Reports in the press regarding thirteen SABC music compilers and their involvement in payola pay-outs have again put focus on the relationship between radio stations and the record-label business.
The current news is a follow-on from reports late in 2016 that surfaced regarding 999 Records and several SABC compilers. The broadcaster has had at least two publicised instances of payola in the last two years, one involving Chilli M at Ukhozi , and the other Irvin Kekana from Ikwekwezi.
Having worked in the programming department of an influential SABC radio brand, I can honestly say that the team I worked with at the time represented an honest and above-board music broadcaster with no wavering in principle or ethics when it came to music selection. As a taste maker in the South African music industry, the greater music department and play-listing team I worked with literally had a hand in “making and breaking” music careers. This is the case at many stations where compilers go about selecting and playlisting according to what they believe is right for their brands at any given time by using a variety of tools to help guide their thinking.
In all positions of power, whether it be a traffic officer at a road block, a security guard at a concert, or a barman at an event, the allure of an easy transaction for a relatively small indiscretion doesn’t seem that significant. Who really cares if you let someone into the golden circle area when they don’t have the right armband; no one will know or feel the difference and the cash received will certainly appease the poor pay and long hours of manning the entrance.
Like stealing paper at the office or bunking off time for personal errands, it is wrong. Period. Yes, in the modern system of justice we have apportioned degrees of “wrongness”. The fact remains it is wrong.
Music compilers, presenters and the music industry are the cause of this on-going issue in the radio business. Like a road block, if a bribe is offered and not taken, the correct line is drawn with consequences. If a bribe is offered and taken, a line is drawn in a different place with different consequences. Although it may seem as if there are some grey areas, there really are not. When you take anything due to the position you are in from someone who can directly benefit from influencing your position, there is a situation of what in South African terms is referred to as “capture”.
The situation at the SABC is unacceptable. There is a collective psyche of entitlement and greed amongst the various radio stations’ music compilers who, in my opinion, are the best remunerated music compilers in the country. Their responsibility is to make informed decisions to entertain audiences and help their stations achieve strategic programming and business objectives within a music space. For this they are remunerated monthly by the station. There should be no question of favour or forex.
Basic good practice would see unethical behaviour metered out with the necessary discipline or dismissal.The reality of the SABC environment is that it is a system that allows good practice to be flouted, despite policies that should create a rock-solid environment. In a digital age of music and consumption the system still allows for money to change hands in a very analogue way. In this instance, overall governance of the organisation must play a role; monkey-see, monkey-do?
The established and recognised labels that run multi-billion-dollar operations have no doubt fuelled the legacy of payola, but have over many years been in active rehabilitation. Anyone who has worked in the radio business has heard the stories of kit-bags, cars, building renovations, car repairs, holidays, jewellery and any manner of kick back necessary. Willing buyer, willing seller.
The greasy (or greasing) business of payola continues as smaller labels and outfits try and fight the privilege of what they may refer to as “previous unjust practices that have built and established relationships”. Judging by the quality of watches, shoes and lifestyles of some compilers, as well as winners at various music awards in a year, the business is alive and well.
The solution to the problem at the SABC seems obvious to me. A turn-key solution. From submission to selection, play and reporting that leaves very little space for undue influence. Yes, music selection relies on a very subtle human touch for amazing results. That touch doesn’t need to be influenced by a handful of players.
Music and radio have always been synonymous with each other. The digital age of music and music consumption has put radio in a precarious position. Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify and Pandora have become players in a traditional radio space competing for users, attention and revenue. In the South African context, the illegal sharing of music amongst mobile users, as well as networks dabbling in the music space, is a real threat to the role radio has in music discovery and delivery. Based on this, the critics will tell you radio is under threat from a changing music business.
So why is the negative concept of payola a positive sign for the radio business?
In an environment of changing consumption and digital uptake, the music business still cares about traditional radio audiences. Despite revolutionised business models in the global music economy, there is still value in trying to impact what radio stations serve to their audiences. Radio remains an influencer for discovery and delivery.
Radio is still important. If it wasn’t, the money would stop changing hands.