U.S. Congress Investigates Payola in Pop Music Industry

With the rising popularity of rock and roll during the late 1950’s, establishment critics of the new music form sought to curtail its influence, especially on young people. The revelation that radio disc jockeys often received payments in return for playing rock records on the air provided those critics with a rationale to take their concerns to the U.S. Congress. This led to the dismissals of many deejays, compelled radio stations to rethink the inclusion of rock in their programming, and led to federal legislation outlawing the clandestine practice of playing music for pay.

Summary of Event

Rock-and-roll music burst onto the scene during the 1950’s and challenged mainstream American social and cultural traditions. The new music was loud, rebellious, sexy, and widely embraced by white youth, even though it was initially created by and for African American listeners. Radio disc jockeys became the prime purveyors of the new music, establishing themselves as celebrities and garnering intensely loyal listeners for their programs. [kw]Payola in Pop Music Industry, U.S. Congress Investigates (Feb. 8, 1960)
[kw]Music Industry, U.S. Congress Investigates Payola in Pop (Feb. 8, 1960)
Freed, Alan
Clark, Dick
Harris, Oren
Payola scandal
Congress, U.S.;and payola[payola]
Freed, Alan
Clark, Dick
Harris, Oren
Payola scandal
Congress, U.S.;and payola[payola]
[g]United States;Feb. 8, 1960: U.S. Congress Investigates Payola in Pop Music Industry[01090]
[c]Corruption;Feb. 8, 1960: U.S. Congress Investigates Payola in Pop Music Industry[01090]
[c]Music and peforming arts;Feb. 8, 1960: U.S. Congress Investigates Payola in Pop Music Industry[01090]
[c]Radio and television;Feb. 8, 1960: U.S. Congress Investigates Payola in Pop Music Industry[01090]
[c]Government;Feb. 8, 1960: U.S. Congress Investigates Payola in Pop Music Industry[01090]
[c]Business;Feb. 8, 1960: U.S. Congress Investigates Payola in Pop Music Industry[01090]

Disc jockey Alan Freed, center, with his wife, Inga, outside the district attorney’s office in New York City in November, 1959.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Record companies soon sought influential deejays to play their new releases, and the companies often provided incentives, ranging from composition credits to cash, in return for airplay. This practice was termed “payola” by the trade press during the 1930’s and actually had a long history in the popular-music industry, having been used to support virtually every style of music since the late nineteenth century.

With the arrival of rock and roll during the early 1950’s, opponents denounced the music for both social and aesthetic reasons. It was considered crass and offensive, and its growth in popularity was seen by some as representative of a general decline in American culture, especially for its effect on young people and its blurring of longstanding racial dividing lines. Having failed to curb the music through attacks in the press, rock and roll’s enemies, the churches and schools, turned their attention to the deejays, hoping to publicly discredit them and thereby destroy their influence as tastemakers. Payola provided the needed cudgel. Although payola was not illegal, the practice certainly led to charges of bribery, Bribery;and payola[payola] extortion, and other unethical or immoral practices.

In November, 1959, the U.S. Congress began investigating television quiz shows, which had been accused of rigging the outcomes of their contests. In the course of that investigation, Congress also learned that several prominent New York music publishers bribed television producers into using their music as themes during broadcasts. The payola hearings would begin on February 8, 1960.

The publishers affected were affiliated with the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), a licensing organization that collected royalties for the use of material produced by its members. ASCAP primarily represented mainstream music, with most members tied to traditional Tin Pan Alley pop. The group actively opposed the spread of rock and roll, most of which was licensed by the rival group Broadcast Music, Inc. Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI). Apparently in an effort to deflect attention from their own transgressions, members of ASCAP made countercharges against BMI, submitting a letter to Congress alleging numerous cases of payola in the promotion of BMI-licensed rhythm and blues and rock and roll. With the public already stirred to indignation over the quiz show scandal, these new charges gained immediate significance with both Congress and the media.

The House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, chaired by Representative Oren Harris of Arkansas, took the accusations seriously enough to shift its attention to the deejays once they were finished with investigating the quiz shows. The mood against deejays was exacerbated by tales of wild times at a deejay convention earlier that year in Miami, Florida. News reports of the event made copious mention of “babes, booze, and bribes,” as record promoters saw a golden opportunity to line up influential deejays to play their records. Such stories marred the reputation of disc jockeys generally, and it spurred the congressional subcommittee to send investigators across the United States to collect additional evidence. It turned out that payola not only was widespread but also was considered an acceptable way to do business. That view was not shared by the public, many of whom took the revelations as confirmation that rock and roll was a scam perpetrated on innocent young people by a crooked system.

As the investigation progressed, broadcasters scrambled to protect themselves. A number of prominent deejays lost their jobs, including Alan Freed, who was arguably the most famous and powerful deejay in the country, broadcasting with radio station WINS in New York. Freed had been instrumental in promoting the rise of rock and roll and even credited with coining the term itself while broadcasting in Cleveland decades earlier. Freed freely acknowledged to investigators that he had a financial stake in some of the music he played, but he would not admit this practice was unethical. His refusal to sign an affidavit claiming he never accepted payola led to his termination, essentially ending his career.

Some deejays tried to deny that payola existed, and others admitted knowledge of the practice while they themselves were innocent. The most forthright shrugged it off as just part of the system. However, even in conceding the existence of payola, many deejays argued that it was irrelevant to the rise of rock and roll: They argued that if they allowed pay-for-play to dictate their programming, especially if it led to playing so-called bad music, they not only would lose the trust of their listeners but also their popularity and the clout they had in making hits.

In addition to Freed, the most famous figure caught up in the investigation was Dick Clark. A Philadelphia disc jockey who attained national prominence as the host of the television show American Bandstand, Clark had parlayed his success into a number of lucrative music- and broadcasting-related enterprises. While not entirely denying the charges against him and speaking favorably of rock and roll and the young people who were his primary audience, Clark portrayed himself as a canny capitalist, freely admitting that he seized opportunities as they presented themselves. That approach, along with divesting his most incriminating investments, saved him from sharing the fate of his more rebellious counterparts, including Freed.


The congressional investigation led to an amendment to the Communications Act of 1934, Communications Act of 1934 outlawing the practice of playing music for pay without notifying listeners; offenders would be hit with significant penalties. The subcommittee’s final report made it clear that the intent of the new law was to help reopen the airwaves to “good” music.

Several states, notably New York, invoked local commercial bribery statutes to prosecute disc jockeys. At the federal level, the Internal Revenue Service would begin to use information gathered by the Federal Communications Federal Communication Commission Commission about payola cases to pursue tax-evasion charges against those guilty of accepting kickbacks.

More deejays lost their jobs, and many radio stations ended or significantly curtailed their rock-and-roll programming. Interestingly, the record companies that initiated payola agreed to abide by the new federal regulations and, thus, faced limited prosecution and minimal public opprobrium.

Neither payola nor rock died with the scandal of 1959-1960, though the attention and new laws forced payola to become more clandestine. Rock’s popularity did wane for a couple of years before it reclaimed its central place in American popular culture. The true effect of the payola scandal, especially coming on the heels of the quiz show scandal, was perhaps more subtle. Payola represented another blow to the public’s trust in mass media, which became a major contributing factor to the protest movements of the 1960’s. Freed, Alan
Clark, Dick
Harris, Oren
Payola scandal
Congress, U.S.;and payola[payola]

Further Reading

  • Altschuller, Glenn C. All Shook Up: How Rock ’n’ Roll Changed America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. A cultural history of rock and roll that places the music form in a broad social and political context. Includes discussion of the payola scandal.
  • Jackson, John A. American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock ’n’ Roll Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Examines the career of Dick Clark, with considerable attention to his appearance before the congressional subcommittee investigating payola.
  • Sanjek, Russell. Pennies From Heaven: The American Popular Music Business in the Twentieth Century. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996. Authoritative summary of the business of popular music that also examines payola and the ASCAP and BMI disputes. Updated by David Sanjek.
  • Segrave, Kerry. Payola in the Music Industry: A History, 1880-1991. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1994. A comprehensive historical survey of the practice of play-for-pay in the music industry from the late nineteenth century to the last decade of the twentieth century.

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