July 2005

Payola -How much does it matter?

Payola -How much does it matter?

The settlement just made by Sony BMG with the New York State attorney general over Payola (See RNW Jul 26) not only confirms what many in US radio already knew, namely that to varying degrees payment for play was a fairly common and widespread practice but also raises the issue of how much it matters.

In the greater scale of importance we can't find it in ourselves to get too much excised with indignation about a Walkman for a fairly junior employee but the matter to us raises the whole issue of honesty and fair play in US media and there we think there is serious cause for concern about that issue.

What music payola does.

Payola in music it seems to us is almost a side issue as far as its main purpose is concerned: The problem is the side effect and the dishonesty.

That effect is that music that might otherwise get a fair shake doesn't get a play and thus both musicians and public are deprived of proper choice. That may effectively prevent the emergence of major talent.

The main purpose - to sell music - can only be achieved either if those who buy the recordings like what they've heard on the radio or alternatively have such a herd instinct that they purchase recordings they don't like.

In neither case is harm is done in the first case purchasers are presumably happy with what they have bought and in the latter happy with fitting in.

Looked at in this light the problem appears to us limited in its practical dimensions but not in the moral sphere albeit the corruption of the individuals concerned in many cases is significantly less than that by lobbyists of many a US lawmaker.

The point here is, of course, not to defend the corruption but put it in a context and what we think is needed is in effect a widening of the "payola" concept - and probably legislation - to cover other spheres.

Not that the idea will go far, of course: In terms of what many lawmakers gain from lobbyists and special interests it really would be a case of turkeys voting for Christmas: Nevertheless the idea is worth considering in terms of wider media application at least.

A wider media concept of payola.

Compare for example the likely pernicious influence of the broadcast as news of a report that makes it to air because of indirect payment or benefit: This could be obviously corrupt as in paying a host who then gives favourable and misleading reports but does not declare an interest - shades of the Australian cash-for-comment scandal - or less obviously so but nevertheless pernicious as in broadcast of a report because its been provided free by a PR company but is not identified as PR.

In all these cases open declaration of interest would allow listeners or viewers to make up their own minds within a reasonable context and we see no infringement of freedom of speech in insisting that there should always be a declaration of interest where there is payment in cash or kind.

That to us is the best way forward but it will only be effective if the penalties are sufficiently draconian since there are so many ways to seemingly comply with rules whilst in fact skirting them.

In the current cases - and there are bound to be many more to come - retrospective changes do not seem to us to be needed but the Federal Communications Commission in our view should have the courage to make it clear that licence renewal for any station found to have been involved will not be automatic when it is next due, thus putting the stations on notice that they're going to have do quite a lot of work in justifying retention and also under the gun with a clear probability that if they don't immediately clean-up their act they will be out of business.

We doubt that any would be and the evidence to date is that amongst the two big players - Clear Channel and Viacom's Infinity division - there have already been changes and a tightening up as far as pay-for-play and accepting gifts is concerned.

That evidence leads us to also think that when push came to shove there might be kicking and screaming US broadcasters would accept tighter rules in this area.

What we'd like to see.

Our attitude is very much one not of restricting what can be aired but of ensuring that people know what they are getting or are going to get and can make up their own minds but with as far as possible a full picture of any likely bias as a result of payments.

We would therefore feel it quite reasonable that in all cases where there have been payments to broadcasters, announcements of a vested interest should be mandatory before an item is broadcast and probably if there's a particular issue where payment would be thought to affect judgement consideration of a back-announcement as well.

We also think that the system adopted in Australia where details have to be posted on web sites of a host's sponsorship deals would be appropriate in the US. The issue is therefore not one of censorship of free speech but of giving the audience a means of determining where they might be bias.

The situation is a little more difficult when it comes to news releases although even here it seems to us not unreasonable that information should carry some form of attribution as a matter of course. It might slow down a report but it again gives the audience a proper perspective from which to make their assessments.

The question then is what should be done in case of breaches. Our view here is that there are enough organizations in the US that could monitor for compliance and thus it should become apparent where there is a question of a pattern of disregarding the rules.

In such cases we'd favour a graduated system of warnings with some form of points system - if no notice is then taken we would have no problem with forfeiture of licences where there is deliberate flouting.

We'd also like to see a requirement, as exists in other countries, for broadcasters to keep copies of their output for a defined period - a couple of months should be sufficient when allied with a requirement to provide copies to the FCC if there is a request: At one time this would have been far more expensive but with digital technology the resources required to provide a useable monitoring record - which need not be of broadcast quality (Streaming audio and video is certainly not up to traditional broadcasting standards but is of sufficient quality to allow a check of what is said or shown to be carried out ) - are now much reduced.

What you think? Please E-mail your comments.

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