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Think of some of the historic music cities in the United States. There’s New York, birthplace of hip-hop. There’s Detroit with the Motown Sound. Seattle grunge. New Orleans jazz. You might list a number of cities before you’d stumble on Jacksonville, Florida. But as media scholar Michael Ray Fitzgerald explains, Jacksonville of the 1960s and ’70s was one of the hottest music cities in the nation. Sure, all those other cities were great, Pat Armstrong, president of Orlando-based Parc Records told Fitzgerald, “But Jacksonville would certainly be in the top ten.”

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One big reason was the same one that changed so much of American culture—the baby boom. Boomers, who were then teenagers, “developed into a huge, new market for entertainment.” This meant concerts, dances, and radio airplay for the songs that the growing audience wanted to hear. “To parents,” Fitzgerald writes. “It must have looked as if they were taking over the world—and they were.”

Another reason was corruption.

“In 1960s Jacksonville, corruption was part of the landscape,” Fitzgerald explains. And the music industry was not immune. Radio and live music venues had a working relationship. Acts would be scheduled to play locally, and, all of sudden, DJs couldn’t get enough of their records, playing them more than ever, in a practice known as “hammering,” which in turn led to more ticket sales. For the venues, this deal meant that they could get the acts cheaper since there was guaranteed local airplay. And as Fitzgerald writes, “It amounted to free advertising for both the acts and the concert promoters, who also happened to be the DJs themselves—a conflict of interest, certainly, but a practical one.”

This legal, but shady, practice meant that the corruption could take on some really fancy forms. One station, WAPE or “The Big Ape,” came to Jacksonville in 1958. It had a massive signal—50,000-watts. The signal was so strong, it could be heard as far away as Virginia Beach. The station’s transmitter was cooled by a water tank, Ftizgerald explains, “that also fed a fountain and a large, kidney-shaped swimming pool, which ran under a glass wall into the station’s lobby.” On the weekends, the station hosted pool parties for local teens, earning the station its nickname, the “radio country club.” Station owner Bill Brennan even had an apartment in the building, accessed via secret entrance. “It had a full bar, a state-of-the-art hi-fi, and a frosted- glass wall with mood lights that throbbed to the beat of the music,” Fitzgerald writes.

The station started hosting a concert series, “The Big Ape Shower of Stars,” which featured national acts who got airplay in return. WAPE DJs would start hammering their records a few weeks before the show, “and the exposure would nearly guarantee packed halls.” If they wanted even more airplay, they could give Brennan an extra incentive, such as a discount on their performance fees. Brennan brought well-known acts to the area, including one of the biggest—The Beatles.

On the promoter side, there were several who did double duty as both promoters and talent agents. One promoter, Tom Register, managed local bands and also held teen dances, at which his clients were the star attractions. Register teamed up with Sheldon “Dino” Summerlin, a WAPE DJ, with the two splitting the profits. Summerlin provided free advertising for the events, talking up his appearance at them and hammering the acts’ records. But by the time Register and Summerlin entered into this partnership there was just one problem—it was illegal. The payola scandal of 1960 rocked the radio world with noted DJs including Alan Freed and Dick Clark accused of taking money for airplay or otherwise having financial connections to the bands they promoted on air.

Luckily, WAPE’s owner had friends in high places, notably the FCC. This meant Summerlin didn’t need to stay under the radar. He recorded a single himself, which he then hammered on air. He rigged a station contest, and he even had a boat he named “Payola.” Tighter enforcement, new ownership, and a soured partnership eventually put an end to his schemes.

“Corrupt radio practices helped put Jacksonville on the musical map,” Fitzgerald notes. “Without realizing it, local DJs and station owners helped create a vibrant music scene.”

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Southern Cultures, Vol. 17, No. 4, Music (WINTER 2011), pp. 6–23
University of North Carolina Press