Potential jurors gathered in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles were told Tuesday to expect a long and highly publicized proceeding as the government opened the racketeering and payola trial of one of the most powerful and controversial record promoters of the 1980s: Joseph Isgro.
Judge James M. Ideman warned potential jurors that the case would probably run more than a month and attract intense news coverage. He urged those selected as jurors to avoid reading newspaper coverage of the case, remain impartial and "turn the channel" if they see news of the case on TV.
Broadcasters and the $6.5-billion-a-year record industry have been following the case with a mixture of foreboding and fascination since Isgro was indicted last Nov. 30 and will undoubtedly stay tuned.
Isgro, 43, and two other defendants are charged with making "illicit and illegal payments" to radio stations in California and Texas and supplying several radio station program directors with cocaine in exchange for their promises to broadcast certain records promoted by Isgro.
Isgro has pleaded not guilty. If convicted on all charges, he faces 200 years in prison and $1.4 million in fines.
His trial comes at a time of turbulence and controversy in the music industry.
A former Capitol Records manager last month filed a civil suit in Los Angeles claiming that he was wrongfully fired for refusing to go along with a scheme that allegedly required him to bribe record retailers to submit false data for Billboard magazine's influential album sales chart.
Isgro's trial also coincides with the publication of "Hit Men," a new book by Fredric Dannen that details Isgro's music industry business dealings, as well as purported Mafia involvement and corruption in the record industry.
Despite the recent flurry of allegations, experts say prosecutors have a tough road ahead because payola allegations are notoriously difficult to prove.
In 1984, for example, a House investigation subcommittee conducted a preliminary investigation into suspected payola practices. But staff members later recommended against a full investigation, citing a lack of hard evidence.
Defense attorneys have raised the same claim in defending Isgro, former Columbia Records Vice President Raymond Anderson and Jeffrey S. Monka. All three have pleaded innocent to the charges against them. Although defense lawyer Donald M. Re did not begin to present his case Tuesday, he has said in court pleadings that Isgro had "legitimate" business dealings and denied any wrongdoing.
The government, however, contends that Isgro made payments to employees of at least four radio stations in exchange for their broadcasts of his clients' records.
One of the radio station employees, George Wilson Crowell, former general manager of KIQQ-FM in Los Angeles, said he received about $100,000 a year from Isgro in the mid-1980s. The station is now called KQLZ-FM. Crowell, who in 1988 was indicted on tax charges stemming from his alleged failure to report $435,000 in income, said that in exchange for the money Isgro gave him a list of records each week that were to be played several times a day on KIQQ.
At the height of his power, Isgro was one of the most influential of the independent record promoters.
His clients included Columbia, Warner Bros., RCA and Polygram Records. And he claimed to have received more than $10 million of the $50 million to $60 million that was then spent annually by the major record labels to promote their artists' music.
Isgro rose to such stature by convincing record companies that he could help them better manage the almost overwhelming task of promoting the several thousand recordings that are released annually in the United States.
To make sure the recordings get the public exposure essential to sales, record companies employ promotion staffs that call on radio stations and record stores.
But over the years, most record companies have given a large share of their promotional work to independent record promoters such as Isgro, maintaining that the arrangement is more efficient.
Some critics, however, have contended that record companies used independent promoters to distance themselves from these kinds of allegations.
But some say the business has slowed in recent years, as record companies have gobbled up more independent labels, enlarged their distribution networks and come under closer scrutiny in the wake of the payola allegations.