe that’s because I’m a woman, but that’s just the way I process things. We tend to be more thoughtful and less impulsive.”

“Women just think a bit differently,” says Saturn, who was recently named GM for Caroline and Harvest Records after sharing the post with former colleague Piero Giramonti. “I am a role model for the fact you can have a thriving, successful career and a happy home life. It’s a new playing field.”

Although equal compensation remains a thorny issue, the recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements led Farag to wonder whether her latest promotion was based on a correction, rather than merit.

“There was always this thing in the back of my mind, if I wasn’t a woman, would I be getting this kind of acknowledgement?” she says. “I didn’t want to be the token female. But the first thing [Def Jam CEO] Paul Rosenberg said to me was, ‘This promotion isn’t because of your gender.’”

“All of us just want to be heard and acknowledged,” adds Atlantic’s Jones. “Tell me I’m doing a good job and pay attention when I’m having a hard time. Give me insight and advice. Promotion is a tough, frustrating job. There are times I wish I was an artist. We take all the same sh– they do, but they’re the ones that get rich and famous in the end.”

And now that the glass ceiling is broken, the women who have climbed to positions of power are increasingly using that to mentor and empower others — of both sexes. “I try to help anybody I work with to achieve their goals,” says Atlantic’s Jones, who recently saw a former radio hire, Natina Niemene, promoted to vp of urban promotion at Def Jam.

Likewise, Halpern has hired several females in regional posts, while her one-time assistant, Sandra Afloarei, is now svp of top 40 radio promotion at Epic Records.

“I empower women, I grew up with women,” she says. “I just like to work with smart and hungry people who get the job done. As long as you kick ass, you’re cool with me.”

In the end, whatever one’s gender, doing radio promotion requires a thick skin, a take-no-prisoners attitude and an ability to persuade.

“I’m competitive,” says Jones. “I still love winning. When I have No. 1 records, I look forward to talking trash to my counterparts. It’s as much fun as it was 20 years ago, when I started. Women can do this as well as men. I love the fact I get a report card every Monday. That’s my reward.”

Still, as longtime promo doyenne Libow, who is still active with her Classic Rock promotion business Classics du Jour and working radio for The Orchard-distributed indie FOD Records, puts it, “At the end of the day, radio promotion comes down to great songs and, as [Atlantic cofounder] Ahmet Ertegun always said, ‘people hearing them on the radio and wanting to buy them.’ I still love breaking artists. That’s what it’s all about. It can be tough and disheartening, but when you’ve made a difference in their careers, there’s nothing better than that.”

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