BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. A few weeks ago, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer issued subpoenas to the four big music conglomerates, investigating how songs earn or buy radio play. Spitzer's investigation shed light on one of the oldest problems in pop music: payola. Payola had its heyday in the 1950s, when a handful of disc jockeys were convicted of taking money in exchange for playing a few potential hits. Many thought the practice had gone the way of rigging game shows, but it seems to have merely changed form. James Surowiecki wrote about modern payola for the New Yorker magazine, and he joins us now. Jim, welcome back to the show.
JAMES SUROWIECKI: Thanks for having me on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is modern payola?
JAMES SUROWIECKI: Well, the simple idea of payola, of course, is record labels paying radio stations in order to get their records on the air, and modern payola takes a variety of forms. The simplest form, which I think is the one that Spitzer is really trying to investigate are record labels use these people called independent promoters who basically funnel money to radio stations by a variety of means. They pay for things that they call research funds. They give gifts in kind. They'll throw big events, etc. -- in order to kind of basically push their records -- at least get their records on the horizon. And then there's this other interesting form which has gained a lot of notice recently which are called spot buys.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that's legal.
JAMES SUROWIECKI: That's totally legal, and basically what a spot buy is, is essentially a record label will buy big chunks of air time. One of the examples I wrote about was Avril Levigne's record label basically bought radio time on a series of stations around the country, and they would just play the song over and over again, like three, four times an hour.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say that this kind of legal payola is worse than the illegal kind.
JAMES SUROWIECKI: Well, you know, the traditional form of payola back in the 1950s when famously, you know, Alan Freed, who was one of the first real rock & roll deejays, was eventually accused and indicted for taking bribes to play records. That payola, what that actually did was break a lot of interesting records. There's a real good argument to be made that a lot of black music--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mean break them into the--?
JAMES SUROWIECKI: Into the mainstream [LAUGHS] - yeah, I'm sorry -- break them as hits, not smash them -- that Chuck Berry, people like that would, would maybe never have become the pop icons they became had it not been for payola. Because what it did was it allowed these relatively unknown artists to get played. The problem with this kind of spot buy payola is that it actually has nothing to do with real popularity. It has nothing to do with breaking new artists. It really is just an attempt to game a completely corrupt system, which is the Billboard ranking system, and it really serves no purpose other than to kind of artificially create popularity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let's talk about the Billboard ranking service, because as you noted in your piece, this is how radio stations, many of them, determine their playlists, and if people buy spot ads, basically buy the time to play those songs, it still counts on the Billboard chart.
JAMES SUROWIECKI: Yeah. That's the most perplexing part of this, and, and it's - it's sort of hard to keep in your head, but, but if you think about it, all Billboard is basically recording is how many times individual songs are played. And for some bizarre reason, they do not distinguish between records that are played because some deejay decides to play them and records that are played because a record label has bought the time. So that's a huge flaw and loophole in the ranking system, and that's what these labels are trying to exploit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But paying for placement is acceptable in other markets. Coke pays to have its soda displayed prominently in the supermarket. Publishers do the same in bookstores. Why not music on the radio?
JAMES SUROWIECKI: Well, I think the reason why we accept it in supermarkets and we accept it in, in bookstores -- although the truth is, we don't, most people don't know about it in bookstores -- is that radio is a weird medium. A song is an advertisement for itself. The record labels give these songs to radio stations effectively -- they pay a small royalty -- so that people will hear them and then say oh, I gotta buy the album. But at the same time radio is kind of art as well, you know, you don't - you - we don't want it to be corrupt.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But let's talk about transparency, then, because you make a big point in your piece of saying that legal payola is fully disclosed. If the record company that owns Avril Levigne's records pays for those air plays, the public hears that they're being paid for. Does that make a difference?
JAMES SUROWIECKI: Well, it certainly makes a difference legally. As long as payola is acknowledged, it, it is legal, and these Avril Levigne songs, at the end they would say, you know, "this has been sponsored by" - or at the beginning…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So instead we have this legal and aboveboard system whereby big companies can pay for play and thereby queer the Billboard charts that all the stations look at to determine what they're going to play. So is there any way to know what the public really likes?
JAMES SUROWIECKI: That's a really fascinating question, because I think at this point it's a sort of circular logic going on here. Popular songs get played, but what gets played is what's -becomes popular, etc. So it is very hard to figure out exactly what the audience wants to hear. I do think that Billboard -- and it mystifies me why they have not done this -- should just change their ranking system. It would not be hard to do. The spot buys have to be acknowledged, so they have to be recorded. Billboard should just exclude those, and then we'd still be with this radically impure system, but it would be a lot better than what we've ended up with.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What does the conventional wisdom tell us about whether it's possible to create a hit simply by playing a song a lot?
JAMES SUROWIECKI: I think conventional wisdom probably would tell us that you can buy a hit. I actually don't fully believe that. It's certainly possible to push songs higher up than they would normally be. I feel about it a little bit the way I feel about movies. It's very easy to open a movie big. But it's very hard to create a movie that actually endures over time. And I think with records it's probably pretty close to the same thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jim, thanks very much.
JAMES SUROWIECKI: Thanks for having me on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: James Surowiecki is author of The Wisdom of Crowds, and columnist for the New Yorker magazine.