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THE WILDEST YEARS OF RADIO PROMOTION,
PART ONE

THE ITALIAN JOB

 

Donnie “fuhgeddaboudit” Ienner was one of the biggest players despite the fact that he worked at Arista, one of the smaller labels; no promo exec reached a loftier career peak than Ienner, who went on to rule Sony Music during a highly successful run.

I’d met Donnie back in the 1970s when I worked as the head of promotion at ABC/Dunhill. His older brother Jimmy had replaced Richie Podolor as Three Dog Night’s producer, and Donnie was Jimmy’s runner. I could tell Donnie was going to be this super-aggressive, win-at-all-costs kind of guy.

The first time I laid eyes on him was the day he delivered the master refs to the first single from Hard Labor, “The Show Must Go On.” He blew into my office, yanked open the door to my fridge and took what he wanted.

At Arista, Donnie ran a tight ship, spending Clive Davis’ money like it was his mother’s life savings; he was cheap and remained that way through his final chapter at Sony two decades later.

One night in the early ’80s, during dinner at high-end Italian eatery Romeo Salta in Midtown, he told our waiter he wasn’t paying more than $13 for the veal piccata, which was on the menu for $18. I watched in amazement as he threw buttered bread at Arista promo head Rick Bisceglia all night.

That was not an isolated incident—Donnie always had to get the best of everybody, and he “motivated” people by verbally and physically intimidating them.

When Sony Chairman Tommy Mottola hired Donnie away from Clive in 1989 to become president of Columbia—a job Clive had previously held—it was the beginning of a fiercely competitive era between Columbia and Arista whose main event was a competition between Clive’s diva Whitney Houston and Tommy’s diva Mariah Carey.

When Mottola and Ienner tried to hire Bisceglia, who was then EVP at Arista, to head Mariah’s Crave imprint in 1997, Clive made Rick sit on the bench for almost a year before he was able to go to work at Sony.

That left the job open for the return of former Arista promo head Richard Palmese when he was fired as president of MCA in 1995 along with Chairman Al Teller, just after Doug Morris was hired to replace Teller by Edgar Bronfman

As for Bisceglia, not long after he finally arrived at Sony, he was named EVP promo at Epic in 1998, and EVP of the Epic Group (Epic, 550 and the WORK Group). In 2002, he founded HitPredictor with Guy Zapoleon and Doug Ford (now at Spotify), and after selling the company to iHeartMedia in 2012, he started his present job with the radio giant.

Legend has it that shortly before replacing Mottola as Sony chairman in 2003 after a 15-year reign, Donnie visited Tommy at his Florida home and presented him with an expensive shotgun; the two had hunted together in the country around Tommy’s estate in Upstate New York. But in retrospect, Donnie’s choice of gift took on a Godfather-like symbolism, and it probably wasn’t lost on Tommy, who had a feeling he was about to be offed.

Ironically, Mottola had conspired to oust his predecessor Walter Yetnikoff in 1990, and many believed that Ienner was part of a conspiracy to depose Tommy. Once Ienner fell from power in 2006, fired by Sony BMG commandant Rolf Schmidt-Holtz, most of those who’d worked for him turned against him. His storied abuse of his promo staff is still part of industry lore.

Part Two next Friday...

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