For radio geeks, this summer's hottest reading material isn't the latest Harry Potter book. No, it's the press release and accompanying e-mail correspondence [PDF] issued this week by New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announcing the agreement reached with Sony BMG Music Entertainment to "stop making payments and providing expensive gifts to radio stations and their employees in return for 'airplay' for the company's songs."
Presumably, the reason "airplay" is in quotes is that in some cases, no actual airplay was given in exchange for the laptops, DVD players and "flyaways" that the Sony radio promo people were doling out. Sometimes, it seems, simply reporting airplay was sufficient even if the airplay itself never took place. But that's not even close to the most interesting aspects of this story.
For openers, one wonders why Spitzer decided to target the historically murky relationship between record companies and radio stations in the first place. There must be other nefarious practices taking place around the great state of New York that are having a more direct impact on residents' quality of life. Could it be that he thought that dropping names like Celine Dion and Don Henley would attract publicity that would help his 2006 gubernatorial campaign? Surely that can't be it.
Let's turn to the press release itself to see if we can glean some sort of motivation for this investigation:
"Our investigation shows that, contrary to listener expectations that songs are selected for airplay based on artistic merit and popularity, air time is often determined by undisclosed payoffs to radio stations and their employees," Spitzer said.
"Contrary to listener expectations" ?!?! Seriously, who here thought that the songs that get played on the big commercial radio stations were chosen based on artistic merit? We're not talking about WFMU, after all. And as for popularity, well, a glance at our DJs' playlists will confirm that's not a requirement for airplay here. But even if that is what those listeners expected, is that really enough justification for such a large-scale invetigation?
But back to the reading material... the real gem here is the extensive documentation -- mostly email printouts -- that was released along with the announcement. These emails provide a fascinating and -- to an un-implicated outsider, at least -- sometimes-hilarious glimpse at the behind-the-scenes effort to meet the company's goals by throwing all manner of trips, electronics and other goodies at radio programmers in such key markets as Hartford CT, Lexington KY, and New Bern NC. Plus you get insight into such topics as how to promote the latest Duran Duran release ("...don't want to position Duran Duran with an 80's club... The 80's were an important time in their career but they are still just as relevant in 2004. [...] Possibly an event at a Martini bar with 30+ female crowd could make sense").
Here are some selected excerpts from those emails (names were blacked out by the Attorney General's office):
After speaking with XXXXXX yesterday about the laptop for wkkf, I feel safe in saying that XXXXXXXX will have his laptop by monday the latest. They are in stock, and today we need XXXXXXX to sign off on an overnight delivery for it. I will stay on top of it and hopefully XXXXXXXX will be downloading on his new laptop by Friday. I'll keep you posted.
Please be advised that in this week's Top 40 Good Charlotte spin increase of 61 we bought approximately 250 spins at a cost of $17k... which means in reality we were down almost 200 spins for the week. On the positive, Audience on the record was up - primarily due to better dayparts at Z100 and in Chicago. Boston spins and Airplay were also up...
[from the Program Director at 98PXY/Rochester NY]: i'm a whore this week. what can i say?
[reply from Epic Records' Director of Top 40 Promotion]: You can say "I'll give you the Franz Ferdinand and put it in a 7p-6a rotation with 18x a week if you can help out with __________." Then I say "XXXXX, of course. I'd be happy to. And thank you for finally helping me break a record."
"OK, HERE IT IS IN BLACK AND WHITE AND IT'S SERIOUS: IF A RADIO STATION GOT A FLYAWAY TO A CELINE SHOW IN LAS VEGAS FOR THE ADD, AND THEY'RE PLAYING THE SONG ALL IN OVERNIGHTS, THEY ARE NOT GETTING THE FLYAWAY. PLEASE FIX THE OVERNIGHT ROTATIONS IMMEDIATELY."
[the above was in an email apparently sent to the entire Pop department by a lower-level staffer, which prompted this choice rejoinder from the VP of Pop Promotion: is he running the department?]
I'll leave you with this last item, included just for noted Audioslave fan Tom Scharpling:
"WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO TO GET AUDIOSLAVE ON WKSS THIS WEEK?!!? Whatever you can dream up, I can make it happen."
So leave your James Patterson and Danielle Steel books on the shelf and fire up that printer before you head out to the beach this weekend! After spending some quality time with your friends in the record business you'll be more than ready to come running back into the comforting arms of WFMU come Monday morning.