DETROIT — It's been more than a decade since Congress last probed payola on the public airwaves. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) plans to revisit the issue by launching federal hearings this year to address increasing complaints from artists, consumer activists and record labels about questionable payments to radio stations to promote certain songs.
Conyers, 72, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has had serious concerns about the radio business since Congress passed the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which eliminated most restrictions on broadcast mergers.
Conyers, an amateur musician himself, will air his views about payola and other industry issues at the Future of Music Policy Summit this week at Georgetown University in Washington. He sat down for an interview recently at his office in Detroit.
Question: It's been 40 years since the federal payola statute was enacted. Considering the government's apparently lax attitude toward prosecuting payola violations, why not just get rid of the law?
Answer: Well, I'm sure there are people in the music business and the radio industry that would immediately advocate that kind of an idea. But getting rid of the law would be a bad idea.
What we really need to do is beef up enforcement. I want to hold informational oversight hearings this year to look closer at potential new forms of payola that appear to be everywhere now. We need to examine the negative impact that consolidation in the radio business has had on the public airwaves.
Q: Given its past enforcement actions, the Federal Communications Commission seems more concerned about bad lyrics than bribes. The FCC has imposed only one payola fine on a major radio group and seems to have no problem with the U.S. record labels' paying out an estimated $100 million-plus a year to influence airplay on stations owned by the nation's biggest broadcasters.
Maybe payola laws are obsolete in a deregulated radio environment.
A: I disagree. Payola is against the public interest. It turns the whole notion of encouraging and promoting this important part of our cultural heritage into a commercial vehicle.
Some of the most imaginative art on earth was born in the hearts and souls of American composers. I believe that music is one of our major contributions to world culture. Allowing creativity to be stifled because of questionable commercial endeavors or legal gymnastics is just plain wrong.
I believe that's what the government originally had in mind when they implemented laws prohibiting the influence of money on airplay.
Q: We're no longer just talking about some tiny independent radio station pocketing a few bucks under the table, but about giant broadcast corporations devising questionable practices to generate "nontraditional revenue" to sidestep payola laws.
A: Well, at least that explains why I'm hearing so much bad music so often lately. This stuff that is cluttering up the public airwaves should be an embarrassment to the folks who run the industry.
Q: Do you think the investigators at the FCC really care?
A: The environment for enforcement is not alive in America anymore. There seems to be a new environment now, one that says unless you are a flagrant, notorious violator, no one will take you to task anymore.
It's like no one is paying attention to the federal laws on the books. Nobody is encouraging anyone to go out and investigate practices at radio stations that seem suspicious or fraudulent. We no longer live in an enforcement environment that is favorable to the consumer.
[FCC Chairman] Michael Powell makes [former FCC Chairman] Bill Kennard look tough now, doesn't he? But we can't just keep acting like we're blind.
Q: What can be done?
A: The FCC and the antitrust division of the Justice Department need to start paying attention to the citizen groups, community activists and musicians who have all thrown up their hands in disgust.
A lot of artists' careers get compromised after they get to the top because of these [payola] transactions. And many more never even get a chance to get near the top. They get squeezed out.
In my opinion, it's not just the artist who loses. The culture loses.
Q: It's illegal to air a song for money or anything of value without saying so on the air. The way record labels seem to sidestep the law is by hiring independent promoters to pay stations annual budgets to avoid the quid pro quo restrictions of the payola statute. What's the difference?
A: I think that maybe some clever lawyers helped the promoters think this annual budget idea up. It's really pretty nifty.
I don't know how it fares against the legal prohibitions that are in effect. Because no one has ever really examined these deals, I don't know if they are successful in skirting the law, or if a court would just pull this aside as a cover window dressing to accomplish what was, in fact, prohibited.
We intend to look into this matter more carefully.