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by Charlie Clark, AARP The Magazine, April 28, 2008
Before we break for news and weather, let me spin one more groovy hit to go out to all those baby boomers lurking in Listenerland. Unplug your iPod and hearken back to those teen years when you lay in bed with your ear glued to the muffled speaker of your Japanese transistor radio.
This next artist is Marvelous Marc Fisher, writing with the benefit of years of covering the radio beat for The Washington Post, sculpting the tale of a communications and cultural revolution in which you likely participated—whether you knew it or not. It was the record-busting boomer generation, Fisher writes in Something in the Air, that became America's first to grow up "dancing and dreaming to the same soundtrack, and we were therefore somehow united."
To grasp the confluence of forces behind this revolution, set the way-back machine for the early 1950s, when the radio industry was on the verge of being destroyed by a fad called television. Radio then was a Squaresville of melodramas, religion for shut-ins, live big bands, and grown-up favorites dictated by Sing Along With Mitch.
The generational tsunami that would graft boomers to their radio dials was propelled by their demographic bulge, a new hybrid of music called rock and roll, some farsighted entrepreneurs, and technologies that haven't stopped evolving.
With conversational simplicity, Fisher describes the impact of breakthroughs, including the long-playing record, the 45, portable transistors, car radios, and the FM broadcasting equipment (and subsequent programming) that permitted longer songs and interior album cuts.
He sketches colorful personalities, both on-air—deejays who made you feel they were speaking directly to you—and the powers-that-be in the executive suite. You'll learn about Todd Storz, the Omaha-based beer-fortune heir who launched the first empire of stations that repeated the hit songs. You'll encounter Jean Shepherd, the eccentric New York-based storyteller who created a multi-state community of culturally disaffected "night people." You'll sample on-air long-hair Bob Fass, the father of free-form '60s community FM radio at New York's WBAI, who boosted the careers of Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie—and still broadcasts. You'll come to know commercial "Cousin Brucie" Morrow, the teen audience's "love courier of the New York night." And you'll meet Bob Siemering, the '60s Wisconsin college radio activist who went on to found All Things Considered for fledgling NPR.
Some of Fisher's fun facts: The term deejay was coined by Variety magazine in 1941; the "top 40" was named for the number of songs a jock could play in an average three-hour shift; many deejays were given on-air names so that they could be replaced without listeners knowing.
Fisher recaps the expectable payola scandals, the late '60s on-air parlor game about rumors that Paul McCartney was dead, and the "disco sucks" movement that culminated in 1979 when Chicago deejay Steve Dahl blew up a truckload of records at Comiskey Park.
Along the way Fisher weaves in social trends, such as the desegregation of black "race" radio (think of the triumph of mid-'60s soul music) and its later resegregation into less profitable "urban" radio, and recounts the advent and fade-out of the pot-smoking "underground" radio freaks. He traces the corporatization that brought computerized programming and formula-based genres such as "lite rock" and "beautiful music." And he takes us up to present-day satellite syndication, Internet radio, and podcasting, spiced up with portraits of contemporary fixtures such as Garrison Keillor and shock jocks Howard Stern and Tom Leykis.
Though a crisp raconteur, Fisher occasionally flags in his effort to balance his fascination for inside-the-industry figures with pop culture. And his recounting of the early U.S. airing of Beatles music focuses too much on New York, skipping a point that Beatles buffs will pounce on: he omits the fact that Americans' first encounter with "I Want to Hold Your Hand" came when Washington deejay Carroll James acceded to a fan's request and arranged for a British copy to be flown over and played on air in December 1963. That unofficial airplay lit a teenage prairie fire a good eight weeks before the Fab Four landed in the U.S. and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.
But hey, forever teens, what's one omission among generation-mates? Though the sounds and on-air heroes of your youth may have dispersed, Fisher's book—given today's targeted offerings in narrow-casting—will afford you a fab reunion.
Charlie Clark is a Washington writer and radio addict.
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