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December 21, 2005

Viola… Payola (More on Doug Bandow)

With the recent revelation that Doug Bandow took money from arch-evil lobbyist Jack Abramoff in return for writing columns favorable to Abramoff’s clients, I’m reminded of the early 1960s payola radio scandals that took down the legendary Alan Freed – the “father of Rock-and-Roll.” Freed had accepted payments to play records. That revelation ultimately destroyed his career, encouraged his alcoholism, and led to an early death.

I’ve never understood the objection to payola. No one has been able to describe to me what Freed did wrong. And like Peter Ferrara, I don’t really understand what Doug Bandow did wrong. It seems silly, even counterproductive to me.

For those not familiar with the story, Alan Freed broke racial barriers and brought black Rhythm-and-Blues to white kids. He claimed to coin the phrase Rock-and-Roll while still in Cleveland at WJW, which probably isn’t true, but he certainly made it famous. And it was this claim that was used in the successful mid-80s campaign by WMMS and the mayor of Cleveland to make the case that the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame should be in their city.

Black artists Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon, and Fats Domino, as well as more than a dozen other minority artists benefited from their relationship with Freed. And Little Richard, in particular, has been adamant that Freed tore down the racial walls at a time when adults seemed to be reinforcing them.

Freed also helped white acts that played the new sound. Most notable amongst them was Bill Haley and the Comets who “rocked around the clock” both on record and in a 1956 film that featured Freed and several other early Rock-and-Roll acts.

Freed’s inaugural 1952 Moondog Coronation Ball, attended primarily by Cleveland’s black youth, had to close early due to overcrowding. It put Rock-and-Roll on the map and launched a national phenomenon. Freed moved to New York – a bigger microphone – and then on to Radio Luxembourg.

The tiny nation of Luxembourg boasted a station that had the largest signal in western Europe and it was this signal that allowed Freed to introduce Rock-and-Roll to Europe. Some teenagers in Liverpool, England listened. And the Beatles arrived in America just one year, almost to the day, before Freed would succumb to liver cirrhosis.

Freed was the P.T. Barnum or the Bill Gates of Rock-and-Roll, depending on how you look at it. It probably would’ve become a national phenomenon without him, but there are no guarantees, and what-ifs don’t replace the fact that it was Freed whose promotion made Rock-and-Roll so popular and culturally important.

Lots of DJs accepted pay to play records. And, in some ways, the practice hasn’t stopped. DJs are still given prime seating at events, free CDs and gift baskets, limo rides, and private audiences with the stars. Heck, they might even do drugs together! Like I said in a previous column, it’s not cash, like Alan Freed got, but you’d have a hard time arguing those perks aren’t forms of compensation.

And the better “connected” to the talent the DJs are, the better their careers are likely to be. Most DJs aren’t given the discretion they used to have over what they play, but there are still some who make those decisions and they get to do it because of their popularity. All but the biggest artists must pay homage to the top DJ when they come into town.

But the argument that everyone does it isn’t very convincing ethically, even if the stations benefit from having DJs deemed so important they must be paid-off! So try this argument on for size.

Freed was giving artists who might not otherwise have a chance, a chance. The way payola worked was the DJ would be paid to play the song and introduce the act. Then, it was up to the public. If they liked the song, the DJ would play it again and soon, just like nowadays, it’d become a hit. But if it fell flat with the public, no amount of money was going to convince the DJ to waste any more time. For some black kids, the bag of cash to Freed was a ticket out of poverty, into fame and fortune.

Similarly, Bandow apparently wrote columns regarding Indian issues – reservations, gaming, etc. (Note: As I said in a previous column, if Mr. Bandow forsook the CATO position of smaller government in those articles, then CATO should’ve addressed the issue back then. I haven’t seen the columns in question. But, apparently, there was no problem with what he wrote at the time he wrote it.)

Indian affairs are not exactly issues that are popular and public. Finding voices for these issues may be difficult, if not impossible. But Bandow was just writing a column – playing their song. It was still up to the public and the powers-that-be whether or not they had a hit (metaphorically speaking).

Put yourself in a similar position. Imagine you have an issue that could affect your right to own property, develop a business, or engage in other lawful commerce. Maybe, someone is going to take your property through eminent domain.

You present your case to “opinion shapers,” but no one of note takes it, even though they express agreement or sympathy. You see, they have their own careers to worry about – their own enterprises to build. As someone who is approached constantly about this injustice or that, I can tell you that I don’t have the time to investigate everything presented to me – try as I might. Like anyone else in the private marketplace, I must focus if I’m to keep all the plates spinning.

But if someone pays for my time, I’m much more likely to stop and take more thorough look. And so would you. For example, a donor (this year) gave $500 to in return for me watching a three hour documentary he wanted me to see. Now, I wanted to see the video, but I wouldn’t have spent the money to acquire it. So he gave it to me. But let’s assume for a moment that I didn’t want to see the film. Would a more “principled” response be, sorry, I’m not interested, keep your money?

Now, let’s assume that the DVD had the intended effect my donor hoped it would and I agreed with the issue and, it turned out I was more effective in leading Downsize DC as a result (as the donor suggested I would be). Was it worth it to accept the money – even if I didn’t want to watch the video in the first place?

As it turns out, I watched the video on my own time, although I don’t really know what “my own time” really means because it is constantly invaded by my work (because I’m so passionate about Downsizing DC). But received $500 because I was willing to risk inconvenience and open myself to a potentially persuasive argument.

I can’t imagine Doug Bandow’s case was much different. I don’t know his motivations. I don’t know if he said things he disagreed with because he wanted the money.

But I do know that recordings given to Alan Freed had to be good enough that they’d prove to be hits and the documentary that was handed to me had to make its own case. Both got their foot in the door with a direct payment. Viola! Payola is simple, direct, and efficient.

Therefore, I still don’t understand what Freed did wrong. And I’m equally unclear what Doug Bandow did that was so bad.

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