April 4, 2009


Against Narrowcasting: Radio as it was and might yet be.: a review of Something in the Air, Radio, Rock, and the Revolution that Shaped a Generation by Marc Fisher (Mark Gauvreau Judge, Books & Culture)

In the winter of 1985, a radio station in Washington, D.C. introduced me to my first real love. I was a student at Catholic University. One morning, getting dressed for class, I was listening to WHFS, a rock and roll station that gave its DJs freedom to play offbeat and genre-crossing songs. I had been raised on the canon of white rock and roll—the Stones, the Who, the Beatles, etc.—and that morning WHFS played something different: "Cherry Pie," a song by the then-new black singer Sade. I was smitten.

That night, I went to a record store in Georgetown to buy Sade's album (on vinyl!). The store was close to a bar, and I decided to stop in for a beer. There I met a girl I fell in love with. And WHFS had played the song that led to our meeting. To this day—and even though the relationship didn't last—I go a little gooey when I hear "Cherry Pie."

As Marc Fisher notes in his terrific book Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution that Shaped a Generation,, my experience 20 years ago is one that would be difficult to repeat today. To be sure, kids will always hear new songs and fall in love to them. But radio these days has become so narrowcasted, marketed, and niche-targeted, it's rare for listeners to hear anything outside their routine experience. There are radio stations that cater to black tastes, white tastes, jazz tastes, classical tastes, and various slices thereof. And that doesn't even begin to address the ultra-niche programming that has come with internet radio.

What's missing is the benevolent dictator, the DJ who not only plays the favorites but gets to give you what you need but didn't know you need. Fisher's book is an homage to such men: Todd Storz, who started the top 40 format in the 1940s; 1950s giants Wolfman Jack, Murray the K, and Cousin Brucie; 1960s freeform pioneer Jean Shepard; and talk titan Rush Limbaugh. Fisher, a reporter for the Washington Post, has done his homework and then some. It's obvious that radio is his passion, but it is a passion buttressed by what could only have been years of research. Fisher has apparently talked to everybody involved in radio. If you've ever wondered what the ratings were in Omaha in the 1950s, you'll find it in here.

Making it all interesting is Fisher's ability as a writer.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 4, 2009 8:28 AM
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