Alan Freed & Payola

I recall that, a few years back, when Paul Simon was being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, he said he owed everything to Alan Freed, who told him in 1957, “Give me $500 and I’ll put your song (“Hey Schoolgirl,” which Simon and Art Garfunkel had recorded under the name Tom & Jerry) in heavy rotation on my radio show for two weeks. If people like it, it’ll be a hit. If not, tough luck.” Well, somehow Paul and Art found the money and paid Freed, who was as good as his word. The song went into heavy rotation, and became SImon and Garfunkel’s first big hit.

After telling that story, Paul Simon added wistfully, “I wish it was STILL that way today.”

And while I can’t glamorize bribery, I know exactly what Simon meant. Famous, successful artists never HAD to pay anyone to play their records. It was young, unknown artists on small, unknown labels that had to resort to such things. And if some of them had to shell out a few dollars to get their product exposed to the mainstream audience, well, that didn’t seem so terrible, I’m sure. Illegal, yes, but not terribly immoral.

Today, of course, such old-fashioned bribery seems quaint. No modern DJ has the kind of power Alan Freed did. Very, very few DJ’s even get to choose what music they play. Most radio stations now belong to large conglomerates like Clearchannel, which set playlists at corporate headquarters. Even if I went to my favorite local DJ with a suitcase filled with money and asked him to play a song I’d recorded, he’d probably throw up his hands and say, “Sorry dude, I’d love to take your money, but upper management tells me EXACTLY what I can play, and you ain’t on the list.”

There’s strong evidence that it’s still that way, with the middlemen actually passing the cash from the labels to the stations. Of course, $500 wouldn’t get you very far now:

See this Salon article for more details.

Since this is commenting on a Staff Report by guest Contribution MsRobyn, and not on one of Cecil’s columns, I’m moving it to the appropriate forum.

IANARP (I am not a Radio Professional) but I seem to recall that one of the big problems in dealing with Payola was not that people wouldn’t admit it, but that they wouldn’t admit it was wrong to do it… and I kind of see their point.

Radio is a commercial medium. Music is a product. Artists/Labels pay to have their product placed prominently on the advertising medium. This will hopefully generate increased sales of said product.

As ever, a product that is exceptionally good will require less promotion and publicity. Indie can still thrive if the product generates strong word of mouth. Corporate acts will be the subjects of huge media blitzes, generate record-setting sales, and quickly be replaced by the next big thing.

As far as not being up front about it… I don’t get that. If you’re unaware that people pay to advertise their product on commercial broadcasts, you’re kind of out of touch with things, aren’t you? Besides, what difference does it make? You hear it you like it, you buy it. Do you care if they paid someone to play it in the first place.

Payola, I think, is a victimless crime. It’s a shame that Freed and others lost their careers over it.


It’s still around, sort of, though not in the way it was back in the 50’s. And no, as others have noted, it’s not being paid to individual DJs.

The way it’s set up today, is as a joint venture between a record company and a radio station (or rather chain of stations). It’ll play out like this.

“Keep tuned in to KRUD-FM for your chance to win an all expenses paid trip to Honolulu, where you’ll get to see Celine Dion LIVE and even meet her BACKSTAGE. Just listen for the next time we play /name of latest song/ with Celine Dion and be the 12th caller at 555-KRUD and you’re on your way to the final.”

The record company picks up the tab for the winner(s). The backstage thing is usually a very brief meet’n’greet, where ten winners stand in a line while the artist breezes by and hopefully shakes some hands and poses for a pic or two.
In return, the staion agrees to give that new song and the next to be released a certain amount of ‘spins’ per week. I’d say that no less than 50 is needed, but that is of course a matter of negotiating. The deal might vary and include that the record company will buy commercials for a certain amount of money too.
It’s always perceived but never said outright that it’s the station that is giving away this grand prize. It’s not, but it’s important that it doesn’t sound bought and paid for.
I’ve must have set up a couple of hundred such things. I worked for a soft rock station and we’d never accept such a deal for an artist like… Wu-Tang Clan … but always artists that we might add to the playlist anyway, which gave us a feeling of win-win, even if we were bought.
Orders from management to increase NTR, non traditional revenue, i.e. money from things not sounding like commercials.

The Gaspode
Former P.D. and radio scumbag

(Is this the right time to start “Ask the Radio Guy” in Café Society?)

I work at a college radio station, and there are a lot of good albums that won’t see the light of day anywhere but college radio because they don’t have the clout of a large label behind them.

Ethically, it’s wrong because it’s manipulating the market. By having a major label to back them, artists with little musical talent can make albums because they have something else going for them. They’re physically attractive, they’re already famous for something else, they would appeal to a desirable demographic, or what have you. Payola (and its legal cousin, pay-for-play) puts a thumb on the scale by encouraging programming directors to play preferred artists over music that may be better but not as “commercial”.

Basically, it’s a chicken-and-egg argument: Are popular artists popular because they cater to the mass taste, or are our tastes molded to what’s popular? If, say, Britney Spears didn’t have the backing of her label with its money and its clout, would she get the airplay she does, or would her CD find its way into the reject bin? To reverse the argument, indie records don’t get a lot of airplay on most commercial stations, so they don’t get the buzz they deserve. Low buzz means low sales. Sometimes, bands get noticed outside the conventional commercial avenues and do well that way, but not often.


Astorian seems to be saying that, because somebody in upper management at, say, Clear Channel makes the playlist for 1900 stations, payola is obsolete. It’s true that no single local DJ has any power now, but the huge leap in scale simply means that music biz corruption also took a huge leap in scale. In addition to (alleged) raw bribery, Clear Channel owns concert venues all over the US. A new band that wants to be played on all those stations is encouraged to book a tour (at sometimes ruinous rates) in Clear Channel concert sites.

Neil Young dedicated his Payola Blues to Alan Freed, because “the things they’re doin’ today would make a saint outa you.” Can you still buy a break? Yes, but what starving young band can afford to?

Ms Robyn:
Living in the country responsible for a lot of the commercial ‘dreck music’ you hear on the air, I think I can offer some insight:
(the late) Denniz Pop and his friend Max Martin started Cheiron studios about 12 years back, in Stockholm. They had a unique talent for writing catchy pop songs and making slick productions. Link to the bio of Martin at AMG.
The trend over the past 15 years (I guess it started with Milli Vanilli) is to have a vehicle for your music (as in B Spears) who can be marketed and re-packaged to suit the tastes of the ideal demographic. When one fad goes out of style (as seems to be happening with Spears) the writers-producers simply find a new artist that can perform the songs. Spears might be an airhead and bimbo, but if you listen to the songs you’ll find classic pop music, much in the same vein as Holland-Dozier-Holland, Chinnychap (who did the same thing in the 70’s) Stock-Aitken-Waterman (80’s). It’s not great music, but it’s great pop music, and it’ll be with us for many decades to come. If you don’t believe me, try to find the cover of Baby, one more time by Travis.

Why is payola scandalous in the first place?

If the primary purpose of radio play is to promote single, album, and/or concert sales where the true money is made, then what is wrong with paying for that advertising? The Billboard charts are not tracking the results of a sporting competition where there is an assumption of fair play. The charts track units sold–the success of business and marketing plans.

I believe that I am just echoing thwartme’s statements, but as long as everyone can participate in the pay-for-play, where is there a legal or ethical dilemma?

My question is, on MTV–during it’s heyday anyway–which direction does the money–if any–flow?

There’s really nothing wrong with pay-for-play if you assume that every player has an equal pot of money from which to pay for airtime. The truth is, not everyone does. Someone like Britney Spears has a major label and oodles of dough with which to buy airtime. A lesser-known artist usually doesn’t have that kind of money or clout and may never have it, even though the lesser-known artist may actually be better than Ms. Spears.

The way the relationship works is this. Radio depends on advertising to pay the bills. Advertisers don’t buy advertising on stations with low ratings. To get the ratings to attract advertisers, radio needs to play music people want to hear. The record companies supply that music. The record companies, in turn, want as much exposure for their artists as possible. There are only so many hours in the day, less time for ads, news, and other programming, to play music. Promoters (contracted by the record labels) work radio stations to keep their artists fresh in the minds of music and program directors. Of course, a little baksheesh goes a long way.

The problem is, not everyone has the dough for baksheesh, and so we get lots of Britney Spears and less Tres Chicas.


But…so what? Life unfair, film at eleven. The virtue of allocating a scarce resource via money is that it’s simple and less open to manipulation than the alternatives: all you have to do is get the cash together and you’ve got a position. As soon as you start muddying that with other criteria, you encourage corruption and favoritism that are more hidden and thus more insidious, as anyone looking for a Manhattan rental can testify.

Well, sure. Life is unfair, and until we get a better system going, money talks.

Music promotion and radio are both complicated businesses. They need each other to survive, and the end result is, we get to hear what large corporations want us to hear.


Maybe this is wacky, but perhaps DJs could play songs based on, I dunno, if it’s good or not? :eek:

Hahahahahaha! That is the silliest thing I’ve heard all day!.

Seriously. Most radio stations are owned by media conglomerates who make the decisions centrally. Most local DJs have no say whatsoever over the music they play. They play what they’re told.


Well, then, music ain’t much different from, say, politics, eh?

To qualify myself: I have been in professional radio for 8 years and has worked in three top 50 markets. I have been in promotions and production as well as a Music Director at one point. I am currently a DJ part-time on two stations and an Assistant Music Director.

Yes this does happen. For instance one of the stations I work at has an online survey that we encourage listeners to take. It plays a clip of a song and then asks the listener to rate it. We get weekly feedback from this as well as phoned-in requests to help us determine what songs to play as well as how heavily to rotate the music.

Now then I do not work for one of the BIG conglomerates (i.e. Clear Channel, Cox, Journal, etc.) and those companies do make most of the decisions for their “music directors”. It has been my experience of late that the BIG companies are learning what works in the Buffalo market may not work in the Birmingham one, as such they are giving local affiliates a little leeway - but not as much as they should IMHO.

Also what The Gaspode said is true. . . its not payola in the legal sense, but man its close. Just this week one record label offered us a brand new plasma TV to give away on the air if we would add one of their artists songs. They only asked for a meager 14 spins, however my Program Director really thought the song was a P.O.S. so we said no. Couldn’t have argued with him if he said yes though, thats a pretty nice incentive.

Indeed. Thus the quality.

This is a step forward from non-musicocentric program direction, but IMO this will not really result in radio that I wish to hear. After all, if I hear a song a few times and I really like it, I’ll buy the album. I can count on one hand the number of songs in the past 5 years I liked that got heavy rotation that I, nonetheless, didn’t get sick of hearing played. I think listener-directed radio would result in playlists that are almost as bad as the current ones.

Don’t misunderstand me - the listener feedback is simply ONE of several tools we used to pick our playlists and set our rotations.

We are in the business of trying to please as many people as often as possible. It can be tough, a certain tune put into “Power” rotation may play as often as every hour and a half. So of course we get calls from people that get tired (or as we call it in the biz - “burned out”) of that song. At the same time I will finish playing the aforementioned song and two minutes later other listeners will start calling and requesting it again. It has a lot to do with “TSL” (time spent listening). If you sit and listen to one station 8 hours in a row of course you’re gonna get sick of certain music a whole lot faster than someone who only listens 40 minutes a day, 20 minutes on the way to work and 20 on the way home. They want to hear their favorite hit song right THEN. They don’t realize its run 5 times in the last 9 hours.

We do the best we can.

I don’t think anyone so far has really emphasized this, but old-style payola could hurt the advertisers, and they’re the bread and butter of commercial radio. The advertisers wants the songs played on the radio to be ones that people like enough that they’ll tune in regularly…and keep listening through the ads. The advertisers don’t want any kid off the steet coming in and paying $500 to get their song played. The song might be awful, drive away listeners, and then no one would hear the ads the station charged so much money for in the first place. I suspect this was the real reason for the payola scandal. I doubt anyone in a position of power cared much about giving the listeners what they wanted. In commercial media, it’s not the audience that’s paying the bills. Keeping the audience happy is important only because it keeps the sponsors happy.

From a commercial perspective it’s a bit different when it’s record labels paying to get things played, as a record label isn’t going to invest that kind of promotional money in an act they don’t think will be successful. Advertisers can have some faith in their judgement.