By Joel Warner
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A while back, an area record producer completed the latest album by a well-loved local act. This artist had been supported for years by a successful radio station in the region, and since one tune in particular fit the outlet's format perfectly, the producer naturally assumed it would receive a sizable number of spins.
He was wrong.
According to the producer, the program director at the signal, which is part of Clear Channel (the country's largest owner of radio properties), said he liked the track but noted that, because of corporate policy, he couldn't place it on the playlist unless it was first brought to him by an independent radio promotion company -- an operation that's paid by record labels to pitch tunes to broadcasters. The exec then provided the phone number for one of the firms that worked with the station, but when the producer called it, he was told that the cost of taking on the song in question was $3,000 -- an awfully hefty investment to get someone who'd already listened to the track to do so again.
Stories like this are a dime a billion on today's corporate radio scene. There's nothing illegal about the practice, and with the Justice Department focusing on identifying terrorist cells and Congress embroiled in wartime security matters, attempts to create regulations or pass bills curtailing it aren't even near the stove, let alone on a back burner. But to critics, the often-shady relationship between radio stations, labels and independent promoters is nothing less than new-millennium payola that helps explain why the nation's airwaves sound worse than ever.
The word "payola" entered the lexicon in the 1950s, at a time when record companies routinely paid radio personalities handsomely to showcase their songs. Late in that decade, Congressional hearings chaired by Representative Oren Harris, an Arkansas Democrat, turned a spotlight on many of those taking advantage of the system, including American Bandstand host Dick Clark and Alan Freed, the influential DJ credited with popularizing, if not inventing, the term "rock and roll." As evidenced by his continuing presence on New Year's Eve broadcasts, Clark skated, but Freed became the symbol for these questionable dealings, and eventually wound up pleading guilty to a couple of commercial bribery beefs. By 1965, when a discredited and destitute Freed died at age 43, laws were on the books that made direct payment for airplay a criminal offense.
Predictably, these edicts didn't eliminate the desire on the part of power brokers to influence which ditties became radio smashes, and over time it became apparent that independent radio promoters -- the modern equivalent of what were once known as song pluggers -- could be used as middlemen. As documented in a series of articles by Los Angeles Times scribe Chuck Philipsand Eric Boehlert, a senior writer for Salon.com, the result is a smooth-running procedure in which nearly everyone's palm gets greased, especially at the major-market level. Generally speaking, large promotion companies give influential radio outlets specializing in new music plenty o' greenbacks -- as much as $100,000 per annum -- in exchange for exclusive access to their key decision makers; in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety, the cash is designated for "promotional support," but because the station isn't told how to spend this windfall, it's often little more than a slush fund. Labels then pay these indie promoters up to $3,000 each time a station puts one of its songs into rotation. This is how record companies, radio stations and indie promoters get what they want -- airplay, moolah and more moolah, respectively -- without explicitly violating payola statutes.
Even so, the transactions have a foul scent about them, which helps explain why the parties involved don't enjoy talking about the subject. KBPI, a Clear Channel hard rocker, has an exclusive deal with Jeff McClusky & Associates, a massive independent promoter based in Chicago; JMA has been named as the best at what it does by the industry publication Radio & Records for four consecutive years, and its Web site boasts of working with clients such as Madonna, Eminem, Britney Spears and U2. However, JMA spokesmen did not respond to interview requests.
The folks at New York's McGathy Promotions were even more direct when asked to discuss their work with Clear Channel alternative-rock purveyor KTCL and dozens of other stations, issuing a blanket "no comment." And Kraig T. Kitchin, president and chief operating officer for Clear Channel-owned Premiere Radio Networks, and the man charged with coordinating interactions with independent promoters for the conglomerate, failed to return calls as well. But that was understandable considering that Premiere's biggest, most profitable star, Rush Limbaugh, announced last week that he's going deaf, thereby throwing his future into doubt and Kitchin into damage-control mode. On October 11, the Premiere chieftain appeared alongside Limbaugh's doctors at a Los Angeles press conference.
Still, one Clear Channel honcho -- Steve Smith, president and chief operating officer for Clear Channel Entertainment, the company's concert wing -- did talk during his recent Denver visit, touching on the subject in more detail than have any of his colleagues. He began by pointing out, accurately, that "the independent promotion business is not unique to Clear Channel radio" before insisting that "what Clear Channel has done in the last year is to try to put some restraints and controls on our relationships with independent promoters -- because it is such a cause célèbre."