FCC Commissioner Asks RIAA to Investigate Payola Allegations

Courtesy of RIAA


In an official letter sent Wednesday, FCC commissioner Mike O’Rielly asked the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to investigate allegations of payola in the music industry. 

"To the extent that payola is currently occurring within the industry, I am writing to ask for your help in ensuring that the practice be discontinued," the letter reads.

Payola -- the practice of exchanging money or goods with radio stations to secure airplay for artists -- was the subject of a Congressional investigation in 1960 that ended the career of iconic American disc jockey Alan Freed. Following the investigation, Congress amended the Federal Communications Act to require broadcasters “to disclose if airplay for a song has been purchased.”  

In 2004, an investigation by then-New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer turned up extensive evidence of the practice, resulting in an agreement by the major record labels along with several radio chains to pay millions of dollars in settlements.

While the 1960 investigation was seen as having little effect on curbing the practice, O’Rielly’s letter suggests it was more successful than is commonly believed.

“In the time since the law was passed, the recording industry has made great strides in curtailing the practice,” he continues, “and it is my sincere hope that recent allegations are being overstated or misrepresented.”

The RIAA did not respond to Billboard's request for comment.

Though O’Rielly does not explicitly reference a specific press report regarding payola, Rolling Stone published a widely-read investigative piece last month that found the practice is still frequently used in the record industry today, albeit in different forms that exploit loopholes in the current law -- including using third-party record promoters to bribe radio DJs and programmers. In 2015, Billboard published a story on payola’s (or “playola’s") prevalence in the streaming space, though FCC regulations that prohibit the practice only cover radio and television broadcasts.

The RIAA last attempted a payola investigation in 1985, with the organization passing a resolution suggesting it “fund and, through its general counsel, direct a private investigation to determine” whether the practice continued. That attempt proved unsuccessful thanks to pushback from some of the RIAA's member companies, but with yesterday's letter, O’Rielly is clearly looking to get the ball rolling again.

“Your Association’s members supply content to both traditional over-the-air broadcasts and streaming platforms and possess broad insight into the industry,” O’Rielly’s letter continues. “As such, your Association is uniquely situated to survey the practices of your industry and respond to press reports regarding alleged practices in order to help determine whether allegations of non-disclosure are actually occurring."


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