Backtracking: In Our Times: Local residents reacted to quiz show scandals, payola in 1959

FILENo payola here. The way records were screened to be played at WDOS made it impossible for record companies to give payola to disc jockeys. This advertisement was seen in The Oneonta Star of Nov. 7, 1959.

Television quiz shows such as “Twenty-One” or “The $64,000 Question” were widely popular among local and national viewers in the late 1950s.

On the radio, some songs were being played more often than others during this time.

Quietly behind the scenes in both media, scandals had been simmering, but they both boiled over in November 1959. Local residents reacted to each.

Readers of The Oneonta Star on Nov. 3 learned, “Fallen TV idol Charles Van Doren confessed in shame and anguish Monday that he was deeply involved in rigging the defunct, scandal-tinged ‘Twenty-One’ quiz show.

“For three years Van Doren had concealed, in fear and folly, he said, that the $129,000 he won on ‘Twenty-One’ were dishonest dollars.” Van Doren resigned immediately as an associate professor of English at Columbia University.

It wasn’t only Van Doren, readers soon learned. Network screeners of contestants on these popular shows also said they either coached or gave answers in advance to some contestants, and corporate sponsors of the shows knew about it.

With the fall of Van Doren the professor, The Star sought reactions by local college students enrolled at what was then called the State University College of Education at Oneonta.

As seen in The Star’s Nov. 6 edition, student Kathy Enners, a junior from Long Island said, “He was wrong. A person who is in the position of teacher and has the opportunity to influence so many youths and the future of America, should have better character than that. If he continued teaching it would only be detrimental.”

Several other students reacted similarly, saying Van Doren was only in it for the money and recognition.

Himself a contestant on one of the quiz shows in 1957, “The $64,000 Question,” Oneonta Mayor Roger G. Hughes also said in the Nov. 6 edition that the television industry must clean house and perhaps have a “czar” such as what the motion picture industry had taken on.

“‘When they gave me that $64,000 question (August, 1957) everybody thought it was a slider,’ he said. ‘I got letters from all over stating that it was.

“‘Now we find out through Mert Koplen, whom I dealt with, that the show was controlled. Those they wanted to keep they helped, and those they didn’t want they threw them questions designed to get them off.

“‘I can’t prove it but maybe that’s what happened to me. It sort of substantiates what the public felt when I came home after missing the $4,000 question. I finally got a check for $512.’”

As for an overall “cleanup,” Hughes added, “I have a strong feeling Congress will give them a reasonable opportunity to do this. If they don’t I think we’ll see some very strong federal legislation controlling television.”

While the television quiz scandal was going on, radio was also having some problems with shady dealings nationally, but not in our area.

As The Star reported on Nov. 25, “Payola simply means some DJ’s accepted money to plug a record. And many people feel it isn’t right.

“Hal Graves, manager of WDOS Radio in Oneonta, said yesterday that influence peddlers offering money to disc jockeys for a record plug were ‘wasting their money.’

“He said constant repetition for a record on the air is no guarantee the record will be successful.

“‘The public has to like it and then buy it before a record can become a hit,’ he said.

“He asserted that the payola theory was only perpetrated in major market areas where the potential audiences were large enough to justify the promotional expense. In a competitive listening area that is so large and has several radio stations with so many disc jockeys, almost every record has a chance to be heard.”

Graves said that if radio stations were set up so that station policy determined the records to be played, instead of the DJs, this scandal couldn’t have happened.

At WDOS, Graves said every record was screened by the head of the program department before it could become part of the record library.

“And if it is a good record, it’ll catch on … and not by DJ endorsement or repetition,” Graves added.

This weekend: Our local life and times in November 1929.

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area before 1950. His Tuesday columns address local history 1950 and later.  If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at His website is His columns can be found at

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Write to him at "Ask Mark," The Daily Star, 102 Chestnut St., Oneonta, NY 13820 or email him at

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