Payola one more time
From West Central Tribune:
MUSIC BUSINESS -- Payola one more time
By SHAYA TAYEFE MOHAJER
"Payola is a dirty word. It is a time-dishonored device in the music business: a polite word for a bribe, the hipster's term for a fast and dishonest buck. At the moment, payola is a word that scares broadcasters into a chilled silence of injured innocence."
That's how an article in the Nov. 16, 1959 issue of The Washington Post began.
Nearly 50 years later, the story hasn't changed much: once more, allegations that the public airwaves have been sold under the table are making headlines.
Last week the Federal Communications Commission relaunched formal investigations into pay-for-play allegations against four radio giants: Clear Channel Communications, Inc., CBS Radio Inc., Entercom Communications Corp. and Citadel Broadcasting Corp. On April 19, the radio companies were alerted by the FCC to a probe into their practices. All four companies refused comment for this story.
FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein told asap they've gathered evidence of abuse from their own investigations and a probe by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
Few details of either investigation are public yet, but if you need more proof of payola, just turn on a radio, Adelstein says.
"I hear a lot of frustration from people who complain about hearing the same songs over and over again, and hearing homogenized playlists that don't excite them and one of the reasons for that is that some of the songs are not the best but they have lots of payola getting them on the air," Adelstein says.
The inquiry came in response to allegations that programmers received money and gifts in exchange for playing certain songs without disclosing the payments to listeners. Under payola laws, broadcasters can take money for airtime, as with advertising, but they have to make it clear that it's paid for.
It's the FCC's job to make sure that the public airwaves are treated with respect, so it doesn't hurt to have a music lover in the mix. That would be Adelstein, a guy who recently attended The Jammys, an award show for jam bands, to present an award to noodle-maestros Phish and got a thrill after being introduced by Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead.
"I grew up on radio and I just love it. It opened up my ears, growing up out in South Dakota," Adelstein says. "What we want to do is to get stations back to operating on the basis of merit rather than payola and that should open opportunities for independent artists and local artists."
PAYOLA: WHAT IS IT?
Payola has history so long that is best explained by the word itself: "payola" is a combination of the words "pay" and "victrola," an old-fashioned name for a record player.
One of the names most commonly associated with payola is Alan Freed, the disc jockey who was fired in 1959 from WABC radio in New York and later pleaded guilty to accepting $2,700 in bribes. Freed was sentenced to a $300 fine and a six-month suspended jail sentence
In the more recent examples, Spitzer said Sony BMG used payola in a few different forms: there were outright cash bribes, but also gifts to radio stations, such as electronic equipment and paying for contest giveaways.
WHO'S GETTING WHAT?
According to documents released by Spitzer, lots of bands you know and love were allegedly supported by payola. Here are a few examples taken from the documents:
AUDIOSLAVE: An employee of Sony BMG's Epic label sent an e-mail to a radio station saying: "WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO TO GET AUDIOSLAVE ON WKSS THIS WEEK?!!? Whatever you can dream up, I can make it happen."
FRANZ FERDINAND: In 2004, agreeing to add "Take Me Out" to the station's playlist scored a Buffalo, N.Y. DJ and three friends an extravagant trip to Miami.
BOW WOW: In a more brazen attempt to score payola, a program director for a Clear Channel radio station sent an e-mail to Sony asking for "a laptop for promotion on Bow Wow," referring to the rapper.
The move to investigate payola is heartening for many independent music makers.
Don Rose is president of the American Association of Independent Music, an organization composed of about 100 diverse small labels. Rose met Commissioner Adelstein last week to discuss creating a set of best practices for the industry. Though the terms are as yet uncertain, the idea is to give everyone in the music business equal access and to create industry transparency.
"Independents are forced by circumstances to channel a lot of their activity into non-mainstream niches but the ultimate goal of course is to break their artists into the widest arena of popularity that they can," says Rose, who is also the founder of independent label Rykodisc, which boasts acts ranging from Frank Zappa to Ladytron. "It's a constant struggle between mining the fringes and targeting the mainstream and I think that with more equitable access to radio programmers, it should provide more opportunities."
Creating equal opportunities for independent music is a stated goal of the association. Molly Neuman, an association member representing punk label Lookout! Records, says that radio makes a difference.
"Radio is the best way to expose your bands to a large audience, and it has historically and statistically been the way that you're really going to sell records," Neuman says. "We want disclosure of how things operate. More than anything it seems like there are gatekeepers and there are things in the way of independents really truly even understanding on any level how the game is played."
According to Peter Gordon of jazz label Thirsty Ear Recordings, ultimately, the listeners are the ones who suffer for lack of strong local radio.
"A radio programmer is meant to listen to recordings that come through their desk and to make judgments based on what's appropriate for their station, their experience and their marketplace," Gordon says. "Radio started on a local level, and on a local level you have programmers that really understand their marketplace. Radio in New York and Chicago and San Francisco and Wichita sounds quite different, and quite frankly, it should sound different. A radio station should reflect that town or that city and it should be unique."
For more information:
The FCC's rules on payola: http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/PayolaRules.html
American Association of Independent Music: http://www.a2im.org/