Payola on the Cheap

Bribing DJs used to be expensive, but now mere trinkets will do the trick

Compact disc sales are down, online piracy is up, and the tune being sung by the music industry is increasingly dire. How dire? Even the size of the industry's graft has been scaled back. That much was clear from last week's $10 million payola settlement between New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Sony BMG Entertainment, who admitted to the wholesale bribery of dozens of radio-station program directors across the nation, doling out DVD players, weekend getaways to Miami, or simply cash -- all in exchange for airtime for their latest singles from artists such as Franz Ferdinand, Jennifer Lopez, and Jessica Simpson.

Of course, as even a casual radio listener could tell you, the playlists of our local FM outlets have rarely had anything to do with showcasing quality music. The admission that programming choices are often determined by who's willing to cut a check is hardly a shocker. It's on the order of discovering that the saleswoman may have been exaggerating a bit when she gushed over how fabulous you looked in that $500 dress.

What's truly eye-opening about Spitzer's payola investigation is just how little it cost to buy the airwaves. Back in the Fifties, tastemaker DJ Alan Freed demanded -- and received -- co-songwriting credit on Chuck Berry's "Maybelline" before he'd spin it. By the Eighties, as author Fredric Dannen wrote in his seminal study Hit Men, payola costs were often reaching $300,000 per single.

Y-100's Donnie Michaels: Not just greed, but brazen 
Y-100's Donnie Michaels: Not just greed, but brazen greed

Poring through the 54 pages of internal Sony BMG e-mails released by Spitzer's office reveals just how low the going rate for an "add" (a new single's addition to a station's weekly playlist) has sunk. In his memoir Howling at the Moon: The Odyssey of a Monstrous Music Mogul in the Age of Excess, former CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff recalled deploying mountains of cocaine and high-priced hookers as simply the cost of doing business. And business was indeed very, very good. Yetnikoff received a reported $20 million bonus after engineering the 1987 sale of CBS to Sony for $2 billion.

But today? Whether you blame it on the rise of MTV or the lures of the Internet, FM's current gatekeepers have learned to temper their appetites. Sony BMG's e-mails show an "add" in a decent-size media market now requires an average of only $1000. Even the personalized bribes tend to be underwhelming: PlayStation video games, a $150 CD Walkman, or for New York City WQHT-FM DJ Enuff, who lives across the river in New Jersey, daily car service to his station.

At WHYI-FM (100.7), Miami's Clear Channel-owned Top 40 station, assistant program director and midday DJ Donnie Michaels attracted attention from Spitzer less for the size of his greed than for his sheer brazenness. Last year, when he was program director for WFLY-FM in Albany, New York, Michaels didn't want only a trip to Manhattan in return for playing Jessica Simpson. He apparently had a taste for swanky, Ian Schrager-style accommodations, which sent Sony BMG staffers scrambling to book him a night at the W New York, though with the caveat to "make sure Donnie is not staying in a room too high -- he has a fear of heights."

Elsewhere, Michaels asks for a digital camera, snags WNBA basketball game tickets, thoughtfully forwards the exact flights he wants for a Las Vegas junket during which he'll lunch alongside Celine Dion, and (just prior to his promotion to Miami) scores a new laptop computer. It's a kickback with its own set of headaches: Sony BMG staffers grumble to each other that their in-house discount for purchasing Sony laptops isn't any better than a trip downtown to the discount retailer J&R Music World. Apparently corporate synergy ain't what it used to be.

Moreover Michaels's off-air persona seems just as crass as his on-air banter. At the Y-100 Website he crows that "after many cold years in New York ... I finally made it to the MIA!" Asked to describe his new life in the Sunshine State, Michaels enthuses, "No pets, no hobbies, no foot fungus ... it's all good!" Little wonder that Fredric Dannen quotes one aging promotions rep in Hit Men as pining for the golden era of the "fifty-dollar handshake": "You didn't have to go out to dinner with someone and kiss their ass. Just pay them, here's the money, play the record."

Some perspective is in order though. Secretly accepting gifts to inflict the latest Kelly Osbourne and Good Charlotte releases on unsuspecting teens may be illegal under federal law (not to mention cruel) but it's hardly a crime on the level of fleecing retirees out of their pensions. In fact, by the standards of Miami's indicted politicos, the sums involved would barely register as walking-around money.

So in the end, beyond the juicy headlines, what does it all mean? With Sony BMG pledging to end payola, and the rest of the similarly subpoenaed major record labels expected to follow suit, can we anticipate a boldly remade radio dial -- coincidentally in time for Spitzer's 2006 gubernatorial bid in New York?

"You're kidding, right?" That was the reaction from one Miami-based Sony BMG executive Kulchur spoke with, who insisted on anonymity, citing a company e-mail instructing employees to adopt the public mantra of No comment. This exec laughed off any notions of Spitzer-induced reform, predicting only a few face-saving terminations (one New York-based promotions executive who figures prominently in the released e-mails has already been fired; four others have had their pay docked). And then Sony BMG and every other major label will find another way of instituting payola, just as they did in the wake of previous government crackdowns. There's too much at stake to do otherwise; radio's influence may be diminishing but it remains a key factor in making or breaking artists.

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