Payola Scandal Again Rocking, Roiling Radio; FCC Scrutiny Recalls '59 Charges
Byline: Chris Baker, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
The radio "pay-for-play" scandals of 1959 and 2005 have at least one thing in common: Both erupted at moments when broadcasters already were under scrutiny.
In 1959, the Federal Communications Commission was investigating the television networks over the quiz-show scandals, and religious leaders were bemoaning the rise of rock 'n' roll when a new brouhaha erupted: Famed disc jockey Alan Freed was fired for taking bribes to spin songs.
These days, the FCC is fining broadcasters for airing content it deems indecent, a crusade led by conservative groups that intensified after one of Janet Jackson's breasts was briefly exposed during a nationally televised Super Bowl halftime show.
And now payola is back - or back in the news, at least.
The FCC announced plans in August to investigate the uproar that recently forced music giant Sony BMG to pay $10 million to settle payola charges in New York.
"Just as the outcome of the payola scandal of 1959 was influenced by the quiz-show scandal and the outrage over rock 'n' roll, this latest incident will be influenced by the debate over indecency," said Christopher Sterling, a George Washington University professor who has studied payola extensively.
By many accounts, payola - a contraction of "pay" and Victrola record players - never went away after the 1959 scandal. Mr. Sterling and other historians say the practice is older than broadcasting itself.
In the late 19th century, before radio, sheet-music sales determined a song's popularity.
Tin Pan Alley - the term used to describe the music-publishing business at the time - strived to get songs played as often as possible to increase public demand for the tunes, including sending promoters out to dance halls to slip orchestra leaders cash bribes.
By the 1950s, payola was common in the radio business.
Larry Kane, who got his start in broadcasting as a radio reporter in the 1950s and later became a prominent local TV news anchor in Philadelphia, said he never witnessed cash exchanging hands at the stations he worked at, but he said the music labels worked hard to influence playlists.
"Stations were crawling with record promoters. They were everywhere. They invaded a station, and they always had gifts," Mr. Kane said.
Promoters try to persuade radio stations to play their clients' records. For years, record companies have run their own promotion departments, but they also have hired independent promoters.
A scene from "Ray," the 2004 film that chronicled the rise of Ray Charles, shows a music promoter handing a disc jockey a wad of cash in exchange for playing one of Mr. Charles' early recordings.
When Mr. Freed, who coined the term "rock 'n' roll," was charged with taking bribes and fired from WABC-AM in New York in 1959, it helped fuel the controversy raging over payola and the music Mr. Freed championed.
The fallout from Mr. Freed's firing ensnared some of the biggest musicians of the day, such as Bobby Darin, who denied paying for his music being featured on Mr. Freed's show.
Congress opened hearings on payola that featured a star-studded witness list, including Mr. Freed and Dick Clark, then a disc jockey in Philadelphia and the host of "American Bandstand."
During his testimony, Mr. Clark admitted having a financial interest in 27 percent of the records he played on "American Bandstand." The disclosure didn't hurt Mr. Clark, whose clean-cut image helped him escape the scandal virtually unscathed.
Rep. Oren Harris, an Arkansas Democrat who led the House investigation into payola, told Mr. Clark he was "a fine young man."
After the hearings, Congress passed a law that made payola a misdemeanor offense.
New forms of payola
Payola has resurfaced in the news sporadically over the years. …