Ironically, it wasn’t one of the nationally known deejays who was responsible for accelerating the pace of payola in the music industry in the late 1950s. While much of the initial attention was focused on Dick Clark at American Bandstand in Philadelphia or Allan Freed and his myriad operations from his home base in New York City, it was really a radio station executive in Omaha, Nebraska, who set the stage.
Todd Storz had started his radio career after World War II in Hutchinson, Kansas, then worked as a disc jockey at KBON in Omaha where he hosted a program featuring swing music on a 250-watt, “graveyard channel.” He moved on to sales at Omaha’s most powerful station, clear channel KFAB before venturing out on his own.
In a co-venture with his father (of locally popular Storz beer fame), the 25-year-old Storz bought KOWH, a nondescript station that owes its call letters to a previous owner, the Omaha World-Herald newspaper, in 1949. Young Storz started tinkering with KOWH’s programming, finally arriving at a formula that would be copied around the country for decades to come.
Storz came into radio at an opportune time. The national radio networks were more interested in the emerging world of television and had scaled back their radio efforts. Only in his mid-20s, Storz didn’t bring the baggage of network experience and practices that burdened many of his rival station executives.
He mostly stayed true to the music and news format that had proved successful in the past, but with a few twists. Since KOWH was an independent station, it could focus its news efforts on local events. Almost every newscast opened with a local story. Indeed, building ties to the community were important at KOWH.
Storz pioneered the news tip, where listeners could get $10-25 for a solid news tip, a gimmick that resulted in 6-8 stories every day and set KOWH apart from its Omaha competitors.
Storz was also fond of giveaways and contests, another successful tactic that built an audience. He had buried treasure and mystery Santa contests. Listeners could have dinner with their favorite jocks, even win a fully furnished house.
But Storz’ greatest innovation was in the music he played. As a GI, he noticed that restaurant patrons played the same songs over and over again on the jukebox. At the end of her shift, the waitress would drop her tip nickels into the box and play the same songs she’d heard all night. Why not give people what they want, Storz thought? Top Forty was born.
The disk jockey was king at KOWH. Deejays had great leeway in showing their on-air personalities. When it came to picking the music, though, they had little choice. Top Forty playlists meant playing the same song at about the same time each day and maybe more than once during a deejay’s shift. Consistency was the name of the game at a Storz station.
There was a bit of an opening, though. There were slots for past hits and for songs they thought could become hits. Storz’ mantra was “I won’t play anything that isn’t a hit, can’t be a hit or wasn’t a hit.”
As Storz built what would become the Mid-Continent Broadcasting Company by buying stations in Kansas City, New Orleans, Minneapolis and Miami, he had an opportunity to test his format in other areas of the country. In each case, his station climbed to the top of the Hooper Ratings.
Naturally, others noticed. Plough Stations and Gordon McClendon were among the nation’s independent chains that copied Storz’ Top Forty format. Disc jockeys — especially disc jockeys who were accustomed to selecting their own records for their shows — hated the format, which limited their freedom of selection.
George “Hound Dog Lorenz, one of the nation’s most popular deejays, blamed the format when he quit WKBW in Buffalo, N.Y., in July 1958, calling it boring and saying it shuts the door on new artists. Around the same time, KLAC in Hollywood reported that five key deejays quit because of the format and Ed McKenzie left WXYZ in Detroit. Chicago disk jockey Stan Dale called Top Forty “the biggest cancer that’s ever hit the broadcasting industry.”
Excerpted from Bandstandland © 2015 Larry Lehmer
Author Larry Lehmer is writing a book about the Philadelphia years of American Bandstand. The book is called Bandstandland. It has lots of details about the show you've never read before. If you have any stories about American Bandstand or Dick Clark that you'd like to share in the book, contact Larry.
 Television Magazine, “The Storz Bombshell,” May 1957.
 Billboard, April 7, 1958.