Is NPR Violating the Plugola Laws by Failing to Disclose Membership in MIC Coalition?

mccoaltion - Amazon

Remember the “MIC Coalition” or as we prefer to call them the McCoalition?   This is an astroturf trade group organized by Pandora, National Public Radio, the National Association of Broadcasters, Google/YouTube, DiMA, CCIA, CES and others to oppose paying artists and songwriters for radio airplay.  In particular, the McCoalition intends to fight the Fair Play, Fair Pay Act introduced by Representatives Jerry Nadler and Marsha Blackburn.  Based on the McCoalition mission statement, songwriters are next.

According to the always reliable Ed Christman writing in Billboard, Amazon has left the McCoalition, the first member to exit.  In his post, originally titled “Amazon Pulls Out of Anti-Fair Play Fair-Pay Coalition” before the editors got their hands on it,  Amazon’s representative states that Amazon’s motives for joining the McCoalition was “transparency” in ownership of music rights.  A little odd because the McCoalition’s public messaging only tangentially mentions “transparency” but it does say this under “Mission“:

We join together with a collective voice because all stakeholders in the music marketplace – artists, content owners, users and distributors – benefit when current and accurate information about copyright ownership and payment to artists is easily accessible. In order for the music marketplace to grow and thrive, we need balance in copyright and competition policies that will benefit all participants rather than the few – the major record labels and publishers.

Kind of gibberish straight out of 1999, right?  Sounds like these companies with multi-trillion dollar market caps and their trade associations are going after the major record labels and publishers.  And trying to intimidate their artists and songwriters.

Whatever Amazon’s reason for leaving, that’s a good thing.  They don’t need the headache of being associated with the pariahs of the online music business like Pandora, Google and YouTube.

Which leaves National Public Radio.  As an NPR whistleblower told us, NPR’s decision to join the McCoalition was all about the lobbying staff at NPR trying to feather their collective nest by making common cause with these pariahs–albeit rich pariahs–and the move evidently was made without the knowledge of NPR’s music and news divisions according to an internal email we leaked:

We have joined the MIC Coalition through NPR’s Policy and Representation division, which is charged with representing the needs and interests of NPR Member Stations before federal legislative and regulatory bodies. This role is stipulated in NPR’s charter which provides that it is part of NPR’s mission to represent our members in matters of mutual interest.

Our participation in the coalition is completely separate from NPR’s newsroom. NPR journalists and music curators have absolutely no role or involvement in the coalition,

We’re prepared to believe that the NPR newsroom wasn’t involved at the outset, but what is becoming increasingly apparent is that NPR is there to provide cover for the pariahs and their anti-artist trade associations like DiMA, CCIA and CES, not to mention the restauranteurs who play music that is subsidized by the US taxpayers paying foreign songwriters (under the Fairness In Music Licensing Act arbitration award).

The rumor is that NPR did not pay a membership fee to join the McCoalition.  If true, why was that?  Maybe NPR is paying for its membership “in kind”?  NPR is after all a major influencer of public opinion and the music division brings years of tastemaking credibility to the bargaining table.  Any evidence of that motivation?

Yes, there is.  NPR’s music news group (“The Record: music news from NPR“) has started a series called “Streaming at the Tipping Point” that in our view is simply boosting the goals of the McCoalition–without ever disclosing to listeners the fact of NPR’s membership in the organization much less the purposes of the organization or identifying the financial benefit to NPR of boosting streaming to the great benefit of MIC Coalition members.  For example, in “How Streaming Services Are Remaking The Pop Charts,” NPR fails to even mention that the Billboard “consumption chart” penalizes soundtracks and branded compilation companies like Ministry of Sound in NPRs rush to boost streaming services:

The prominence of streaming on the Billboard charts — comparable if not quite equal footing with radio and sales — is appropriate, given how important streaming is for the recording industry, and how (relatively) novel it is as a form of music consumption. Unlike radio, with streaming the consumer gets to choose what she hears. And unlike music retail, after she plays the song, she doesn’t keep a copy.

NPR fails to mention that Billboard itself is in the streaming business in China (“Billboard Radio China”) and so may have a conflict of interest in how it weights the “consumption charts”.  NPR also fails to mention the Turtles litigation against Pandora and SiriusXM that are both screwing pre-72 artists.  Strangely, NPR’s music news division has failed to cover the class certification for the Turtles in their lawsuit against SiriusXM–a win for artists that is not in the interests of the MIC Coalition.  Even though The Street reported that the ruling took 1.54% off the Sirius market cap.  Maybe that wasn’t news.

But more importantly, NPR is not disclosing the fact that it is a member of the MIC Coalition and that the spin in its reporting on streaming benefits the McCoalition’s goals of screwing artists through sheer multinational corporate market domination.

As we feared, NPR has compromised its journalistic integrity by joining this McCoalition–aside from NPR’s membership being a slap in the face to artists who go out of their way to help NPR Music be relevant and tastemaking.

Plus, there actually are laws about this kind of thing that NPR may be violating.

It’s called “plugola,” the cousin to payola.  Plugola usually involves on-air talent taking payments to plug products or services, or plug products or services they have an undisclosed interest in.  You know, like a free membership in the McCoalition.  As one expert summed it up succinctly, plugola is “promoting the non-broadcast activities of the station licensee or an on-air personality on the air. Plugola occurs only when the financial interests are those of persons ‘responsible for including promotional material in a broadcast.'”  (Read David’s FCC comments on the NAB’s application for a waiver of the payola rules “The Return of the $50 Handshake.”)

Granted, the recipient of the under the table benefit for NPR’s streaming coverage is NPR itself and its fellow MIC Coalition members, but do they really want to raise that as a plugola defense?

Regardless of whether NPR is violating the law, it certainly appears that they are violating every standard of objective reporting in NPR’s “Streaming at the Tipping Point” series.

It’s just more sleaze from people we thought better of.  We really hope that NPR sees the corner they’ve painted themselves into and follows Amazon in exiting from the McCoalition.