Recently the Federal Communications Commission and New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced an investigation into claims of payola deals at large record labels and radio stations across the country. Payola is a process where radio stations are paid to play songs by commercial artists as a way of getting them to the top of the charts with “compensation” for airplay ranging from money to free laptop computers. In response to these investigations, the national media reform group Free Press is working on a campaign to stop payola and has provided online resources including general information about payola, the current legal investigation, and ways for local communities to get involved.
As part of their campaign, Free Press provides a map of the United States that helps people locate stations that are under investigation for payola. Using the map, we found that one Grand Rapids station, WSNX, a Clear Channel owned station is listed in New York Attorney General Spitzer’s investigation. We contacted Clear Channel’s program manager in Grand Rapids to find out their take on this investigation. The Program Manager told us that the Free Press information was “wholly inaccurate.” Free Press was contacted and told us that “We should be clear that they’re a part of an ongoing investigation but still, technically, innocent until proven otherwise. That said, the evidence is there.” According to court documents, that evidence includes Sony Music’s naming of WSNX as a station to invite to New York City for a “Jessica Simpson lunch.” Interestingly, the lunch was planned not to gain airplay for Jessica Simpson’s “collector’s edition” of her album In this Skin, but instead to gain airplay for another Sony Music band, Switchfoot.
For those interested, ABC Primetime will be featuring the payola issue on this Thursday’s show at 10:30pm EST on ABC. It should also be noted that one of the big reasons for the increase in payola in the radio and music industry is the consolidation of ownership. Groups like the Future of Music Coalition, which came out with a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today denouncing payola, are part of a growing movement that challenges media consolidation and the threats that this consolidation has made to localism.