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Payola Talks, Talent Walks
By Matthew J. Casella
(more articles from this author)
2001-12-17
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"Wow, commercial FM radio is great!" When was the last time you heard somebody say that? Probably never. It boggles my mind how the American radio listening public seems to unanimously detest the majority of songs and artists they hear over the air waves, yet remain discontentedly complacent.

The fact of the matter remains that 99% of songs you hear on commercial FM radio have been bought and sold. Namely, bought by major record companies and "independent promoters" and sold to commercial FM radio stations. The practice is known as "payola" and is defined as undercover or indirect payment (as to a disc jockey or radio station) for a commercial favor (as in promoting/spinning a particular record). This practice is illegal unless the radio station explicitly informs the listeners that the song they are about to hear is being played in return for financial remuneration.

Have you ever heard this type of disclaimer on an FM radio station? Probably not, since it's only ever been done once in history by an audacious rock station in Portland, Oregon: KUFO 101 FM. The historical event happened February 4, 1998 when KUFO played a taped message announcing, "The song you are about to hear is sponsored by Flip/Interscope" before playing the song "Counterfeit" by rap-rock band, Limp Bizkit. In return for $5,000, KUFO agreed to play the song 50 times. The Limp Bizkit album containing this song went on to go platinum many times over.

So this was a one time deal, right? Guess again. Payola rules radio and it happens all the time unbeknownst to listeners. The bigger the check the more promotion and airplay the artist/band receives. While illegal (without the disclaimer), the US Government, namely the Federal Communications Commission, has seemingly turned a blind eye to the practice.

So what's wrong with payola? Well, for the listener, if you don't mind being a forced-fed pawn in the pockets of FM radio and record labels, then I suppose there is nothing wrong with it. As for the independent artists, whom lack the benefit of a major label with deep pockets guaranteeing your songs will be heard, payola is a death knell.

The FM airwaves are saturated with manufactured pop stars who don't write their own music or even play an instrument (but boy, can they dance). We have payola to thank for this. It's a big money making scheme devoid of honesty, integrity, and mostly, talent.

Additionally exacerbating the problem are the mergers and conglomerations taking place in the music industry. Record companies are buying radio stations and vice versa. Clear Channel Communications is now the biggest radio network in the United States with over 1200 stations and a disproportionately large percentage of the market share. God help us all, or at least the indie artist.

Is there anything you, the listener, can do? Well, besides contacting your local legislators and expressing your discontent, don't listen to FM radio! There are literally thousands of internet radio stations offering honest programming and many are commercial free. Shoutcast (http://www.shoutcast.com) offers a listing of hundreds of internet radio broadcasts covering every genre of music.


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