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Eliot Spitzer and the Scourge of Radio

So Eliot Spitzer, ever the crusader, is at it again. But this time, I'm going to cut him some slack. While I'm not a big fan of Spitzer or any of his ego-boosting crusades through the halls of perceived justice, he has finally hit upon an issue that speaks to my heart: radio payola.

Yes, I know. We live in troubled times. War, famine, pestilence, whatever that other horseman is. Death? Sure. Lots of death. So why is Eliot (and I) so worried about what radio stations are playing? Well, if you're living in a world of impending doom, wouldn't you want that doom to come down on you with a good soundtrack? Who wants to die to repeated airing of the last Clay Aiken single? Not I.

Ok, so that's probably not Spitzer's intent. Most likely his intent has more to do with next election day than really caring about what radio stations play during the afternoon drive time, a time when Spitzer is most likely sharpening his claws or feeding his piranhas.

According to several people involved, investigators in Mr. Spitzer's office have served subpoenas on the four major record corporations - the Universal Music Group, Sony BMG Music Entertainment, the EMI Group and the Warner Music Group - seeking copies of contracts, billing records and other information detailing their ties to independent middlemen who pitch new songs to radio programmers in New York State.


Broadcasters are prohibited from taking cash or anything of value in exchange for playing a specific song, unless they disclose the transaction to listeners. But in a practice that is common in the industry, independent promoters pay radio stations annual fees - often exceeding $100,000 - not, they say, to play specific songs, but to obtain advance copies of the stations' playlists. The promoters then bill record labels for each new song that is played; the total tab costs the record industry tens of millions of dollars each year.

Did you understand that? If not, don't worry about it. It's not important here. What's important is that we all see through the sham that is rock and roll radio.

See, the program directors think we, the listening audience, are stupid. Case in point: You're driving home from work, flipping through the very shallow offerings of radio stations in your area (this is assuming you, like me, cannot afford to have satellite radio in your car and you're stuck with just a handful of radio stations that run the gamut from the classic rock of Freebird to that insipid new Bowling for Soup song, yet combined they manage to have about 300 songs total on their playlists) and you hit upon the local - and only - real rock station, the definition of real rock being open for debate. Here, that station is K-Rock. You hear the opening riff to a song. Could it be? Could that be...YES! They are actually playing a Toadies song. Sure, it's Possum Kingdom, but at least it's the Toadies, which they very rarely play on this station. So you're all happy thinking that maybe there was some DJ meeting at K-Rock and the program director told them to go freestyle, play what they want, when they want, just go all apeshit on the air with some good, unscheduled tunes.

Monkeys, butts, etc.

See, later that night you are driving to the Dairy Barn for a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread and a chance to escape from your children. You turn on the radio in the hopes that K-Rock has turned over a new leaf and you'll be able to rock out to some good, non Billboard rock for the 45 second ride to the store. And what do you hear? Possum Kingdom. Your initial reaction is wtf? (until you realize that acronyms don't work outside the internet so you say out loud, to the radio, what the fuck?) and it dawns on you that the powers that be at K-Rock think you are stupid.

Here's how that DJ meeting really went:

Program Director: Ok, we need to appear cool and hip and whatnot in order to counterbalance the amount of absolute crap we are playing.
DJ: Uh, why do we play crap, then?
PD: Because Karl Rove tells us to. Hah, just kidding. Because our bosses tell us to.
DJ: What do the bosses know? They don't even like this music.
PD: No, but they like the bags of cash that the record companies, agents and promoters drop off on the roof of the building every Friday morning!
All DJs: Hahahahahah!
PD: I'm not joking. Now here's the playlist for today. Oh, and every once in a while - ok, every hour - play the Toadies Possum Kingdom so we appear cool and hip and whatnot. Next week, we'll change it to something from Tool's first album.
DJ: Are our listeners that stupid?
PD: They bought the latest Limp Bizkit album, didn't they?
DJ: Ohh, good point.

And that's my interpretation of how it works at K-Rock, which really has nothing to do with the Eliot Spitzer thing I mentioned above. As far as I can tell, Spitzer is pissed because radio stations are circumventing the payola laws with secret handshake deals and contracts written in invisible ink. Which would explain why the local station whose playlist consists almost entirely of Stairway to Heaven, Freebird and Hotel California will suddenly break out the new Green Day record. It also - perhaps - explains the popularity of Modest Mouse. Come on Epic Record, fess up. You're lining the press release envelopes with cash, aren't you? It doesn't however, explain the popularity of Nickelback. As far as I know, Roadrunner records isn't exactly flowing with the green. The only explanation I can think of is that the lead singer is actually a hypnotist who mesmerizes the vulnerable into buying their albums. Which, in a way, is more nefarious than payola. What if Chad Kroeger has been teaching his hypnotic, evil skills to Ashlee Simpson? What if he holds monthly meetings in which he and Roadrunner records give workshops to the likes of Jimmy Eat World (whose new offering sounds suspiciously like Livin La Vida Loco)? Perhaps Spitzer should be looking into this instead. The world is in enough trouble as it is. Imagine five horsemen. War, Famine, Pestilence, Death and Kelly Clarkson. That should make us all shudder.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Eliot Spitzer and the Scourge of Radio:

» Why radio sucks from scrawlville.com
Michele does it again. She explains, for those of you not in the know, why you can't hear anything good on radio anymore and why, when you do, it's just a friggin ruse! Which would explain why the local station... [Read More]

» Lousy Radio and Manufactured Pop Stars from LilacRose
I could go on an extended rant about the above subjects but I'll spare you. Instead let me link a... [Read More]


You mean Cumulus is not my friend? What can this mean?!?!

Michele you've destroyed my whole world view. I can't cope. I've just been buying and buying and buying Jessica Simpson albums for years now even though I had all the same albums already. You can never have too many. Isn't that what the radio tells me?!?


Yeah I've been wanting to start an adult alternative station in Montgomery, Alabama for nigh on five years now. The problem, as with everything, is the Wal-Mar- er Cumulus controls who listens to what.

Great post on the subject. Definitely getting a trackback.

Usually when I see Elliot Spitzer's name in a newspaper or face on the tube my instictive reaction is "when are you gonna get hit by a truck already?"

But if he can do something about the ridiculous crap played on NYC "rock" radio stations I'll stop wishing for his demise ... for a lttle while. (Because you just know he's gonna do something dumb again in his grandstanding crusade to get elected governor.)

Thats why I just dont listen to commerical music radio anymore. I rather listen to either talk radio or a local public radio station that plays real music.

Several years back I had the idea of starting a radio station here in Tampa Bay where the DJ's had more control of what they put out on the air. To the point of being able to mix country with rock with rap (which echoes what is actually in my CD case).

That idea was partially borne from a conversation I had with an afternoon DJ who had created a funny as hell intro to Tesla's Love Song that he had suddenly quit playing. I had asked him why, and why he didn't do that for more songs. His answer, "The Afternoon DJ shalt not be funnier than the Morning Show."

My radio station never got off the ground for lack of investment cash. Gabe, I'd be interested in reading more about your adventures because I never got to the point of finding out how the record companies would react to such a thing.

There is a great article in the new 'Wired " mag about internet music marketing and how it is changing music buying habits.I hook my ipod into the car system,and I add a dozen or more new songs a week into it.

La Vida Loca. Nouns and adjectives in spanish (and most other romance languages) should have gender agreement.

Kelly Clarkson as the Fifth Horseman? Priceless.

Radio sucks. Anyone remember that radio show Hard Rock Live? It was awesome.

a different Bill:

Planning was the closest I ever got to it as well. As soon as I sell a novel I'll have the cash to make it happen. Right now what I'm envisioning is a radio station that mixes Adult Alternative and conservative talk radio.

Yeah, I know, weird. But I think the format could work for people who like great music and intelligent thought. Like I said, first novel that sells will make my dreams come true.

Perhaps Spitzer is just frustrated that they won't play his hip-hop record. He put a lot of work into that record, you know.

Actually this has been going on for years. I worked in Radio for 15 years and it's not just play lists, it colors all aspects of programming content to varying degrees. I was asked on a number of occasions to alter * traffic reports * to fit in with the commercial desires of advertisers. I was in on editorial meetings were news stories were killed because it didn’t fit the stations “target demo”.

As much as gets written about political bias in the media the fact is that money and advertisers influence the way stories are reported then the political bias of the reporters. You want to know about the bias of a media source? Look at what they advertise.

The indpendents (the guys who are the payola middle men)have been a force in radion since the mid 80's when the FCC rules first started to be relaxed.

I gave up on radio a long time ago. It's worthless. Why bother? Get an iPod and one of those casette thingies that lets you play it through your car stereo. Whip up a nice playlist, and you're all set for a drive.

Every independant radio station I have ever loved has failed and been assimilated by the Borg - er - Clear Channel.

Good luck Gabe, lack of good radio was one of the biggest things I remember sucking about Montgomery. The music scene in general reeks there.
Paradise Theater was the last home to good music there, and they closed years ago.

Just piling on, although I hate you for forcing me to notice that I agree with Eliot Spitzer about something. I hates him, I do. Radio sucks. Clear Channel sucks. "Classic" rock sucks harder. Those songs sucked in the 70s and they haven't improved with age. They're like milk, not wine. Herre, try this fine 1973 Dairy Barn Skim from my milk cellar and allow me to play this fine Guess Who song. No thanks, and please go away now and take the Skynrd with you.

Here in Louisville of all places, we actually have a station I can listen to (the two alleged "rock" stations are horrible - what's with the animal mascot, naked chick website motif of all these stations? did I miss the memo?). Granted, it's a public radio AAA station that managed to piss of half its pledge base when it relegated jazz programming to one day a week and therefore lives on borrowed time, but it's at least listenable. Of course, with the announcement of the XM-MLB deal, I'm going to have to break down and pay for satellite radio before Spring Training.

In Atlanta, we have very little to like on the radio. Thankfully, our Classic Crap station recently changed to a 80's-90's format of New Wave classics, interspersed with the odd Led Zeppelin/Stones/whatever.

They call themselves "Dave FM", but of course it's a marketing ploy used by other stations around the country. There's a "Dave FM" in Minnesota.

I've given up. I've loaded my Palm Tungsten with MP3's, and just play my own music in the car. I listen to Internet radio at work.

I was a DJ on a college radio station 1979-1981. Our program director actually LOCKED UP THE GOOD MUSIC and only let us play what he wanted. Naturally we broke the lock and played decent music. We all got fired.

MY press release envelopes aren't lined with cash... How the hell did I go wrong??

I've always considered radio to fall into the "you get what you pay for" category. The CD player is your friend.

Commercial music radio is basically dead, except for the folks who love eating plain white bread for every friggin' meal of their lives. The good news is we have the Internet, which is really a far better way to discover new bands than radio EVER was. And it's starting to look like Satellite radio may have significant potential. Ten bucks a month isn't all that much, when you consider the alternative of having to choose between the latest Hilary Duff offering or hearing Stairway To Heaven one more time...

I mostly listen to commercial radio for political talk programs. The few times I've checked out the music stations I've thought, "Do you really think your listeners are this stupid? It's no wonder your ratings are in the dumper."

I'm not quite sold on satellite radio yet, but it does have potential to be a viable industry. What I am digging now are the digital music channels I get through my cable TV. Lots of genres to choose from, music 24/7, and no DJs!

This is what you get when you elect a trial lawyer for an AG... y'all may agree with him on this issue, but this is setting a dangerous precident when the power (and money) of the government goes after private businesses like an ambulance chasing lawyer.

Spitzer has already had a major effect on the markets with his latest crusade into the insurance industry, long term effects could push company's away from NY and other more liberal NE states which is not good for the local economy.

You think outsourcing manufacturing and some technical jobs is bad; wait 'til you see it in the traditional service industry go south (literally) or offshore.

I gotta agree. For live radio, it's the local news/talk station...I love listening to Hugh Hewitt's segments with Lileks on Mon and Steyn on Wed. When the call screeners let some loon or blue-hair on the air, it's the iPod.

You still listen to "radio"?
How quaint.

invisible airwaves, crackle with life