- The Washington Times - Monday, August 8, 2005

The Federal Communications Commission is under pressure to investigate “pay for play” practices in the radio industry after music giant Sony BMG agreed last month to pay $10 million to settle a payola probe in New York.

Jonathan S. Adelstein, one of two Democrats on the five-person panel that oversees the FCC, has called on the agency to conduct its own investigation into the Sony BMG case. So far, the panel’s chairman — Kevin J. Martin, a Republican — has not announced an inquiry.

The FCC has two positions for Republican seats, and some industry analysts think Mr. Martin is waiting until President Bush fills those positions before signing off on a payola probe.

“We have to do something. This is squarely in the FCC’s jurisdiction,” said Rudy N. Brioche, Mr. Adelstein’s legal adviser.

Mr. Martin’s spokeswoman did not return telephone calls Friday.

Sony BMG, one of the world’s largest music companies, 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.

In one instance, the record company’s executives gave the program director at a San Diego radio station a 32-inch plasma screen television set in exchange for adding Jennifer Lopez’s latest album to the broadcaster’s playlist.

The programmer was urged to make up a contest winner’s name and Social Security number to cover up her role in the scheme.

Other artists cited in the documents Mr. Spitzer released included Jessica Simpson, Celine Dion, Good Charlotte, Duran Duran, John Mayer and Kelly Rowland.

Mr. Spitzer also has requested documents and information from EMI, Warner Music Group and Vivendi Universal SA’s Universal Music Group. He declined to comment on those probes.

“Sony is the tip of the iceberg,” said Christopher Sterling, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University who has studied payola practices. “I think this is very widespread.”

Payola — a contraction of “pay” and “Victrola” record players — is probably older than popular music itself.

In 1960, disc jockey Alan Freed, who coined the term “rock ‘n’ roll,” was busted for taking bribes to spin songs.

Federal law passed in the wake of Mr. Freed’s case and other payola scandals of the era prohibit music labels from offering broadcasters financial incentives to play records on the air. The practice is a crime punishable by a $10,000 fine and as much as a year in prison.

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.

Mr. Adelstein has urged the FCC to crack down on payola since April, when media reports revealed that some of the consumer specialists who tout products on “Today” and other TV news shows routinely receive undisclosed payments from manufacturers.

Other payola opponents have called the practice unfair, saying radio listeners deserve to hear songs because they are good, not because someone has been paid off.

Tom Taylor, editor of the Inside Radio trade publication, questioned whether payola is widespread.

“Ultimately, consumers decide. If you play crummy records, if you play stiffs, the listeners will punish you with lower ratings,” he said.

Representatives for Clear Channel Communications Inc. and Infinity Broadcasting Corp., two of the nation’s largest radio station chains, either declined comment or did not return telephone calls and e-mail messages.

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