Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Blast from the Past: Payola!! (Uh-Oh.)

Here's an ABC Primetime story and an AP report about Elliot Spitzer's new and ever-widening Payola investigation (payola being the act of having record companies pay radio stations to play the records they want to have become hits).

As you may know, this issue rears up its ugly head every few years or so, originally when Alan Freed's career was destroyed by a House Oversight Subcommittee investigation that started in 1959. (Dick Clark emerged from the same investigation pretty much unscathed - I wonder why?) Last Saturday, the Discovery Times channel aired an excellent documentary - 1998's "Rock 'N' Roll Invaders: The AM Radio DJs" - which had a fascinating interview with former WTAM Cleveland DJ Joe Finan, who was implicated alongside of Freed and Clark at the time. He reminisced about a '59 Miami Beach radio DJ convention, the one that started up the whole scandal, that he recalled as a blur of "booze, bribes and broads" - which is actually the working title of his memoir. Good times, my friends, good times.

Anyway, this is an old/new story, but Mr. Spitzer is promising that this investigation will be the biggest one yet. (According to AP: "The practice appears to be have been underway in its current form since the mid- to late 1990s, said Terryl Brown Clemons, assistant deputy attorney in charge of the payola investigation. She said the practice was found across the spectrum of music, from Top 40 to urban to rock.") Already, the bands/performers Jennifer Lopez, Franz Ferdinand, Good Charlotte, Jessica Simpson, Switchfoot, Michelle Branch, John Mayer, Celine Dion, R.E.M. (no!), Maroon 5, and Gretchen Wilson have been implicated - well, at least their songs have. (In the ABC News story, the band Semisonic comes clean that their hit "Closing Time" happened because of the practice. But then again, they're a band with its hit in the past, so they've nothing to lose.) The bands won't catch the blame - I don't think they should (should they?) - the evil guys in the suits will. Or will they get off like Dick Clark?

(Speaking of evil guys in suits, the webzine Salon has done an excellent job of covering not just payola, but the more important and depressing story of the Clear-Channel-ization of American radio and live music performance. "Why Does Radio Suck?", indeed.)


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