'Something in the Air' and the Rise of Radio

In the early 1950s, a young Nebraskan reinvented radio by hiring charismatic DJs to spin the same 40 hits. Radio has never been the same. Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher talks about his book, Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution that Shaped a Generation.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The obituary for radio has been written more than once. But we are, as you may have noticed, still here. In the late 1940s, when television was the next big thing and radio's biggest stars defected to the new medium, many believed that radio would just fade away. Instead, it became the soundtrack to American life: Top 40 DJs who spoke directly into the fevered ears of teenagers, gentle wallpaper music that decorated the offices of dentists, all news, all talk, all sports. And it found itself new media - FM first, later satellite and Internet radio, now podcasts.

Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher has been writing about radio for 20 years, and his new book "Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation" tells a sweeping story of how radio provided a cultural commons and how that atomized into fragments, how once revolutionary programs stagnated, and how radio repeatedly reinvented itself.

Later in the hour, holes in your socks? It happened to the head of the World Bank, too. But first, "Something in the Air." Why do you listen to the radio? How has it shaped your life? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. And Marc Fisher is joining us here in Studio 3A. And nice of you to come into today.

Mr. MARC FISHER (Author, "Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation"): Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: You grew up in the television age, but you write about how you played radio as a kid and later as a teenager. Why radio?

Mr. FISHER: Well, I think radio is the most intimate of the mass media. It is the one that we're - you're being spoken to one-on-one. It feels like a personal relationship even as it's a mass form of communication. That's unique. It's not a performance necessarily the way television or the movies are. It's really something - it's a single voice, and that's just the most elemental kind of communication there is. It's almost biblical.

CONAN: One-on-one, yet the audience for programs like Rush Limbaugh's is measured in the millions.

Mr. FISHER: It is, but the secret behind successful talk hosts or DJs is that they are bearing a bit of their soul. They're making a personal connection, because all of radio takes place in your head, in kind of the imagination space.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FISHER: And so everybody has their own idea of what, for example, Neal Conan looks like. You know, I almost didn't want to put photographs in the book for that reason. I don't want to spoil people's images. Because as a writer that's what's so fun and interesting to write about radio, because you're dealing with fantasy, you're dealing with images that people have that are their own even as they're part of a larger community of listeners.

CONAN: I've occasionally been introduced to people, and I say this is Neal Conan. They look at me and they say, no, you're not.

Mr. FISHER: Yeah, or I'm so sorry. Yeah, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I usually have to say that. As you grew up, you later worked a bit in radio yourself.

Mr. FISHER: Well, a little bit. You know, the typical college radio games and a little bit before and after doing some news. It was something that I wanted to do just to get across, because it is a form of theater; it's a form of acting as well as a form of journalism and all the other, you know, serving up music and so on. It's an extraordinary experience because when it's done really well, when - I try in the book to get some portraits of people like Jean Shepherd who do it so well - it's the ultimate in improvisation. It is really creativity in the moment.

CONAN: These days I guess Jean Shepherd is I guess best remembered for "A Christmas Story," which airs endlessly every year before Christmas, but he did a broadcast every night on WOR in New York City. Let's hear a clip of Jean Shepherd's voice.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Mr. JEAN SHEPHERD (Author; Humorist): Unfortunately as, you know, as I often say, I don't make the news. I only report it, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHEPHERD: I don't create the nuttiness, although the King's messenger always gets clobbered.

CONAN: And he could spin these stories out over - it seemed like forever and the program didn't last that long.

Mr. FISHER: All night long, unscripted, sitting alone at the base of a transmitter in Carteret, New Jersey, alone in the swamp of the meadowlands, he would sit there for four, five, six hours at a stretch just spinning stories. He was the DJ who refused to play records, and instead he would go on the air and tell stories about his childhood. This is the 1950s into the '60s. And he is just blasting the conformism of that era, and he really was, along with Mad Magazine and James Dean and "Death of a Salesman," part of that reaction against the conformism of the Eisenhower years.

CONAN: Well, we hope to get a lot of radio listeners involved in this conversation. If you'd like to join us with Marc Fisher about his new book "Something in the Air," our phone number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. And why don't we begin with Tom. Tom's calling us from Portland in Oregon.

TOM (Caller): Excelsior.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FISHER: That's Jean Shepherd's cry to his listeners, and they back to him.

TOM: Well, I'm a much - I'm not very young, but I'm in my early 40s. But as a kid, my dad would play me some of these things and I had the great fortune to be in New York when Shep was doing his stuff as a kid. And even back then I loved it. Today, though, on the Web, there's a huge following of old-time radio stuff.

CONAN: Old-time, are you talking about Jean Shepherd, or are you talking about "Fibber McGee and Molly"?

TOM: All of it.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

TOM: I mean everything from the very beginning Edison stuff to - in fact, there's a show on WFMU which is just old radio shows, old Edison cylinders.

CONAN: And here in Washington on WAMU as well but, Marc Fisher...

Mr. FISHER: One of the great discoveries I made in reporting this book was to find that there are communities of people who grew up in the '50s, '60s, '70s, into the early '80s who have such a passion for the voices they heard growing up, for those DJ's who accompanied them or helped them through the love troubles of adolescence, that people have created mini communities on the Web around those DJs, around those radio stations. There are tribute Web sites to virtually every big Top 40 station that dominated in one city or another across the country. You can go back and listen to the original broadcast and kind of immerse yourself in what radio was when it was a mass medium of a scope unheard of today, you know, when stations would routinely get 40, 50, 60 percent shares of the audience. Now a station can be successful with one tenth that.

TOM: And now you have podcasts, which I've done some podcasts from the early times - well, two years ago, early times. But a lot of that is reinventing itself, like how to get advertising into a podcast. You can't insert ads per se, so they start weaving the ads into the shows, like "Fibber McGee and Molly" or "The Great Gildersleeve," where the advertising was part of the show.

CONAN: Well, it was - a lot of them were the, you know, the, you know, "The Lucky Strike Hour." It was not hiding who was sponsoring the programming.

Mr. FISHER: That's right.

TOM: More than that, "Fibber McGee and Molly" would get a visit from the Johnson Wax guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOM: And it would be part of the show.

CONAN: I kept wondering why that closet was so slippery. Anyway, Tom, thanks very much for the call.

TOM: OK, (unintelligible).

CONAN: OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You were talking about these radio stations that got 50, 60, 80 percent shares. This would be unheard of in these days. But these were the invention of a fascinating gentlemen you write about a lot at the beginning of this book, a man named Todd Storz who reinvented radio. This was the guy who came up with Top 40 radio.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Mr. TODD STORZ (Radio Personality): That gets the second hour of the musical clock underway. "White Silver Sands" by Bill Black's Combo. Two minutes past 7:00, WHB happy time. Fifty-six degrees here in Kansas City. Right now it is 57. It's up a degree. Fifty-seven degrees in our town.

Unidentified Announcer: Smoke Pell-Mell. Never too strong, never too weak. Buy Pell-Mell Famous Cigarettes. Outstanding, and they are mild.

Mr. STORZ: Indeed they are mild. Three minutes past 7:00, WHB happy time.

CONAN: And this was a revolution. That's a little bit later. You can hear the terrible problems with the transcription, which I'm sure is what it was.

Mr. FISHER: Sure.

CONAN: And off a record, that's what that scratchiness was. But this was a guy who figured a formula out that was revolutionary.

Mr. FISHER: It really was. Todd Storz was the rich kid. His father was a big brewer in Omaha, and dad bought the youngster a radio station to play with, essentially. That happens to all of us, I know.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FISHER: And so he went out there, and this was in the final days of the glory days of network radio. And along came television in the early 1950s and all the programming went away. All the network programming jumped over to the TV side. Little station owners around the country were left wondering what they would put on the air.

Todd Storz's great revelation came - he used to hang out at a diner watching the waitresses clean up because he had a particular eye on one waitress. And he would watch as they would plunk their nickels into the jukebox and play the same songs over and over. This inspired Todd Storz to break two taboos in radio.

One taboo was against playing records on the radio. It simply wasn't done. The musicians union wouldn't allow it. And the other was against playing the same song more than once in a given month. Todd Storz said people want to hear their favorite songs over and over. Seems obvious to us today, but it was a revelation in the early 1950s and it changed radio, because radio suddenly became something that appealed to one generation. The new music was coming along - the early R&B and rock and roll - and that brought one generation together on the radio.

CONAN: And he didn't necessarily introduce that kind of music. That happened later. But he invented the format, the jingles, the action-packed sound of AM radio, and in fact put a big stack of limiters on his equipment so that the sound would - the signal would sound louder and broadcast, you know, the - the volume never changed.

Mr. FISHER: Everything was go, go, the sort of new frantic pace of American life. The interstates were being built. America was being suburbanized. People were spending more time in their cars. There were now radios in the cars. And that quicker pace of life was reflected by the speed and the action of AM Top 40 radio.

CONAN: Yet within a period of 10 years, AM Top 40 radio was a medium as dead as dead could be. Not that it wasn't on the air everywhere. It was. But it was stultifying.

Mr. FISHER: It really was. The music was derided as bubblegum. But along came a whole new frontier in the form of FM radio. It had existed for quite some time, but it was really reserved for elites, for highbrows: classical music, Broadway show tunes...

CONAN: Hi-Fi nuts, if you'll recall that phrase.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FISHER: Exactly. And it wasn't until the federal government came along and said, you know, those of you guys who have AM and FM stations, you can't keep playing the same stuff on both of them. You need to have some different programming on your FM stations. And that opened up a whole new frontier. Along with the technological advance, which was in the late '60s, early '70s, suddenly cars were equipped with FM radios. And that made this a fertile field for all kinds of experimentation on FM: the underground FM sound, the freeform movement, lots of new ideas in radio that also served to chop up the audience.

In the Top 40 days, just like in TV when there were just three networks, there really weren't many programming choices. So it was a something-for-everyone kind of model. You turned on your Top 40 station. If you hated one song, the next one might be a very different style and so you'd stick around for it; you had some patience. But when FM came along and lots of new stations created new niches, well, all of a sudden it became an everything-for-someone model, completely different. Where the stations promised you if you don't like this music, you're on the wrong station. We're just playing what you want.

CONAN: Mm-hmm, your favorites.

Mr. FISHER: Yeah.

CONAN: FM stereo of course came in, too. I'm old enough to remember when you still had to throw the switch at the radio station I worked at by inserting a Bic pen top. It was just tied to a string, which ran across the ceiling over to the console where the combo operator sat. And you yanked the string and hoped that it pulled the switch up and that you went in as promised into stereo.

We're talking radio today with Marc Fisher. His book is called "Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Changed a Generation." And when we come back we're going to take a lot of your calls: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: talk@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Radio has survived quite a bit - from television and the digital age, all the way to the personalities that populated it. Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher has written a cultural history of radio's rise. It's called "Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation." He's with us here today in Studio 3A.

Later in the hour we will talk about public embarrassment. The head of the World Bank was caught on film with holes in his socks yesterday. E-mail us and confess your unwitting wardrobe malfunctions or other embarrassments that made it out of the house. The address is talk@npr.org.

But first back to radio, and we'd like to hear what dulcet radio voices soothed you to sleep or got you moving. How has radio shaped your life? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. And let's go to Gloria. Gloria's with us from San Francisco.

GLORIA: Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

GLORIA: I was telling the person that answered that radio has really been something that's covered my entire life, starting from before when Franklin Roosevelt was elected.

CONAN: The Fireside Chats.

GLORIA: Oh yes, we heard the Fireside Chats, and on Sunday evenings everybody gathered around the radio to listen to "One Man's Family" and the "Major Bowes Amateur Hour." And on Saturday mornings they had a program for kids called "Let's Pretend."

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

GLORIA: And then as I got - you know, we listened to - oh, I was crazy about those 15-minute mysteries, you know, "The Shadow," all of those great things. And then I listened a lot, when I got older, to the opera. And then my husband was in radio.

CONAN: Hmm.

GLORIA: He was a newscaster in Oregon.

CONAN: It's interesting, Marc Fisher. She's talking about the days when radio had programs as opposed to formats.

Mr. FISHER: Right, she's talking about the so-called golden age of radio, and certainly FDR played a crucial role in letting people realize that radio could be that intimate kind of medium with that one-to-one kind of communication. Very different from that more show-like atmosphere that you got in the sitcoms and the soap operas and the variety shows, all those forms that developed during the golden age. But I would argue that it is was the period after the golden age, after TV came along, where radio really came into its own, where radio created these emotional bonds with people.

Everywhere I go, people want to tell me their radio stories because they grew up with that transistor radio under the pillow. It was what accompanied them through the day, through the night. Even today, in the privacy of the car there's a whole different level of American conversation going on than we allow ourselves at work or even within our families.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FISHER: That's where you get the most - the worst excesses of raunch radio and also the political extremes. A lot of stuff that we - that's not really socially acceptable in everyday conversation at the workplace, or among friends even, happens on the radio because of that intimacy, that privacy of the car.

CONAN: Well, Gloria, we're - it's an honor that someone who's been a radio consumer for so long and so diligently and so discriminatingly is listening to us today.

GLORIA: Right, thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

GLORIA: OK.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go to - this is Tracy, Tracy with us from Nashville, Tennessee.

TRACY (Caller): I am here from Nashville, Tennessee.

CONAN: And you're on the radio. Go ahead.

TRACY: It's so great to be on your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

TRACY: I actually have my own show on a radio station that is WRFM-LP, a little LP-FM station. That's kind of all you can get from the FCC these days.

CONAN: Low-power FM, yes.

TRACY: Yeah, yeah. And I grew up in Detroit listening to Motown, being able to pick up jazz stations, but I don't listen to the radio anymore because it's the same song over and over again. It's canned music coming from media corporations. There's no local music. I was just at the FCC hearings where Porter Wagoner said that if he were to come on the scene today, he would never get played.

CONAN: Porter Wagoner, the great country star...

TRACY: Yeah.

CONAN: ...the star of the Grand Ole Opry.

Mr. FISHER: You know, we're really moving in two very different...

TRACY: (unintelligible) somebody in a corporate office somewhere decides what gets played.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. FISHER: We're moving in two very different directions in regard to radio in this country these days. On the one hand, you have exciting, interesting, innovative movements like low-power FM, like podcasting. It's the kind of - it's the Internet influence where we're sort of atomizing ourselves into small affinity groups. So you can start up a little radio station on the Web maybe just for the folks who share your passion for Latvian folk songs.

But on the other hand, the radio industry has spent the last 10, 20 years moving in entirely the opposite direction, toward a much blander, more predictable kind of programming. So there is this great frustration that I hear everywhere I go about corporate radio, about the sameness of stations, about the loss of local programming, and instead we get nationally syndicated programming. And so I think there's a craving for radio that sounds like the place that it serves, for the local connections and the kinds of small stations like she's talking about.

CONAN: There's a fascinating and I have to say terrifying chapter, Marc Fisher, where you describe a listening session for an oldie station - I guess the listening session was held in Virginia, but it's a station here in Washington, D.C. - where groups of, you know, basically a focus group was played seven-second snippets of songs.

Mr. FISHER: Right, and that's the way most music is now chosen for the radio. People sit down in a mall in a large room. They're connected to wires. They have dials where they go up or down for each song. And then they hear literally six or seven seconds of a song. Now it's an amazing tribute to the human brain that you can recognize most of those songs just based on a few seconds and decide immediately whether you like them or not. But it shows you why radio is - commercial music radio - is as dull as it often is now, because that process creates only a retrospective view. You're asked only about songs you've already heard. No one is going to test you on songs you haven't heard yet, because you can't tell anything about them in six seconds.

CONAN: I wonder, Tracy, what kind of music do you play on your radio station?

TRACY: Well, we play everything. We play - I have a show called "Snap, Crackle, Pop" where I play all album music.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

TRACY: One week it might be Tibetan Buddhist monks chanting. This week it was Leonard Cohen. It's always something different. We have a fire safety show. We have a couple of boogie on the bayou, New Orleans shows. We have choral music for the five people that like to listen to choral music.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

TRACY: We have every - we have a fire safety show, we have kids shows, we have shows about dog training. We have everything that could possibly serve the community...

CONAN: It sounds like a great radio station, Tracy. And I don't mean this as a putdown in anyway, but I'm just channeling the radio programmers that Marc writes about in his book and I can hear them saying - and I bet both of your listeners really like it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TRACY: Well, there were 20 listening to my show on the Internet the other day. Because we only get 100 watts our scope is pretty limited, and because we can't be in the city because the FCC has these funny guidelines for LP-FMs...

CONAN: Yes.

TRACY: ...that we have to be out in the boondocks down in the valley at 100 watts. So you're right.

Mr. FISHER: Well, you know, we live now in a time where everyone can and many people do make their own radio station, whether it's on your iPod or on a podcast or online, and that really throws a wrench into the whole way commercial radio works. Both commercial and public radio are based on drawing as large an audience as they possibly can, and so they're looking at ways to eliminate what some people in public radio call seams, those lines that divide different kinds of programming so that maybe a jazz show comes on after TALK OF THE NATION. And some people in the radio business say, oh no, you want to provide the same thing all around the clock so that people come in large numbers to your radio station. But the model on the Internet is completely different. It's as you said, it's just one thing and then something wildly different, and it doesn't matter as much whether you draw a mass audience.

CONAN: Tracy...

TRACY: It'll be interesting to see which prevails.

CONAN: Yeah, it will, particularly - well, those of us who make our living in the business will be most interested.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Tracy, thanks very much for your call and good luck with your station.

TRACY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can - here's an e-mail we have. This from Eric in American Canyon, California. No question, hands down, the best way to experience a baseball game is still AM radio. I'm sure it has much to do with your guest's initial description of radio being more intimate, more evocative of our own imaginations and memories. But with spring training coming up here soon, I'm looking forward to tuning in my local station while doing yard work, driving anywhere. And sports has certainly been a thread in radio from the very first day.

Mr. FISHER: Absolutely, and baseball really more than any other sport is the through-line of radio going way back to the recreations that Ronald Reagan and others did back in the '30s and even earlier. And baseball to this day is a big chunk of - is very important to radio. XM Radio, for example, made a huge financial deal with Major League Baseball because they know that people are desperate to hear those games from teams that may be across the country. It really has changed the dynamic. And, you know, nostalgics will say, well, but you lose all the skill that it takes to pull in a baseball broadcast from halfway across the country when you can just listen to it casually on satellite.

CONAN: Yeah, they're punks, you know. They're punks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Steve on the line, Steve with us from Muskegon, Michigan.

STEVE (Caller): Hi, good afternoon.

CONAN: Hi.

STEVE: It's funny. That was a segue for me, the comment that you just got off of the e-mail.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

STEVE: This summer I had an experience, and a delightful one, especially because of our Detroit Tigers finally...

CONAN: Great season, yeah.

STEVE: ...oh, it was fantastic. While cleaning up in the kitchen like I would have done, you know, 40 years ago as a kid, I turn on the radio as my father would have and began listening to the game. And suddenly from the breakfast nook, my son Jacob says you can listen to baseball on radio, Dad?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEVE: And I said, well, yes. He said, well, can I sit and listen to it with you? And I was able to give him that experience of being able to listen to a game while you're still doing other activities, such as cleaning up the kitchen after dinner...

CONAN: Uh-huh.

STEVE: ...or doing the lawn work or barbequing, and...

CONAN: And it's interesting that your - you or son was just I guess a year or so away from hearing the same announcer that your father heard and that you heard: Ernie Harwell.

Mr. FISHER: Ernie Harwell.

STEVE: Ernie. And for any of us that grew up in Michigan, I mean, talk about, you know, a blessing to have grown up falling asleep at night with Ernie.

Mr. FISHER: You know, Ernie's a classic and in the book I talk to Jon Miller, who many people know as the ESPN TV baseball commentator, play-by-play man. But he is also the voice of the San Francisco Giants on the radio and prior to the Baltimore Orioles.

And he stays in radio - he obviously doesn't need the money since he's working for ESPN - but he stays in radio because that's the story he wants to tell. That's where he can perform. That's where he can transform the game from what's going on in the field into a storyline that's only in his head.

It is an art form. It is a performance form that is completely different and much more involving and I think much more creative than narrating a television broadcast. (Unintelligible).

STEVE: Absolutely. And I wish they would start the Ernie Harwell College of Sports Announcing to teach these up and comers or the people that have come after to please close your mouth and let us hear the game. And only announce what needs to be announced.

CONAN: It's about the silences, isn't it? Yes. Steve thanks very much for the call.

STEVE: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: So long. Let's see if we can get - this is Josh. Josh with us from Portland.

JOSH (Caller): Hey. How you doing today?

CONAN: OK.

JOSH: So I spent the entire day of September 12, 2001 in my car traveling form Portland, Oregon to Geneva, Nebraska, which is outside of Lincoln, Nebraska because my mother-in-law was stuck in Portland. And I guess radio affected by life greatly that day, you particular.

CONAN: Thank you.

JOSH: Listening to the images, you know, that were described, I guess, on the radio itself.

Mr. FISHER: That week was an extraordinary moment for radio. There were high points, such as NPR's coverage, a few other places around the dial. But there was also a revelation to many in the industry on that day, because on September 11th most of the radio stations in the United States were caught with no one to tell that story.

The cost cutting at commercial stations had been such and so many news departments, news staffs had been eviscerated in the preceding few years, that there was no one on hand to tell the story. And so station after station on the radio had to simply pipe in the sound from the local TV coverage. So you had simulcasting of TV coverage where…

CONAN: CNN, yeah.

Mr. FISHER: Yeah, of CNN or local channels, and radio was really caught flat-footed. And I think that was the moment that a lot of people, both in the industry and outside, saw what the consolidation of the radio industry in the late 1990s had wrought. And what the cost cutting - you know, why radio listening is down across the country. Well, that was a very good illustration of it.

CONAN: Josh…

JOSH: I have to say that was a very intimate portrait, I guess.

CONAN: Yeah.

JOSH: Thanks, I enjoyed it very much.

CONAN: Yeah.

JOSH: Thanks.

CONAN: Josh thanks for the kind words and thanks for the phone call, too.

JOSH: Thanks.

CONAN: We're talking to Marc Fisher about his new book, which is "Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an e-mail from Mitch in Sterling Heights, Michigan.

I'm no fan of his, but it seems to me that Rush saved AM radio.

Mr. FISHER: There's a lot to be said for that. Rush Limbaugh, like most of the other very successful talk show hosts in radio, is a former Top 40 DJ. He was known as Jeff Christie when he was a Top 40 jock. And going back and listening to some of his antics back then it's almost identical to the act that he does now.

But what he realized was that music didn't work on AM anymore because of the superior fidelity of FM radio. And he transformed himself into a talk host. He does a show that's very much a Top 40 radio show, except that the callers are the songs.

Everything else is just about the same. The pace, the music bumpers, the jingles, all of the what they call the formatics are the same. But Rush Limbaugh very much took that old AM Top 40 audience - now a little bit older -and brought them back to AM with a much more volatile kind of talk radio than anyone had heard before.

Also, thanks to the federal government, which had deregulated content to such an extent that talk radio really had the limits removed and talk hosts were allowed to rant and rave on one particular side of an issue without worrying about the Fairness Doctrine.

CONAN: Fairness Doctrine, yes. Yeah. And it's interesting you say that. Rush was using the same format. They found a format even cheaper than spinning records.

Mr. FISHER: Exactly. Right. (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Here's another e-mail. This one - Josh in Lawrence, Kansas.

While your guest maybe nostalgic for Mr. Storz new take on radio - this is back to our conversation about Todd Storz and his invention of Top 40 - it should be pointed out that it is this very aesthetic that has brought commercial radio to the very low point it is out today. Shouting ads, interrupting the same eight to 10 songs played a hundred times a day is not a good thing. It is because of this format that people like myself listen to NPR.

Mr. FISHER: Well, it's certainly true that radio was then and remains even -has grown even more commercial. Some of the big radio companies are now pulling back because the ad load, the number of minutes per hour of advertising, had bumped up to about 30 and listeners were starting to change their position on the dial.

But I would argue that Top 40 radio really had a socially transformative impact, because it brought everybody together under the same tent. Now, obviously some of the music was bubble gum. It was superficial in content. However, when everyone is together there's a common cultural conversation going on.

And I think we're in danger in this very atomized, Internet driven world of dividing up into lots of little sub-communities. And we lose both politically and socially the glue that we had when we had, paradoxically enough, fewer choices and everyone had to sit around and listen to that Top 40 station. And if you didn't like the song you waited for the next one.

It was a different - and then you could go to work and share a conversation about what did that crazy DJ do yesterday or what show was on TV. Fewer choices means, I think, in some ways more community.

CONAN: And it's interesting to see the same thing that happened to radio all those years ago, happening to television. You still have the three big networks, but their audience share continues to dip and dip and dip. And you've got formats - ESPN; you've got all news stations on cable. The same kind of market fragmentation is happening on television.

Mr. FISHER: Right. And obviously they're being left behind, both, you know, radio, television, newspapers, print in general are all losing market share to the Internet. But what's happening there is that people are organizing themselves into very strong and powerful communities, but very small ones. And so there isn't the same kind of common foundation to American pop culture that there one was.

In some ways that's a good thing, but I think we do lose something in having the ability to be bonded together. What Top 40 radio did was it gave a generation of people a sense that they had something in common, even if they didn't really. But it made them, I think, care a little bit more about what happened to the other guy if they were all doing things together and having a common conversation.

CONAN: If everybody knew all the words to all the four top songs.

Mr. FISHER: Right. Yeah.

CONAN: When we come back from a short break, more on radio's evolution. Plus later, check your fly everybody. We're talking public embarrassment. E-mail your public gas or any other wardrobe malfunctions you may have had in public to us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: But let's first finish up our conversation on radio's glorious past and looking ahead to its future. Marc Fisher is our guest. He's the author of the book "Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation."

And let's get - this is Chris(ph). Chris is with us from Cleveland, Ohio.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Hi.

CHRIS: Hi. Thanks for having me on. I just wanted to share - it kind of - as you started your show it kind of made me laugh. I'm in my early 40s and my parents are in their 60s, and they always talk about the sign off - and I'm not even sure if it was Cleveland area or if it was a national show - but they always talk about bye-bye, buy bonds, save chicken fat, join the WACS. And they've got my kids saying it.

CONAN: Really?

CHRIS: My kids don't even know what they're saying, of course. But, of course, you know, referencing World War II and such. And I was wondering if your guest could comment on that. Was that a national thing or was that just a Cleveland thing?

CONAN: I would…

Mr. FISHER: It's news to me. But…

CONAN: So it may have been Cleveland. He grew up in New York.

Mr. FISHER: It may have been Cleveland, but, you know, these catchphrases and, you know, identification with particular DJ's shticks, that is - you know, the radio stories that people tell, that they pass down to the next generation show just the deep emotional ties that radio created because of that intimacy, because of that one-to-one kind of communication that people feel when they're alone with a radio.

CONAN: Hmm. Thanks, Chris.

CHRIS: Thank you.

CONAN: Sorry we couldn't help you.

CHRIS: That's OK.

CONAN: All right. Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go to E.J. E.J.'s with us from Lansing in Michigan.

E.J. (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Good.

E.J.: I used to be a DJ here in Lansing and I've been laughed at for a long story, but…

CONAN: Yeah. They all are.

E.J.: Oh, yeah. They tend to be. But I'm just curious, with the advent of streaming radio, high definition radio, and XM radio what is coming up next for the future for radio?

CONAN: And don't forget Sirius radio, which is kind enough to carry this program. But go ahead, Marc Fisher.

Mr. FISHER: No, sure. We're in a moment of technological innovation. We haven't yet seen a whole lot of programming innovation along those lines. Most of what's one, for example, Sirius and XM satellite radio are forms of what has always been on AM and FM. But, I think, where the next big technological move is going to be wireless Internet in the car, which will vastly increase the choices that are available in the car.

So I think radio's future - radio writ large - is really extremely healthy. There is a strong, I think, elemental need that people have for the kind of storytelling, the kind of intimacy that radio provides. That's not going to go away. The challenge for broadcast radio, good old free broadcast radio, is to become vital again, to get back to the kind of local programming and make a connection so that stations sound like the places that they serve.

And, you know, those other - satellite is fascinating, it's an enormous expansion of the kinds of choices that are out there, but I think it's probably an interim technology. Once wireless Internet gets into the car and you can roam the Web for the kinds of music and other sounds that you want, that's going to seem like an infinite number of choices compared to the 150 channels of satellite radio.

CONAN: Yet with an infinite number of choices, doesn't that suggest that we're not going to develop those kinds of communities that you talked about that were spawned by Top 40 and the rock revolution?

Mr. FISHER: You know, the first decade or so of the Internet I think we've fallen in love with choice, but I think we're starting to feel a backlash. A lot of people feel like they're swimming in information. They've all too many choices, and suddenly there's a craving again for credible and fair filters that can give us a guide. You know, which blog do I read. Which of these many Internet radio stations do I listen to?

And I think, you know, the big media, if they play it smart, are going to be able to say look we can still be a service by filtering all this noise out there and giving you what you really need and want. But it's going to take reinvestment in talent and creativity that's kind of lacking from commercial radio these days.

CONAN: E.J. thank…

E.J.: That's one of the reasons that I ended up leaving radio. I mean, the station I used to work with seemed like it wanted to be everything to everybody all at once, and it just got really tough.

CONAN: Well, thanks for the call, and there may be a future for you in radio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

E.J.: Oh God, I hope so. Thank you.

CONAN: So long, E.J. And Marc Fisher, you're no longer a kid, not even a teenager, but you too can find a place in radio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thank you very much for being with us today.

Mr. FISHER: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Marc Fisher's book is called "Something In The Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution that Changed a Generation." He joined us here in Studio 3A. When we come back, public gaffes.

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Excerpt: 'Something in the Air'

The Magic of Radio

The summer I was twelve, I spent hours walking along the beach on Long Island, transistor radio in my hand, listening to the most popular station in the nation. I didn't much care for the songs on WABC; I particularly despised Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)," a whining ballad that somehow swelled my adolescent frustrations and made me want to hurl the radio into the sea. But I couldn't do that. Nor did I turn the dial on the cream-colored plastic box — notched black dials for volume and tuning, smooth ribs of plastic over the speaker, a single nine-volt battery inside, the whole package a bit larger than a pack of Marlboros. That radio stayed with me all day; each night, I slipped it under my pillow.

I kept that radio tuned to the Top 40 station because the next song might be Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones," which I couldn't get enough of, even if I hadn't the slightest idea what the song was about. I kept the radio tuned to Musicradio 77 because I was twelve, this was America, and that was what I was supposed to do. I listened because the deejays were fast and fevered, because there was nothing else moving at the frenetic pace of my mind and emotions. In the voice of my favorite deejay, Dan Ingram, in his six-second antics sandwiched between ads and pop songs, I heard freedom and passion, everything a kid wants to think is out there somewhere, just beyond his reach.

In New York City, where I grew up, WABC was the sound that poured out of car windows, storefronts, beach blanket transistors, and even some of those hip hi-fi stereos the older kids were buying so they could play their albums — albums WABC assuredly did not spin. Every big city had a similar station — WLS in Chicago, KHJ in Los Angeles, WRKO in Boston, and on and on across the land, the deejays shouting, the hits repeating, the jingles and contests and promotions and ads flying out of the speakers, a locomotive of a generation. Nobody talked much about radio then; it was just there. The songs and jingles embedded themselves in our memories, linking to moments magical and painful, connecting to events, places, people. Americans who grew up in the 1950s, '60s, '70s, and into the '80s received the blessing (and the curse) of a common soundtrack, not only in popular music but across all of radio's programming — the rock and the pop, the deejays and the news, the all-night talkers and the FM fringe. For a few brief decades, pop culture brought the nation together into a sense of belonging, a deep belief in the great American myth that had powered the nation to victory in World War II and propelled the economic dynamo of the 1950s and '60s — the deeply felt conviction that we were one community, one generation. We grew up dancing and dreaming to the same soundtrack, and we were therefore somehow united. That sense of belonging molded our expectations in politics, work, home, and school. 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.

Radio — at least in its traditional AM-FM incarnation — has seemed like a fading technology of late, but it's a big piece of how we got to be who we are. And if the history of changing technologies teaches us anything, we should know better than to write radio's obituary. Listening to Americans talk about radio over the past few years, I've heard one story after another about the voice, program, or music that changed a life. Almost everyone has a radio story — of a road trip on which they first heard the blues or zydeco, of an all-night talk show that lured them into the mysteries of the JFK assassination or the deep unknowns of cosmology, of a deejay who talked them through a teen romance gone bad. When I met Michael Freedman, who rose to the top of CBS Radio News, he pulled open his desk and cradled in his hand the transistor radio he had kept under his pillow decades ago to listen to the ball games and newscasts that shaped his future. George Michael, the great Philadelphia and New York Top 40 deejay who later became a nationally syndicated sportscaster, reached into his top drawer and let me hold the stopwatch he used four decades ago to time the introductions of each pop hit so he could talk right up to the first syllable of the song's vocals. I've been taken into basements to see treasured jukeboxes, into back offices to hear an old tape of a cherished but long gone Top 40 station, into kitchens to pore over scrapbooks of concert tickets, programs, and song surveys featuring the swinging all-

American deejays of one boss rocker or another. Each visit brings back my own memories in rushes of sound muffled by the passage of time: the velvet tones of Clarence Rock, the all-night newsman on all-news WINS; the wild conspiracy theories and classic carny pitches of allnight talker Long John Nebel; the tinny tunes of distant AM pop stations as I faded to dreamland.

Radio lends itself to nostalgia, to a pining for the innocence of a summer's night listening to baseball from a far-off city, the signal fading in and out, the crack of the bat sometimes lost in the sizzle of static from a distant lightning bolt. Or the longing could be for radio's lost edge, for that moment when you first heard a certain Dylan song, or the whole A side of Sgt. Pepper's , or National Public Radio's coverage of the fall of the Berlin Wall, or Art Bell's midnight conjuring of too many coincidences surrounding the official explanation of Area 51. But far more than nostalgia, the story of radio is the story of imagination in American popular culture. It is Richard Dreyfuss in American Graffiti picturing Wolfman Jack as a pirate of the airwaves holed up in some Mexican hideaway, illicitly pumping out the cruising tunes that kept the Strip hopping each night. It is Rush Limbaugh thumping his desk and grandiosely describing his vast Excellence in Broadcasting Network headquarters even as he delivers his talk show from the luxurious splendor of his South Florida home. It is thousands of college kids playing radio, summoning a fantasy world of their own, as I did in the late 1970s, when I took listeners to my all-night show on an aural tour of a towering "Holder Broadcasting Complex," "twelve great stories of radio," with live reports from our beleaguered weatherman calling in from his outdoor perch, our stentorian but oft inebriated sports reporter, and our officious and incompetent newsman — all me, of course. Finest moment: a listener called and asked if tours were available of the "complex," which was actually a decrepit studio in the sodden basement of an ancient, deteriorating dormitory.

Radio, not even a century old as a mass medium, has already evolved from plaything of hobbyists and tinkerers to source of the first truly national pop culture (the Golden Age of radio network broadcasting in the 1930s and '40s) to its first brush with death (when TV hit a majority of U.S. homes in the early 1950s) to bonding agent for a generation of American youth (the Top 40 era and the rise of rock and roll) to messenger of the counterculture (the rise of the FM band and free-form radio) to vanguard of niche specialization (the triumph of market research and the perfection of satellite technology) and finally to this moment, in which radio is widely groused about and dismissed, yet remains a constant companion for nearly all Americans — in the car, at home in the morning, in the background at the office. Like most old media, radio defies predictions of its death at the hands of new technologies. American radio — like the pop culture it has helped to create, like the country it speaks to — is ever adapting. As it ages, radio absorbs the new, co-opts the rebellious, and reinvents itself every step of the way.

The first national broadcast reached a relative handful of homemade radio sets on July 2, 1921, when RCA arranged for a live description of the heavyweight boxing championship bout between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier. The match took place in Hoboken, New Jersey, where a commentator's remarks were transcribed and telegraphed to KDKA in Pittsburgh. Around the country, boxing fans and the plain old curious paid a few pennies admission to gather in firehouses and social halls where volunteer radio hobbyists had set up their receivers.

"Never before has anyone undertaken the colossal task of simultaneously making available a voice description of each incident in a fight to hundreds of thousands of people," wrote the RCA house magazine, Wireless Age. The event was deemed so important that each person who set up a receiver and pulled in the broadcast could receive a certificate — signed by Jack Dempsey and Franklin Roosevelt, a former assistant secretary of the Navy who was then president of the Navy Club, which helped organize the fight — thanking the listener for his role in "the successful promotion of amity between the nations." Within a few months, radio had so captured the American imagination that a song swept the nation — on sheet music, of course. People called it simply "The Radio Song":

I wish there was a "Wireless" to Heaven,

And I could speak to Mama ev'ry day,

I would let her know, by the Radio,

I'm so lonesome since she went away.

Radio became a truly mass medium after the first reasonably affordable sets came on the market in 1927. The Sears catalogue that year featured a $34.95 table radio and advised that "no family should be without its untold advantages." A catalogue from the Radio Specialty Corp. made the Sears pitch seem shy: "When the forces of the Almighty Creator of the Universe and the skill and genius of Man so combine to bring you untold blessings which may be yours to enjoy without even the asking, we ask you in all seriousness why you should not at once show your gratitude and appreciation and accept that which is so freely offered?"

Radio quickly became essential to daily life. The dance bands and other musical acts of the 1930s gave way during the war years to a more ambitious menu of news, dramas, comedy, and variety shows. The great networks — huge concerns created in the late 1920s to link the nation's local stations by phone lines — had symphony orchestras and creative staffs teeming with serious playwrights and fine actors. Radios were the new hearth, their baroque design reflecting the im- portance of the object and the hours that families spent with it. Radio inspired new kinds of communities, liberated from geography — clusters of Americans who shared the same musical taste, political philosophy, or sense of humor. In a country with distinct regional sensibilities, radio was something universal.

Franklin Roosevelt was the first president to understand how to marry the listeners' imagination to a distant voice. When citizens visited their president's home each week for his fireside chats, they had little concrete sense that Roosevelt's hands shook as he stood before crowds, or that braces held him up on legs crippled by polio. On the air, there were no tremors: Roosevelt's voice was clear and strong, and he used radio as an instrument of power.

During and after World War II, radios expanded beyond the living room to every corner of the house.With more and more urgent news coming over the air, Americans wanted to be near a radio. Clock radios came on the market, and soon the radio was waking commuters for the workday. Kitchen table radios meant that news and music became companions while dinner was cooking. By 1940, there were even rudimentary "portable" radios, bread-box-sized units that looked like small suitcases and weighed more than five pounds. In 1946, playwright Norman Corwin wrote a script for CBS called "Seems Radio Is Here to Stay."

The clearest way to understand a culture, Marshall McLuhan said, is to examine its tools of conversation. Radio, from its start, was something magical, a stunning turn in the popular culture from centuries of writing and reading back to the roots of human communication: voice and listening. All of a sudden, one could speak to many — unseen, unknown. The broadcaster could be whoever he chose to be, and the audience assumed new identities too. The president might call you "my fellow Americans." A commentator such as Walter Winchell might address "Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea." At home, you could say to yourself, That's me he's talking to.

At first alone, and then in ever larger communities, listeners bonded through their appreciation of characters, shows, phrases, songs, all the bits and pieces of sound that add up to a shared culture. The tools were ancient, biblical — repetition, formulaic expressions, parables — but they were adapted to the new medium in the form of jingles, hit songs, time and temperature, slogans, radio storytellers, and midnight talkers. The result was a people with a common set of references, ideas, and beliefs.5 Then came television. Whenever a new communications medium arrives, the first wave of hype informs us that the old ways are history: radio will kill off newspapers, television will eliminate radio, the Internet will obviate the need for TV, bloggers will supplant professional journalists. But the real story of how media evolve is much more interesting than any on-off switch model of replacement. It is a story of belonging, of how we cope with being alone in a crowded world. Today, radio seems clueless. One-third of the recorded music sold in this country falls into categories that barely exist on the radio — jazz, classical, Broadway, bluegrass, zydeco, trance, New Age, the vast spectrum of American sound. An Andrea Bocelli CD outsells Elton John five to one but is not heard on the radio. The Welsh classical singer Charlotte Church outsells Sheryl Crow three to one; again, radio silence. The soundtrack from the Coen brothers' movie O Brother,Where Art Thou? wows the buying public and sweeps the Grammys, but listeners turned on to bluegrass find no place on the radio to sample the genre. Some of the top-grossing concert acts each summer are Jimmy Buffett and Steely Dan; it takes patient dial-scanning to find the specialized station that might perhaps play one or two of their biggest hits.

Radio's audience has been in decline for more than a decade, as the advertising load each hour soared toward the thirty-minute mark. Among Americans age eighteen to twenty-four, the folks advertisers most love to reach, radio listening has dropped by more than a quarter just since the turn of the century. How did something that meant so much to so many become such a neglected corner of the popular culture? How could such an intimate medium come to be governed by impersonal and corporate forces? Why have we allowed radio, which brought together the most influential generation of the past century, to splinter into so many niches that it now divides us from each other more than it binds us in song or any sense of common cause? For all our technological prowess, we seem to be moving back toward the kind of lives our great-grandparents led in the days before radio — apart, atomized, in our own worlds, Googling in countless different directions. Technology and culture went micro, and now each of us has access to our own portal, our own America. That is surely a grand gift, but something is missing. America's sense of unity through mass media started with radio. Radio popularized the idea of being part of a generation. When radio lost its way, those grand, enveloping ideas seeped out of our cultural vocabulary. The bonds that radio seemed to cement were always artificial, taking on different meanings in each individual. But radio gave us a starting point for conversations about community. For all its artifice, its deejays with fake names, its sameness and phony familiarity, radio gave Americans what his job and the road gave Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: a persona, a foundation. This book is about what that time of community felt and sounded like, how it came to be, why it all collapsed, and what we will listen to next.

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Something in the Air
Something in the Air

Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation

by Marc Fisher

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