Last week, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly was in the news for sending a letter to the major record labels asking for information about their practices in paying broadcast stations for airing the label’s music.  The letter follows correspondence last year between the Commissioner and the RIAA (the Recording Industry’s trade group) asking for similar information, which the RIAA claimed that it did not have.  This process began after a Rolling Stone magazine article suggested that “payola” was still a common practice in the broadcast industry.  These actions, and the press reports that followed, raise a couple of interesting questions including what the FCC rules are on payola, and how broadcast practices compare to those of online companies.

The Communications Act prohibits the practice of “payola” by requiring, in Section 317, that when any content is aired on a station in exchange for anything of value, the station must disclose that “consideration” has been paid by the person or entity that pays for the consideration.  Thus, “payola” arises when a broadcast station employee or contractor receives or is promised anything of value in return for putting any content on the air, and that payment is not disclosed to the public.  Payola usually occurs when someone makes a gift or payment to a person involved in station programming (i.e., station employees, program producers, program suppliers) in exchange for favorable on-air exposure of a product or service.  While the term “payola” is most often associated with the receipt by a station announcer or music director of money, trips or other value for playing songs on the station, the same prohibition applies whenever any station programming personnel receive anything of value in exchange for airing any content where a sponsorship identification is not broadcast.  For examples of fines for airing programming for which consideration was received without acknowledging the receipt of valuable consideration, outside the context of music, see our articles here, here and here
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In April, the FCC agreed to Consent Decrees calling for fines totaling $12.5 million from four of the country’s largest radio broadcasters in order to settle allegations that these companies had engaged in violations of the FCC’s payola rules. Recently, another public radio company stated in one of its SEC filings that it had received an inquiry