BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Reporter Eric Boehlert wrote in this week's Salon that public radio has an impact on music other than classical or jazz. Noncommercial stations helped to push such alternative artists as Ryan Adams and Norah Jones onto the charts and were the first to embrace the soundtrack of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MAN: [SINGING] I-- AM A MAN OF CONSTANT SORROW. I'VE SEEN TROUBLE ALL MY DAYS.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That CD, snubbed by commercial stations, went on to sell 5 million copies and win the Grammy for Album of the Year. But if public radio is now a powerful influence on alternative music, is it subject to the same corrupting pay-for-play systems that afflicts the rest of the music industry? Here to answer that question, I guess in the affirmative, is Eric Boehlert. Welcome back to OTM.
ERIC BOEHLERT: Hi, how are you?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Good. First of all why would the mainstream music industry be interested in non-commercial stations? How influential are they?
ERIC BOEHLERT: Well they've become more influential because some have sort of broken away from the traditional classical music and, and news approach of public radio, and they're, they're playing sort of adult rock and adult folk records, and they're doing it 24 hours a day, and they have great listenerships in terms of demographics. I mean they're, they're reaching 30+ adult listeners who grew up on rock and roll and can't find decent music on the commercial radio. So anyone who exposes adults to new music, record companies want to influence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what happens when a public radio station becomes a tastemaker so to speak in the alternative rock world?
ERIC BOEHLERT:Record companies start paying attention. Some of these stations now report their play list to the trade magazines, and that affects the all-important charts. Record companies are obsessed with charts, so if they have a hit record and they want it to go top 5 or number one they have to get these public radio stations on board.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How many stations are we talking about here?
ERIC BOEHLERT: Right now it's a dozen or so. But they're in very large markets, so they have a lot of influence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So I'm still not clear -- what's the danger here. What's wrong with non-commercial stations wielding more influence in the music industry? Doesn't that help both the stations and the non-mainstream artists that they play?
ERIC BOEHLERT: Yeah, absolutely. I mean in, in a sense it's a great thing because lots of artists that simply cannot get played on commercial radio have a home in a lot of large markets -- New York - Philadelphia - Pittsburgh - places they would never be heard. The concern is that the pay-for-play system that's established at commercial radio will now seep into public radio and artists will not necessarily be judged on the merits but on how much money the record company is willing to put up for marketing and promotions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Okay, so explain again how this pay-for-play system works. Basically radio stations are contacted by these people called "indie-promoters," and, and where does it go from there?
ERIC BOEHLERT: In the commercial side an indie-promoter will form a, an exclusive relationship with a radio station, and they'll do that by paying them sort of an annual up front fee -- maybe a hundred thousand dollars. Once they become that station's exclusive indie, every time that station adds a new record to its play list, that indie will then invoice or bill the record company and the indie will generate an income. Virtually every time a song is added to an FM play list on the commercials stations today, someone's getting paid for it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And so this indie record promoter -- he's sort of a go-between, between the record companies and the radio stations. This is what keeps it from being called payola. It's legal. I wonder though, is it legal for public radio to take this kind of money?
ERIC BOEHLERT: I've talked to some programmers and they didn't think that it would be impossible to form a relationship. The indie could send a check in the form of an underwriting, and that's how they would establish the relationship. But I also talked to a station connected with a university, and they thought that a university probably had very strict conflict of interest rules that might prohibit this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You've been speaking in theory. Have we actually seen any public stations taking this kind of money and adjusting their play lists as a result?
ERIC BOEHLERT: No, not yet. You know, some of the program directors at the major market stations are, are adamant. They say they'll never do it. They say this is not what public radio represents. But I also talked to people at stations and, and record companies who are concerned, because once a format is perceived as valuable by record companies, and they want to get on those play lists, the money starts flowing and it's hard to say no. Ten years ago alternative rock radio -- when grundge was exploding -- and they started selling a lot of records. You know those programmers, they didn't want to be part of this sort of indie pay-for-play system, and they said you know, that's the scummy Top 40 world. And you know today virtually every alternative rock station is claimed by an indie. So public radio -- I think their heart is in the right place, and they say we are going to be the exception to the rule. We're going to stand up. But there's a station in Akron that just last week the program director sent out an e-mail saying that he was now being repped exclusively by an indie. These program directors are just deluged with calls from indies and record companies. He didn't have time for all the calls. He said I'm just going to work with one indie. I don't have - know any evidence that the station is getting one of these, you know, 6-figure payments, but people in the industry saw it as sort of the first sign that this is not impossible in this format.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does a relationship with an indie inevitably mean that your play lists will change?
ERIC BOEHLERT:Play lists wouldn't have to really change all that much. You know, you're going to play 30 or 40 songs, and the indie probably is representing, you know, 10 or 20 of those, so you can conceivably keep the format relatively similar to what it is now. So it's not like the play lists would, you know, automatically change overnight and, you know, all the favorite folk artists would be dropped. But on the flip side, the other concern is that already since the stations have been reporting to the trade magazines and they've become more influential the concern is that they're already playing fewer independent artists. You know, you see Stevie Nicks and Elton John songs on public radio play lists whereas, you know, a couple of years ago they wouldn't even have been considered.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why is that happening if money is not yet an issue?
ERIC BOEHLERT:Well two things -- again, the stations are --have a higher profile, so they're hearing more and more from the major labels. Also, they're sort of migrating to the middle themselves. They want more listeners. They're tightening up their play lists. The way it's described to me is they're just sort of becoming more professional and more professional would mean playing Elton John, because it's - you know the stations don't want to be seen as sort of eccentric, you know, free form radio where people are still hauling in their album collections.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eric Boehlert, thank you very much.
ERIC BOEHLERT: Thanks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eric Boehlert's latest article, Public Radio's Private Seduction, appeared in Salon.com. [MUSIC]