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Radio AM to FM: August 5, 2005

Payola Settlement

Radio, already having an identity crisis due to sterile copycat formats created more by conglomerate research than good programming -- the Wal-Mart Syndrome -- took another jab in the gut when it was revealed that payola is alive and well in the broadcast industry.

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced in a press conference last week that a settlement was made with Sony/BMG in which Sony will pay a $10 million fine and agree to stop the practice of giving gifts to radio station employees in exchange for song airplay.

“What we see is that payola is pervasive,” Spitzer said. “It is omnipresent, it is driving the industry, and it is wrong.”

And you thought radio was lame only because of Infinity and Clear Channel.
Examples of payola include giving the programmer of KHTS-FM/San Diego a flat-screen television and providing the programmer of WRHT/Greenville, North Carolina airfare for two, a laptop PC, a Playstation 2 and associated PS2 games, all in exchange for airplay of particular songs.

What songs? Goodby’s the Saddest Word by Celine Dion, Franz Ferdinand’s Take Me Out, and Hold On by Good Charlotte were among those mentioned. They might even get you trips to Miami or Las Vegas if you played your cards right.

Spitzer is right, of course: this is wrong. Wrong on so many accounts that were not even mentioned in his press conference. Perhaps the biggest wrong? That the FCC, the regulatory agency that should be monitoring radio stations and enforcing the laws against payola, was nowhere to be found. Nowhere. Not even close. Too busy lining their own pockets with donations, err, lobbying, from the broadcast industry in exchange for more deregulation or approval of unproven technologies, no doubt. Need more proof that the FCC is worthless and should be disbanded? This is it.

Radio groups mentioned in the settlement, including Clear Channel and Infinity, have agreed to cooperate with further investigations. Spitzer is currently looking into the promotional habits of other record companies.

Right Calls, Wrong City

In reporting on the payola settlement, the St. Petersburg Times incorrectly stated that KHTS/Santa Clarita, a little small town full service AM station, was part of the scandal rather than the much larger FM hit station, KHTS-FM/San Diego. KHTS (AM) told’s Don Barrett that it took threats of legal action for the newspaper to finally admit its mistake and correct the story online. The change took two days.

Newspaper reporter egos notwithstanding, the practice of allowing call letters to be used in different cities as long as they are on different bands can cause some confusion. Many people thought I was reporting on a San Francisco station when KCBS-FM came to town. KCBS (AM) is a longtime Bay Area AM outlet.

A little knowledge of call-letters may have helped the Times. As AM was the first broadcast band, AM stations get first dibs on call letter mentions. For example, KCBS/San Francisco is simply KCBS. Because there exists a KCBS AM station, any other broadcast property using the KCBS calls must include a suffix, such as with KCBS-FM. Likewise, television’s Channel 2 is KCBS-TV, and the digital television equivalent is KCBS-DT. (Remember when it was KNX, KNX-FM and KNXT?)

Same goes for KABC, the AM talk station, KABC-TV Channel 7 and Channel 7’s digital signal, KABC-DT.

The naming system works well, for the most part, except that if there is only one use of a particular call letter combination, no suffix is needed. But if there is an FM-TV combo, both still need one. Fictional KWAG could be AM, FM, TV or DT alone; add a second band to it and you need to state KWAG-FM, KWAG-TV or KWAG-DT. But KWAG (AM) still gets to stand alone. Proudly playing the hits ...

On and Off

The HD Radio signal was on KNX for a time, but in the past few weeks it’s been off. Why? No one is saying. Calls to the engineering department have gone unreturned, but it seems that the inherent interference caused by the digital broadcasting system may have played a part. KNX at 1070 was apparently causing interference to XPRS at 1090 fairly close to XPRS’s primarily listening area in San Diego and certainly to any XPRS listeners in Los Angeles and Orange counties..

According to one reader, international treaties are involved. Since XPRS is a Mexican station, that may indeed be true.

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Copyright © 2005 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press.

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