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 accomplished anything lasting have succeeded only in making things worse.
Turning a song into money requires repetitive exposure. No matter how infectious a tune might be, it won’t go anywhere with the masses until they get to hear it…a lot. Accordingly, a firm with a promising new number on its hands was obliged to prime the pump by paying to have the song performed until such time as popular demand for it became self sustaining and the bucks began rolling in a process known as “putting a song over.”
Prior to the advent of radio, song-plugging campaigns entailed the orchestrated outlay of cash bribes and/or other emoluments – a new suit or dress, some luggage, a case of liquor, a piece of the song royalties, the services of a prostitute – to flesh-and-blood performers. By far the most important of these were itinerant vaudevillians, who, once paid…would carry a publisher’s song clear across the continent, exposing it one performance at a time from the stages of hundreds of theaters to a cumulative audience of millions. The bigger the star, the more valuable were his or her services as a song promoter. Headliners working the big-time circuits stood to make as much or more from his song plugging as they did from their theatrical salaries. But smaller performers were also in line to receive their share of the graft. This was true even of performers whose talents were not primarily musical. Dancers, jugglers and conjurers, for example, worked to music…and music publishers found it worthwhile to assist them in selecting appropriate accompaniment for their acts.
On the local level, practically anyone involved in mediating between the music industry and the public stood to benefit from the largess of the publishers. Cabaret singers and dance bands were all on the take. But, so was the blind busker whose one talent was winding the crank of a wheezing curbside barrel organ; ditto the guy in charge of stocking the rolls in the coin-operated player piano in saloons and penny arcades.
There were a million other angles to the song-plugging racket, but the point stands: Payola was already a ubiquitous feature of urban life. It was also legal…although interpreted even then as a symptom of the ethical bankruptcy of those in control of the music industry.
THE PAYOLA SCANDAL AND RADIO STATIONS
Paying somebody to place a song before the public dates to the early days of the modern popular music industry. At the height of the scandal, Billboard magazine claimed that payola in various forms had been common during the big band era of the 1930s and 1940s and in the vaudeville business in the 20s. Be that as it may, payola on the scale that became apparent during the 50s was the product of a unique conjunction of circumstances – the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll, the introduction of the inexpensive 45 RPM single, radio’s shift to Top 40 music once television commandeered drama, postwar prosperity, and the arrival of teenagers as an economic force. In the 50s, records were taking over from live performance as the principle way to hear…and sell…music. Record industry moguls were well aware that teenagers had cash, loved rock ‘n’ roll, listened to the radio, and were easily stampeded into buying hit records by popular deejays.
The question was how best to exploit that fickle market. At the time, a major record company might release upwards of a hundred singles a week. Then, as now, maybe 10 percent of those would become hits, or at least make a profit for the label. Radio air play was the easiest way for an artist to get exposure and sell records, but with singles pouring into the stations at such a fast clip, labels needed a way to distinguish their songs from those of their competitors. Since this was before the era of MTV and slick promotions, bribery seemed the way to go. Record labels hired promoters who paid deejays to feature songs by favored artists.
Will the practice of payola continue? It’s debatable. It’s not common now, and with so many radio stations owned by conglomerates, there’s less opportunity for the local market deal making that was so prevalent in payola’s heyday.
SOURCES- 1) Cartwright, Robin: Straight Dope Science Advisory Board 2) Fontenot, Robert: About.com 3) McDonald, Heather: About.com 4) Wikip/edia Encyclopedia Related story:
Tribute to Bob Neira – Radio Museum Board Member