Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Pay to Play

Forty-five years ago, the radio industry was being rocked by the payola scandals. In November 1959, Billboard magazine reported that at least 25 major DJs would see their careers ruined by allegations they had taken money and other compensation from record companies and their agents in exchange for playing certain records on the radio. The biggest one to fall was Alan Freed, who was fired by WNEW in New York in November 1959 and later convicted of accepting payola and accused of tax evasion. One who didn't was Dick Clark. Clark chose to cooperate with Congressional investigators looking into the scandals. Freed did not. You can argue--and some historians have--that Clark, boyishly scrubbed, WASPy, and eager to please the investigators, was spared, while Freed, dark, ethnic, and defensive, was made to suffer.

You can also argue that the payola investigations were motivated more by a dislike for rock and roll than by a desire to curb corruption. What you can't argue is that the scandal (well summarized here, albeit with a focus on payola in Boston) changed the way record promotion was done. You can also argue that it likely accelerated the development of tightly controlled radio formats that cost most DJs their autonomy in deciding what to play. And it also prompted radio stations to make sure their on-air people knew what payola was, and that they stayed away from it. When I got my first commercial radio job 25 years ago, I had to sign papers swearing I wouldn't take payola, and that I would report it if somebody offered it to me. And it wasn't just pay for playing records we were supposed to avoid; we were told that we couldn't take gifts in exchange for anything we did on the air--which once prompted me to turn down a plate of homemade cookies from a listener who enjoyed my show and wanted to send me something nice.

I doubt anybody has to sign such papers anymore--indeed, Salon's Eric Boehlert has reported that sweetheart deals between promoters and big radio chains go far beyond anything the payola-hunters of the late 1950s ever imagined. And while Alan Freed's reputation has been rehabilitated, he's not around to enjoy it. He drank himself to death in 1965.

To learn more about the payola scandals, I recommend two books by John A. Jackson: Big Beat Heat: Alan Freed and the Early Years of Rock, and American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock 'n' Roll Empire. Both are apparently out of print, but they're worth searching for. (Jackson has a new book that's just come out--A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul. Gotta tell Santa about that one.)


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