The trend in broadcast radio of back- and front-announcing, naming the title and artist of a track before or after playing it on the airwaves, has historically been a source for controversy due to its heavy involvement with issues of sponsorship identification and racketeering.
Is it that record labels are lobbying radio stations to play their songs, and guarantee their back or front-announcement? Or are radio stations shamelessly seeking payment from record labels for guaranteed back-announcing? Short answer: it’s both. And the result? The back-announcing of some songs and not of others.
In the mid 1990s the deregulation brought about by The Telecommunications Act of 1996 initiated several significant changes in broadcast radio, including the lifting station ownership restrictions. This led to the emergence of a few dominant multi-station broadcasting companies in lieu of more independent localized stations and fundamentally changed the way radio stations operated. Like most businesses bought out by big companies, these stations more often than not saw their business operations being outsourced, consolidated and homogenously reproduced with little localized personalization, frequently in the arena of playlist compilation.
“The creation of radio giants like Clear Channel, with more than 1,200 stations, and led to a substantial drop in the number of minority station owners, homogenization of play lists, and less local news.”
Through the hire of ridiculously well paid independent record promoters, intermediaries who contract with the stations to fulfill promotional obligations for payment, the record labels have managed to legally circumvent behavior that strongly resembles “payola,” the commercial bribery in which broadcast stations are induced by money to promote certain music, rampant century-long and famously penalized in the 1950s, 1990s, and again in 2005.
A 2002 Joint Statement by a “coalition representing performing artist groups, labor, record labels, merchandisers, songwriters, community broadcasters, consumers and citizen’s advocates” called for the FCC to address issues of nondisclosure of “independent” promotional advertisement sponsorship in broadcast radio.
The issue at stake was, and is, that the use of intermediaries in the post-Telecom Act era by record labels complicate the picture of payola by making it unclear who the true parties of these promotional transactions between promoters and radio conglomerate are and what is controlling or motivating the radio giants to play tracks from record label giants like Warner, Universal, Sony BMG, and EMI.
In 2007, the FCC issued a statement that it had settled with the four radio giants—Clear Channel, CBS Radio, Citadel and Entercom—on the allegations payola motivating its music selection. This negotiation entailed a $12.5 million payoff to be made by the radio giants as well as a promise to air “more than 4,000 hours of free airtime to independent artists.”
Despite guidelines set by the FCC on payola and sponsor identification, a 2009 study entitled “Same Old Song” by the FMC indicates that since the 2005 scandal and the 2007 agreement there has been “almost no measurable change in station playlist composition.”
So what’s going on here? It’s not like the FCC isn’t enforcing its policies on commercial sponsor disclosure. Rather, what explains the fact that radio stations are still mostly playing music from the biggest labels is because, well, that’s generally what most people like to hear. Many argue that is it the “the public, not payola” that ultimately determines what stations play and what reinforces this idea is that the major labels are simply motivated by sales, and “they’d release an album of dog howls if they thought it would go platinum.”
I think the answer is a combination of the record labels’ and radio stations’ need for revenue, in which the former releases whatever sells and the latter plays whatever they get paid to play. In effect, the payola issue is really an issue of unethical marketing of a kind of embedded advertising. It is not so much about the fact that the record labels are controlling what radio listeners hear, but that this fact is not honestly disclosed to listeners.
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