The notorious convention that nearly broke Top 40 radio forever

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MORE RADIO HISTORY. Learn all about the Canadian roots of modern-day radio – May 23, 2017

Radio, record people, podcasters, performers, and everyone who works behind the scenes are in Toronto for the 42nd annual Canadian Music Week, June 2-8. It’s the largest gathering of music industry folk anywhere in the country.

Plenty of schmoozing, deal-making, networking, award-giving, and knowledge-gathering will happen over the next few days. CMW, as it’s known for short, is one of many such industry events that occur around the world. As a regular attendee, I can tell you that the conference and associated music festival are well-organized and orderly.

This, however, was not the case at the Americana Hotel in Miami Beach sixty-five years ago. Things were so wild at the Second Annual International Radio Programming and Disk Jockey Convention in May 1959 that Top 40 radio and rock ‘n’ roll were nearly broken forever.

The story of what happened in Miami Beach began a year earlier in Kansas City with The Pop Music Disc Jockey Convention and Radio Programming Seminar, the first such event. It attracted the biggest names in radio along with reps from a half-dozen or so record labels. One guest speaker was the rock-hating Mitch Miller of Columbia Records who saw this new rock ‘n’ roll thing as a scourge on culture, society, and especially the youth of America. He scolded the assembled group for playing this music and urged everyone to return to playing proper songs by artists such as Frank Sinatra and Lena Horne. He was a real downer.

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Organizer Todd Storz, one of the inventors of the Top 40 radio format, decided to change direction in 1959. The new venue was the Americana, right on the beach along 97th Street in Bal Harbor. This second convention was billed as an opportunity for people involved with the new Top 40 rock ’n’ roll radio format to exchange ideas and to learn how to make their programs and radio stations better. There were speakers, panels, and presentations. President Dwight Eisenhower gave a filmed address. Robert King, the mayor of Miami, declared it “Disk Jockey Week” in the city. On the surface, the convention looked like any other industry gathering.

Not quite.

This was an opportunity for 19 record labels and dozens of record men to wine and dine DJs — all of whom were men, by the way — in hopes of currying favour and influence over what records they played on their radio shows back home. They knew these men were so powerful and influential with their audiences that they could make or break songs. The men on the air had to be onside if anyone hoped to have a hit record.

And how did they plan to do that? By showing them the best and craziest time of their lives.

About 2,500 DJs, about half the number working in the U.S., made the all-expenses-paid trip to Miami. Big singers and wannabe stars were there to mingle and be interviewed. Everyone got limo rides from the airport. Upon check-in, everyone was given $1 million in play money which they were encouraged to gamble on games fixed so they would win. That money could then be used in an auction for real merch like TVs, trips to Europe, and even a brand new Studebaker.

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The DJs were offered lots of liquor and drugs. One party hosted by Morris Levy, the notorious head of Roulette Records, went through 2,000 bottles of bourbon. Hookers were brought in — even from overseas. Promises of cash payments for future considerations were made. It was an incredibly wild party that cost the labels about US$120,000, which is worth more than US$1.1 million in today’s money.

Things were so outrageous that on the last day of the convention (May 31, 1959), The Miami News ran a story under the headline “For Deejays: Babes, Booze, and Bribes.” DJs, the article said, “were given the greatest buttering-up since Nero was persuaded he was a fiddle virtuoso. … One promotion man said, ‘You can buy some of them with an air conditioner; some with money, some with a girl.'”

[A typical DJ salary at the time was $50 a week, so any grease was welcome].
The article continued: “‘I would guess,’ said one [promotion man], ‘that the payoffs to the disc jockeys in one form or another run to well over $1,000,000 a year. It’s a lousy situation, but I don’t see how anything can be done about it. As we tell them all the time, without the disc jockeys, we’re dead.'”
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This was bad — bad publicity. Payola — the practice of bribing someone to play your song on the radio — had been around as long as commercial radio and wasn’t illegal. Maybe industry leaders didn’t like it, but what were they going to do? The scandalous behavior in Miami opened the door to fighting back. It wasn’t long before industry publications like Billboard, Variety, and Cashbox were writing about the scourge of payola and the distortions it created in the marketplace.

The stories of what happened in Miami only added to a growing crisis of confidence in America. After having to endure Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare earlier in the decade, something that shook America’s confidence in their leaders, the country then had to deal with the TV quiz show scandal. In the late 1950s, a big government investigation revealed that popular game shows like Twenty One were fixed in favour of certain contestants.

The following year, there was the “plugola” crisis, where the public learned that some celebrities endorsed products and services which they didn’t use. It was all for the money. This was branded as false, dishonest, and deceptive advertising and needed to be stopped.

And then, in the wake of duplicitous politicians spewing fake news about commies in Washington, rigged game shows, and the revelation that TV advertising was built on lies, Americans learned that all the music they heard on the radio was bought and paid for.

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Something needed to be done. And maybe, thought some politicians, church groups, and old-school record people, the scourge of rock ‘n’ roll could be wiped out at the same time.

Throughout the summer and fall of 1959, pressure built on radio stations to do something about their DJs’ errant ways lest they lose their valuable broadcast licences. Even before the House Special Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight held hearings on the matter in late 1959 and early 1960, DJs across the nation were fired because of their payola practices. Again, while unethical was not illegal, and something to which most turned a blind eye.

Some of the biggest names in radio were called to testify. Alan Freed, the man who gave this new music the name “rock ‘n’ roll” while working at WINS in New York, became the sacrificial lamb. He was charged under New York State’s commercial bribery laws and fined $300. The conviction ruined his career, sending him into a spiral of alcoholism. He died broke in 1965, owing the IRS nearly $40,000.

Another person in the hot seat was Tommy Smalls, a New York DJ who worked under the name Dr. Jive. He wasn’t convicted of anything, but he was driven out of radio. He’d later make a comeback as a promotion manager with Polydor Records and also co-founded the National Association of TV and Radio Announcers.

But guy who skated the most was Dick Clark. As a radio guy and host of American Bandstand, he was in the thick of everything that was happening in rock ‘n’ roll. He held shares in seven indie labels, six music publishing companies, three record distributers, two talent agencies, a record pressing plant — 33 music-related companies in total. He was able to escape any prosecution by selling off all these interests. His clean-cut image prompted committee chairman Oren Harris to call him “a fine young man.” He went on to become one of America’s most beloved media personalities. When he died in 2012, his net worth was estimated at US$150 million.

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After the hearings wrapped up in 1960, payola was officially declared a crime punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and a year in jail. The American radio and record industry was fundamentally changed. DJs were no longer allowed to select what they played on their shows. Management — program directors and music directors — now made those decisions.

The 1959 DJ convention was Todd Storz’s last such event. And the problem of payola was solved, right? Nope. Loopholes in the new laws allowed payments to continue but in less blatant and more secretive back-door ways. Instead of having to deal with multiple DJs, their point of contact was reduced to just one or two people — the program director and/or music director — per station. Business continued as usual in a much more efficient way.

Payola scandals blew up again in 1974, the late 1980s, and the ’90s. New York state settled some high profile cases brought against record labels and radio stations in 2005 and 2006. My contacts in U.S. radio tell me that versions of payola still exist today. It’s just that the first rule of payola is that you don’t talk about payola.

I do need to mention this. I’ve been in the Canadian radio business for nearly 43 years, working at and running some pretty big radio stations along the way. I have never, ever been offered anything in exchange for playing a record. I have never, ever heard of any existence of American-style payola in this country. Not once. We’re either super-squeaky clean up here or I’m incredibly naive.

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Either way, I never got my free air conditioner.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play

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