The former WKSE Buffalo programmer Dave Universal, fired by Entercom Communications in January 2005 amid allegations of payola, figures prominently in New York State attorney general Eliot Spitzer’s civil lawsuit against the company.
Among the supporting evidence in Spitzer’s complaint is an email from a WKSE manager to an Entercom executive suggesting that the mainstream top 40-station deal directly with record labels instead of using the services of an independent promoter. “As of this date I choose not to work with an indie,” the e-mail states. “My program director Dave Universal is vehemently opposed to working with an indie….. Dave generates $90,000+ in record company annually for WKSE. I receive a weekly update of adds and dollars from Dave ….Forcing Dave to work with an indie at this time is the wrong move.”
Another e-mail documents negative sentiments voiced by some Entercom programmers about the company’s “CD Preview” paid overnight spins program, which is also cited in Spitzer’s complaint. “The cd preview load for this weekend is crazy!! (…) people are hearing the same songs every hour or two,” the PD wrote. “Are the few dollars earned with the CD previews worth killing our TSL [time spent listening] on the weekends?”
According to Spitzer’s suit, an Entercom executive responded to the PD in e-mail, saying: “These are not optional. They come from corporate and generate millions of dollars for Entercom.”
Paid spin programs used by Entercom and other companies were disclosed on the air and thus did not violate federal payola rules. Spitzer says they were used by stations and record labels to manipulate music airplay charts.
On January 3, 2005 Universal was abruptly ousted from the WKSE PD position that he had occupied since the late ’80s. The New York Times later reported that his exit came amid a company investigation into “whether he improperly accepted travel packages and other gifts directly from record label executives.”
Last October, Universal landed across the street – make that across the river – at Niagara Radio Group rhythmic top 40 CKEY (Wild 101). Located in and licensed to Niagara Falls, Ontario, the station also serves the Buffalo market.
In an interview that aired February 16 on ABC News’ “Primetime,” the deposed Entercom programmer defended the practices that led to his firing, saying that he was simply encouraged to make money for his employer. Universal admitted he asked for money to play the Gretchen Wilson song “Redneck Woman,” but said he only did that after he had decided to play it.
“Now I did go back and say I need a thousand, you know, what do you got on this record? Absolutely. I did that every single time,” he told ABC. “I would take whatever I thought I could get.”
Universal insisted there is nothing wrong with that. “I’m reinvesting that on the product,” he said. “It’s not a bribe because it’s money they’re giving to help pay and promote their artists.”
Spitzer’s suit claims that Entercom worked with indies and labels to increase airplay and chart position for various artists, including Jessica Simpson, Avril Lavigne and Liz Phair.