Authors: Richard Neer
So when Congress opened up payola investigations in 1959, it wasn’t necessarily just to clean up a corrupt system, but to squelch a budding economic and social movement. If rock could be discredited, its perceived negative influence on the morals of modern youth could also be contravened. If its idols could be shown to have feet of clay, then the whole rotten culture could be flushed away.
Alan Freed was the face they chose to represent all that was evil with the scene. Years of drinking had taken its toll on his appearance, making him seem shifty and haggard. A car accident in 1954 had resulted in his face bearing the scars of over two hundred stitches. And he
profited from payola by his own admission, although he swore that he never accepted money to play a record he wouldn’t have played anyway. Others who were brought before Congress were perhaps equally guilty, but presented a more wholesome image. Dick Clark was accused of having a financial interest in some of the artists he was promoting on his shows. The clean-cut, all-American Clark said he was merely following the standards and practices of the day and would be happy to comply with any new regulations on disclosure. He’d already preemptively divested himself of the conflicting interests. Although Congress was skeptical about certain aspects of his testimony, he was sent away with their kudos as a fine example for the nation’s youth. Freed came across more like an organized crime figure in the Kefauver hearings. He testified honestly, but refused to grasp that he’d done anything wrong. He was also on the downside of his career and therefore a worthy sacrifice for an industry willing to name a scapegoat and move on.
So Freed became the target, and the arrows stuck. Although his penalty was a minimal fine, his life’s work was in disrepute. He ratcheted downward into more substance dependency and depression until it completely shattered his health. He died at the age of forty-three, broke and largely unappreciated by the millions to whom he had brought the joy of rock and roll. At the time of his death, he was facing federal tax charges and years of time in court and possibly prison. Only in more recent days have filmmakers and rock historians given him credit for championing a culture that may have remained hidden from white America for years without his advocacy.
For disc jockeys, the effect of the payola scandal was devastating. Their profession, once the hippest on the planet, was now ranked slightly below used-car salesman. The power to select music was centralized into the hands of program directors, who carefully picked each song and the order in which it was to be played. They justified their picks with a crude form of research, which was more flawed and potentially corruptible than the largely honest ranks of disc jockeys.
Broadcast corporations still wanted to see the justification for playing records in black and white, so that there could be no ambiguity or further scandal. The research techniques, however, weren’t sophisticated. They mainly consisted of calling record stores and asking what was selling. National charts kept by publications like
Billboard, Cash Box,
were factored into the mix. The whole process was very unscientific. For example, when you called a record store, to whom did you speak? A low-paid part-time clerk? An owner who had better things to do than spend ten minutes on the phone with a radio station? And how reliable was the information? Could a store owner in 1961 consult his computer and give you precise sales figures on a given record? Or might he just recall four or five copies of something being sold over the time he was at the register? Or was it six or seven copies?
And what demographic information was available? Who bought the records? Teenagers? Grandmothers? Grandmothers for teenagers? Who kept track of such things? And were these record stores located in an area where your target audience likes to buy their music? The final tallies might look good on paper, but the results were practically worthless in determining what music should be played on the radio.
And, just as payola resulted in increased airplay that increased sales, any tactic that could cause a radio station to believe a record was a hot seller would now result in greater airplay. Thus, a number of avenues opened up to the enterprising record promoter. There are legal ways to influence research: store signage, incentive programs, in-store appearances by the artists, dinners with the musician or tickets to a concert, invitations to private promotional parties or conventions. Anything that brings attention to a given record to place it “top of mind” at the point of contact could be very effective in making a record appear to be selling more than it actually is.
But there are also unethical ways. If a minimum-wage sales clerk is reporting to the radio station, how hard is it to offer financial or other inducements that play into human frailties in return for a positive spin? Is a store owner or manager less corruptible? How about some cleans, which could be peddled for pure profit if the record takes off, or returned for credit if it doesn’t? This gives store owners an added stake in a particular record’s success. The amount escalates with the influence, and exotic vacations and/or hookers were not unheard-of bribes to those who owned chains of stores.
Dave Cousins of the British progressive-rock band the Strawbs tells of how he secured airplay for his fledgling group in England. He gave everyone he knew money to buy his first single at certain stores that reported to the BBC. It worked. Airplay increased, and the song actually did sell, making Cousins’s initial investment repay many times over.
But rarely do the principals get involved so directly. Label executives practiced the art of denial long before Watergate. When they needed extra help, it was a simple matter to hire an independent promotion man to work a given record, and wash one’s hands of the whole affair. Therefore when the heat came, the little independent guy took the fall, leaving the big man to express his shock, disappointment, and denial to partners and shareholders. The foot soldiers, not the generals, always take the first bullet.
Ironically the job of unethical record promoters was now simplified. Instead of trying to influence six disc jockeys per station, one program director in the pocket was cheaper and more effective.
Some stations still conducted “music meetings,” where a board of DJs had a voice in what was played, weighted along with the program director’s veto power. Before payola, WABC’s music meetings really were about music. Disc jockeys voted on the “pick hit of the week,” a device designed to give new artists a chance for some significant airplay to see if the public could accept their music. Jocks were encouraged to bring in records and play them for the program department and the rest of the staff to decide what songs the station would actually air. Music was judged on its merit, not its chart number.
But after 1960, the meetings became such a sham that the staff had to be ordered to join them. No record was even considered unless it had broken
’s Top Twenty. Pick hits generally came from established artists whose singles had already climbed the charts before receiving the nod from ABC. The disc jockeys’ opinions were ignored, and the meetings were mainly used to explain new promotions or adjust mechanics. Occasionally a jock would defy convention and promote a song, but it was nearly impossible to defy the consensus, either for illicit reasons or just because one believed in a particular record.
Of the staff, perhaps the two who cared about the music most were Scott Muni and Bob Lewis, the overnight DJ. Muni prided himself on his musical knowledge and had become friendly with many artists, especially those who lived locally. Whereas Sklar eschewed promotion men, Muni welcomed them. His interest wasn’t financial, but he figured that with the radio market being as competitive as it was, his access to the artists might someday pay off in an exclusive release of a new song or a big interview. He routinely played cards with the promoters, and drank with them on a regular basis. He established many lasting relationships, and his loyalty was rewarded many times over.
Lewis, or “Bobaloo” as he was known, was a big bear of a man. He had a perfect radio voice, silky smooth, deep, and mellow, which resulted in a burgeoning voice-over career. He was an aesthetic soul, sensitive and idealistic, especially about radio. He had curly sandy hair that became Gene Wilder–unruly at times. The overnights gave him a perfect forum to play a wider variety of tunes than the tighter playlist of the higher-visibility time slots. He loved music and championed many progressive bands, his favorite being the Moody Blues. He owned a boat and, in his idyllic later life, would sail to Florida and spend weeks living a seafarer’s existence. By the seventies, he was so in demand as a commercial voice that he set up a small recording studio on board and would be messengered advertising copy by major agencies. His versatile style allowed him to record many different approaches on successive takes, which he then sent back to Manhattan.
Aside from involved participants like Lewis, Muni, and Bruce Morrow, taking away control of the music simply meant fewer things to be concerned about. But the effect the congressional hearings had on Rick Sklar, who apparently never participated in payola and professed to know little about it, was to cause him to completely withdraw from record promoters. A shy, intensely private man to begin with, he was probably devastated to see the ruination of his friend Freed, and kept the hordes away from his door. One of the few he did speak with occasionally was Matty Matthews of Columbia Records. Matthews tells of Sklar picking up the check whenever they dined together, so as to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Sklar also believed in his research for selecting music and reasoned that all the hypesters could do was cloud the issue.
Shortly after Sklar took over the program director’s spot in 1963, a record was auditioned at one of the weekly music meetings. Although the band who made the record would change the course of music and ultimately radio history, the DJs were almost unanimous in their disdain on first listen. “There’s no way this will ever make it,” said one.
It was soon obvious to the world that the single most of WABC’s jocks had dismissed, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” by the Beatles, was destined for greatness. “She Loves You” followed quickly thereafter, along with
Ed Sullivan Show
bookings and a concert at Carnegie Hall. Sklar, never one to hesitate when a promotional opportunity beckoned, quickly renamed the station W-A-Beatle-C. WMCA and WINS rushed in as well, and the Beatles’ management meticulously played each station against the other to maximum advantage.
Beatles manager Brian Epstein had been preparing for the assault on the United States for months and had been asking every American band that had played the British Isles who the “movers and shakers” in the States were. He was told to gain favor at WABC, WMCA, and to befriend Murray the K at WINS. The strategy worked—soon Murray had dubbed himself the “Fifth Beatle,” and traveled with them to their first U.S. concert, in Washington, D.C. He taped interviews in their hotel room and in the back of limos. Murray, born Murray Kaufman, had been a music promoter for the songwriter Bob Merrill and understood how to sell and market an act. The act he usually pitched was Murray the K, as he presented live concerts in Brooklyn with bands he played on the air. He had invented his own lingo for his show, and thousands of New York teens frustrated their teachers by imitating him.
But Murray and the other stations couldn’t match Sklar’s unrelenting promotional blitz. He commissioned PAMS, the Texas-based company that recorded all their jingles, to rush produce a new package centered around the band. There were dozens of Beatles contests, Beatles giveaways, anything that would associate WABC with the Beatles. Sklar scheduled Beatles records as often as every fourth tune. He’d play “twin spins” of the band, surrounded by PAMS’s slick promotional jingles.
When the group landed in America for the first time, he dispatched Muni to Idlewild (now JFK) Airport to capture the excitement. Muni was physically frightened for the first time in his life when the crush of thousands of teenage girls plastered him against the chain-link fence separating the tarmac from the arrival buildings. He was wearing a new vicuna wool coat, which was ripped into expensive threads as he tried to extricate himself in time to stick a microphone into Paul McCartney’s face as he passed through the gates. Sklar was able to commandeer remote equipment from ABC News, so that Muni could deliver live reports, as opposed to feeding tape into a telephone as the others were forced to. Later, at the band’s hotel, where ten thousand teens gathered outside, Muni and Morrow were able to use remote mics to capture the kids singing along with WABC jingles while Dan Ingram held forth on the air. They were able to get live hotel-room interviews first, sometimes resorting to bribing maintenance workers to gain access. They even found a duplicitous way to break new Beatles singles on the air before the competition could—by making a contact in the London recording studio.
The trickery didn’t stop there. When Ringo Starr’s Saint Christopher medal was snatched away by a female fan, WABC mounted a campaign to recover it. The girl’s mother returned the medal to Muni within hours as Scottso promised the girl that she would get to actually meet and hug Ringo and receive tickets to the concert. But Sklar withheld news of the medal’s return from the public for an entire day until they’d milked every last drop of publicity from it. It was then presented to Ringo on the air. Bruce Morrow was an emcee at the August 1964 concert at Shea Stadium and presented the boys with a trumped-up medal, “The Order of the All-Americans.” Although all three rock stations benefited from the British invasion, WABC was the clear winner in attaching their name to that of the Beatles.
In 1965, WINS decided that the Top Forty competition was too fierce and dropped out to become one of the first all-news outlets in the country. WMCA lasted a few more years before going all talk in 1969. Rick Sklar and WABC ruled the roost as their AM competitors fell by the wayside. Ratings shares were high and revenue rolled in at unprecedented levels. But Sklar’s shabby treatment of one of his own stars helped spawn a movement that was to cost WABC dearly—the rise of FM.