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Radio Stations Play It Safe Amid Legal Probe

Programmers choose to air fewer new tunes lest they be accused of taking bribes for airtime.

April 08, 2006|Charles Duhigg | Times Staff Writer

Last summer, before New York Atty. Gen. Eliot Spitzer revealed his first settlements with the music industry over allegations of illegal payments for airplay, the man who picks songs for L.A.'s KKBT-FM (100.3) started each week enthusiastically brainstorming about what new tunes to add to his playlist.

Today, KKBT's program director, Tom Calococci, still brainstorms. But he feels pressure to take fewer creative risks.

"No programmer wants to draw attention by choosing songs too far outside the mainstream," said Calococci, who says fear of regulatory scrutiny has made radio executives less willing to play emerging bands. Calococci still plays new music, he said, but "Spitzer has put a chill on everything."

Spitzer's inquiry, which alleged that music companies illegally paid radio programmers to play certain songs, was intended to make the airwaves more of a meritocracy. Without such "pay for play," Spitzer argued, consumers would hear the music that programmers liked best, rather than tunes that the major record labels bribed deejays to air.

But Spitzer's crusade may be having the opposite effect. Many programmers say that fear of regulatory scrutiny has scared them into airing fewer new songs. Instead, many stations are sticking to older, more tried-and-true tunes that seem less likely to prompt speculation that money changed hands.

Indeed, research shows that listeners are hearing fewer new songs on the radio today than they were a year ago. In the first quarter of 2006, "active rock" stations added 23% fewer new songs to their playlists than during the same period in 2005, according to trade publication Radio & Records. Pop stations added 14% fewer songs, additions on urban/hip-hop stations dropped 16% and the number of new songs played by "adult contemporary" stations fell 17%.

Those declines occurred even as the number of album releases increased, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

"These are really big drops," said Cyndee Maxwell, a Radio & Records executive who helped survey more than 860 radio stations. "I've never seen decreases that big."

In the wake of Spitzer's probe, radio companies have launched internal inquiries and, in instances of wrongdoing, fired and reprimanded scores of programmers. Almost every radio chain has instituted new policies regarding gifts and payments. And the Federal Communications Commission has launched its own investigation to determine whether radio companies should lose their broadcast licenses if evidence of corruption exists.

That's left many programmers with the impression that if their names are so much as mentioned in connection with pay-for-play, their jobs will be at risk.

More than a dozen radio programmers interviewed for this article -- almost all of whom requested anonymity because they feared that discussing pay-for-play would endanger their jobs -- said the slowdown in airing new songs wasn't official policy. Rather, it is a precaution that individual programmers are taking to avoid raising suspicion about their motives.

"I don't want anyone to look at my playlists six months from now and speculate about why I added a particular song when our competition didn't add it," one programmer said. "People have been fired for less."

That sentiment is typical, say industry insiders.

"There is an overall fear among programmers that I've never encountered before," said Steven Strick, who compiles data on rock stations for Radio & Records. "These investigations by Spitzer and the FCC cast suspicion on almost everything. How stations choose music has changed in a fundamental way."

To be sure, the recent shift is part of a broader trend toward homogenization and repetitive airplay that has been underway for the last decade as station ownership has consolidated. But programmers say those shifts have accelerated in the last six months, after Spitzer's investigations were revealed.

What's more, stations are now less willing to participate in legitimate promotions such as concert ticket giveaways and contests that are popular with listeners.

"If I want to accept 25 CDs to give away on air, I have to forward paperwork all the way up to the vice president," said Bill Weston, program director at WMMR-FM (93.3) in Philadelphia, where new policies about gifts and promotions have been drafted. "The new rules take forever. It's hardly worth the trouble."

All this worries record companies and music aficionados. Radio is one of the few media that can introduce audiences to new music and spur huge album sales. Changes in how stations choose songs can directly affect which musical genres survive and how many up-and-coming bands record labels sign, executives say.

Many independent musicians also are worried. Small labels applauded Spitzer's inquiry because they believed it would level the playing field.

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