Where Detroit Radio Plays On
LIFE MAGAZINE (November 23, 1959)
” . . . . clear evidence of disk jockey bribery crops up.”
Edmond T. McKenzie, has worked in broadcasting in Detroit since 1937. His career, income and popularity had gone steadily upward until he quit bigtime radio in disgust some eight months ago. Here he tells what made him want to leave.
By ED MCKENZIE
Eight months ago I quit a $60,000-a-year disk jockey job on Detroit radio station WXYZ. I could not stand present-day “formula radio” (See MCRFB: ‘Veteran DJ Ed McKenzie Quits On WXYZ’ March 16, 1959) – its bad music, its incessant commercials in bad taste, its subservient to ratings and its pressure of payola. Because of the charts that are put together by numbers of music trade publications (Billboard; Cashbox) that rate the popularity of records, I had to play music on my program that I would never have played otherwise. And the charts are phony because of the most disgusting part of the radio industry — payola.
Payola really got started about 10 years ago. Until then the record business was controlled by the big companies by Decca, Columbia, RCA-Victor and Capitol. When the obscure little record companies started up and begin turning out offbeat records by unknown artists, they looked for a way to get their product distributed and played. The answer was payola: offering disk jockeys cash to play records they wouldn’t ordinarily play.
I never took payola because it was completely dishonest, but I was often approached by small companies who were having a tough time getting their stuff on the air. They would say, “Well, how much do you want to ride this record for the next three weeks?” They might offer $100 for a one week ride, which would have meant playing the record several times a day to make it popular.
Many disk jockeys are on the weekly payroll of five to ten record companies, which can mean a side income of $25,000 to $50,000 a year. The payment is by cash in an envelope. Phil Chess, co-owner of Chess, Checker and Argo Records, told me that when he called on certain disk jockeys to promote his records, the first question some jocks would ask was, “How many dead presidents are there for me?” Dead presidents means the president on bills. A $20 bill is a “Jackson.”
The small companies know that if it can score in a key record-selling city — Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland or Pittsburgh — it will score nationally. If an unknown artist on an obscure label makes some noise in one of these cities, the record sales are promptly published in the trade papers — Billboard, Cashbox, Variety. Other jockeys around the country sees these listings, and a chain-reaction is set off. The offbeat record becomes a money-making hit, all through payola.
Another way to rig the key cities is to fix the bestseller charts. I know many record production men who takes out a girl who works on the local chart. They give her a big time, wine her and dine her, buy her gifts, become very friendly. Then they get her to list their record, even if it isn’t a best seller.
It’s even worse in the big-time. Many music publishers tell me that to get a song played on one popular teenage program, they have to give the star 50% of the song. He wants either half the song or a half-interest in the recording artist before he will put it on his program. He rejects many songs because he can’t get a piece of the record.
“Slicing up an artist” in this way oftens involve a jockey. A few years ago we had a case like this in Detroit when a New York song plugger, a nightclub owner and a local disk jockey sliced up Johnny Ray early in his career. They pushed and plugged him in Detroit until he became popular, but they never got their cut of Ray subsequent bug earnings. Johnny Ray didn’t dare come back to sing in Detroit until he bought back the club owner’s share of his contract.
Payola usually begins when a song plugger or publisher comes to town and takes the jockey out for dinner. The sky’s the limit on entertainment — drinks, girls, everything. There is always a big follow-up at Christmas. They flood you with liquor, TV sets, hi-fi sets, expensive luggage, big baskets of food, expensive watches, silk shirts, imported sweaters. The flow doesn’t stop after the holiday season. A record plugger once offered to install a bar in my basement. When one Detroit jock moved into a new home, his property was landscaped with hundreds of dollars worth evergreens and flowering shrubs and trees.
Once when I had tried to squelch a song plugger who was after me to play a certain tune, he mailed me a $100 government bond in my name. I was the only person who could cash it. I did cash it for $75, added $25 of my own in interest and mailed a $100 check to Leader Dog for the Blind. I mailed the donation receipt to the song plugger and said, “This is where your money went.” I never played his record.
Radio station managers are aware of all the bad practices of payola, but I guess they take the attitude that “the kid isn’t making much salary here, so if he can make a little on the side, God bless him.”
Bad as payola is, it isn’t the only thing an honest disk jockey has to fight. Between each record you are required to give two, three or four commercials. Even though I was paid a commission for each commercial I gave at WXYZ it bothered my conscience terribly. I knew that I was driving any intelligent listener away from radio with this drivel.
How could anyone bear to listen to this sort of thing? One answer was given by Leonard Goldenson, president of American Broadcasting-Paramount Theaters. He said the ABC network was after one listener, the housewife just out of her teens. That is why you hear this so-called teenaged rock ‘n’ roll junk.
All of this — payola, ratings, the bad ratings, the obnoxious commercials — was far more than I could take, so last spring I quit formula radio. I have since joined a group of other radio mavericks at WQTE, a small daytime station station between Detroit – Monroe. On this station I feel like I can honestly entertain people without the excessive commercialism, and I don’t have to play any music unless I think it’s good. The station is only 500 watts — but it’s honest. END
(Information and news source: LIFE; November 23, 1959).
Don McLeod, a popular nighttime Detroit radio personality, was the third disk jockey to leave WJBK behind Tom Clay and Dale Young. Tom Clay was fired. Dale Young abruptly resigned. McLeod left the station on Monday, November 23, 1959. Reportedly, all three were alleged having been involved taking gifts, accepting “cash-for-play,” known in the industry as payola, while at the Storer Broadcasting station that year.
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“BATHROOM QUESTIONS” * Earl Pitts (Gary Burbank; ex-CKLW) * WAKE UP UHMERIKA!
“TOPLESS BAR JOB” * Earl Pitts (Gary Burbank; ex-CKLW) * WAKE UP UHMERIKA!
NUMBER 1 IN AMERICA ’65 * Herman’s Hermits * WEEK OF 8/01 – 8/07/65
TEN WEEKS on the singles chart, “I’m Henry The VIII, I Am” by Herman’s Hermits peaked this week at No. 01 (one week) on the Billboard Hot 100, week of August 01 through August 07, 1965. (source: Billboard).
MCRFB Link: For the previous No. 1 record in the U.S.A. 1965 GO HERE.
WJLB Tries Sports To Reach Audience – Big on Bowlers
Catering to bowlers exclusively, a sport that threatened local motion picture theaters during the past few seasons, according to statements of theater operators — is Ten Pin Topics. The show is aired for fifteen minutes at 5:45 P.M. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, just when most bowlers are getting home or driving home. The latter catch the show on their car radios, for Detroit’s working population moves by car. Show is run by Harold Kahl, bowling editor of The Detroit Times. It give unusual local scores and highlights the hundreds of amateur leagues in the city. One leading bowler, such as the first Detroit woman to score 300, is interviewed on each show.
Two fifteen-minute daily shows hit all other sports fans, with heavy emphasis — about 60 per cent — on horse racing. Morning show at 11:45 is called Scratch Time and headlights track news and little other sports news. Evening show at 5:45 gives complete track results, plus any other seasonal sports. Both are handled by Phil Roberts, formerly a Chicago sports announcer.
Most unusual feature of the WJLB sports angling, however, is a series of 15 to 20 daily spots, irregularly spaced, by Roberts, giving any immediate sports news, with fresh broadcasts of every track report in particular. Roberts breaks into every program except two — Uncle Nick’s Kiddie’s Hour and Ladies’ Matinee, a symphonic program, where the sports flashes would be obviously unsuitable. Some of the spots come in the breaks between shows, but as many break right into a program.
The sports announcements are never race tips but but legitimate news and are handled that way. Station simply feels that the great mass of war workers are sports fans and that they’ll win them to WJLB by keeping them informed on what goes on in the athletic field.
Stations in other parts of the country has tried the idea without too much success, but it’s a private service in Detroit, where hundreds of war plants have their radios turned on for the men and women all throughout the 24 hour day.
(Information and news source: Billboard; December 18, 1943).
A MCRFB Note: Missed any of of our previously featured ‘WAY-BACK DETROIT RADIO PAGES on Motor City Radio Flashbacks? Here’s what we’ve cataloged on the website thus far, to date, you’ll find them ALL HERE.
NATION’S WEEKLY MUSIC POPULARITY CHART: THE FIFTEEN TOP TUNES INDEX
THE INK SPOTS * The Gypsy * (No. 01) 08/03/46
FRANK SINATRA * They Say It’s Wonderful * (No. 03) 08/03/46
BILLY ECKSTEIN * Prisoner Of Love * (No. 06) 08/03/46
VAUGHN MONROE * Who Told You That Lie? * (No. 13) 08/03/46
MARGARET WHITING * Come Rain Or Come Shine * (No. 15) 08/03/46
A MCRFB VIEWING TIP: To fully appreciate this Billboard Honor Roll Of Hits August 3, 1946 chart feature click on image 2x and open to second window for large detailed view. Click image anytime to return to NORMAL image size.
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WAY BACK RADIO. The music that was. Our parents’ and grand-parents’ generation.