Columns appear in print in the U Entertainment Section of the Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Whittier Daily News

Monday, May 07, 2007

Radio Column May 6, 2007

Listening In

May 06, 2007

By Sandy Wells

A new look at radio’s ‘silver age’ of rock music and rebellion

After the arrival of television in the late 1940s, the assumption among the media elite in Manhattan was that radio would soon go the way of sheet music, home pianos, and vaudeville halls. Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher has written “Something in the Air: Radio, Rock and the Revolution that Shaped a Generation” (Random House), a highly entertaining account of the offbeat personalities and innovators who rescued radio and took it to new heights.

A self-described devotee of radio, Fisher nonetheless writes with a nostalgic bent, sometimes sounding like a guy describing his return to his hometown after many years and finds his high school sweetheart married with kids and not looking quite like the beauty he remembered.

Fisher writes, “It’s hard to find a radio executive who does not concede – privately, with the notebook closed – that radio has become boring and predictable, that stations sound the same no matter where you are, and that the consistent decline in the amount of time Americans spend listening to radio is disturbing.”

Fisher is very good at describing radio’s resilience in the years after TV came on the scene, the innovators such as legendary Top 40 pioneers Todd Storz and Gordon McLendon, who grabbed the reigns of the medium as it careened out of its Golden Age preeminence and steered it into what I would call its “Silver Age” of local format radio. But he also weaves into his narrative a litany of complaints – familiar to fans and observers of the industry: The stifling of creativity by consultants, the endless belt-tightening due to deregulation and ownership consolidation; the end of localism, and the demise of the great personality DJs who, with their fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants exploits in promoting themselves and the music, changed America forever.

Fisher is right on the money in his analysis of talk radio, which really was and is the second wave of the revolution. The best talk show hosts, Tom Leykis, Rush Limbaugh, Don Imus, Glenn Beck and Howard Stern, worked their way up the radio food chain as DJs, adapting the rhythm and tempo of Top 40 into the spoken word format:

“They move quickly from bit to bit, connecting with the essential minutiae of daily life, hitting listeners’ emotional cores, never getting in too deep. They might do politics or eschew it entirely, but the format stays the same. David Letterman – another former Top 40 jock (boss Radio 57 in Muncie, Indiana, 1969) – follows the same rules on his late-night TV show: a slam-bam torrent of bits and jingles, always promoting the next feature, with bursts of familiar music to introduce and end each item.”

As an aside, Fisher quotes a radio executive who accurately points out that the key to the success of the Top 40 radio format was its effectiveness in combining a predictable context with unpredictable content.

To appreciate this fine and passionate account of radio over the last fifty years, it’s best not to look for any unifying argument as to why radio is where it is, or is where it shouldn’t be. Fisher is at his best in telling the stories behind the stars and revealing the special quality that made each one stand out in a crowded field: R&B DJ Hunter Hancock in Los Angeles, late-nigh talker Jean Sheppard in New York, progressive FM rock pioneer Tom Donahue in San Francisco and Pasadena, in addition to the national talk stars such as Stern, Leykis, Limbaugh and Garrison Keillor .

Fisher also touches on some of the African-American radio pioneers such as legendary East Coast DJ Hal Jackson and Howard University’s foray into commercial radio with WHUR-FM in Washington, DC. But he leaves out any mention of NBN, the National Black Network, the first black-owned coast-to-coast radio network founded in 1973, which eventually merged with its competitor, the Sheridan Broadcasting Network to form American Urban Radio Networks.

Fisher is perhaps most illuminating in describing how the politics of the late 1960s shaped the views of National Public Radio’s first program director, Bill Siemering. The former history and English teacher was the professional manager of the University of Buffalo radio station. Seeking to go beyond the glib “banality” of commercial radio news, he brought radio microphones directly into the community following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Later, at NPR he developed its now signature long-form reporting and pioneered in the sort of continuous coverage of major events which has been adopted by the 24-hour cable news networks. In 1971, NPR launched its first national program, “All Things Considered.” All this was created from the leftover crumbs of funding that Congress allocated to public television when it started the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Here again, Fisher finds success eventually blurring the product's uniqueness. NPR is now grasping to regain its footing in the soulless world of consultants and research.

In the end, Fisher is wise enough to admit that “Radio isn’t what it used to be, but it never really was." It still has a future “in the voices of those who open their souls into a microphone, and in the imaginations of those who feel compelled to listen.”

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