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Paying the Piper a Little Something Extra: A Short History of Payola

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Payola became a household word in 1959, thanks to a high-profile trial that made examples of two legendary disc jockeys – Alan Freed and Dick Clark (above).

In 1959, Alan Freed, the most popular disc jockey in the country, was fired from his job at WABC after refusing to sign a statement that he’d never received payola to play a record on the air. For most of America, the word payola was a new one. But for anybody in the music business, it was as old as a vaudevillian’s musty tuxedo.

19th-Century Pay to Play

Coined in the early 20th century, the word payola is a hybrid of “pay” and “Victrola” (the first popular portable phonograph, the Victrola was a crank-driven turntable with a built-in speaker that looked like an oversized trumpet) - and it's been a fact of the business since the late 1800s.

Back then, music publishers routinely plied traveling vaudeville performers with gifts to spread the latest songs across the country. When audiences from Schenectady to Sacramento heard the featured songs, it would result in increased sheet music sales, then the industry’s main source of revenue.

It didn’t stop there. Often there were shills in the vaudeville theaters, paid by publishers to applaud a little louder for particular songs, driving up their popularity. And then there were the guys in charge of stocking the song rolls inside coin-operated player pianos in saloons, who weren’t above taking a little extra to load in certain titles.

As the new medium of silent movies flourished in the early 1900s, publishers cozied up to theater organists, paying them to add specific melodies to their repertoires. Today, we all complain about the fifteen minutes of commercials before big-screen fare. But a hundred years ago, payola-supported entertainers called “illustrated slide singers” projected still photos with song lyrics before a movie and invited audiences to “follow the bouncing ball.” The prospect of a forced sing-a-long with “In The Good Old Summertime” makes a promo spot for Taco Bell’s XXL Chalupa look a little more tolerable.

By the early 1920s, payola was an accepted fact of the business. Publishers were gambling as much as $20,000 on the promotion of every hoped-for hit. With the simultaneous rise of radio and cheaper phonograph records, it wasn’t long before every record jacket that arrived at a radio station had a twenty dollar bill tucked inside.

So rampant was the practice that in the early 1930s, the National Broadcasting Corporation even proposed bringing it above board, by charging music publishers and record companies a flat rate for each exposure of a new song. The problem was, this would’ve interfered with the individual deals that the era’s singing stars and big band leaders already had in place.

Tips for the Poo-bahs of Musical Fashion

In the mid-1940s, performers began sharing the payola pie with a newly emerging class, disc jockeys. One early pioneering DJ said that the money that came along with a new record was merely the equivalent of a head waiter’s tip for a good table in a nightclub.

In 1950, there were approximately 250 disc jockeys in the US. By 1957, the number had grown to over 5,000. The increase was partially due to the sheer amount of new records being produced. As the name suggests, a disc jockey was responsible for sorting through all these releases. These on-air personalities had so much clout with younger listeners, Time magazine called them the “poo-bahs of musical fashion and pillars of U.S. low- and middle-brow culture.”

Aware of their rising status and their importance to the success of a single, disc jockeys cut deals with record labels and distributors. A typical deal for a mid-level DJ was $50 a week, per record, to ensure a minimum amount of spins. More influential jocks commanded percentages of grosses for local concerts, plus time-honored swag like cars, cases of liquor and the services of prostitutes. One DJ later described the decade “as a blur of booze, broads and bribes.”

As payola escalated, Variety and Billboard did lengthy features, calling for reform and government intervention. Fingers pointed and words flew, but it wasn’t until the TV game show scandals of 1958 (famously portrayed in the movie Quiz Show) that the government got seriously involved. Once the “Do you now or have you ever...?” questions began, the jig was up.

With the threat of losing their licenses, some radio stations took the precaution of firing disc jockeys who might put them at risk. In November 1959, in closed and open sessions before the U.S. House Oversight Committee, 335 disc jockeys from around the country admitted to having received over $263,000 in “consulting fees.” That figure was only the tip of the payola iceberg (before the hearings, a Chicago DJ confessed that he had once taken $22,000 to play a single record). The trial heated up when the two most influential jocks in America took the stand.

The Tale of Two DJs

Alan Freed and Dick Clark both played important parts in the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. Freed embodied the incendiary spirit of the music more than Clark, famously refusing to play white cover versions of black songs, such as Pat Boone’s “Tutti Frutti.” And though they both denied ever accepting payola, it’s almost impossible to imagine two young, popular disc jockeys not succumbing to a little temptation. Guilty or not, it was Freed who ended up taking the fall for DJs everywhere.

Why was he singled out? Freed was abrasive. He consorted with black R & B musicians. He jive talked, smoked constantly and looked like an insomniac. Clark was squeaky clean, Brylcreemed handsome and polite. Once the grilling started, Freed's friends and allies in broadcasting quickly deserted him. He refused to sign an affidavit saying that he’d never accepted payola. WABC canned him, and he was charged with twenty-six counts of commercial bribery. Freed escaped with fines and a suspended jail sentence. But he died five years later, broke and virtually forgotten.

Previous to the trial, Dick Clark had wisely divested himself of all incriminating connections (he had part ownership in seven indie labels, six publishers, three record distributors and two talent agencies). He got a slap on the wrist by the Committee chairman, who called him “a fine young man.” As Clark told Rolling Stone in 1989, the lesson he learned from the payola trial was: “Protect your ass at all times.” Surprisingly candid words from the guy once called “America’s Oldest Living Teenager.”

After Freed went down in 1960, Congress amended the Federal Communications Act to outlaw “under-the-table payments and require broadcasters to disclose if airplay for a song has been purchased.” Payola became a misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to $10,000 in fines and one year in prison. But no one has ever gone to prison on payola charges, and the loophole in the legislation was that it didn’t say anything about undisclosed payments.

And so payola has continued, taking various forms - everything from a line of coke to the services of an independent promoter to a spot ad masquerading as just-added song – while playing duck and cover with the law. But maybe it’s worth remembering what a commissioner of the FCC said in the mid-1970s: “Hell, there’s payola in every industry. It’s common knowledge that most products and services are sold not just on their interest quality. I mean, payola is just an American Business practice.”

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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