May 24, 2002 -- Matthew Harrison, who wants to get his music played on the radio, says he can't because of the radio industry's dirty little secret.
Harrison's CD, recorded for a small label, got good reviews from several local critics and on the Internet; but he and his producer, Jeff Robinson, have been unable to translate that success into play over the airwaves.
"People think Matthew Harrison sends his CD to all these radio stations and they say, 'Yeah, this sounds good. I'm going to play it,' " says Harrison. "It doesn't work that way."
The way it does work, they say, is that those with big bankrolls are the ones who get most stations just to listen to their music.
"It seems like now, [for] corporate-owned radio stations, it's not about the music so much as what compensation they are getting for playing the records," says Robinson.
Industry critics call it pay for play, and they say it's happening throughout the music business.
And the industry itself is apparently responding to the criticism. A coalition representing everyone from singers to record labels and consumers is expected to release a statement Friday acknowledging the problem, and asking the Federal Communications Commission to ban compensation in exchange for the playing of certain records.
Read the "Joint Statement on Current Issues in Radio" here.
"The system is crooked," says Jerry Del Coliano, who publishes Inside Radio. "You pay for access to radio stations and it's basically legalized payola."
"Payola" was outlawed in 1960, after a number of disc jockeys were charged with taking bribes from record companies to play their songs.
"In those days, you could learn to love a record that had a $100 bill on it," says Del Coliano. "If it had a $200 bill on it, … the disc jockey says, 'So nice, I'll play it twice.' "
Since it's now illegal for radio stations to take money directly from record companies in exchange for airplay, they have found a loophole in the law by using middlemen. Record companies say they're being forced to pay independent promoters, so-called indies. The indies then pay the radio stations, buying access to get the songs heard. And it's all legal.
"You look at the radio and they got the same 30 records circulating. These 30 records are paid for, and the minute you stop hearing a record, that means that records not paid for anymore," says Chuck D, a rapper with Public Enemy. "It's a different type of payola."
Getting the Party Started
According to documents obtained by 20/20, Work Records, a now-defunct division of Sony Music, paid indies more than $400,000 in one year after Fiona Apple's song "Criminal" got nationwide airplay.
The price tag for Jamiroquai's CD? More than a quarter-million dollars in fees paid to indies for weekly retainers and in bonuses for getting airplay, according to documents.
Even for a monster hit that would seem to need no help getting played — like Pink's "Get This Party Started" — the record label still gets a hefty bill from indies, according to Hilary Rosen, president and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America.
"There's this sort of implied fear that if you don't play the game with them, you're not going to be able to be at the table," she says. "Maybe the next time you've got a record you want the stations to consider, they won't."
Artists like Harrison and Robinson say that since they don't have a seat at the table, radio stations aren't even considering playing their CD.
"They're not even listening to it because we're not going through an independent radio promoter," says Robinson.
'Purchasing a Relationship'
Several of the indies who have become major players in the radio business by buying access declined to speak with 20/20. Most radio stations wouldn't speak about it either.
But the executives of Radio One, which owns 65 stations across the country, had no problem admitting that they're taking money — an amount reported to be millions of dollars a year — from indies.
"It's legal," says Mary Katherine Snead, Radio One's chief operating officer. "It's also another revenue stream. And so are we going to be the only major broadcasting group out there not taking advantage of that?"
Radio One CEO Alfred Liggins says the indies offer a valuable service by working as middlemen. "The phone rings too much. There's too many other people calling and you can't talk to everybody."
He says the indie pays for the right to consult with stations' program directors about which songs are chosen to be played. But Liggins insists that the indies do not dictate which records get on the air.
Driving Away Listeners?
Whether or not a song gets played, and how long it stays on the radio, Liggins says, depends on how good it is. While an indie gives some artists an advantage, record companies don't necessarily have to go through one in order to get their songs played.
But many artitsts disagree: "Who's going to give the grass-roots person a chance?" asks Chuck D. "They can't get on the airwaves, which is supposed to belong to the people. That's a damn shame."
Record company representatives say they have no choice but to keep paying the ever-increasing price to get a song played.
But critics say the industry is shooting itself in the foot, because it results in boring, sound-alike music that drives listeners away.
"What does the next generation say? 'Radio sucks,' " says Del Coliano. "The younger listeners are saying, 'I don't need radio.' And they don't."
But commercial radio remains the best way for musicians to get their songs heard. If the airwaves are virtually closed to people without deep pockets, it's next to impossible for them to sell their music.
"I can't even get played on the radio in Vegas, my hometown," says Harrison.