Pandora: money trumps morality, ran ads for anti-gay group.

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Above Pandora CFO Mike Herring shows how down with the gays Pandora really is!  The link goes to a custom Pandora radio station for “Oakland Pride Radio.”   Wow that’s really going out on a limb there Pandora! I bet some of your best friends are gay! I wonder what Oakland Pride thinks of Pandora using them as a prop to excuse their donations to an anti-gay demagogue?  And what will they say when they find out Pandora ran ads for “Speak Up University?”   

 

When I worked for Pandora, I took my job seriously. My title was “Listener Advocate”, and, as a listener myself, I tried to bring the opinions of the listeners to the company. Of course, most of our job was helping people to be able to simply listen to the online station, sort of minimal tech support. However, there were several legitimate things that we initiated meetings with management about, and many times these were met with new ways to word our responses to ameliorate listener concerns.

After I had been there for about a year, and had responded to many complaints about specific ads, we started hosting tons of ads for Meg Whitman, who was running as the republican candidate in the California gubernatorial race, 2010. She came from being CEO of Ebay, (then to Hewlett-Packard afterwards) and was rich as hell, and apparently spent more of her own money on the race than any other political candidate in history ($144 million, $178 million including donations). The company was thrilled to take her money and run her ads all the time, which of course generated complaints, which I thought a lot about, and then brought them to the company.

I advocated on behalf of establishing a rule that we take ads only selling goods and services, and nothing dogmatic (i.e. politics or religion.) The company’s party line was that we would accept any advertising that ran on “major mass media”, ignoring the fact that the term “major mass media” is essentially so vague as to be meaningless. For example, we explicitly stated that we would not accept advertising about pornography or gambling, while Clear Channel, which is obviously mass media, ran billboards advertising gambling casinos all up and down the state.

I had several conversations with Joe Kennedy and Tim Westergren about this. Joe basically heard me out and then dismissed me. With Tim it was more difficult. One thing that I pointed out to him was that when we played political or dogmatic ads, it reflected on the company’s political stance. He absolutely did not believe that, he said “TV stations always run advertising for all political parties”. I said, “yes, but we see television companies as being driven only by money, so we distrust them implicitly.” Tim, as well, refused to believe that his public political action had any bearing on how the company was seen by the public-at-large. I thought that this was very short-sighted of him, and said to him that simply because he was very visibly active in politics, for example asking our listeners to advocate on the company’s behalf vis-a-vis royalty rates or other congressional mandates, that anything political that the listener hears on Pandora would be viewed with the inherent politics of the company in mind.

I brought up the hypothetical situation of running ads promoting Proposition 8, which was on the California ballot at that time, which was opposing same-sex marriage.

Tim blew me off on this, adding cryptically “I’d love to argue about this, I’m a student of Chomsky!” If he actually were, I would think he would currently be living in some sort of nightmare of cognitive dissonance. Anyway, I still advocated the idea of only advertising goods and services, and questioned the whole idea of trying to be parochial to “major mass media”. If we wanted to be a shining light in the field of “radio”, we should make our own rules, we absolutely did not have to be mini-Clear Channels. I tend to think that making our own rules about such things would work out better in the end, both internally and externally.

I didn’t realize at the time how the lip service we gave to being “pro-music” and being “about music” was covering that fact that it was, indeed, in the end, all about money, and only about money. Being moral has nothing to do with business, especially if you are in the United States, and, it seems, especially if you in the tech world. One of the engineers came by my desk and mentioned that the Meg Whitman ads were paying dollars where other paid nickels, so she was gonna get those ads placed in any case. (She lost that election, regardless.)

It was the following year that the company held its IPO and became a publicly traded entity. Then it got really bad. While Joe Kennedy claimed “an IPO is just another round of funding”, being even more beholden to the investors started to become evident. The advertising and programming choices became even more suspect, listeners began wondering what was happening. And along with the political things, came advertising that was even weirder. We got many complaints about “Speak Up University”, who appear to be a support group for “straight Christians”, but a little more research into the Speak Up organization proves it to be essentially and anti-gay hate group, among other things.

(It’s a fallacy to think that any dominant culture would need support in the face of abused minorities, the same way that there is no such thing as “masculinism” battling the tenets of feminism: feminism strives for equality; being against it is being for the current inequality of all people, regardless of gender. Nonetheless, there is so much misunderstanding of it that people are duped into thinking that they should be against it because somehow it promotes more power to one side (women in this example,) instead of simply promoting equality. One would think that the anti-gay marriage proponents believed that allowing it would make it mandatory—or Worse!)

I brought this up to the management, again. This, surely, was a moral line we should not cross in our blind acceptance of money for political or dogmatic advertising. This slightly stirred things up, partially because my team had several gay members, to say nothing of those who were simply trying to advocate morality and refused to accept that there was any difference between people regardless, and hence advertising that is divisive or hateful in any way should be avoided. We never really got closure on this, as the advertising sales people were the cream of the business crop, in their own little money-driven world, and couldn’t be bothered so much with whom they sold to, so long as they sold time or web space.

I realized at this point that the entire area of “customer service” within Pandora was backwards. The listeners were not the customers, the advertisers were. The listeners got music in exchange for listening to ads. That was the deal. Again, music was irrelevant, we could have been pumping sausage through a pipe into their mouths all day long, in exchange for watching ads. But the public perception of the company was still that it was somehow “pro-music and musicians.”

I tried to accept this all, but still had to speak out when we ran ads for “Minnesotans for Marriage”, another anti-gay hate group opposing gay marriage in Minnesota. And, looking around, our very team was segregated: the gay contingent was off to one end by themselves…This time was the last straw for management, I was brought into a meeting and told to “stop questioning decisions that had been made by the company”, that is, get with the program or get out. They said “you have some tough decisions to make”. The next day I was told to clean out my desk. Many people asked me about whether I wrote this article after I was fired (I didn’t, but it is all true.) Take a look.

http://www.buzzfeed.com/reyhan/tech-confessional-how-pandoras-ipo-changed-every

Losing my job was bad, of course, that always is, and it makes one a pariah in the tech world to simply care about the morality of what is done. I wrote this a year later: http://jsegel.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/pandora-now-a-year-down-the-road-from-me/

(To repeat some of that blog entry, when I was told by the new over-manager  “you can’t keep questioning things that the company has already made decisions on”, I replied that of course I have to keep questioning! What if people hadn’t kept questioning during the civil rights protests in the 1960s? He became really angry and reared up and said, you can’t compare these things to racial issues! I said, “uh, yes you can, I’m talking about civil rights, this ad is for an anti-homosexual group…?” When I left that day and went to a yoga class, I spoke with an expert: none other than Angela Davis was a student in the same yoga class that I went to in Oakland. She was fairly adamant that I was on the right track!)

In the past two years, Tim Westergren has proven that all he really cared about all along was the money, he and many of the other upper management and investors have been cashing out millions of dollars in stocks all the while lobbying against royalty rates to pay for the music that supposedly the whole Pandora concept is based on. And as he, and the company, become more and more politically involved, it reflects more and more on the company as a whole.

Now it has come out that Tim and Joe and others even donated to the radical right wing anti-gay congressman Jason Chaffetz. Presumably, they simply did this to throw money at him to sponsor IRFA, the “Internet Radio Fairness Act” (a very Orwellian name!) Of course doing so supports him in his entire agenda. So, they really don’t care? Or is the company based in such a sense of pseudo-morality that these people like Tim are actually supporting Chaffetz’ anti-gay agenda? How could we know?

If it is that, then this company is sick at its core. If it is only about money, then the company is amoral. That same sort of amorality and hypocrisy permeates the rich industrialists of the world, see here for example regarding the Koch family.

In any event, the Pandora bosses have made out like bandits already, so I doubt they care what happens. Maybe the company will wither, and in its withering prevent similar IPO-based “funding”.

We can only hope that they are replaced by music streaming companies that really care about music.

 

-post by Jonathan Segel

About Jonathan Segel

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2 thoughts on “Pandora: money trumps morality, ran ads for anti-gay group.

  1. Meg Whitman was the former CEO of Ebay at the time of her candidacy. I don’t believe she had an executive position at HP until after the election. I’m not trying to be too picky but you may want to correct that.

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