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When Giants Ruled The Board Room

“When Giants Strode The Newsroom” by Tommy Wayne Kramer, brought back memories of the mid-Sixties when I, a twenty-two year old native of West Virginia who graduated from a small college there and decided, in part because I was in love with a girl from New York I had met the summer before while working a summer job in Atlantic City, that my future as an English major and no knowledge of business might have a better opportunity of making a living and marrying my sweetheart if I moved to New York to pursue a career in I knew not what. White collar jobs in the Mountain State were few and a management training job offered as a PR writer trainee at a large coal conglomerate company was not for me.

I arrived in the Big Apple in 1964, a week after graduation and was able to stay with my girlfriend’s family in Long Island until I found a job as a claims adjuster for Liberty Mutual Insurance Company. After a brief training class, I set out in company car for the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn to interview our insured customers for what had happened in their accidents, finding almost immediately that they were not to blame, as they told their stories to me. It quickly occurred to me working at a salary of $4800 a year, and through other frustrated claims adjusters, that a large salary increase would be 4 percent, inspiring me to begin searching the Times’ classifieds for a sales job that paid enough to support a family. One thing I had noticed in Liberty Mutual’s parking lot was that the company’s sales men wore nicely tailored suits and shiny shoes while we claims adjusters dressed like Soviets peddling coal to in the Balkans.

At year end, having seen enough of how the sales guys dressed and, as I learned from seeking out one guy for advice as to how I could get into sales, I found a job selling a new office copying machine, one that went up against Xerox with its muscular 90 plus market shares. I went eight months with no sales. But working and living in Manhattan, I was able to find a job selling classified ads for the New York Herald Tribune, one of seven daily newspapers in the city, the others being The New York Times, the New York Journal-American, The World Telegram and Sun, the New York Mirror, the Daily News and the New York Post.

I was not very interested in learning much about journalism or what news and opinion meant to our democratic nation.  So long as the readership numbers remained high, and they did by retailing the sensational —murders, robberies, white collar crimes and the more spectacular auto accidents. These gory stories often graced the cover of the paper, fueling audience readership and making my job selling ads easier and my commissions greater.

A “head hunter” for a sales job at Advertising Age  soon offered me a job with weekly trade magazine for the marketing and media industry, which came with a nice increase in base salary and the prestige of a more glamorous job with a larger expense account. For me, the oft abused expense account perk was to be used to entertain the magazine’s media advertisers and prospects, one of which was CBS, the premier radio and television company to which I was assigned to sell them ads. After a few months calling on a senior executive at CBS, but unable to sell him an ad in Ad Age as he claimed he had no budget, he nonetheless offered me a sales job.

I was thrilled. A job at CBS, “The Tiffany Network” as the Times had called it, consisted of selling local retailers commercials on WCBS NewsRadio.  I began to feel the pride my peers had in the station’s reputation for quality local and regional news reporting, a pride backed by the independent audience measurement company, Arbitron, which tracked listeners in New York’s forty-five licensed radio stations. A high Arbitron ranking enhanced selling advertisers’ commercials. 

That was the year, 1968, when CBS Television Network introduced “All in the Family,” an entertainment program in prime time that featured depictions of issues previously considered unsuitable for a US network television comedy, such as racism, antisemitism, infidelity, rape, religion, miscarriages, abortion, breast cancer, the Vietnam War, menopause, and impotence. Twenty-five CBS television affiliates stations in the Southern states refused to air the program, replacing it in its prime time slot with old movies they acquired from the Hollywood studio libraries. This conflict with then-Southern sensibilities became a public issue when covered by the Times and syndicated by Associated Press into more than one hundred newspapers across the nation. 

Even for sales guys in the radio division like me a certain patriotic pride developed as we talked daily about how strongly we felt that our company, CBS, our TV Network, was standing firm for Archie and Edith, (something we believed neither NBC or ABC would have the balls to do) refusing to tamper with the liberal content of “All in the Family” as the Southern affiliates were demanding. I felt good for my brave employer, CBS.

1968 was the same year the Company introduced “60 Minutes,” destined to be the first and longest running primetime news series. More pride and more interest by sales guys like me in understanding the value of news not only as a medium to attract and sustain viewership which also  was the vessel carrying the commercials we sold to ad agencies. 

CBS by then was beginning to follow Wall Street’s demand, driven by investment banking fees, to become a diversified, vertically integrated, entertainment company with a recorded music division featuring labels including Columbia, Epic and Arista. Record label companies, to generate profits, depended on the exposure of their musicians, singers and bands received to be heard on as many as possible of the nation’s seven thousand commercial radio stations. The Company’s recorded music business, with its two strong well marketed labels, became nearly as profitable as its oligopoly network television business. 

Acquiring airplay in 1960, Congress amended the Federal Communications Act to outlaw “under-the-table payments and required broadcasters to disclose if airplay for a song had been purchased.” Payola became a misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to $10,000 in fines and one year in prison. “Air play,” it was called, meant getting as many of the nations’ commercial radio stations as possible to play the songs of their label’s contracted artists. 

CBS’ Columbia label featured artists like Bob Dylan, Barbara Streisand, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. Airplay created band names for the artists and the repetition that radio stations could provide for songs their DJs favored, the more buyers went to music stores to purchase albums from their favorite bands and soloists. And to increase the likelihood of getting airplay on the nations radio stations the labels, including CBS’ labels, manager sales types, armed with entertainment resources, visited the major stations in large markets hoping to influence the station’s program directors and DJ’s to play the songs of their artists. 

As public interest began rising over payola schemes increased, there was huge speculation in our office whether 60 Minutes would or would not investigate the payola scandal. 

The president of the label company Walter Yetnikoff appealed to the CEO and founder of CBS, William Paley, and members of the Company’s board of directors,  arguing that if the payola program were broadcast on 60 Minutes the damage to the music side business would be irreparable. A meeting was arranged with him and the president of CBS News. A day or two passed as we awaited the white smoke to rise from our 6th Avenue headquarters building telling us a decision had been made. 

CBS News won. 60 Minutes would broadcast the entire feature of rampant payola in the radio and music business, both of which the Company was deeply financially involved. Many of us felt our employer, the mighty financial giant of the broadcast industry, once again demonstrated that despite the likelihood of a major reduction in corporate profits a decision of conscience was made. 

Even guys like me, peddlers of radio advertising felt enormous pride in CBS.

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