In the late 1940s and early 1950s, broadcasting experts predicted that the advent of television would kill off radio. Many of them didn’t especially want it to survive, since it could only hold back the acceptance of TV. In fact, the radio those experts knew didn’t survive. By the mid-1950s, the national networks that had dominated since the ’20s had all but evaporated, replaced by more than twice as many local stations. Television took over presenting broadcast drama and comedy, variety shows and in-depth news.
Yet radio itself survived. Radio outstrips television as a means of conveying intimacy and, precisely because it doesn’t show but can only tell, may stir the active imagination more deeply. It’s cheaper to operate a radio station, and in those years broadcasting equipment was much more mobile, making it perfect for local presentations. With recorded music (before the advent of TV, most radio programming consisted of live performance), stations found a cheap programming source that attracted enough listeners to generate its lifeblood — advertising revenue — even after TV took hold.
In “Something in the Air,” Marc Fisher takes the story from there, arguing that radio — those who programmed and performed on it, and the music they played — inspired his entire generation to come together: “We grew up dancing and dreaming to the same soundtrack, and we were therefore somehow united,” he writes. “Until the Great Unraveling of the late 1960s and early ’70s, this shared pop culture was a meeting ground for our nation, a commons that we only years later realized we had lost.”
But Fisher can’t deliver on this premise, because it simply isn’t true. Different groups of people experienced that period differently, and they listened to radio differently too. The kids in Fisher’s neighborhood, and mine, spent 1963 listening to the Chiffons and Motown and were led to dream of a better world. The black kids in Birmingham, Ala., spent part of that year listening to local radio not only for those hit records but for coded messages about where to gather for illegal demonstrations that concretely changed their world for the better. Those are not equivalent experiences.
But most of “Something in the Air” isn’t concerned with its broad premise, and therein lies the book’s value. It provides a history of the development of radio in the postwar era, but it works best when it backs away from the general and settles upon particular broadcasters who fascinate Fisher. He writes engagingly about the late-night giants Jean Shepherd and Bob Fass, the shock jock Tom Leykis, the National Public Radio co-founder Bill Siemering, the Long Island radio rebel Paul Sidney and the white R & B disc jockey Hunter Hancock.
There are reasons to quarrel with the history. Fisher likes to settle on a single source for each section, which would be fine if he’d written a collection of profiles rather than a book billed as a comprehensive historical survey. Giving a history of Top 40 radio with only a single paragraph about the programmer Bill Drake (inventor of the hyperkinetic “Boss Radio”) is like writing a history of hit singles with only a single paragraph about Phil Spector. Writing about New York City radio’s response to the arrival of the Beatles through the eyes of WABC’s Bruce Morrow, without even mentioning “the Fifth Beatle,” WMCA’s Murray the K, is just bizarre.
In his chapter on satellite radio, Fisher grows so fixed on the programmer Lee Abrams of XM that the rival Sirius network all but vanishes. (Disclosure: I am the host of a show on Sirius.) The chapter on shock jocks focuses so completely on Leykis that the portions on the much more important Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern (who gets only three pages) feel like intrusion.
Fisher has little to say about anything that happened outside the East Coast. B. Mitchell Reed, the great Los Angeles disc jockey who inspired Joni Mitchell’s “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” is mentioned only briefly, for his work in San Francisco. There’s nothing about CKLW, in Windsor, Ontario, which was the No. 1 station in both Detroit and Cleveland for more than a decade. Wolfman Jack is mentioned for his role in “American Graffiti” and his brief dalliance with WNBC in New York, but there is only a passing acknowledgment of his long career in Mexican border radio, which could be heard from San Antonio to Buffalo. Fisher adores late-night radio, but he says nothing about the legendary John R. and Hoss Allen of WLAC Nashville, who also had an audience across broad swaths of the nation.
Fisher describes how disco divided the rock radio audience and galvanized black and Latin listeners, who had been written off by FM rock radio, though he writes about such matters superficially. He claims that black disc jockeys simply “mimicked Top 40’s style,” which I presume means he never heard Martha Jean the Queen, Butterball, Georgie Woods, the Magnificent Montague or, for that matter, the young Sly Stone. If anything, the mimicry ran in the other direction. Readers will finish “Something in the Air” with no insight into how Spanish-language disc jockeys played the key role in delivering hundreds of thousands of immigration-rights supporters into the streets of Los Angeles and other cities last year, because Fisher says absolutely nothing about Latin radio in general and its crucial role in the Chicano community in particular. Turning out those demonstrators was a much greater accomplishment than the “Rush Rooms” that sprang up in restaurants across the nation in Limbaugh’s heyday, which Fisher does mention.
Fisher provides a good deal of useful information about satellite and Internet broadcasting, and there are solid discussions of the consequences of the Federal Communications Commission’s laissez-faire policy toward fairness and community service and on the Clinton administration’s successful efforts to change the rules that prevented large corporations from owning large blocks of stations. He writes a devastating account of one of the focus groups that many big-city stations use to pick their playlists, arguing that such questionable research (each recording is judged by a seven-second sample) leads to unimaginative programming. He also has the courage to defend payola: “Despite the ugly underside of the promotion business,” he writes, “the old payola had a desirable result: a wider variety of music got on the air.”
The problem, in the end, is the vastness and mutability of the radio culture that developed in the half-century since TV took over as the family hearth. Fisher’s book is at its best when he lets himself speak about passions that are almost but not quite private: the importance of his first transistor radio; the way that radio and its successors blew musical winds of change into his life; the near magical effect of listening to someone who is committed not to playing good music or making political points but simply making good radio, whatever form it may take. In such moments, readers will find that they and Fisher have much to share — not as a generation, but simply as lovers of a medium that, however scorned and abused, retains its fascination.