- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2005

The Federal Communications Commission will investigate the “pay for play” scandal that has spooked the radio industry and forced music giant Sony BMG to pay $10 million to settle payola charges in New York, the agency’s chairman announced yesterday.

“The FCC has long-standing rules prohibiting payola. … Broadcasters must comply with these rules. The commission will not tolerate noncompliance,” said FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, who holds one of the three Republican seats on the five-member panel that oversees the agency.

“While payola may not be a widespread practice in the broadcasting industry, to the extent it is going on, it must stop,” Mr. Martin said.

Jonathan S. Adelstein, one of the FCC panel’s two Democrats and its harshest payola critic, said he believes “this payola scandal may represent the most widespread and flagrant violation of any FCC rules in the history of American broadcasting.”

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, which also handles penalties for indecency on the airwaves, will conduct the payola investigation, Mr. Martin said. The agency could fine violators $10,000 per violation.

“If the bureau determines violations of the payola rules have occurred, the commission will take swift action,” he said. Any evidence about payola violations beyond the Sony settlement also will be “thoroughly” investigated, Mr. Martin said.

Scandals involving payola — a contraction of “pay” and the old “Victrola” windup record players — erupted in the 1950s and 1960s, when disc jockeys such as Alan Freed charged with taking bribes to spin songs.

Congress and the states later passed laws that prohibit music labels from offering broadcasters financial incentives to play records on the air.

Sony BMG, a top record label, agreed July 25 to pay $10 million and to stop paying radio station employees to feature its artists to settle an investigation by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat.

The company said some of its efforts to promote its artists on the radio were “wrong and improper” and apologized for its conduct.

Mr. Spitzer — who is seeking his party’s gubernatorial nomination — has released e-mail messages and other documents that outlined Sony’s practices. The artists cited in the documents include Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Simpson, Celine Dion and Good Charlotte.

Mr. Spitzer also is investigating EMI, Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group.

The radio industry has been largely silent on the Sony scandal. Spokeswomen for two of the nation’s largest chains of radio stations — Clear Channel Communications Inc. and Infinity Broadcasting Corp. — either declined comment or did not return telephone calls yesterday.

Privately, radio executives have said they are concerned about the impact of Mr. Spitzer’s findings on their business.

The FCC has not sanctioned a broadcaster for payola violations since October 2000, when it fined stations in Texas and Michigan $4,000 each for not disclosing payments they received from A&M Records to play Bryan Adams songs.

The FCC’s announcement of an investigation into the Sony settlement represented a victory for Mr. Adelstein, who has waged a public campaign urging the FCC to crack down on runaway commercialism in broadcasting.

Mr. Adelstein has criticized television news programs such as “Today” and “Good Morning America,” which have featured consumer specialists who tout products without disclosing payments they received from the manufacturers.

“The airwaves belong to the public, not the highest bidder. The vitality of radio is sapped when music is selected based on bribes rather than merit,” he said.

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