Broadcasters: Music and Sports Payola is Okay

Several broadcasters have teamed up in a petition with the FCC seeking to change the agency’s sponsorship identification rules. Presently, if an entity pays a radio station to put a program on the air, the station must clearly disclose this relationship on the air at the time the sponsored programming is played. This rule is an old one, first instituted to crack down on the practices of payola and plugola — or the back-channel compensation of radio stations by record labels and promoters to spin their tunes.
The “Radio Broadcasters Coalition” reads like a who’s who of corporate radio: Beasley Broadcast Group, Cox Radio, Cromwell, Emmis, Entercom, First Natchez, Greater Media, Henson Media, and Clear Channel iHeartMedia. Their 20-page proposal seeks to flip the script on payola/plugola disclosures, allowing stations to air music and sports programming that the station is paid directly for without any on-air disclosure at the time of broadcast. Instead, the Coalition suggests that stations engage in a “robust listner education program” about sponsored programming, run “daily announcements” about sponsored programming, and post “enhanced disclosures” online.
The Coalition calls its proposal to defer on-air disclosure of sponsored content “a more flexible and consumer-friendly” way of informing listeners about such content “with fewer interruptions.” Station websites would build a special section for their disclosure materials, which would include the name of sponsored programs and who paid for them; a playlist of songs or sports teams the station has been paid to promote, how the station was compensated (money, access, swag, or a combination thereof — but this would not include an actual dollar figure); and a synopsis of what the station promised to do in exchange for the boodle.
So, instead of hearing “this program is brought to you by X” any time a radio station aired sponsored content, instead you’d hear something like this between 1-4 times a day (from the petition): “Some of the music [and/or] sports programming that you hear on this station is sponsored [or paid for] by Interscope, Sony, Universal Records, or the Washington Nationals. For additional information, please visit our website at or contact the station at 12345 Main Street, Washington, DC 20036,, or 202-555-1234.”
This is what the Coalition calls a “high-frequency consumer education campaign.” The linchpin is the online component, which the broadcasters consider a game-changer in terms of the amount of disclosure material they can now provide: “Unlike the spoken word, online disclosures will remain available long after a broadcast disclosure has disappeared into the ether,” waxes the Coalition. That said, the proposal requires stations to host online disclosure materials only as long as the station plays the sponsored content; heaven forbid stations archive this documentation. [Interestingly, when the FCC began to require stations to keep their public files online, they cried foul about the excessive administrative burden it would impose and continue to resist it.]
The folks at the Future of Music Coalition are correct in calling this proposal a grab to legitimize payola practices “in ways that will be beneficial for broadcasters.” And Cracker’s David Lowery, a longtime advocate for fair play in music broadcasting, neatly distills the perniciousness of the proposal: “The idea here is you wouldn’t really know you were listening to a payola song. Even if you heard the announcement you wouldn’t necessarily be able to put the sponsorship with the song.” Indeed, the proximity of the disclosure to the airing of paid-for material is key to making listeners aware that they have been listening to sponsored content.
Obfuscating this relationship would mean big money for some of the petitioners. It’s always a hoot when “coalitions” like this one spring forth, with a few small-fry broadcasters mixed in with the big fish to promote a patina of industry solidarity. Two of them stand to gain the biggest in this cabal — the first is Clear Channel iHeartMedia, who’s been striking direct deals with record labels and promoters for the payment of performance royalties for a few years now. Muddying the waters of sponsored programming would allow iHeart to better leverage its airtime in exchange for lower royalty rates. The second big winner would be Emmis, a pioneer in the sports radio game who would probably like nothing more then to rent out their facilities lock, stock, and barrel to the highest-bidding teams.
I find it curious that broadcasters are focusing their sponsorship identification end-run on music and sports programming. Their petition does not explain precisely why these two program-genres should be exempt from stricter disclosure of pay-for-play deals, other than the obvious fact that these are the genres where the sponsored content would be most lucrative. It may also be due to the fact that the FCC has taken it upon itself to regulate the promotion of broadcast news content, especially if it comes from indepednent news outlets.
The FCC is accepting public comment on this proposal through April 13th. As of today, a total of 13 comments have been filed, all of which come from independent broadcasters and members of the public who don’t like it at all.