It's not surprising that a few eyebrows were raised over NPR's treatment of Jakob Dylan's new album.
Frankly, it doesn't look good.
On NPR's music website, right next to a video of a Dylan "concert" at NPR, is a paid spot promoting Dylan's new album, Women + Country.
This is what npr.org users saw on April 2, 2010 on NPR Music's site.
What it looks like – although isn't – is that Dylan's recording company, Sony BMG, bought a sponsorship and in return NPR went out of its way to promote the album, not just once but twice.
One 13-minute feature on npr.org had Dylan and three others on April 2 performing what NPR Music calls a "Tiny Desk" concert. This is where artists come into NPR's headquarters and play in a space behind All Songs Considered host, Bob Boilen's desk. Typically, the musicians play 3 songs without the benefit of drum kits and amplifiers. These are videoed and offered weekly.
The other piece was a 15-minute on-air interview of Dylan, son of Bob Dylan, by Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon; that interview also included Neko Case and Kelly Hogan, who sing backup on the new album.
So how did that happen? Did Dylan or Sony have a special deal at NPR?
The answer is no. Dylan's double appearance at NPR happened by chance, according to Anya Grundmann, executive producer for NPR Music, which began in fall 2007.
Grundmann said that her team had no idea, when putting together the "Tiny Desk" concert, that Sony BMG had bought a sponsorship spot to promote Dylan.
"When an artist releases an album, record companies are often buying promotions at the same time," said Grundmann. "That's also likely to be a time when we would pay attention to the artist. But basically, there is no coordination and we have no idea ahead of time what sponsorship placement will show up on our page."
She added that on "very rare" occasions, her team will intervene and check to see if the artist's management has bought a sponosorship placement, especially for major artists being featured in the Exclusive First Listen – which offers previews of soon-to-be released albums in their entirety.
Such a check would be made if, for example, Bruce Springsteen, were going to be featured.
If Grundmann thinks a related sponsor might buy a spot for an Exclusive First listen, she will send a note to National Public Media (which handles NPR's sponsors) and ask that the spot not appear on the same page.
In that way, there would be no appearance of a conflict of interest. Even with such a proactive step, an uncomfortable juxtaposition of a feature and a sponsorship is likely to happen again and again.
"It's no coincidence that Sony would come to us because our listeners are good listeners who buy things," said Boilen. "We know our audience and that is who Sony wants to reach."
To avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, Boilen suggested that NPR assign an independent person to coordinate between the business and editorial sides to ensure that a sponsor and the artist in the sponsorship don't appear on the same web page.
But Grundmann said it would be too expensive and time-consuming to dedicate one person for such a task.
Boilen is right. In an ideal world, NPR would be able to ensure that sponsor spots don't create the appearance of pay for play – possibly by having a designated person looking for such conflicts or, if not, by making sure all staffers are alert to the problem.
But Grundmann also seems correct that preventing any conflicts on NPR Music would be all but impossible.
With more than 300 features appearing on the site each month frm 25 different sources across public radio — such as Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz and Mountain Stage —and tens of thousands of stories archived, it is not currently possible to filter sponsorship to avoid appearances of a conflict of interest.
So, even if NPR were able to avoid all conflicts of interest for itself, viewers might see one on a related site – and assume NPR was responsible. It's one of the downsides of the Internet, one that requires constant vigilance by NPR to protect its reputation.