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Feingold Requests Payola Hearing

Democratic Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) has asked the ranking members of the Senate Commerce Committee to both raise the payola issue at a planned FCC oversight hearing, and to hold a separate hearing devoted to it.

The letter follows reports that New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer has subpoenaed a number of top radio groups in his ongoing investigation of pay-for-play policies in the music industry. Both BMG and Warner Music have settled payola complaints with Spitzer, and he has sent the evidence in those cases to the FCC, which is conducting its own investigation.

Feingold has more than a passing interest in the subject. Feingold wants to give the FCC more clout in dealing with any violations it may find, as well as build disincentives into the regulatory framework.

Last October, he introduced a bill that would increase the penalties for payola, the practice of paying to influence the playing of certain songs, including putting a radio station's license at risk for violating FCC rules prohibiting the practice.

It would also require "arm's-length transactions between radio stations and record companies that might want to influence playlists; require the stations to keep records of those transactions handy for FCC inspection; broaden the definition of payola beyond the 'direct bribing of DJs and stations' to relationships with independent music promoters; and put restrictions on the cross-ownership of radio stations and concert venues. 

The bill would require stations to disclose all payments or considerations and their sources, along with a monthly playlist, including label and artist.

In the letter, Feingold suggests that even more may need to be done to curb the practice than his bill currently recommends, "While I encourage consideration of my proposal," he says, "there may be other effective solutions to the recurring problem of payola, which has plagued radio on and off for decades.  A dedicated hearing to these issues will help to develop ideas about ending this practice and assuring radio listeners that they no longer have to wonder whether what they are hearing on the radio is based on merit or thinly veiled bribes."

The American Federation of Radio and Television Artists has praised Feingold's bill, saying it "will shine a light on the insidious practice of payola, which has continued to suppress employment opportunities and income for AFTRA recording artists."