Is the FCC's Radio Payola Settlement Really a Watershed Moment for Independent Music?

Breaking news: Four very big media conglomerates are getting their hands slapped by the FCC for accepting money, gifts, trips, and promo items in exchange for adding major label songs to their playlists. (Whether or not the songs even got played is another matter.)

The headlines chirp about the "penalty" in the settlement. Clear Channel, CBS, Entercom, and Citadel will have to pony up $12.5 million in cash. They're also going to have to provide 8,400 "half-hour segments" of programming featuring independent and/or local musicians over the next three years. And they have to air those programs between 6am and midnight.

(Things I didn't know yesterday: FCC Commissioner Johnathan Adelstein is, according to the L.A. Times, an amateur musician. !?!?!)

What I suspect will happen: Let's not get carried away, folks. Radio's power is about reflecting the popularity of existing hits, not breaking new acts. Radio really hasn't had that power in about a decade, if not longer. If I were an enterprising radio syndicator (Andy Denemark, are you out there?), I would be first out of the gate with a series of half-hour specials on independent music. That would knock out the 8,400 half-hour "penalty" in under six weeks. And the stations will slot them into the 11-midnight shift, like they already do with syndicated and voice-tracked programming.

While it's nice lip service from the FCC to request that radio stations program playlists based on "merit," the reality is that program directors have to make money. And they make money by playing what's familiar. They'll sacrifice some low-rated hours to make the FCC happy, but most of the local music shows on the radio are there to let creative staff scratch an itch ("we won't give you a raise, but we'll let you host our Sunday Night Loud 'n Local!") or on stations that aren't worried about attracting audience share.

Now, because I know this sounds a little cynical, I'll add this:

I hope that the folks that are already producing great local music shows at many of these stations as a labor of love will enjoy the chance to feel a little less marginalized over the next three years. While I'm not optimistic that this penalty will really do a lot to break new artists, I think it could actually boost the careers of some smart young programmers who will get to pick music from their guts instead of from focus group results. We could use some good, old-school radio programmers around here.

As always, my advice to independent musicians is this: focus on building your own audience, and let your contacts in the radio world be your sounding board for making your records sound better -- don't empty your favor bank asking for airplay that ultimately won't help you build audience.

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