- The Washington Times - Monday, September 19, 2005

The radio “pay-for-play” scandals of 1959 and 2005 have at least one thing in common: Both erupted at moments when broadcasters already were under scrutiny.

In 1959, the Federal Communications Commission was investigating the television networks over the quiz-show scandals, and religious leaders were bemoaning the rise of rock ‘n’ roll when a new brouhaha erupted: Famed disc jockey Alan Freed was fired for taking bribes to spin songs.

These days, the FCC is fining broadcasters for airing content it deems indecent, a crusade led by conservative groups that intensified after one of Janet Jackson’s breasts was briefly exposed during a nationally televised Super Bowl halftime show.

And now payola is back — or back in the news, at least.

The FCC announced plans in August to investigate the uproar that recently forced music giant Sony BMG to pay $10 million to settle payola charges in New York.

“Just as the outcome of the payola scandal of 1959 was influenced by the quiz-show scandal and the outrage over rock ‘n’ roll, this latest incident will be influenced by the debate over indecency,” said Christopher Sterling, a George Washington University professor who has studied payola extensively.

By many accounts, payola — a contraction of “pay” and Victrola record players — never went away after the 1959 scandal. Mr. Sterling and other historians say the practice is older than broadcasting itself.

In the late 19th century, before radio, sheet-music sales determined a song’s popularity.

Tin Pan Alley — the term used to describe the music-publishing business at the time — strived to get songs played as often as possible to increase public demand for the tunes, including sending promoters out to dance halls to slip orchestra leaders cash bribes.

By the 1950s, payola was common in the radio business.

Larry Kane, who got his start in broadcasting as a radio reporter in the 1950s and later became a prominent local TV news anchor in Philadelphia, said he never witnessed cash exchanging hands at the stations he worked at, but he said the music labels worked hard to influence playlists.

“Stations were crawling with record promoters. They were everywhere. They invaded a station, and they always had gifts,” Mr. Kane said.

Promoters try to persuade radio stations to play their clients’ records. For years, record companies have run their own promotion departments, but they also have hired independent promoters.

A scene from “Ray,” the 2004 film that chronicled the rise of Ray Charles, shows a music promoter handing a disc jockey a wad of cash in exchange for playing one of Mr. Charles’ early recordings.

When Mr. Freed, who coined the term “rock ‘n’ roll,” was charged with taking bribes and fired from WABC-AM in New York in 1959, it helped fuel the controversy raging over payola and the music Mr. Freed championed.

The fallout from Mr. Freed’s firing ensnared some of the biggest musicians of the day, such as Bobby Darin, who denied paying for his music being featured on Mr. Freed’s show.

Congress opened hearings on payola that featured a star-studded witness list, including Mr. Freed and Dick Clark, then a disc jockey in Philadelphia and the host of “American Bandstand.”

During his testimony, Mr. Clark admitted having a financial interest in 27 percent of the records he played on “American Bandstand.” The disclosure didn’t hurt Mr. Clark, whose clean-cut image helped him escape the scandal virtually unscathed.

Rep. Oren Harris, an Arkansas Democrat who led the House investigation into payola, told Mr. Clark he was “a fine young man.”

After the hearings, Congress passed a law that made payola a misdemeanor offense.

New forms of payola

Payola has resurfaced in the news sporadically over the years.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act, which loosened regulation of telephone and other telecommunications companies, sparked massive consolidation in the radio industry, making it easier for record promoters to do business with hundreds of stations at once.

Two years ago, Clear Channel Communications Inc., the nation’s largest radio chain with about 1,200 stations, cut all ties with independent promoters, in part to avoid the “appearance of impropriety,” according to a statement from the company.

Music industry executives acknowledge spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year to promote albums, and analysts say most of the money is probably spent legally.

“It’s hard to say how much activity there is [today], or whether the music promotion game will merely morph again as it did over the last few years to acknowledge the letter, if not the spirit, of the law,” said Sean Ross, vice president of Edison Media Research Inc., a Somerville, N.J., firm that conducts market research for broadcasters.

The Sony BMG investigation in New York — led by state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat who is expected to seek his party’s gubernatorial nomination — suggests much of the payola taking place today involves the exchange of gifts rather than cash for record spins.

For example, documents released by Mr. Spitzer show Sony BMG 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.

“Critics of pop music have insisted going back to the late ‘50s and early ‘60s that the only possible explanation for the popularity of music they don’t like is payola. In fact, if you look at some of the artists cited in the Spitzer documents, you find a lot of acts who are regularly on year-end top 10 lists,” Mr. Ross said.

Mr. Spitzer also is investigating EMI, Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group. He could not be reached for comment for this article.

Radio industry executives and station managers have largely kept mum since the Sony BMG scandal broke.

“We have always had a zero-tolerance policy for any action that could be construed as ‘pay for play,’” said Andrew W. Levin, an executive vice president and chief legal officer for Clear Channel.

“If there are some bad apples, we will find them. Any evidence of wrongdoing will be met with swift disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal,” Mr. Levin said.

Representatives for Infinity Broadcasting Corp., the nation’s second-largest radio chain, declined comment.

In the Washington area, radio executives said payola isn’t a problem.

“I haven’t even heard a whisper about it in this market for years,” said Joel Oxley, a Bonneville International Inc. senior vice president who manages several stations in the Washington area, including WWZZ-FM (104.3), which plays pop music.

Link to consolidation?

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.

FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein, one of two Democrats on the five-member panel that oversees the agency, has been its most vocal critic of payola and is credited with persuading Chairman Kevin J. Martin, a Republican, to investigate the problem.

Mr. Adelstein, who also has supported the FCC’s crackdown on content it deems indecent, sees payola and indecency as symptoms of the problems presented by consolidation of the broadcast media.

The “corporatization” of media has forced broadcasters to focus on the bottom line at the expense of almost everything else, he said.

Since May, he has been speaking out against commercialism in the media. He has cited rising product placement in television shows, as well as the use of “video news releases” — prepackaged stories prepared by businesses and government agencies that sometimes wind up on TV newscasts — as examples.

Payola deprives radio listeners “of hearing the freshest music, local artists and creative genius, because the labels are predetermining what they get to hear — and paying to get it played. We owe it to the American public, music lovers and creative artists — the ones who are hurt the most — to end this deception,” Mr. Adelstein said.

In August, Mr. Martin said he was “very concerned” about Mr. Spitzer’s findings in the Sony BMG case, stressing the continued relevance of the laws Congress adopted in the wake of the payola scandals of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“These rules serve the important purpose of ensuring that the listening public knows when someone is trying to influence them,” Mr. Martin said.

It is not clear how far the FCC’s latest payola investigation will reach, Mr. Ross said.

“The best thing the FCC could do now is offer some clear guidelines on what constitutes [payola] and how it needs to be disclosed,” he said.

It could be hard to build public support for a payola crackdown. In other industries, the practice is not uncommon, Mr. Sterling said.

For example, food companies often pay retailers to give their products prominent placement on store shelves, he said.

“None of that is illegal. It is all an accepted way of doing business. We can argue whether it is ethical, but it’s not illegal,” Mr. Sterling said.

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