To the Reader:
I am mystified by your decision to front-page Cliff Doerksen's article "Same Old Song and Dance" [October 11]. Doerksen's thesis seems to be that payola has always been with us, there's nothing wrong with it, and in any case, if we tried to change it, it would only get worse. Where is the news value in this?
There is, however, news value in the fact that there is growing dissatisfaction among radio consumers. Arbitron research shows that listening levels have declined steadily over the past few years, with dramatic declines among 12- to 24-year-olds. A study conducted earlier this year by the Future of Music Coalition found that by a better than ten-to-one ratio, radio listeners believe that DJs should be given more airtime for songs they think will be of interest, rather than be required to mostly play songs of artists backed by record companies. Fifty-two percent say radio would be more appealing if it offered more new music, less repetition, and more music of local bands and artists.
Doerksen is correct that payola has always existed (though he is wrong that all DJs have always been on the take--I am a former DJ and never took a dime). What he doesn't explain is that during the 1970s payola changed from many companies giving small amounts to many DJs to a tool for the largest record labels to price the independents out of the battle for the airwaves. He is also correct in likening the payola system of determining airplay to the stranglehold that giant companies have on supermarket shelves. Just as consumers increasingly support alternatives to supermarket milk full of dangerous growth hormones and antibiotics, they increasingly support alternatives to the major labels' stranglehold on radio. The indie labels are far more than "Joe Integrity and the Obscuros." Hundreds of major artists with real followings, like the Pretenders and Graham Nash, have been dropped from major labels in their search for higher profit margins and are now on independents who can't afford to buy their way onto the airwaves.
The Federal Communications Commission is currently considering the elimination of all remaining regulation of commercial media. They have conducted a number of studies on the effect of ownership consolidation on diversity and localism, including one on music diversity, and are taking public comment until January 2003. Readers concerned with this issue should get involved with the Coalition for Media Diversity. For details check out www.reclaimthemedia.org.