Thursday, December 30, 2010

Booze, Broads and Bribes

It's sort of a chicken and the egg scenario. Did payola exist before it was illegal? Well, wasn't always illegal, but even after it was, most people didn't care or at least they acted like they didn't. It is still quite common as you might guess. I actually can put a date to the appearance of payola on the American consciousness: November of 1959. It was a hard year: Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper died, Castro took Havana, and the perception of radio changed forever.
It's a simple cause and effect sequence of events. Lets' do this in chronological order. On Memorial day weekend May 28th - 31st was the second Annual Todd Storz' Disc Jockey Convention. It was held at the Americana Hotel in Miami. This was located at the oceanfront on 97th Street, Bal Harbour, Miami Beach.  Their promotional literature of the day described itself thus
"...the magnificent Americana features the award-winning cuisine of the Gaucho Steak House, Dominion Coffee House, Bal Masque Supper Club and Carioca Lounge. An outdoor pool and all-weather enclosed pool are part of the delightful cabana and garden area..."
It was designed by the flamboyant Morris Lapidus, a neo-baroque Miami architect who defined a number of other modern hotels that defined the 1950s 'Miami Beach' resort hotel style.  The Americana was to Miami what the Sands was to Las Vegas. (It was demolished in 2007.) Needless to say... this conference was really a big blow out. About fifty record labels contributed funding  lascivious four-day party in Miami.  I don't have dollar amounts, but they were probably unspeakable.  The book Something In the Air by Marc Fisher described it in gory detail:
"...Todd Storz hosted the biggest, most raucous convention of deejays staged to date.  the Americana Hotel in Miami Beach was the setting for a bacchanalia for twenty-five hundred deejays, with free bottles of liquor and prostitutes on call all week long.  In one eight-hour party at the Americana featuring the Count Basie Orchestra, two thousand bottles of bourbon were consumed. Hired women were instructed to make themselves available to any deejay..."
The description sounds colored perhaps, or exaggerated. It's not. Fisher cites his source: the testimony of Edward Eicher, convention manager at the Americana Hotel before the U.S. House of Representatives. Almost every informed source describes it as an orgy of drugs, whores and booze. In Voice Over. The Making of Black Radio William Barlow described it similarly:
"...besides the around-the-clock receptions, parties, concerts and gambling junkets to nearby Havana, the convention featured one of the largest contingents of hookers ever assembled in a Miami Beach hotel. (The prostitutes were recruited from as far away as New York City.) Although the record companies spent an estimated $250,000 on this spectacle, and their top executives were in attendance, it was the DJs who were pilloried in the press."
Eight months passed between the investigation and the hearings. For radio it was eight brutal months in which every other media platform beat the tar out of them. It was a full-on media flogging. Payola was the vocab word of the day every damn day.When WABC fired Freed on November 20th the flood gates opened:
June 08 - Time Magazine: P is For Payola
Nov. 16 - Billboard: Clearing The Air 
Nov. 23 - Life Magazine: Gimmie, Gimmie, Gimmie,On the Old Payola
Nov. 25 - Miami Herald: Booze, Broads, Bribes 
Dec. 04 - Billboard ...Payola Scandal
Dec. 05 - The Nation: Payola, Sing A Song For Sixpence
Dec. 07 - Life Magazine: Payola Axes 'King' Freed
Dec. 14 - Billboard: Thorn In Industry Side
Dec. 17 -  Jet: Music Experts Predict Death of Rock 'N' Roll
Jan. 01 -U.S. News & World Report: Payola- An Inside Story
Jan. 18 - Billboard: Slugfest at FCC Hearings
Jan. 21 - Jet: Disc Firms Pay me $855 Monthly  
Jan. 25 - Billboard: Payola Crackdown

On February 8th 1960 the House Special Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight began it's investigation.  it was chaired by Oren Harris [D] of Arkansas. But while the crimes were real, the investigation was a sham. The big star witness was Norman Prescott of WBZ-AM. The feds confronted him with canceled checks from record distributors and blackmailed him into testifying.From there it was a slaughter eventually leading to the inevitable recriminations, criminalization and frequent investigations of today.

It went on for a year.By June of 1959 Billboard was publicly questioning whether there should be a 3rd Annual Todd Storz' Disc Jockey Convention. The first convention had been in Kansas City in 1958. Mitch Miller used it as a forum to harangue rock programmers and to blame rock n' roll music for the vagaries of youth. He got a standing ovation.  In some deranged way the 2nd convention was used to "prove" his point. some stations dropped their tainted DJs and flipped formats. In the end Todd Storz walked. He got off scot-free. His stations being Top-40 were purported to be immune from the influence of payola as they did not debut records. He used the corrupt commerce at his own convention as a marketing gimmick for his own Top-40 Format. It was bunk of course.

Many stations held on to rock n' roll.  Some even fired back at TV and print media. WSAI-AM in Cincinnati took their local paper to task with a series of "Newspaper Critiques." Print had been soft balling and/or quietly promoting their advertisers products. the CBS Network got in on it and they not-so-gently reminded their friends in print that hypocrisy is even less appealing than bribery. In the end they had already taken down Freed, and dozens of other DJs.. for some reason they didn't want Storz or Dick Clark or anyone else. Justice was ultimately as indiscriminate as it was symbolic.