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FCC should join Spitzer radio suit Payola penalizes listeners and treats public airwaves like private domain

New York Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer accused radio giant Entercom Communications of soliciting money and gifts from record companies in exchange for playing songs on the air. It's a violation of public trust that the Federal Communications Commission should give full weight to, issuing sanctions to the guilty, including the possibility of revoking licenses.

Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein released an appropriate response to Spitzer's investigation, saying violators should not get away with a slap on the wrist. That's a decent comment for a Democratic minority commissioner. Three Republican commissioners control the five-member board.

Last year, the FCC launched its own investigation into music industry payola. But the speed with which any agency investigation proceeds is up to Republican Chairman Kevin J. Martin. It's time for the FCC to turn up the volume. Or to better coordinate its efforts with the attorney general.

Spitzer went after the nation's fifth-largest radio chain, accusing it of accepting secret payments in exchange for air time, compromising its radio programming and violating state and federal laws. Entercom, based in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., also owns stations in Buffalo and Rochester.

What makes this case especially egregious, Spitzer said, is the extent to which senior management viewed control of the airways as an opportunity to garner illegal payments from record labels. It one-ups the infamous stories of payola to 1950s disc jockeys with corporate efficiency. Consumers don't receive a trustworthy read of a product, and these corporations abuse a public trust -- the airwaves. In addition, a new artist has few venues beyond the corporations and stations managing these public assets as if they were private. Without the backing of deep-pocketed benefactors, individual artists remain helpless.

The FCC should respond appropriately to public concern.

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