[April 20th marks the 50th anniversary of NPR’s first broadcast. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of radio histories and contexts, leading up to a Guest Post from a colleague whose upcoming book on college radio should be a must-read!]
On two contrasting sides to the pioneering DJ, and how to bridge the gap.
If you’re like me, you probably know the name Alan Freed in conjunction with the “payola” scandals of the late 1950s, media controversies and eventually legal battles over the (at the time) frequent practice of bribing radio DJs to play certain songs and artists. Indeed, Freed has come to be so consistently associated with payola (the scandals around which caused him to lose his job and ended not only his DJing career but also in some clear ways his life, as they contributed to the chronic alcoholism that left him dead at the tragically young age of 43) that my initial focus for this post was going to be entirely on payola with Freed as Exhibit A in telling that particular story. Similarly, the 1978 Freed biopic American Hot Wax focuses on a very specific historical moment, one that happens to be at the height of the payola scandal (during the period in November 1959 when Freed [played in the film by Tim McIntire] famously refused to sign a radio station drafted statement stating that he had never received bribes, leading to his firing from New York’s WABC).
Payola may have ended Freed’s career and life, however, but it doesn’t take much additional research to realize that it most definitely did not define them. Freed was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of the very first class of inductees in 1986, for two interconnected reasons: his central role in promoting rock and roll in its earlier moments (he’s widely considered the first DJ to play rock and roll music, and even the first the use the phrase “rock and roll” on the radio); and his consistent, vocal promotion of black artists and music during an early 1950s moment when such support was, to say the least, striking. I’ve written before about the cross-cultural origins of rock and roll in relationship to pioneering figures like Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, but it’s fair to say that no single figure better exemplified—and, indeed, did more to amplify—that 1950s cross-cultural moment than did Alan Freed. While Freed didn’t create such artists, he very much helped get their work and voices out to broader American and international audiences, a role and influence that more or less defines the best of what radio can do and be.
So what do we do with that duality at the heart of the hugely influential (if tragically brief) career and life of this radio pioneer? It’d be easy, and not inaccurate, to see it as a contradiction, an example of the worst and best of radio summed up in one telling figure. But I would also say that these two histories are intimately interconnected through one shared lens: that of radio’s profound cultural influence in and on mid-20th century America. In our current moment of YouTube and TikTok and so so so many other ways that artists and music can be shared (and even in prior moments of Napster and MySpace and so on), it can be difficult to really understand just how much power an individual DJ like Alan Freed could have on what music was being played and heard. But one easy way to understand that influence is to read about the payola scandal, during which for example Freed’s fellow DJ Phil Lind disclosed to a Congressional hearing that he had been paid $22,000 (roughly $200,000 in today’s society) to play a single record more frequently. For a time, DJs—and radio more generally—comprised perhaps the single most powerful cultural force in American society—and DJ Alan Freed specifically illustrates the profoundly progressive uses to which such power (and, yes, such illicit money) could be put.
Next RadioStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other radio histories or stories you’d share?