Most record execs had long assumed that ''payola'' the illegal dissemination of cash and drugs in return for radio airplay, rampant in the late '70s and '80s had gone the way of the mirror ball. Then, on Oct. 20, Sonji Shepherd a former promotions assistant at Maverick Records, the label co-owned by Madonna filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit garnished with an incidental litany of payola excesses. Among Shepherd's allegations, all of which Maverick denies: that the label brass provided influential radio execs with pricey laptop computers and the laptop services of Heidi Fleiss' band of call girls.
''There's a limited amount of airtime, a lot of records, and certainly a fervent battle to get your records on the air. So the bottom line is, anything is possible,'' says Ron Rodrigues, managing editor of Radio & Records, one of radio's leading trade weeklies. ''But I was surprised at the Maverick charges. We all thought blatant forms of payola had gone away.''
To many minds, the need for black-and-white bribery had evaporated when gray-area graft was subtly built into the system. Most bizzers read federal payola statutes as covering only payoffs that go to one individual; any transaction that benefits an entire station, however ethically dubious, is assumed to be legal. Therefore, as one label employee recently posted online: ''They 'legalized' it a long time ago with time buys [on-air commercials], 'co-op' advertising [money for local print ads], and flyaways [trips for contest winners]. Why's anybody worrying about payola?''
Still, allegations about darker doings keep payola a volatile subject. On the positive side, three years ago the trades began requiring key stations to report more specific information about the airplay they afford Top 40 singles, and the scrutiny has made undue influence harder to cover up. But whispering continues about stations whose playlists are completely paid for by indie promoters, or trade publications said to operate as fronts for money-hungry consultancies.
The Justice Department may not be much help. Fredric Dannen, author of the acclaimed 1990 book Hit Men, predicts a light penalty for ex-record promoter Joseph Isgro later this month. In Dannen's view this would be an anticlimax to a six-year investigation and indicative of governmental confusion over payola laws: ''To have a case that starts with 57 counts [including] racketeering and ends up with someone pleading guilty to not filling out his tax returns [on time]...It's an extraordinary turn of events, but not surprising.''
But Tim Sommer, the Atlantic A&R rep who signed Hootie & the Blowfish, doubts payola has much impact when, as he sees it, the consumer has the last word. ''In theory you can pay people to play records, but you sure can't pay people to buy them. Maybe Maverick did that stuff, but millions bought Alanis Morissette's album because they wanted to.'' with reporting by Russ Spencer