FCC Commissioner Doesn’t Appreciate the RIAA’s Response on Payola

Looks like the RIAA’s brush-off of the Federal Communications Commission’s payola inquiry didn’t quite work as planned.

For those just tuning in to this one, the multi-headed monster of radio payola has recently resurfaced — and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which oversees terrestrial radio, is getting involved. It turns out that payola, which refers to payment for radio spins, never quite went away, and a recent Rolling Stone profile alleged that it’s still pretty serious.

That report, coupled with others, prompted FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly to rattle the industry’s cage, starting with the Recording Industry Association of America. But the RIAA seemed to deploy a delay-and-deflect maneuver. First, the organization appears to have stalled for weeks after an initial inquiry before sending a letter that essentially stated that payola isn’t their problem.

While RIAA CEO Mitch Glazier stated that the trade group “takes the issues you raise very seriously,” it seems that payola is something that none of the major labels are involved in.

“As for the recent press reports that you reference in your letter,” Glazier continued, “those appear primarily to concern the practices of independent radio promoters, whom we do not represent and thus are not well situated to survey.  Moreover, as a trade body that represents competitors in a single industry sector, we are constrained by law in our ability to probe and collect the individual business practices of our member companies.”

Nice try, though O’Rielly clearly didn’t appreciate the brush-off.

Instead, the FCC Commissioner opted to repost the entire letter on his Twitter feed, while flatly stating:

“Sharing @RIAA response on payola review. Not going to lie: it’s a bit underwhelming. Going to have to seek out answers directly from record labels.”

Of course, that’s bad news for mega-labels like Universal Music Group, who pay the RIAA handsomely for the specific purpose of not having to deal with people like FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly. But even Glazier himself told the Commissioner to talk to the RIAA’s member labels, and even offered to provide specific contact names.

Unfortunately for RIAA members UMG, Warner Music Group, and Sony Music Entertainment, the U.S. Government’s probe is now intensifying.  That means potentially high-stakes interrogations by the FCC ahead, depending on how long O’Rielly actually has a job.  Indeed, Washington is quite the circus these days, which means that once-serious investigations could go ‘poof’ in a few months.

Ironically, O’Rielly — along with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai — has been a staunch supporter of erasing net neutrality for mega-ISPs like Comcast. The removal means that internet access providers can prioritize, block, throttle, or even take cash payments to prioritize access online. Somehow, radio stations that ‘prioritize and block’ specific songs are entirely different.

The flare-up follows some high-profile defeats at the RIAA.

Just recently, the trade group failed to take any constructive action on California’s AB5, even as dozens of other affected industries negotiated modifications and exemptions.  Glazier’s RIAA, alongside A2IM, appeared unable to battle the American Federation of Musicians, which strongly favored AB5.

And earlier this year, the RIAA suffered a stunning and quick defeat against Russian stream-ripper FLTVO.biz in a sloppily-argued case. That case is now on appeal, with FLVTO and sister converter 2conv.com operating with impunity in the meantime.