Payola Scandal Rocks '50's Radio

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Payola Scandal Rocks '50's Radio
Researched & Written by Bob Neira

What is payola ? In the American music industry, it is the illegal practice of payment or other inducement by record companies for the broadcast of recordings on music radio, in which the song is presented as being part of the normal day's broadcast.  A radio station can play a specific song in exchange for money, but this must be disclosed on the air as being sponsored airtime, and that playing of the song should not be counted as a "regular play."  The number of times the songs are played can influence the perceived popularity of a song.

The term Payola is a play on the words "pay" and "Victrola", meaning to bribe to play on the radio Victrola was a phonograph made in the early 1920s by the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, New Jersey, and became a word used for radio-phonograph combinations of all types with an enclosed listening horn or speaker in the cabinet, just as Kleenex is used for all facial tissue paper in a box.  Payola means a bribe to influence the programming content of a broadcast radio, television or cable television program and is a federal misdemeanor.

HOW DID THE PAYOLA SCANDAL BEGIN?

It actually began in 1958, with the infamous "game show" scandals, in which federal investigators revealed that the wildly popular NBC- TV show "Twenty-One" and "$64,000 Question" were rigged.  That scandal led to the investigation of similar practices in radio.

On January 25, 1960…the National Association of Broadcasters proposed that radio disc jockeys accepting payment from record labels for broadcasting particular songs would be charged a $500 fine and spend a year in prison.  The practice, known as payola, had provoked an extensive investigation by the  National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) .

In May 1960, disc jockey and TV personality Alan Freed, who coined the term "rock 'n' roll," was arrested along with seven other people on suspicion of commercial bribery.  Freed had refused to sign an affidavit in 1959, denying that he had accepted payola, which was not against the law at that time.  He said he would accept a gift if he had helped someone, but he would not take a bribe to play a record.  He was charged with 26 counts of commercial bribery, but got off with a  fine.

Radio disc jockey Dick Clark, in testimony before a House subcommittee, denied involvement in the payola radio scandal of 1959 and 1960.   Clark, one of the top two deejays in the country had much to lose, and quickly gave up all his musical interests when ordered to do so by ABC-TV.  In testimony, statistician Bernard Goldsmith…brought in by Clark…stated that Clark had a 27% interest in records played in the past 28 months and those records had a 23% popularity rating.  The committee was stunned as they wondered what came first the chicken or the egg

Clark testified that the only reason he had gotten involved with those businesses were for the tax advantages.  He admitted a $125 investment in Jamie records returned a profit of $11,900 and of the 163 songs he had rights to, 143 were given to him.  When questioned about Jamie Records, it was discovered that Jamie paid out $15,000  in payola, but Clark denied ever accepting any.  The committee clearly did not believe Clark…but he received a slap on the wrist.  In fact, committee chairman Orin Hatch called Clark "a fine young man."

THE SORDID HISTORY OF PAYOLA

In 2003, Cliff Doerksen of the Washington City Paper, wrote that payola isn't really back - just back in the news.  Payola has been a constant universal part of the economy of popular music for about 125 years, and the likelihood that legislators will be able to do anything constructive about it is about a high as the odds of winning the war on drugs.  It was old when ragtime was new, and it still will be going strong long after rock 'n' roll has died.  Generations of reformers have gone up against payola - and those few who have...
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