Payola became a household word in the 1950s. The decade’s music scene was the convergence of a number of seismic factors—the rise of rock ’n’ roll and R&B (which coincided with the rise of small labels), the introduction of the inexpensive 45 rpm single, radio’s shift to Top 40 music (once television took over dramatic programming), post-war prosperity and the emergence of the teenager as an economic force. Records began to replace live performance as the main way to hear—and sell—music. And labels recognized that popular disc jockeys could influence sales.
In 1950, there were approximately 250 disc jockeys in the U.S. By 1957, the number had grown to over 5,000. The increase was partially due to the sheer amount of new records being produced, both by major and indie labels. As the name suggests, a disc jockey was responsible for sorting through all these releases (naturally, the sorting was influenced by payola). These on-air personalities had so much clout with younger listeners, Time magazine called them the “poo-bahs of musical fashion and pillars of U.S. low- and middle-brow culture.”
Aware of their rising status, jocks established flat rate deals with labels and record distributors. A typical deal for a mid-level DJ was $50 a week, per record, to ensure a minimum amount of spins. More influential jocks commanded percentages of grosses for local concerts, lavish trips, free records by the boxful (some even opened their own record stores), plus all the time-honored swag. As Cleveland DJ Joe Finan later described the decade, “It was a blur of booze, broads and bribes.”
As payola escalated, Variety and Billboard did lengthy features, calling for reform and government intervention (to its credit, Billboard wrote, “The cancer of payola cannot be pinned on rock ’n’ roll”). ASCAP was also vocal in their opposition to payola, using it as a means to lambaste their competitor BMI. At the time, the larger ASCAP represented the old guard of mostly white composers from the Tin Pan Alley days. BMI was associated with the young, racially mixed writers of R&B and rock ’n’ roll, as well as indie labels such as Aladdin, King and Chess. By the mid-’50s, BMI single releases outnumbered ASCAP’s by almost two to one. The older organization cried foul, accusing BMI of promoting payola.
Fingers pointed and words flew over payola, but it wasn’t until the TV quiz show scandals of 1958 (most famously, the show Twenty One was found to be fixed) that the government got seriously involved. Once the “Do you now or have you ever …?” questions began, the jig was up.
With the threat of losing their licenses, some radio stations took the precaution of firing disc jockeys who might put them at risk. In November 1959, in closed and open sessions before the U.S. House Oversight Committee, 335 disc jockeys from around the country admitted to having received over $263,000 in “consulting fees.” That figure was only the tip of the payola iceberg (before the hearings, Phil Lind, a DJ at Chicago’s WAIT had confessed that he had once taken $22,000 to play a single record). The trial heated up when the two most influential jocks in the country took the stand.
Alan Freed and Dick Clark both played important parts in the rise of rock ’n’ roll (Freed embodied the incendiary spirit of the music more than Clark, refusing to play white cover versions of black songs, such as Pat Boone’s “Tutti Frutti”). And though they both denied ever accepting payola, it’s almost impossible to imagine two young, popular jocks not succumbing to a little temptation. Guilty or not, it was Freed who ended up taking the fall for DJs everywhere.
Why did the committee single him out? Freed was abrasive. He consorted with black R&B musicians. He jive talked, smoked constantly and looked like an insomniac. Clark was squeaky clean, Brylcreemed, handsome and polite. At least on the surface. Once the grilling started, Freed’s friends and allies in broadcasting quickly deserted him. He refused—“on principle”—to sign an affidavit saying that he’d never accepted payola. WABC fired him, and he was charged with 26 counts of commercial bribery. Freed escaped with fines and a suspended jail sentence. He died five years later, broke and virtually forgotten.
Previous to the trial, Dick Clark had wisely divested himself of all incriminating connections (he had part ownership in seven indie labels, six publishers, three record distributors and two talent agencies). He got a slap on the wrist by Committee chairman Oren Harris, who called him “a fine young man.” As Clark told Rolling Stone in 1989, the lesson he learned from the payola trial was: “Protect your ass at all times.” Surprisingly candid words from the eternal teenager.
After Freed went down in 1960, Congress amended the Federal Communications Act to outlaw “under-the-table payments and require broadcasters to disclose if airplay for a song has been purchased.” Payola became a misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to $10,000 in fines and one year in prison.
The loophole in the legislation was that it didn’t say anything about “undisclosed payments.” And so payola joined the cockroach and the fart joke on the list of things that, despite changing times, always manage to survive.
—By Bill DeMain
Photos © Bettman/Corbis
For the entire article on the Vaudeville beginnings of payola and the post-Freed decades: 100 Years of Payola