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Airplay Raises Disclosure Issue

Some say FM station Power 106 should tell listeners about its ties to a rapper receiving heavy exposure. The station's owner denies conflict of interest.

October 16, 2002|Chuck Philips | Times Staff Writer

Shade Sheist is a hot act on Power 106, the most popular rap radio station in Los Angeles.

Over the last month, KPWR-FM has launched three singles by the little-known rapper and played them more than any station in the nation.

One reason, critics suggest, is that the man credited with producing Sheist's "Informal Introduction" CD is a senior programming and artist relations executive at KPWR named Damion Young. And Baby Ree Entertainment, the company that recorded Sheist's CD, is financed by Emmis Communications, an Indianapolis-based conglomerate that owns KPWR-FM. Sheist's music is then distributed by MCA Records, an arm of Vivendi Universal, the world's largest record corporation.

Power 106, well-known to locals because of its ubiquitous billboards touting its morning deejay Big Boy, has lured younger listeners with a playlist that is heavy with rap stars such as Eminem, Nelly and Snoop Dogg. But critics question whether it's legal for a broadcast chain to underwrite an artist's recording and then promote his music on its stations without notifying listeners about its business ties.

"This doesn't sound like radio programming," said Peter Hart, an analyst for the New York-based media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. "It sounds like a commercial for a company tied to the owners of the station. Listeners should know that the station has a financial stake in the programming. It calls for disclosure."

Hart characterized airplay of Sheist's music on KPWR as a "dramatic" conflict of interest for Emmis.

Rick Cummings, president of Emmis' radio division, disagreed. "Before setting this record up, we cleared it with our legal counsel and [Federal Communications Commission] attorneys. They said, 'Look, make sure this thing passes the smell test. Remove Damion from the decision-making process on the [Sheist] record.' And that's exactly what we did."

Federal law prohibits radio stations from accepting money or anything of value for playing songs without disclosing that information to listeners. Officials with the FCC declined to comment Tuesday.

The flap over Sheist's airplay is the latest in a series of controversial issues plaguing the radio industry. Recently, legislation was proposed in Congress to limit the number of stations that radio giants can own and to ban deals that stations have with independent record promoters, contending that they violate payola laws.

Clear Channel Communications Inc., the nation's biggest radio company, has come under criticism in San Diego for sidestepping rules that limit it from owning more than eight stations in a single market by controlling the programming of five additional radio stations just across the Mexican border.

In other entertainment industries, the government does not necessarily frown on media conglomerates owning content and distribution. In the last decade as federal rules were relaxed, Walt Disney Co. and Viacom Inc. were allowed to acquire ABC and CBS respectively, and fill their networks with their own movies, sitcoms and cartoons.

In the music business, however, record companies want listeners to believe stations play songs because they are popular, not because they are paid advertisements. Although record companies collectively spend more than $100 million a year behind the scenes to lobby broadcasters for airplay, the labels go to great lengths to avoid on-air identification tags.

Some record labels sign deejays to artist's contracts and also pay thousands of dollars in fees to programmers and other radio station personnel to remix singles by other musicians. Privately, music executives say such deals sometimes allow record labels to develop closer relationships with broadcast employees who can influence airplay of the remixed song.

KPWR's Young, who is considered one of the most influential radio executives in the country, has remixed tracks for record labels ranging from Def Jam to Columbia, Atlantic and London-Sire before cutting his current distribution deal with MCA. Young did not return calls for comment.

Representatives for MCA say the label signed its deal with Young solely on the merits of Sheist's music.

KPWR program director Jimmy Steal said the only reason he added Sheist to the station's weekly playlist was because it rated high in listener tests used to judge audience response to all new music. Emmis' Cummings said Sheist's songs tested well at two other stations in the radio chain, which also added the songs to their playlists.

Cummings said Young has been prohibited from discussing Sheist's music during KPWR's weekly programming meetings. He also said that no Emmis employee asked its stations to air Sheist's music.

Over the last five weeks KPWR played Sheist's first single, "Money Owners," about 380 times, nearly triple the amount of the 30 other stations across the nation that aired it, according to Broadcast Data Systems. The song aired 106 times on an Emmis-owned station in New York and 97 times on another company station in Phoenix. Only two non-Emmis stations played "Money Owners" more than 50 times.

"KPWR is No. 1 in this market out of 80 stations," Cummings said. "Emmis can't afford to play music that doesn't test well with our listeners."

Despite the heavy airplay at some Emmis stations, Sheist's CD is a commercial flop, selling fewer than 10,000 copies since its Sept. 10 release, according to Nielsen/SoundScan.

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