Followers of our work over the past 15 years know that we’ve always taken a stand against against payola—the practice of well-heeled music companies giving cash or other enticements to big broadcasters in exchange for radio airplay. Technically, this practice is only illegal if it is not disclosed over the airwaves when the paid-for music is played. But over the years, the broadcasting conglomerates have found workarounds. Most recently, they established a system of so-called “independent promoters” who would funnel cash or other goodies to broadcasters without the major labels ever dirtying their hands. (Our Payola Education Guide offers a great overview of this pernicious practice.)
It’s 2015. Why do we still care about payola? Well, first off it distorts the entire marketplace for music and gives an unfair advantage to just a few giant companies at the expense of everyone else, including music fans. Most listeners assume that the songs they hear on FM radio are chosen for artistic merit or simply because the DJ has awesome taste. In reality, today’s jocks have next to no input on what gets played. This means that independent artists and labels have few, if any, opportunities to be heard in their own local communities. We described this situation to the New York Times in a recent article about the broadcasters seeking to weaken existing payola laws.
Currently, a small group of program directors make all the decisions about what songs get added across the country, with play-it-safe playlists and few slots for new music. This is the inevitable outcome of consolidation in radio station ownership. Much of this can be traced back to the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which removed the limits on the number of stations a single broadcasting company can own in a given market. Less DJ autonomy and restrictive, focus-group-style playlists made pay-to-play schemes inevitable. FMC and our indie label allies pushed back as hard as we could, and had some success. Following an FCC reprimand in the mid-2000s, the four largest radio conglomerates agreed to voluntary reforms that were supposed to increase independent access to the airwaves. But that hasn’t seemed to happen on any statistically meaningful level.
It’s easy to think of payola as a a thing of the past, a relic of an era when over-the-air radio was the only way to discover new music. While it is true that music fans have a far greater array of listening options than at any other point in history, traditional radio still has a massive footprint. As Ben Sisario reports in the Times, “an average of 258.4 million people each month listened to AM and FM radio at the end of 2014, up from 257 million the year before.” This means that the payola urge never really goes away for the broadcasters and the major labels. But this means that tons of independent music—even stuff you know and love—has no shot of being heard on the commercial airwaves.
Let’s get back to the legal definition of payola. As we previously mentioned, broadcasters are allowed to take payments or other enticements in exchange for airplay, so long as they disclose this fact on air when they play the song. But even this isn’t enough for radio giants like iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel), Cox Enterprises, Emmis Communications and Entercom. These corporations—two of which were fined 12.5 million dollars in 2007 for violating payola laws—now want to eliminate the disclosure requirements, or at least weaken them to the point where they don’t even matter. This is move is yet another example of mega radio corporations acting against the public interest.
That’s an important term: “the public interest.” The airwaves belong to the American public, and are held in a kind of trust by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC allows broadcasters use our radio spectrum for commercial purposes—free of charge—provided they uphold certain obligations, such as serving their local communities. But ownership consolidation means that localism has been all but extinguished. In fact, the DJ you hear on your local commercial station probably pre-recorded their segments in a different city entirely. If you take a road trip across the country you’re likely to hear the same 5-to-10 songs in any given format played over and over regardless of where you are on the map. Payola makes an already lame situation even lamer.
Here’s why this is coming up once again. Right now, the so-called “Radio Broadcasters Coalition” is seeking a waiver from the FCC to allow them to skirt the Sponsorship Identification Requirement (SID) and engage in payola without negative listener connotations. The broadcasters say that they’ll actually be disclosing more information than the FCC requires by posting a notice on their station websites. While we would welcome the radio conglomerates providing such info on their pages, they certainly don’t need a waiver to do it. Just go ahead and post it, dudes.
In their petition, to the FCC, the broadcasters describe a public “education” initiative whereby for a limited time, they will disclose music and sports sponsorships during peak listening hours. Of course, they plan to quickly phase this campaign out in favor of a once-per-day announcement. We’re guessing the next step is mumbling something during the graveyard shift. If the FCC gives them what they want, it will have the effect of legitimizing payola and eradicating localism once and for all.
We love the Internet, but it’s only one tool in the toolbox of local cultural communities. In fact, radio might have the edge here: it can truly be live and local (that’s one of many reasons we love college and community radio stations). In many ways, radio’s relative limitations are its core strengths, but the big broadcasters have never seemed to understand this. And why would they? They didn’t come from radio to begin with, and they’ve all but driven out those with respect for the medium. We’d love to see commercial radio play a role in vibrant, diverse and sustainable music scenes from coast to coast, but that’s not gonna happen if the broadcasters are allowed to re-establish their payola empire.
You can stop this big broadcaster bait-and-switch. The FCC has just opened public comments, and they need to hear from musicians, songwriters and indie labels. We’ve built an easy comment tool so you can tell the FCC how you feel.