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Pay-to-Play vs. 'Neo-Radio'

June 22, 2004

Ever wondered why some radio stations sound like echo chambers, with the same songs spinning again and again? As Times staffer Jeff Leeds recently reported, in some cases it's because record companies are buying advertising time in which the stations play their songs. The deep-pockets approach helped Canadian pop rocker Avril Lavigne's "Don't Tell Me" win more than 100 spins during a recent week on a Nashville radio station.

The practice isn't illegal, Leeds reported, as long as stations include an introduction along the lines of: "And now, Avril Lavigne's 'Don't Tell Me,' presented by Arista Records." The fuzzy disclosure undoubtedly goes in one ear of Lavigne's preteen audience and out the other.

Record labels buy airtime for selected songs -- often in the bargain-rate early morning hours when few people are listening -- to deceive radio tracking services that monitor the number of times songs are played across the country. Billboard and other industry publications use this information to set their lists of most-played songs, which heavily influence programming decisions. Because tracking services don't distinguish between normal spins and commercial ones, record labels again have found a way to use their wallets to influence playlists.

During the 1950s it was payola; record promoters passed cash under the table to influence what disc jockeys played. Either way, the intent is the same -- to dupe listeners into believing that what's played on the radio accurately reflects what people want to hear. Additional spins won't turn a terrible tune into a smash, but they can nudge a song into the top 10 or extend its stay at the top for a few lucrative weeks.

Contrast this pay-for-play approach with what the industry calls "neo-radio," an increasingly popular, and by many accounts profitable, programming concept. It has spread to stations across the country, including Los Angeles' Indie 103.1 FM (formerly known as KDL-FM). This twist on alternative rock programming produces playlists that cater to local listeners -- say, more grunge sounds for Seattle listeners and a heavier dose of Alice in Chains for Los Angeles. The stations keep in touch with listeners over phone lines and through the Internet. A leading radio trade journal describes the programming as "listener-responsive, genuine and unpredictable." In short, it's the kind of radio programming that money can't buy. Listening to the customer ... what will they think of next?

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