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To air is human

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This just in: The saga of ads masquerading as news continues at WWJ Newsradio 950. (This News Hit, incidentally, is facilitated by phone interviews made possible by the good folks at SBC! And let’s not forget Executone, the phone set that demands to be answered!)

You’ll recall that WWJ recently began regularly airing “mentions” of the wonders of AOL for Broadband during news reportage.

That practice was suspended after Metro Times obtained a WWJ internal memo (promptly delivered to Metro Times — Detroit’s largest, most-read weekly — by the dedicated souls at the U.S. Postal Service). Metro Times published a piece describing the practice, which some newsies at WWJ view as an unacceptable obliteration of the line between advertising and news (“Ad nauseam on the air,” Metro Times, June 11-18). As that column disclosed, AOL for Broadband is paying $15 million to WWJ’s parent, Infinity Broadcasting, this year. While the memo instructed news anchors to log the vocal strokes of Broadband as though they were ads, the talkers were explicitly told not to say that AOL was sponsoring them.

News gatherers see such an arrangement as anathema (that 50-cent word brought to you by Roget’s, The Best Gol Darn Thesaurus Money Can Buy). The bought-and-paid-for editorial endorsements also appear, at best, to stretch FCC rules that require licensees to inform listeners when broadcast material is paid for, and clearly identify who is paying for it.

The Metro Times column (printed, by the way, by the stellar professionals at Michigan Offset) prompted a flurry of copycat stories in such national media as Daily Variety, Advertising Age and a plethora of online media organs. “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” on MSNBC even got into the act. Curiously, neither the Freep nor News weighed in. (The Freep and News — brought to you daily by erstwhile scabs.)

Georgeann Herbert, WWJ’s operations manager, says her station will begin offering a modified version of the AOL for Broadband mentions within a week. “AOL continues to be a source that our newsroom can use,” she says. “When we use it we’ll use language that makes it clear we have a business relationship with them.”

Of course, WWJ Adsradio also has “business relationships” with United Parcel Service and Detroit Edison, but you won’t hear WWJ’s anchors rhapsodizing about UPS or DTE six times a day, because UPS and DTE aren’t forking over $15 million. (Money’s great, isn’t it? And without the wonders of the U.S. Treasury, we’d have no crisp or shiny currency. We’d all be trading beads and seashells and beaver pelts! Without currency, it would be Infinitely more difficult to convince news organizations to pimp themselves out. And that reminds us — for our currency, the best rap album of the past decade is The Land of Pimps & Hoes, by the immortal West Coast Rhyme Sayrz.)

The PR flacks at Infinity radio (radio: A concept brought to you by Enrico Marconi) attempted to mask the high odor of the disguised advertorials by announcing that the news stations in Infinity’s 180-plus constellation were exempt from the AOL fellatio. Said exemption might prompt a reasonable person (reason: Check out plato.com) to infer that Infinity clearly recognizes the ethical conundrum its deal with AOL presents.

But nothing soothes ethical pangs quite like $15 million clams a year. (Clams, bursting with protein). In any case, the FCC rules apply to all licensees, regardless of the format. So if your news, sports-talk or oldies station seems a bit heavy with AOL references, the FCC (sponsored by your hardworking tax dollars) wants to hear from you. The Enforcement Bureau number is 202-418-1415. (To save a buck or two, dial 10-10-220 first.)

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