Payola scandals in the radio industry are nothing new.
Indeed, the practice of illegally paying a DJ or radio station money in exchange for playing a song is likely as old as the industry itself.
Two separate scandals in the 1960s and the 2000s rocked the industry, though insiders were hardly surprised. Payola was even the subject of a WKRP in Cincinnati episode. But those who think such scandals are a thing of the past would be surprised by a recent report from Rolling Stone Magazine, which shows that payola in radio is both alive and well.
Paul Porter, who is a long-time radio veteran and who wrote a book called Blackout: My 40 Years in the Record Business, says that while payola in radio has changed over the years — and that nobody brings albums to radio stations stuffed with cash and drugs — nothing has really changed in the industry.
Porter told Rolling Stone’s Elias Leight that today, payments are just made more covertly, through shell companies and mobile apps.
Allen Kovac, who is the CEO of Eleven Seven Label Group, agrees with Porter. He also says that everyone is aware of the payments and that a song can’t break into the Top 15 today without illegal payments.
“Everyone knows it’s there,” Kovac told Rolling Stone. “It’s a game that should’ve gone away a long time ago. [But] it’s prevalent enough that you’re not gonna get into the Top 15 without playing that game.”
Most of the people who were cited in the report were understandably willing to share their stories only on the condition of anonymity. One music manager admitted to directly paying DJs $10,000 as compensation for playing his client’s song on the radio. This eventually led to a label signing his client, which allowed him to recover his investment.
Music artists, too, were cited in the report. One anonymous artist told Rolling Stone that he paid $50,000 in exchange for 800 plays of his latest song on a major station.
In one major respect, however, the nature of payola has changed from the days of past scandals.
Back in the day, radio exposure led directly to recording sales. Today, music streaming is king. This means that those making payments are hoping that the subsequent radio exposure leads to streams on services such as Spotify. Rolling Stone’s report noted that if someone pays $3,500 to get a song played on the radio, they would need about one million streams of the song online just to break even. For most, this may not be economically viable.
But that doesn’t mean that payola in the radio industry will be coming to an end any time soon. Bob Donnelly, who has been in the music business since the 1970s, says that as long as radio determines what songs become hits, there will always be people willing to pay for access to it.
All of which brings us to the ginormous elephant in the room: what about streaming?