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US media regulator asks RIAA to assess the current scale of payola

By | Published on Friday 6 September 2019

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US media regulator the Federal Communications Commission has written to record industry trade group the Recording Industry Association of America seeking help in assessing the credibility of recent claims about payola in the radio sector.

Bribing radio stations to playlist your music – by offering key execs some cash, or some drugs, or a big TV and a Caribbean getaway – all seems charmingly old school, given that we’re now in an age where you can actually profit from scamming the digital listening stats with a room full of PCs set to stream your own music 24/7.

But in some genres and for some demographics scoring airplay remains a key priority for the labels, so does the old school tactic of bribing your way onto the A-list at Shit Music FM still work? A recent article on the American radio sector in Rolling Stone concluded “fuck yes”.

“It never went away”, urban radio veteran Paul Porter told the magazine. But the nature of the bribes has evolved, he added. “The old days of coming in [to a radio station] with a twelve-inch [record] full of money [and offering] trips and cocaine are all gone. Now everything goes to LLCs and cash apps”.

Broadcasting rules that seek to ensure there is a clear distinction between editorial and advertising usually forbid bribes of this kind, aka payola. In the US, where such bribing of radio bosses is legendary, the most relevant law is the Federal Communications Act. Though the question always remains: when does the schmoozing that is a key part of PR and promotions reach a level that it is actually bribery?

Although attempts to crack down on payola in the US radio sector date back to the 1960s, the whole thing was headline news most recently in 2004 when then New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer went after the record companies and radio networks on this issue. Fines were paid and commitments to do better were made by both labels and stations.

In a letter sent to the RIAA earlier this week, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly wrote: “To the extent that payola is currently occurring within the industry, I am writing to ask for your help in ensuring that the practice be discontinued”.

The FCC boss added that the record industry trade group was “uniquely situated” to assess current industry practices and identify whether bad or illegal conduct continues.

And although he didn’t specifically name-check the Rolling Stone article, he did basically acknowledge it by stressing that he hoped the scale of payola today had been “overstated or misrepresented” by recent media reports.

O’Reilly concluded by saying he expected a response from the RIAA by the end of the month.