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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Why paid posting is worse than a "red wigglers" spot... Payola and blogging...

In 1863, the Hutchinson Singing Family would occasionally squeeze a rendition of "Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Grounds" into their performance. We may have no idea of whether or not HSF loved the ditty, but we do know that their decision to incorporate it into their act was probably motivated by a deal made with the composer. The deal was simple. HSF agreed to croon about the Old Camp Grounds, thus increasing the exposure and potential popularity of the tune. In exchange, they received a portion of the royalties.

That was well before anyone decided to take the word "payment" and slide it into "Victrola" (the standard bearer of record players) to come up with "payola," which is now associated with sleazy business of all types.

The biggest payola story was attached to the biggest name in rock 'n' roll in the late 50s--Alan Freed. The powerhouse DJ who may have been half-inventor of the very term "rock and roll" was dragged before Washington politicians who had developed a fond interest in encouraging the "race music fad" to come to a close.

Freed was trading spins for cash. Here's some dough, Alan, make sure my record gets noticed. A lot like the Hutchinson Family Singers. Freed argued the honorariums he received were tokens of appreciation or consulting fees. He also claimed he earned those occasional songwriting credits that would pop up on records now and again, too. No one believed him.

Unlike Dick Clark, who played ball and promptly divested himself from some questionable "investments," Freed went down in a ball of flames. Many speculate that his decision to drink his liver into jerky status was a byproduct of the scandal.

In 1979, Doug Winner was taking payola from a radio industry scum bag in exchange for cocaine. The ensuing controversy led to the reinstatement of Dr. Johnny Fever's morning show at WKRP. Yes, I realize that was a sitcom. I couldn't resist.

Fast forward nearly 50 years from Freed's fall. Nowadays, the FCC has regs in place to protect us from payola. The free marketeers in the audience might think that's unnecessary in a market economy where choice should solve all problems, but the FCC likes the idea of airwaves being a public asset. Besides, if they didn't regulate the hell out of radio people might actually wake up to the fact that those vital public resources are all owned by seven rich guys or something.

Anyway, payola is back in the news. The music industry guys aren't sliding baggies of coke into LPs ala WKRP, but they are hiring third party promoters to take care of radio play decision-makers. Cash for spins again. The NY AG is making noise and many of those who hate corporate radio are undoubtedly cheering the Empire State's apparently upcoming attack on the payola people.

Payola is alive and well online, too.

I've been Alan Freed, Doug Winner and the Hutchinson Family Singers a few times. I have received the filthy lucre of cash payouts for blog posts announcing new sites and hyping products. I get offers from Blogsvertise, Pay-Per-Post and Blogitive. I've taken those offers a few times on some other blogs I maintain.

I don't know who has what kind of disclosure policy right now, but when I traded a paragraph and a link for a few bucks here and there, I don't remember any requirements being in place. It's my understanding that no one prevents disclosure right now and that some of the sites even mandate it now, which is a definite improvement.

In the wake of the Edelman controversy, where those authentic pro-Wal-Mart blogs were revealed as corporate shill work, and the growing feeling of nausea many experience about the world of paid blog posts, disclosure is becoming a bigger and bigger deal.

I've decided that's a good thing. A few months ago, I supplied a piece to the Main Edition newsletter that discussed the potential downside of paid blog posting to bloggers and that article came down squarely on the side of full disclosure, so that isn't a revelation on my part.

Nonetheless, I think that if I was writing it again today I would take an even stronger position.

My original critique primarily dealt with the disadvantages to the blogger who engages in paid posting. Today, I would probably concentrate a little more on the deleterious effects on the greater information world and consumers of those blogs.

I'm also increasingly convinced that disclosure isn't a perfect solution in all cases. The paid posts are a pollutant, even when people understand why they've wiggled their way into the RSS feed reader.

Anyway, I'm no longer interested in trading a paragraph for a ten spot, even if it is on an old blog my "regulars" will never find or read.

I want the people who read long posts like this one to do so with some level of confidence in the integrity of my remarks. If there's a chance that I'm getting paid, there's a chance that money is influencing my commentary. I don't want that to happen.

Let's say Alan Freed was playing a certain Chuck Berry record a lot. Let's say he recommended it to everyone. If we didn't know Alan's little payola problem, we might take his advice and go out to pick up a copy of "Maybeline." If we did know that Alan occasionally played shill to the guys at the label, we might look past his sage advice. He'd be too hard to trust.

Right before Christmas, I received a package in the mail. It was a book. I didn't order the book, it was sent to me free of charge. A holiday present? Not entirely. On the inside of the book there was a post-it note signed by the author. It said something like, "Hope you like this. Maybe you might want to mention it in your blog if you do."

I've been reading the book off and on and I like it. But I haven't mentioned it. Why, because if I do mention it, I will feel obliged to also explain how I found the book in the first place. If I did that, there'd be every reason to believe that I was rewarding the giver with a big thumbs up--even though I do like the book (really!).

I've discussed this idea of new media vs. old media and the concept of "blogger as citizen journalist/columnist" a few times in the past. I'm not in that hardcore corner of cyberspace that believes the blogosphere is a perfect replacement for corrupt old media structures. I'm also anything but an apologist for the old-timers.

I am, however, a participant in a massive exchange of information and opinions that is reshaping how people understand and relate to the world. I am a very small part, but I am a part. I think that creates a responsibility.

Does that mean all commercialism is out the window. Nope. Here I am, blogging under the Content Done Better flag, completely cognizant of (and happy for) the fact this blog brings me customers. There's no inherent evil in marketing. There are some blogs (a blog, after all, is merely a website with chronological content ordering and an easy-to-use CMS system) where it makes perfect sense. I can envision affiliate marketer's blogs and others in which pushing products would be AOK (with appropriate disclosure).

Paid posts and covert marketing are ethically tricky and practically dangerous.

You can thank the Hutchinson Family Singers for creating this mess, I guess.

I have decided that I'm personally better off being more like Dr. Johnny Fever than Doug Winner. When Johnny had to pay the bills, he didn't keep it under wraps...

Addendum: Thanks to Tom Chandler's comment, I was forced to create the following: