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NY official sues radio chain in payola probe

Gifts, trips and cash were used to pave the way for air time for certain songs and artists at radio stations owned by one of the nation’s largest chains, according to lawsuit filed by state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Gifts, trips and cash were used to pave the way for air time for certain songs at radio stations owned and operated by the nation’s fifth largest chain, according to a lawsuit filed by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

The accusation was denied by the company, Entercom Communications Corp. of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., which owns and operates more than 105 radio stations.

“We have moved from the label side, those who put out the records and are forced to pay for air time, and switched to the radio conglomerates ... that are extracting money,” Spitzer said Wednesday.

For example, one memo from a programmer at WKSE in Buffalo to Columbia Records in 2003 stated: “Do you need help on Jessica (Simpson) this week? .... if you don’t need help I certainly don’t need to play it.”

Spitzer claims air time was sold for $1,000 or more for individual songs. He said the practice included providing a $2,500 laptop computer for a country station in exchange for playing artists Joe Nichols and the duo McHayes, for station concert appearances, for a personal appearance by country artist Blake Shelton, and for playing Liz Phair songs. “Don’t Tell Me” by Avril Lavigne aired 109 times in a week on Entercom’s Nashville station WQZQ. More than a third of the “spins” were paid for by Arista Records, the lawsuit claims.

Spitzer also accused the company of “falsely promoting records up the music charts” in reports to the magazines Billboard and Radio & Records about the play time of songs that was supposed to be based on popularity.

Spitzer said payola violates radio stations’ federal licenses and New York state civil law. He said the Federal Communications Commission, which he accused of being “asleep at the switch” on payola, should consider revoking the licenses.

Spitzer said listeners and artists are hurt by payola, sometimes forcing the same song on the air every hour, according to the lawsuit.

“The decisions are being made as to what to put on the airwaves based on bribes to be paid and extracted, rather than on judgments based on artistic merit,” he said.

But Entercom spokesman Adam Miller said the company plays by the rules.

“We have firm policies prohibiting payola and requiring compliance with the federal sponsor identification rules and we enforce them,” he said. “We have cooperated fully with the attorney general’s office in this investigation. Now that the attorney general has filed this civil action, we are confident that the issues will be fully and fairly resolved by the court.”

The lawsuit claims it has evidence in documents and e-mails that executives discussed strategies for supplementing radio station budgets with payola cash from record companies and the independent promoters that act as middle men in the industry.

Spitzer said Entercom e-mails he obtained include one from an unidentified executive that stated: “These are not optional. They come from corporate and generate millions of dollars for Entercom.”

Spitzer said he is filing the civil action in state Supreme Court in Manhattan because New York’s civil laws address the alleged behavior. He said a criminal case would be difficult if not impossible to make.

In February, Spitzer subpoenaed nine of the nation’s largest radio conglomerates in his “payola” investigation of major artists and songs that he claims received air time because of payoffs by recording companies. Two major recording companies agreed last year to settle their parts of the investigation. Warner Music Group Corp. said it would pay $5 million, and Sony BMG Music Entertainment agreed to pay $10 million.

Payola today differs from the 1950s payola that shocked early rock ’n’ roll. These days programming executives, not disc jockeys, decide what is played. Spitzer said he found the practice at Top 40, adult contemporary and country stations. One memo said a single station should expect $125,000 a year in payola.