Price to Payola
Last week, when New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer released documents that linked record label Sony/BMG to a payola scandal, I got excited. Yes, it's sickening to think about a record label secretly bribing hundreds of radio stations to control airplay (which is illegal if the paid sponsorship isn't identified on the air), but the explanation for why Good Charlotte gets so much airtime across the country made up for it.
Nasty quotes from the Spitzer documents were all over the news--"I'm a whore," "$1,200 for 20 spins a station" and "what do I have to do to get Audioslave on WKSS...whatever you can dream up, I can make it happen" got people's attention. But hidden between the juicy tidbits and the pages of radio statistics were two sets of call letters that looked familiar. KVIL and KHKS? Why, those are 103.7 and 106.1 in Dallas, respectively. What are they doing in here? And why are they both connected with Celine Dion?
The first Dion-related page, an e-mail from an unknown Sony employee dated October 24, 2002, states the following: "Epic Records [a subsidiary of Sony/BMG] has agreed to provide a Celine Dion promotion for each mainstream adult Infinity radio station...This e-mail also confirms each of the following stations has agreed to report "Goodbye's" [Dion's single at the time] on October 28th, 2002." A list of Infinity call letters follows that includes KVIL.
On this page, a specific agreement between the listed Infinity stations and the record label is acknowledged--we give your radio station a promotion (a meet-and-greet with Celine for fans that includes airfare, hotel and concert tickets), and you give us stats for how often a Dion song is aired. Must be because Sony/BMG was too lazy to look up those song stats themselves; I guess they'd rather pay thousands of dollars per station in a promotional package than dig through radio charts.
But the next page, an e-mail from another Sony employee dated January 29, 2003, bucks all sense of subtlety. "HERE IT IS IN BLACK & WHITE AND IT'S SERIOUS: IF A RADIO STATION GOT A FLYAWAY TO A CELINE SHOW IN LAS VEGAS FOR THE ADD, AND THEY'RE PLAYING THE SONG ALL IN OVERNIGHTS, THEY ARE NOT GETTING THE FLYAWAY. PLEASE FIX THE OVERNIGHT ROTATIONS IMMEDIATELY."
Further down the page is a long list of radio stations (many of which, but not all, are owned by Clear Channel), and next to each call letter is an analysis of that station's Dion airplay of another single, "I Drove All Night." Wow--that lazy attitude sure went away, didn't it? CC station KHKS makes the e-mail's shit list for playing three of its five weekly Dion spins overnight (between midnight and 6 a.m.).
Unlike other parts of the packet, such as a July 2001 e-mail in which the cost of flight and hotel for a Buffalo program director is listed with a statement that "this is for Jennifer Lopez 'I'm Real' add," no specific pay-for-play is outlined. At the very least, in the case of KHKS, we can only wonder what Sony did to "fix the overnight rotations" and secure more lucrative daytime spins of Celine Dion songs in Dallas. Meanwhile, the fact that KVIL was not listed in the witch-hunt e-mail is the radio equivalent of Barry Bonds' former trainer being busted for steroids--we don't have a KVIL piss test, but man, talk about keeping some bad company.
Quite a few headline-grabbing articles reminded readers that the last radio payola scandal took place in 2000, but they've failed to note why Dallasites should be particularly embarrassed. That year, KHKS was subject to a brutal $4,000 fine for accepting "consideration" in exchange for repeated spins of Bryan Adams' "On A Day Like Today" in 1998.
Repeated phone calls to KHKS program director Patrick Davis were not returned in time for press, which means my question--"Has KHKS learned anything from the fine in 2000?"--goes unanswered this week. KVIL program director Smokey Rivers also did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment. Feel free to call me back, guys.
The saddest part about this scandal isn't the money. It isn't the blatantly arrogant tone used by Sony/BMG employees in describing their nationwide pay-for-play antics. It isn't even the fact that Spitzer is still investigating three other major record companies' possible payola practices, which could very well reveal even more impropriety in American radio.
No, the worst part is that radio stations in Dallas battle over who can play more freaking Celine Dion songs.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.