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FCC sets pay probe

Agency opens two payola investigations

WASHINGTON — Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael K. Powell opened two payola investigations Friday based on allegations raised in a recent agency meeting.

“In response to recent reports regarding potential violations of the ‘payola’ and sponsorship identification provisions of the Communications Act, I have instructed the enforcement bureau to open two investigations,” Powell said in a prepared statement.

The reports involve charges that conservative commentator Armstrong Williams may have violated federal laws by not fully disclosing that he had received more than $240,000 from the Dept. of Education to tout the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act during his broadcast appearances. Williams has claimed that he did make such a disclosure. The commission’s enforcement bureau will try to determine if Williams broke any laws.

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The other investigation involves the recent firing of a top programming executive at Entercom Communications Corp., who allegedly accepted improper gifts from record label promoters in exchange for guaranteed airplay. The enforcement bureau is now formally looking into those charges.

“This is the period of information gathering,” FCC spokesman David Fiske said. “The Enforcement Bureau will send letters of inquiry to the concerned parties to get their sides of the story.” It’s impossible to say how long the investigations may take.

Federal law prohibits payola. It also requires that anyone making a paid endorsement on public airwaves must disclose the fact of payment.

At the FCC’s monthly meeting held Thursday, Jonathan Adelstein, one of the agency’s five commissioners, said he had received a dozen complaints about Williams’s alleged lack of disclosure. Adelstein also said he was growing increasingly concerned about the Entercom case.

Powell had not yet seen the complaints, nor was he familiar with the Entercom case.

“As the chairman learned more,” said Fiske, “he made the decision that an investigation was appropriate.”