The gift was a can of herring, sent to NAB president David Rehr in response to the association’s contention that making stations pay music licensing fees would be the same as applying a new “tax” to the radio industry.

“It’s a red herring,” musicFIRST Coalition executive director Doyle Bartlett said. “Every other platform that claims to promote music sales pays a performance royalty. The real issue is that corporate radio earns $167 billion a year playing music without compensating the artists and musicians who bring music to life and listeners’ ears to the radio dial.”

Congress has long resisted making radio stations pay music licensing fees to labels and artists, taking the viewpoint that radio stations and record labels enjoy a symbiotic relationship, a quid pro quo of sorts where the labels provide music in exchange for promotion.

But the last time this issue was brought before Congress was 1981, a time that seems so different from today when considering Internet radio, file-sharing, satellite radio and MP3 players. Add the dramatic drop in CD sales over the last few years and it’s not surprising that the recording industry is trying to develop new revenue streams.

Nor should it be surprising that terrestrial radio stations oppose paying the labels royalties for playing music. The recording industry has relied on radio airplay to promote its music for almost as long as radio has been around, and has considered airplay to be such a significant promotional tool that individual labels often have entire departments devoted to getting airplay.

Add that to past payola scandals, where labels illegally paid radio stations to play their music, and it would seem that radio offers the recording industry a very unique promotional outlet. After all, what is a song in a station’s heavy rotation but a three-minute advertisement for the artist, song and album?

But back to that can of herring.

The canned fish was accompanied by a note from musicFIRST quoting Merriam-Webster Online’s definition of the word “herring,” specifically the second definition that states: “[From the practice of drawing a red herring across a trail to confuse hunting dogs]: something that distracts attention from the real issue.”

In response, NAB executive VP Dennis Wharton issued a statement condemning musicFIRST’s herring package.

“This is so lame that it barely warrants a response,” Wharton said. “Instead of sending fish to radio stations that advanced the careers of artists, RIAA should send food to the entertainers that foreign record labels have abused for decades.”

Along with the response, Wharton included several quotations made by artists and label execs over the years supporting the organization’s contention that radio exchanges promotion for music, including Alicia Keys’ Grammy awards quote from February of this year.

“I have to thank … every DJ, every radio guy, every promotions guy, everybody who ever put up a poster for me and spread the word,” Keys said.

The business climate has changed since 27 years ago when Congress last considered the music licensing issue in regards to radio broadcasters. However, while music consumers have more avenues for music than what was available back then, getting music played on radio stations is still a priority for labels.

And the world hasn’t evolved only for the labels, for radio has experienced several changes as well. With news radio, talk radio and sports radio, more stations have adopted music-free formats than in the ‘80s. If the current debate results in radio stations paying music licensing fees, more stations might turn to non-musical formats.

And then there’s The Onion, the comedic / news parody site that seemed to predict this argument a few years back when it posted a faux story about the RIAA suing radio stations for music piracy, quoting then-RIAA prez Hilary Rosen as saying, “It’s criminal. Anyone at any time can simply turn on a radio and hear a copyrighted song. Making matters worse, these radio stations often play the best, catchiest song off an album over and over until people get sick of it. Where is the incentive for people to go out and buy the album?”

Everybody got a good laugh when The Onion published that piece back in 2002, but the current argument about whether radio stations should pay record labels is hardly a laughing matter.