MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Winners of the 56th annual Grammy Awards will be announced Sunday night. Millions of viewers are expected to watch the telecast despite perennial criticism of the choices. The organization that gives the awards, the Recording Academy, has also been criticized for how it spends its money. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports on what the organization does besides stage its very elaborate televised variety show.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: More than 28 million people around the world tuned in to watch the Grammy Awards last year, and this year's telecast is once again being touted as the most complicated and expensive production on TV.
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BARCO: CBS has aired the Grammys for 40 years. In 2011 it renewed its deal with the Recording Academy to broadcast the live event annually until the year 2021. The previous deal was worth $20 million a year and the current agreement is reportedly worth even more. LL Cool J is this year's host.
LL COOL J: It's the biggest music show in the world and it has to be fun, it has to be exciting and it has to be entertaining to the majority of the world.
BOB LEFSETZ: There are so many categories. Who cares?
BARCO: That's Bob Lefsetz, a blogger who's widely read in the industry and a former music attorney. He's long been a critic of the Grammys and the Recording Academy.
LEFSETZ: It's really become about the TV show. That's where they get the lion's share of their money. Their number one mission is to get paid. Their number two mission is to put on a TV show that gets ratings.
BARCO: The Academy as it's known used to be called the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, NARAS for short. It operates a number of 501C3 nonprofits that include the NARAS Foundation and the MusiCares Foundation. The former was established to make grants to music preservation and education.
NEIL PORTNOW: We've funded hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars to high school music programs.
BARCO: Neil Portnow is the Academy's president and CEO. He points out that music here supports musicians and others in the industry who are down on their luck or struggling with substance abuse. In 2011, the last year for which the Academy's tax records are available, MusiCares dispensed more than $3 million in grants and other services. That same year the NARAS Foundation spent more than $600,000. This week, 32 high school students from around the country are in L.A. for what's known as Grammy Camp.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One, two, one, two, three, four...
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BARCO: The jazz combo, choir and big band are performing for all of the Grammy-related events, including a gig with the rock band Vampire Weekend. And they're gearing up to play at the Grammys after-party on Sunday.
COLBY EWTUYA: I'm nervous, personally.
STEPHANIE HENSON: Excited, anxious.
HENRY SOLOMON: I'm playing for Bruno Mars or Carrie Underwood or Jack Black, or the people like that. And you're just like...
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SOLOMON: ...like wow.
BARCO: Singers Colby Ewatuya from Dallas and Stephanie Henson from Des Moines, and saxophonist Henry Solomon from Michigan. Most students pay a tuition fee after they're selected to participate in Grammy Camp. Still, these 17 and 18 year olds say this is the experience of their lives.
HENSON: Not only are they teaching us about musical aspects, they're teaching us how to perform.
SOLOMON: Like, they treat us like professional musicians and they expect that from us.
BARCO: The Recording Academy also runs the Latin Grammys and The Grammy Museum in downtown L.A. It hosts private concerts and features exhibitions of Michael Jackson's jackets, Jenni Rivera's gowns, and interactive displays where visitors can play drums and sing along with a virtual Ringo Starr.
RINGO STARR: Hit the play button. Hit it now.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) We all live in a yellow submarine...
BARCO: The Academy's various operations have been criticized for how much they spend on overhead compared to what they dispense in grants and services. Its finances drew the scrutiny of the Los Angeles Times and the IRS a decade ago. At the time, its outspoken president, Michael Greene, was the highest paid nonprofit executive in the country. No charges were ever filed and Greene ultimately resigned, replaced by Portnow. He says he was brought on to calm the turmoil.
PORTNOW: Part of the reason I was chosen for the job is a pretty positive image set of relationships in the industry, my demeanor, my temperament...
BARCO: I have to ask what your salary is.
PORTNOW: It's all available on the 990's.
BARCO: Those tax forms for 2011 show Portnow was paid more than a million and a half dollars. He will not say what The Academy spends staging the Grammy Awards telecast or how much of the $20 million it gets from CBS each year goes to grants and services. But Charity Navigator, which evaluates nonprofits, rates The Academy's efforts pretty close to those of other charities.
And critic Bob Lefsetz says he doesn't have anything negative to say about The Academy's charity efforts.
LEFSETZ: There is no smoking gun here, there's nothing hidden. They are raising money. And now more than ever, they're giving a higher percentage away. Those who deserve money, are they aware of the program? For somebody that puts on an international television show, I don't believe the footprint of their charitable efforts is commensurate.
BARCO: This Sunday's Grammy Awards show is expected to be one of the most highly rated TV specials of the year. And the head of the Recording Academy is no longer the highest paid nonprofit executive in the country.
Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
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