Boss Jocks: How Corrupt Radio Practices Helped Make Jacksonville One of the Great Music Cities

By Fitzgerald, Michael Ray | Southern Cultures, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Boss Jocks: How Corrupt Radio Practices Helped Make Jacksonville One of the Great Music Cities


Fitzgerald, Michael Ray, Southern Cultures


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Tom Register is a "good-ol' boy" with a gift for storytelling. Eating our barbecue at Lou Bono's on Beach Boulevard in Jacksonville, Florida, Register and I reminisced about the days when the area's music scene was one of the most fertile in the South.

More than one hundred nationally signed acts have emerged from the Jacksonville, Florida, area. Pat Armstrong, president of Orlando-based PARC Records, thinks that statistic is extraordinary: "Of course, major music-industry towns like Los Angeles, New York, and Nashville can beat that, and probably so can Philadelphia and Detroit. But Jacksonville would certainly be in the top ten." (1)

What made an out-of-the-way southern city like Jacksonville such a booming music town in the 1960s and 1970s? Of course, there is never a single cause for these things, but the biggest factor was the demographic tidal WAPE social scientists dubbed the "baby boom." Teenage boomers developed into a huge, new market for entertainment. To parents, it must have looked as if they were taking over the world--and they were. Soon a crop of young hustlers the likes of Register, Joe Giles, and Sidney Drashin emerged to capitalize on this burgeoning youth market with their teen dances.

The Jacksonville-area music boom was sparked by a handful of radio disc jockeys and owners who made extra money promoting local and regional shows. While disc-jockeying seemed glamorous, it did not pay well, and many DJs sought to augment their salaries. Radio and concerts were symbiotic industries. In the mid-1950s, Jacksonville DJs Marshall Rowland and Glenn Reeves, at country stations WQIK and WPDQ, respectively, began promoting live shows by big-name national acts who stopped through town. Mae Axton (Hoyt Axton's mother and co-writer of Elvis Presley's first million-selling single, "Heartbreak Hotel") was involved as well, as a concert promoter and publicist. This was perfect synergy: the stations would schedule a concert and then begin to "hammer" the acts' records, thereby increasing ticket sales. They could also get the acts cheaper because they could offer the benefit of guaranteed airplay. It amounted to free advertising for both the acts and the concert promoters, who also happened to be the DJs themselves-a conflict of interest, certainly, but a practical one. Everyone benefited: the station, the act, the record label, the fans. What is more, none of this was illegal--at least until 1960. (2)

In 1960s Jacksonville, corruption was part of the landscape. Prior to the 1967 city-county government consolidation, there was such widespread corruption that what went on in local radio seemed inconsequential by comparison. University of Florida political scientist Richard Scher called Jacksonville "a cesspool," where "kickbacks from government vendors, jobs for cronies, sweetheart deals for contractors" were commonplace--"It may have been the most corrupt city in America." Jacksonville and Duval County had a county board, as well as two city boards--a commission and a council--with a stuning one hundred and thirty-three elected officials. As Scher observed, "The more decision centers you had, the more places there were to hand out goodies." (3)

ENTER BILL BRENNAN

WAPE-AM came to Jacksonville in 1958. "The Big Ape," as it was nicknamed, was the fourth in a small chain--owners were limited to five stations then--run by Bill Brennan, "a hillbilly-talking, Harvard-educated electrical engineer," who piloted his own private plane between stations in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Jacksonville. The Big Ape went on-air on October 23, playing pop, country, and rhythm and blues. Within months it became the area's top-rated station, thanks mostly to this diverse programming and its slant toward the burgeoning youth audience. (4)

Brennan's master's thesis at Harvard consisted of a plan for a powerful, water-cooled transmitter that could carry a 50,000-watt signal for hundreds of miles. …

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