Congress: Please don’t stop the music

New fee on radio stations wouldn’t help listeners or the average musician

Members of Congress can take a stand for artists and local communities by signing on to the Local Radio Freedom Act, Pitts and Rahall write. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Members of Congress can take a stand for artists and local communities by signing on to the Local Radio Freedom Act, Pitts and Rahall write. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 27, 2021 at 6:00am

The recording industry, dominated by three multinational conglomerates, is again lobbying Congress to add a new fee to songs played over broadcast radio stations.

There aren’t many policy issues that unite the left and right, but opposing this new fee is one that does because of how definitively harmful it would be to local communities, artists and competition. 

Unlike national streaming services, broadcast radio’s core benefit is that it is free and local. Radio stations are licensed by the federal government — not to entertain you with a morning show or an interview with the hottest new band but to serve the public interest. This means ensuring the local community is informed with news, traffic and weather. This means alerting and engaging the local community in times of natural or man-made disasters. Streaming services might be able to play the songs you like, but they can never provide the breaking local news you need, especially in times of crisis.

The public utility of radio was on full display during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the industry losing approximately 50 percent of its revenue in the second quarter of 2020, stations stayed on the air, hosting public health briefings, interviewing medical experts and broadcasting changes to local health laws and reopenings in real-time. When businesses had to shut down, many radio stations gave local restaurants free airtime to inform the community if they were doing carryout. 

But fulfilling radio’s federally mandated mission requires resources. Imposing a new fee like the major record labels are pushing would force many stations to change their programming and community engagement practices. Some would have no choice but to go off the air altogether. That might not concern the major labels and their corporate parents based in New York, Paris and Tokyo, but it would affect listeners in every community across America.

The major record labels want the public to believe that imposing a new fee on radio airplay would help your average musician. That’s not true. It would help the executives who dominate the industry from their high-rise buildings at the expense of the industry’s most vulnerable.

Many artists break into the mainstream because of DJs who take chances on local artists who send them smooth-sounding singles. Jon Bon Jovi is one of them. He recently recounted how he took his first hit, “Runaway,” to a brand-new radio station and received an airplay promise from one of the DJs. The rest is history. The singer, whose band went on to produce 25 Billboard Top 100 hits, said he’s “thanked [that DJ] a thousand times for that day.”

Now, however, the labels want to turn each radio spin into an economic decision. DJs would no longer have the luxury of freely playing up-and-comers. They would have to factor in protecting the financial health of the already cash-strapped stations they work for in every spin. That would mean taking fewer chances on up-and-coming artists and playing proven hitmakers instead — a far cry from advancing the arts and future of music.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the major labels, which have already come under fire for locking newer artists into unfair contracts while appearing to secretly pocket much of their earnings, are promoting a policy that would harm artists’ interests. Their exploitation tactics, which have been called out by everyone from Bono to Kanye West, have discouraged many newer acts from signing record deals altogether. While they have long been criticized for acting off irrational impulses, this push for a new fee on radio airplay — free publicity that they benefit from since their job is to promote artists — is as unfounded as they have come. They want to profit off the most effective free promotional tool at their disposal. 

Congress doesn’t have to pass yet another income inequality-inducing giveaway for wealthy elitists. Members can instead take a stand for artists and local communities by signing on to the Local Radio Freedom Act, which declares the legislative body’s opposition to this new fee scheme. 

When we served in Congress, issues that had such overwhelming bipartisan support were few and far between. That is even more true today. The Local Radio Freedom Act is a resolution that has always enjoyed bipartisan support because members from every region, political ideology and background recognize just how harmful a fee on radio airplay would be for local communities and the music industry overall. 

With almost 200 sponsors and co-sponsors and counting at this early juncture, it appears that members of both parties continue to recognize the importance of local communities and listeners over the special interests of the large record label conglomerates. Here’s hoping that sentiment does not change because, in this economic climate, promoting local voices through broadcasting has never been more critical. 

Joseph Pitts is a freelance author who represented Pennsylvania in the House as a Republican from 1997 to 2017.  

Nick Rahall represented West Virginia from in the House as a Democrat from 1977 to 2015. He is a consultant at Cassidy & Associates. The views expressed above are his own. 

Both were co-sponsors of the Local Radio Freedom Act while in Congress.