Paying for Airplay: The Beat Goes On

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By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 7, 2005

When executives at Arista Records wanted radio airplay for a single by one of their artists, the company paid $250 a week for a team of workers to call up rock stations such as Washington's DC 101 (WWDC) and flood the phone lines with requests for the song.

"Please be sure all callers are male, preferably under 25 (or sounding like it!) and that the bulk of the calls are made between 6 p.m. and midnight," said an e-mail from an Arista employee in New York to the coordinator of the phone team.

The e-mail is part of a devastatingly incriminating load of material obtained by New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer as part of an investigation into payola in the music and radio businesses -- a systematic effort to deceive listeners into thinking that the music they hear on the air is chosen for its quality or popularity, rather than just because record companies pressed radio stations to play certain songs.

Sony BMG, the music company that owns Arista and other labels, agreed last month to pay $10 million and stop making payments and awarding expensive gifts to radio stations and their employees in return for spins of the records Sony was pushing. Spitzer is continuing his probe into similar activities by other labels.

The e-mails and letters Spitzer found show that payola, which was supposedly banned after a 1960s scandal over payments made to radio DJs, is alive and well. In a memo from 2002, a Sony executive lays out a plan to promote a song called "A.D.I.D.A.S." by rapper Killer Mike. The company proposed to approach DJs whose stations let them select their own music, ask them for their shoe size and send them each one Adidas sneaker. If a DJ could then show that he had spun the song on the air at least 10 times, he'd get the other shoe in the pair, autographed by the artist.

The e-mails document gifts to station program directors and DJs of airline tickets, digital cameras, trips to concerts, even a laptop. The quid pro quo was spelled out plainly: Thirteen stations owned by Infinity Broadcasting agreed to play Celine Dion's song "Goodbyes" on the record's launch date, according to a memo from a vice president at Epic Records, another Sony BMG label. Those stations were to receive a trip to Las Vegas for a Dion concert.

A few weeks later, when Epic officials learned that some of those stations put the record on the air only after midnight, the record label reacted angrily: "If a radio station got a flyaway to a Celine show in Las Vegas for the add, and they're playing the song all in overnights, they are not getting the flyaway."

Record executives were not shy about offering gifts in exchange for airplay. "You have room for a money record this week? 311 'Love Song' Big $$$," said an e-mail last year from a Jive Records official to Dave Universal, program director of WKSE, a pop station in Buffalo.

Sony executives often expressed concern that stations demanded too much money to play songs. "It cost us over $4,000 to get Franz [Ferdinand] on WKSE," one Sony official complained in an e-mail last fall. The station's program director, Universal, apparently didn't like the music but agreed to play the song in exchange for trips to Miami, the e-mail says. Universal, who was fired by the station's owner, Entrecom, earlier this year, told the magazine Radio and Records that he did not take money in exchange for airplay: "All I can say is, anytime I took a trip, it had nothing to do with airplay of a specific song or artist."

After congressional hearings revealed the extent of payments to DJs by record companies and distributors in the early 1960s, authority over what music gets on the air was taken out of disc jockeys' hands and vested in radio station executives. But both executives and DJs continued to receive gifts from record companies, and large payments to stations by supposedly independent promoters hired by the record companies still make up an important part of radio station revenues. Those large radio companies that were willing to comment on Spitzer's probe and Sony's settlement said they are committed to rooting out pay-for-play arrangements, which is exactly what radio executives have said every time payola has become a public scandal.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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