The Messenger: Eliot Spitzer

Hosted by

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

In October 2004, Eliot Spitzer, as the Attorney General for the State of New York, showed remarkable courage when issuing subpoenas to major record labels and broadcasters for engaging in payola. Decades ago, record promoters used money, drugs, and prostitutes to try and control the airwaves. By the turn of the millennium, payola was hidden in the form of advertising, radio station promotions, and gifts to the staff. Payola requires two actions; giving something of monetary value to a programmer or station that affects their decisions on what they play, and hiding that arrangement from the public.

The payola laws only apply to the broadcast medium. That's because radio and television are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission. We have the legal right to expect our airwaves are free from coercion and influence.

Spitzer was correct to go after the more subtle illegal payola practices.

And without admitting any wrongdoing, the labels and broadcasters paid over $35 million in fines for their actions.

Spitzer made arrangements for the money to be used to create a music fund of grants. Since its inception, the New York State Music Fund has awarded over 400 grants to music programs that benefit the residents of New York. The organizations that received the money have done more to promote music awareness than any radio station has. From Jazz to hip hop, classical to world music, these grants are fostering an explosion of music education and appreciation in New York.

But Spitzer was just a State Attorney General. The FCC didn't get involved until challenged to do so by members of the Senate who were following Spitzer's actions. Once the FCC got involved, the radio conglomerates agreed to pay more fines, and make adjustments. One of the key considerations was to give more time to local artists and independent labels. It's been almost a year since they agreed– so how well is commercial radio complying?

Frankly poorly. I represent independent labels and I can attest to just how closed the door really is. And as for payola – it's still alive and kicking. I get notes from consultants I haven't hired letting me know who added my records. They aren't writing me to say hello. Consultants pay thousands of dollars to help influence radio station playlists and look for labels to pay them back.

I expect Eliot Spitzer will end up being the last public official to fight payola. That's because the American public has already lost faith in the programming of much of commercial radio. Once the internet is beamed into your car, you'll be able to hear unlimited radio streaming from around the world. And chances are, you'll hear that independent American artist you wanted to, on a hip commercial station in Norway or France, faster than you will on the station in your own hometown.

While many focus on Eliot Spitzer's personal life, I'll be focusing on losing a dedicated public servant who wasn't afraid to stand up to the Goliaths who dominate radio.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Photo: Stephen Chernin/Getty Images