The FCC & Payola

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The FCC and Payola

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Last week, a $5 million fine was levied against the Warner Music Group by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, following a payola investigation of the third largest record label group.

Spitzer found the label was encouraging commercial radio stations to play certain songs, in exchange for gifts and prizes to the program director or station, without disclosing that relationship.

It's the second fine levied this year following a payola investigation by Mr. Spitzer. The first investigation focused around music giants Sony/ BMG, with a $10 million fine attached.

Eliot Spitzer is really doing the groundwork that the Federal Communications Commission should be doing. The FCC's role is to manage the licensing process and maintain the integrity of the US radio airwaves, free from corruption. Everyone who's been in the music business for more than a few minutes knows that there's payola in the commercial radio world.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise that the FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein released a press release two weeks after Spitzer's initial findings stating the airwaves belong to the public, not the highest bidder. We owe it to the American public, music lovers and creative artists -- the ones who are hurt the most -- to end this deception. This reminds of the great line in the film Casablanca, when Captain Louis Renault said in his beloved casino, I'm shocked, shocked to find there is gambling going on here.

If the FCC Commissioners wants to stop corruption in radio, they certainly have the means to do it.

Payola can be complicated to prove, but it boils down to one basic fact. If a station gets paid in some form to play something on the air, under the guise of radio programming, they need to disclose in advance on the air. There's no specific amount of money or goods that constitutes payola, only that whatever the circumstances, it needs to be disclosure on air.

You hear those kinds of disclaimers all the time on national television but rarely on commercial radio.

We want to believe our radio airwaves are free, and we are getting the best musicians, chosen by the best programmers to suit our cultural interests. But the truth is, decisions about what music gets a shot on commercial radio depend far more on the trade power of the record label, the financial investment of the marketing plan and the size of the promotion staff, who serve as on-site lobbyists for their labels' music.

On top of that, in many cases, commercial radio stations have created an atmosphere of competitive bidding, to finance promotions, sponsorships and even basic staffing issues, in exchange for the radio airplay of songs. It's easy to see how bribery could exist. The real question is, will the FCC really do something about it?

Rather than waiting, the Attorney General of the State of New York took the bull by the horns and stood up. I give him a lot of credit for that.

Though the airwaves may not significantly change without payola, at least I won't wonder if commercial radio sold me out to the highest bidder every time I turn my radio on.