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A History of Radio and Content, Part II: Jukeboxes to Top 40

We continue with Chris Stroffolino’s illuminating history of the relationship between radio and content. Part I focused on the cylinder to 45 RPM years. Part II continues with the rise of the Jukebox through Top 40 rankings.

7. Jukebox & The Rise of Top 40 Radio

As the leading manufacturer of 45 RPMS, RCA benefited originallyby the increased demand for coin operated jukeboxes. By the time the Seeburg Corporation introduced the first all-45 rpm vinyl music jukebox in 1950, three-quarters of the records produced in America went to jukeboxes. Jukeboxes had several advantages over radio: they received the newest songs first, and they played music on demand without commercials. While they are primarily associated with bars (or Juke-joints, where they often replaced the piano), they were even more popular and lucrative in restaurants, diners, military barracks, video arcades and laundromats. The diner wallboxes allowed an intimacy as you could choose one song while the person at the next table was listening to another–in a way anticipating the sonic privacy of the iPOD, but not divorced from the social dimension that was more characteristic of recorded music in mid-century America.

Juke-box owners could replace the least popular songs with new ones on a weekly basis. Record companies thus courted diner and laundromat owners at least as much as Disk-Jockeys. “Give this song a week or two.” Sometimes an overzealous record promotion man would be seen in disguise at a bar playing the same song over and over. But, if the song sucked, and enough patrons complained or left the club screaming with hands over their ears, the owner would still pull the plug. The jukebox had more to do with killing local live music than the radio had; this is when many pianos started gathering dust or being used for kindling (just ask the song-pluggers).

The jukebox could be used by the record labels to maximize profits without the aid of the radio. Music chart magazines like Billboard developed separate charts for jukebox play, disk jockey play and radio play during this time. Many songs became jukebox hits that weren’t played on the radio. For the first time, music radio had a potentially more populist electronic competitor–not TV, not Hollywood, not even the live concert, but the Jukebox. Radio DJS would hang out by juke-boxes during their down-time, and became avid readers of the jukebox charts. It was very trial and error; sometimes a juke-box hit worked on radio, sometimes it didn’t.

When Radio Disk Jockey Gordon MacClendon observed that teens in the 1950s were more drawn to jukeboxes than what TV and many radio stations were giving them, and that they tended to play the same song over and over, he came up with the idea of “Top 40 Format radio” which dominated the music industry for the next 20-25 years. If the traditional record industry was trying to use the jukebox to cut radio out of the profits, the radio industry fought back by becoming more like the jukebox.

When the 45RPM single became the staple of radio in the 1950s, it certainly made RCA seem more middle-class (15-26) consumer-friendly than Columbia. Since an LP contained roughly five times more music than a typical 45, it was roughly five times more expensive. You would have to sell 500 singles to make as much money as 100 LPS, but during this time singles outsold albums by more than that margin. RCA’s populist gamble paid off, both in terms of profit and in PR (this is when the term “jazz snob” emerged). Nonetheless, RCA wanted to transition into what it saw as the more lucrative LP market. By 1956, it was able to do so, by signing Elvis Presley away from independent Sun records. Although Elvis originally became the most successful singles-artist, his success allowed RCA to make its bid for the album market. Presley’s LPS sold more than any popular artist up to that time, but didn’t really seduce many away from the 45 just yet.

Just as RCA was never comfortable with the populist aspects of radio, neither was it comfortable with the 45RPM. Top 40 radio built its entire mode of cultural production around the single, but RCA had been “slumming it” in the single just to undersell the competition for the teen. Even the name “single,” slyly implied “teen” who would grow into the album with marriage, magically, at age 20 or 21. After Elvis, RCA wanted to raise prices to the consumer, and cut out the smaller labels that lacked the economic resources to compete in the long-player market. Elvis’s success may not have helped the artists on small r&b and c&w labels, but it certainly didn’t hurt the independents. In fact, 1957 was a watershed year for independent artists and labels. When the established labels couldn’t buy the songs, or the artist, or the label, they brought in their litigation team.

8. Payola

It is during this time that the word “payola” caught on in television and newspapers.Even in 2011, most corporate-owned dictionaries still “define” payola in context of bygone music business practices from the golden age of music radio (next to a picture of a sweaty, frowning Allen Freed in 1958). Concerns over Payola were sold as a moral concern about rock and roll, as if there was no way such “tribal” sounding music would have become popular on its own. Like most mass-media engineered “moral crises” of the last 100 years, underneath the hoopla, it was really about money and ownership: an assault on the working class. It was more anti-small business than it was anti-rock and roll. If it were really about “rock and roll,” RCA never would have signed Elvis. Payola existed since the beginning of the recorded music industry in one form or another. Lawyers debated what constitutes a legal payment, and the businesses who could afford better lawyers would always benefit more.

The FCC definition is more accurate and up to date: “a violation of the sponsorship identification rule that recently resulted in tens of millions of dollars in fines to cable corporations in New York” and also more in line with the original definition of the word as it was used in the 1930s and 1940s. The word is a combination (portmanteau) of “Pay” and “Victrola,” as RCA-Victor was one of the first companies accused of this practice in the 30s and 40s when advertising agencies who worked for NBC Radio & TV Network (owned by RCA) refused to reveal the methods that were used to determine the top hits on their popular show Your Hit Parade.

Such suspicions were justified, given RCA/NBC’s history of anti-trust violations, but they were never successfully prosecuted, as they were able to argue that sales figures are not the most reliable indication of popularity. Suspicions remained, and some say the best way to remove suspicions of engaging in illegal activity is to accuse others, more visible but with less power, of that same activity. The best defense can be a good offense and the traditional music establishments were now prosecuting the new-comer labels and DJS of the very word that was named after their practices. .

This payola scandal was a classic case of double standards; it was acceptable for RCA-Victor to own NBC, but not for Dick Clark to have a stake in a small record company. Since I am no expert at constitutional law, I need to share with you a first person account of this time from a human perspective, the tenacious perspective of mid-century American labor that almost got lost in the game, like a little green house on Baltic Avenue:

“I took a copy of the tape and drove to Southland Record Distributing Company, sixty miles away in Atlanta. Southland was a big jukebox operation and a distributor for independent record labels, which were the only labels that recorded our kind of music in those days. Back then, music was regional instead of national like it is today. The regional distributors acted as regional talent scouts for the indies. As soon as I walked into Southland, I asked Gwen Kessler if she would listen to my tape. She had come to Atlanta in 1948 to open a branch of King Records, and then had gone on to work for Southland. She liked it well enough to play it for Ralph Bass, a King talent scout.” That’s how James Brown got “Please Please Me” released on King.

Getting signed by King, JB started visiting disk jockeys with his band and learning about the music business:

“Instead of working through a promoter we sometimes rented the venue ourselves, taking all the risks–and the profit. A lot of times, we co-promoted with local disc jockeys (I think we were first in the R&B field to do that). The jocks had the placards put up and made sure the tickets were on sale at all the outlets. There was no Ticketron or Chargit then; independent people sold the tickets–drugstores, barbershops, and things…

We worked with disc jockeys because we knew they’d make sure the people heard about the show coming in, and it created good will with the jocks so they’d play our records before and after our arrival. I knew how little jocks got paid and co-promoting was a way to help them stay honest. See, the people who ran the radio stations created the whole payola thing by underpaying the jocks, knowing the jocks could get money from the record companies. They let the whole payola (I almost typed steroid) situation happen, but when the time came for somebody to take the fall, it was the jocks, not the owners. By co-promoting with the jocks, I helped them make the kind of money they deserved—honestly.”

When James Brown blames payola on the radio station owners who underpaid the DJS, knowing that they could get money from record companies, he means the smaller record companies like King. The larger record companies didn’t have to use payola as long as they owned the stations, and could force the underpaid disk jockey to play their records. But now radio was much more decentralized, and disk jockeys and locally-owned radio was becoming more autonomous: “we can’t pay you any more than NBC did, maybe even less, but you have some say in breaking hits, and can work with local artists to promote shows, as long as it increases ratings (and if someone tips you, we don’t know anything about it). Use your discretion, just don’t play crap that scares listeners away or gets us fined by the FCC.”

The payola scandal parallels the McCarthy hearings in its anti-labor, pro-corporate, agenda. So much ire was directed at radio broadcasters by the large networks and record labels, but it didn’t matter. Singles were everywhere; deejays were everywhere. By 1960, RCA made the first attempt to replace the 45RPM format with “The Compact 33.” It failed, just like Nixon did–too much 5 O’Clock shadow; Kennedy liked singles.

Radio was clearly in the driver’s seat, and the national record labels and TV networks had no choice but to follow.

9. “2 TV Sets & 2 Cadillac Cars; you know they ain’t gonna help me at all.”

Radio still had an edge over the more “self-contained” medium of the record (and record player) nor did it get in the way of social life and work as TV would. If anything, TV made radio more popular. Radio was not only cheaper, but more intimate, than TV, even when it was only “background music.” There were many more 4 radio households in the 1960s than two TV households. If TV in any major market (from roughly 1955-1975) only had 4 major stations and maybe 5 UHF ones, most of which went off the air at midnight, radio had dozens of stations, and often 2 or 3 with the same basic format in the same market. Checks and balances. Spot advertising was cheap enough by 1960 to sustain all these stations and, in turn, sustain the smaller family owned local businesses who advertised on them. It wasn’t altruism on either side, it was capitalism—but at least it wasn’t monopoly capitalism.

Because every aspect of television production was more expensive than radio, the TV-industry was drawn, out of necessity perhaps, to align itself with the larger forces of monopoly capitalism–as evidenced by its continued close ties with the military-industrial complexDwight Eisenhower was the first (and last) president to warn us about. Local TV programming never quite had the influence on its community the local “personality-DJ” did, nor did it have the clout the semi-autonomous DJs who publicly (if sometimes insufferably) prided themselves on their discriminating taste and ability to break records and make hits. Radio had a wider emotional range, and was the center of more teen dance parties than shows like American Bandstand or Dick Stewart’s Dance Party were. When Steve Allen tried to make a witty mockery of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That A Shame,” fans of that radio star, came out and voted for Fats against Steve Allen (and Pat Boone) with more than just their pocketbooks.

Though the radio had made some compromises and forced R&B artists & hillbillies to “clean up” their sound in order to achieve greater success in this new teen-dominated market, it was more integrated than ever. Top 40 Radio pushed back against the more family-oriented, living room variety show ethos and story-based medium of the TV. Music was the meat, the motor, the soul of radio. Soul music was radio music, and any talk of music that wasn’t music wasn’t soul. TV only had soul when it had music. TV was growing, but radio was growing even more; for the fast paced young post WW-2 empire, it was no contest. Music radio was doing better than ever by the 1960s, and the TV, as well as Hollywood, was lagging behind, both in quality and in deep popularity.

NBC poured more money into one last attempt to resurrect the radio network it had foolishly abandoned, but by the mid-sixties, local stations, especially in larger markets, were reluctant to break from their established formats to run “non-conforming network programming.” You could hear a pin drop in the board-room. What insubordination! What ungratefulness! RCA, the only begotten son of GE and The U.S. Army, gave birth to you! You didn’t conform to us! Go on; let your freak flag fly. “Eve Of Destruction,” “War (What Is It Good For?). You think you’re so clever and classless and free…You don’t got CBS to fall back on this time. They’re on our side. We’ll show you; “non-conforming network programming!” (Harrumph; it isn’t like Nilsson or Elvis would’ve not sounded as good had the record label been called Defense Department Records, with a big picture of Hiroshima replacing Nipper The Dog).

10. Billboard and the rise of America’s Top 40 (Zero Mostel)

I love listening to baby boomer friends talk about what it was like to go into a record section at a department store, and there would be the singles hierarchically placed in little shelves; many had the top 40, but some even had the top 100. Often these charts were printed by 2 or 3 local competing top 40 radio stations; sometimes sales would precede radio play on a local level if a band was local or popular on the local dance, or live, circuit–but usually the record sales lagged behind the airplay. As long as DJs had some autonomy, this always led to suspicions of payola by the makers of the less-played records That’s where Billboard Magazine came in, as a dispute settler. Here’s another first person account from the vantage of labor:

Morris (Levy) had a real hatred for Billboard, and I couldn’t blame him. The three big trade papers were Record World, Cashbox and Billboard. Billboard was always the most difficult to deal with. Cashbox had a slant toward retail. It focused on money generated from records. Record World had a slant toward radio airplay. Billboard claimed to be in the middle. The problem was when you put out a record, things back then happened fast.

In six weeks, you needed a new record, that’s how quickly the turnover was if you wanted to stay constantly on the charts. If you put out a record and it generated some excitement, it immediately went on the radio. That would be reflected in Record World. But it would also take two or three weeks after you heard a song on the radio before the sales figures would start to hit and the stores would report it. That was when your record started charting in Cashbox, so there was this lag time between those two trade papers. Billboard claimed to chart records in between radio plays and sales. But you would always be 2 to 3 weeks further ahead in radio airplay than you were in sales. You might start out in the Top 20 n Airplay. Then if the record was a [radio] hit, it would usually climb very fast, which meant you might be #1 in Record World but only #20 in Cashbox. Billboard took the average of the two, and listed you as #10 in their paper. That sounded okay, and you might eventually go to #1 in Cashbox and Record World, but you would have to stay that way for 3 weeks to get at #1 in Billboard….”

You can see the seeds of many of today’s “industry standards” beginning to sprout in Tommy James’ account. In the first place, we notice that radio play comes before sales for James and Roulette, as well as other small labels. Other label owners benefited more from Billboard’s “flattening out” method, especially those who could coordinate sales with radio play. Capitol/EMI used hype campaigns so their first Beatles releases could sell almost even before they were heard; and mega-artists like Elvis had huge advance orders very similar to album-oriented artists today.

Record World’s compendium of national radio charts was still taken very seriously in the late 1960s because the intimate two-way relationship between the radio listener and the DJs was vital; DJS demanded requests of new music. Sure, these DJs too would push their favorites, and one could crassly say that people like Morris Levy preferred Record World more was because it was easier to grease the palms of DJS–so one can’t absolutely deny that some “trickle down” or “wag the dog” philosophy played a part in the Record World charts, but neither were the majors playing fair. There was a built-in check and balance, because listeners had a voice. Billboard became the standard as the industry became more centralized and syndicated, and any trace of even semi-autonomous personality DJS vanished along with Record World.

James’ account of the relationship between the singles charts of these three big national trade papers in the late 1960s shows how Billboard was able to drive both Record World and Cashbox out of business, and present itself as a more accurate barometer or thermometer while it was also subtly being a thermostat, re-shaping a national culture as more exclusive, corporate and one more step removed from local culture. The rise of Billboard parallels the rise of Los-Angeles based RIAA Monopoly conglomerate, the death of the professional personality DJ, the rise of niche marketing, the decline of the single, the rise of demographic focus groups in music, and generally a less eclectic notion of popular music. But that wouldn’t really happen until Casey Kasem became the nationally syndicated public voice of Billboard when America’s Top 40 Debuted in 1970. A few other things had to happen first.

 

Partial Bibliography

 

1

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RCA

2.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RCA_Records

3.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_Talking_Machine_Company

4.

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13.

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14.

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15.

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16.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Payola

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18

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_television

19

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20

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21.

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22.

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24.

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Plasketes, George (1992). “Romancing the Record: The Vinyl De-Evolution and Subcultural Evolution”. Journal of Popular Culture 26 (1): 110,112.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxB-ZePpS7E

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http://sodacity.net/system/files/Bertolt_Brecht_The_Radio_as_an_Apparatus_of_Communication.pdf

39.

http://www.californiahistoricalradio.com/100years.html

 

 


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