Ah, Dick Clark — more than just the Ryan Seacrest of his time, Clark was a Bronxville-born radio DJ when he started out who turned into the face of a multimedia empire. But let’s focus on the 1950s, when Clark was one of the two biggest-name radio DJs in the nation and the payola scandal broke.
In 1959, after the discovery in 1958 that the game show Twenty One was fixed, the records hit the fan for the music industry, as the US House of Representatives Legislative Oversight Committee quizzed hundreds of jockeys on payola. Memorably, WABC DJ Alan Freed went down in history as the poster boy for payola while Dick Clark got off with a slap on the wrist. All DJs involved in the scandal denied accepting payola, but it was such a common practice that it is highly likely that any single DJ did in fact dabble in payola. As Performing Songwriter details in a profile piece on the scandal, Clark himself had “part ownership in seven indie labels, six publishers, three record distributors and two talent agencies.” So, in addition to playing records, he would be getting paid for monies made on plays of any songs his companies controlled. All Clark had to do to make a song a hit was buy the rights to it and then put it on his radio show and American Bandstand. He ditched connections to all of the companies before the hearing, managing to dodge any blame.
And while it’s true that Clark’s American Bandstand was racially integrated at his insistence, after the scandal, before that he was considered the opposite of Freed — who played R&B and rock tracks by the original, usually black, artists and not the white covers. But where Clark showed up to the hearings looking smooth and squeaky clean, like white bread sprayed with teflon, Freed was dirty, sweaty, and smart-mouthed.
Clark’s reported takeaway, as told in an interview to Rolling Stone years later? “Protect your ass at all times.”