Poster Boy for Radio Station Payola

Feb. 16, 2006 — -- Dave Universal always knew he was going to be in radio. When he was 15, he got his first job as an intern at 98.5 WKSE, a Buffalo, N.Y., radio station owned by Entercom Communications. From there, Universal worked his way up to eventually become the station's program director.

Universal says WKSE was very successful and broke ratings records while he was program director. "We did really well and made the company a lot of money," he said.

Last year, Universal was fired in the wake of New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's investigation into payola -- a practice many authorities would call bribes -- money and gifts given to radio stations by record companies and middlemen to play songs.

Entercom issued a statement to ABC News that stated that Universal was fired from WKSE "for violation of Entercom's conflict of interest policy, which clearly states that employees are not permitted to accept anything of value from any business that we deal with, including record companies."

Universal says he has now been labeled "the poster boy for payola." But he says he was only building relationships with the record labels to get as much money as he could for the station.

"If I worked for a company who said 'Don't bring in any money,' I wouldn't have brought in any money," he said. "If I worked for a company who said don't go on any trips, I wouldn't have went on any trips. I did what I was doing for my company."

Universal claims that he was actually rewarded for his success and the hundreds of thousands of dollars he brought in from record companies. "I was Entercom's golden boy for a long time," he said.

Just Good Business?

Internal e-mails obtained by ABC News show Sony executives complaining about Universal's practices. One reads, "It cost us over $4,000 to get Franz on WKSE" -- Universal's station. That e-mail referred to songs by the band Franz Ferdinand. The e-mail goes on to say that by adding two more songs by Good Charlotte and Gretchen Wilson, the total amount paid to Universal increased to "almost $5,000 in two weeks for overnight airplay."

"I was doing my job for Entercom and I did it well," said Universal. "I was a good negotiator. You know maybe sometimes the labels were a little upset that I was asking for money every single time. But hey, the money's out there. My job's to bring in as much money as I could and it would make me look good."

Universal said he collected the money only after he made the decision to add a new song to his playlist. "That's what I did. I collected afterward, every single time."

And he said he never took the money or gifts in exchange for putting a song on the radio he didn't think would be a hit. "Honestly I never once in my life ever, ever added a song based on money."

Universal said "payola doesn't exist in radio."

"The $1,500 they're spending to get us to play that record is money that's really going to go right back in their pocket," he said. "They're just investing in their product. What's wrong with that?"

Universal said he's now "back in the business doing music again" at another radio station.

ABC News' Dana Hughes contributed to this report.