Tuesday, May 3, 2016


Noncommercial Triple A radio stations have lots of good reasons to avoid Pay-For-Play relationships with music labels.

First, unless a sponsor credit is aired, it is illegal to play tunes in exchange for money or other “consideration.”  Second is that Pay-For-Play violates a core attribute for listener-supported radio: That the station is a trusted source by listeners. Without trust and integrity, the noncom dynamic falls apart.

 Last week noncom Triple A consultant and blogger Paul Marszalek wrote on his blog atTheTop22 site [link]:

Whether it’s money funneled through indie promoters or the more legal demanding of time buys, a few radio stations are engaging in the selling of spins…Multiple reports to TheTop22 tell of a few radio stations engaging in, and there’s no real other way to put it, pay-for-play arrangements.

I’m talking about cash. We know of one major-market radio station that is strong-arming time buys related to song adds.

Marszalek does not name names and he does not mention noncommercial stations. Since many Triple A stations are noncoms, the reader should assume that some are doing what Marszalek is talking about.

Paul Marszalek is someone who I take seriously.  He has held senior management and programming positions at VH1 Television, KFOG/San Francisco, and WXRT/Chicago. In 2003 he co-founded Media Mechanics with partners Mike Henry and Ben Manilla. Noncom Triple A stations and independent music companies have greatly benefited from Marszalek’s unique perspective.

Marszalek says Triple A stations are particularly vulnerable to Pay-For-Pay enticements:

The Triple A Format is a loose collection of stations that lean in different music directions — some lean alternative, some lean Hot AC, and some lean Americana… the sheer number of eligible songs from across multiple genres competing for limited airplay slots. [This] includes a number of mom & pop smaller market stations – and even spins on small-market stations can impact the chart…songs hit lunar rotation in exchange for payment via independent promoters.


Here is the way the radio and music industries work together:

Music companies (often referred to as “labels”) provide free copies of tunes to radio stations.  Station programmers consider the tunes and pick a few for airplay. The tunes go into the “rotation” for a certain number of “spins” – plays per week.  A noncom PD who asked not to be named in this article said at his station “heavy rotation” means tunes get between 14 – 16 spins per week. A song in “light rotation” might get five plays per week.

Music trade publications use popularity charts based the number of spins specific tunes get by reporting stations.  At right is a portion of the most recent Billborad/Nielsen Triple A chart. Note that the chart is built on the number of plays/spins stations on “the panel” report in given week. “The panel” consists of a limited number of stations chosen because of their trendsetting reputation and size of audience reached.

The total reach of a tune is determined by multiplying the number of spins by the number of estimated average-quarter-hour listeners. So, on the chart, Ophelia by The Lumineers received 690 plays during the past week on stations in the panel.  This yields a weekly audience of 2,101,000 people. Music companies use this information to get other stations to play a tune of increase the spins.

What if someone games the system?  Maybe a certain station reports a tune has been played 16 times when it actually has been played 4 times?

What if a music company offers an exclusive interview with a well-known artist in exchange for increased plays?

What if a company offers a cash-strapped PD a free room at a conference hotel in exchange for adding a tune?

All of these situations have happened and are probably happening now with “ a nod and a wink.”

I talked with several noncom PDs who were glad to talk off the record but did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.  One PD told me:

“We don’t participate in these relationships but we know there are people who do.  Every time I add a tune to our rotation I know I am doing someone a favor. I don’t want anything back but the temptation is always there.”

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