I'm Not Losing Any Sleep Over Payola Scandals

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So another payola scandal hit the news last week.

Doug Zanger Doug Zanger
When I read about it, I can't help but feel a little bit nostalgic. It seems so 1950s. In fact, it was such a big deal back then, that the government decided that it would go smoke out the ne'er-do-wells and make them an example of corruption.

I suppose back in the 50s, there wasn't a heck of a lot to do other than ferret out Communists and corrupt DJs. OK, that's my usual "stretch," but it does seem rather anachronistic to put such emphasis on something that could be perceived as benign in the continuum of scandal. In the wake of Enron, Worldcom and other assorted corporate malfeasance, the idea of payola seems downright charming.

To me, the element that seems to be missing from all of this is swift and strong public outcry. I don't hear consumer groups clamoring for a wholesale change. I don't see Nancy Grace coming after the record or radio industry with guns and mouth-a-blazin'. Ann Coulter hasn't shrieked about it. ("shrieked" refers to Ann Coulter's normal speaking voice) Al Franken hasn't made it part of his campaign pledge. It was a story on March 5th that was bungled in (a Karl Pilkington reference from an earlier Ricky Gervais podcast) with the rest of the day's plight.

I'm not even sure payola has any relevance, and I suppose I'm still trying to figure out why it's such a big deal. In my eyes, it's an early form of product placement. You play the record, tell people Jimmy's Record Company sponsored it and away you go. The song gets played, it's disclosed, and everyone wins.

And I understand the idea of a level playing field, but the notion of truly "independent" went out the door long ago. You need only to look at Hollywood. Major film studios have "indie" products and segments with fancy, new names that give the perception of purity. Don't think for a second that they hope an "independent" film makes $40 on two screens. Hell, Sundance has become more than just a little gathering. I highly commend Robert Redford for the spirit and idea of Sundance, but it is now on the same stage as Coachella and Burning Man -- things that were truly "independent" but have been co-opted because they are "cool," "hip," and profitable.

Television treads the same path. If it were all about "equal time," we'd be watching Dungeons and Dragons tournaments as lead-ins to "30 Rock" (which is the best show on TV -- hands down -- Tina Fey is a genius).

FCC Chairman Jonathan Adelstein remarked that this latest payola "settlement" will make radio "fresh, dynamic and real." Payola, according to Adelstein, prevents radio from having, "authenticity because money drives the music, not its quality." These are somewhat salient points but I find it hard to believe that pushing a new Beyonce song is doing any real harm. The line between "mainstream" and "authentic" is about as blurred as it can get...and "fresh, dynamic, real" programming is highly subjective regardless of an independent label's access to a wider swath of airtime.

Having been in the industry, I know some very talented program directors. All of them are very serious about the purity of their product. They know when a song is good or just flat out sucks. I've seen record reps try to push the hell of out songs that don't deserve an audience. And every time, the program director has stood strong and defended his turf because he knows better than anyone that a bad song does not honor the listener -- and advertisers run from bad programming like the plague. Sure, there are a few malcontents out there out to make a buck and, unfortunately, the bad seeds color the perception of the industry.

Ultimately, the best music rises to the top -- whether it's on a radio station, a video or an iPod, whether it's been done by one of the big labels or a small shop in Seattle. To wit, two bands, Deathcab for Cutie and The Shins, were small, Pacific Northwest, "indie" players not too long ago. After contributing to a Zach Braff movie, an "OC" episode, a UPS commercial, an SNL appearance or two and much more, they are everything but "indie."

Quick Hits

Is payola even on your radar? Is it that big of a deal to you?

Would you turn a station off if there were promotional mentions for a song that has been "placed" on a station?

Is 30 Rock the best show to come along since "Seinfeld?" Is Tina Fey the best comedy writer of our time?

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