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Payola: The Beat Goes On

In the settlement of New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's investigation of Sony BMG Music Entertainment last week, the ugly side of an industry was exposed -- again. Sony e-mails revealed what Spitzer called a "pervasive" practice of payola, or bribes for radio airplay.

Payola is not new. Before a crackdown in the early 1960s, the golden age of payola was what one deejay, Joe Finan, calls a blur of "booze, bribes and broads" -- that's actually the working title of his memoir.

The practice never went away, though the payoffs may have evolved. The Sony e-mails revealed exchanges of cash, sneakers, laptops, hotels and parties for an increase in "spins," or broadcasts of a pop song. The artists mentioned in the promotion schemes included the bands Good Charlotte and Franz Ferdinand, Jennifer Lopez and rapper Killer Mike.

Following its settlement, Sony BMG has said it will end payments for airplay and make corporate-wide reforms of its promotion system. Neda Ulaby takes a look at how the dealings between radio stations and record labels reflect the times.

Further Excerpts from Sony E-Mails

Note from Sony employee, subject: Spin Programs

"Please be advised that in this week's Jennifer Lopez Top 40 Spin Increase of 236 we bought 63 spins at a cost of $3,600.

"Please be advised that in this week's Good Charlotte Top 40 Spin Increase of 61 we bought approximately 250 spins at a cost of $17k... which means in reality we were down almost 200 spins for the week..."

Note from Sony employee to undisclosed recipient

"[Name deleted] worked out a deal with [DJ] Enuff @ [New York radio station] Hot 97 around the Nas & Xzibit record. In return, Enuff asked [name deleted] if he could get him a car from Wednesday - Friday from his house to Hot 97. The amount would be $160.00 + tolls each trip. Thoughts?" [The request was approved at a total cost of $480]

Exchange between Epic Records promotion executive and 98 PXY program director

Epic executive: "You can say 'I'll give you [help for] the Franz Ferdinand [record] and put it in a 7p-6a rotation with 18x a week if you can help out with ____________.'" Then I say "[Name deleted], of course. I'd be happy too [sic]. And thank you for finally helping me break a record."

PXY director: "i'm a whore this week. what can i say?"

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.