The DJs are talking, and not just on the air--their words seemingly disappearing into the ether. Two former disc jockeys chronicle their radio experiences in a pair of dense, lively and entertainingly bleak new books about the music industry. Authors Jesse Walker and Richard Neer, coming from widely different backgrounds and with correspondingly diverse arguments, still end up making the same conclusion: Radio, especially rock radio, stinks these days.
One part history lesson, one part guerrilla radio handbook, another part contrary banner waving, Walker's book, Rebels on the Air, celebrates non-commercial radio from coast to coast (and offshore, too). While very good at keeping a journalistic distance from his subject, (he's an associate editor of Reason magazine,) Walker is able to capture the chaos, energy, and vision of the call letters and the people behind the microphones, whose medium reached into bedrooms and car radios everywhere.
And there's a local connection: During the late '80s, Walker spent his high-school years living in Chapel Hill, staying up late listening to Triangle Slim and Northern Hemisphere Live on WXYC often calling in to talk to the DJs. One night they even invited him over to actually play DJ, an experience that obviously spoiled him rotten (no corporate playlists). In a recent e-mail interview with The Independent, Walker nostalgically recalled the days when former Squirrel Nut Zipper Tom Maxwell DJ'ed on WXYC, and Dexter Romweber was a fellow dishwasher at the Hardback Café.
Walker provides ample history of the early days of radio, when the airwaves were wide open and the government was just trying to figure it all out, enacting laws and restrictions. We discover that the battles between airwave-rights activists and the government was spurred on after the sinking of the Titanic, when all of a sudden the world realized the importance of "radio operators," leading to the Radio Act of 1912.
But Rebels on the Air really comes alive when Walker visits the stations. Introducing a segment on pirate radio, Walker jests about its contrast with today's radio marketplace, which he describes as all "easy listening," "adult contemporary," "classic rock" and "young country." He ends by railing against one final "unlistenable concoction," smooth jazz, exclaiming, "That's like calling Scientology 'smooth Judaism.'"
Walker clearly sides with political activism, and the best parts of Rebels on the Air are the thumbnail sketches of Walker's favorite stations through the century (he's done his research). Imagine a station where beat poets like Ferlinghetti, Corso, Watts, and Ginsburg dropped by the studio. Or where Kenneth Rexroth and Pauline Kael contributed serious film and literary criticism, with no commercial interruptions. This was the norm for Berkeley, Calif.'s KPFA, launched by the Pacifica Foundation in 1949.
The book goes on to detail the legend around the "invention" of the Top 40 format in the '50s, when Nebraskan Robert Todd Storz, observing the popularity of the same songs being played over and over on bar jukeboxes, decided to try the same idea on Omaha's KOWH. It clicked. Fast-forward to the birth of "freeform" radio, traced to 1967, when "Big Daddy" Donahue added more music by The Doors music to the "playlist" at West Coast station KMPX. By the '70s, Walker notes that the usually college-affiliated stations were important for connecting their neighborhood listeners with reports on community events.
During this time, pirate radio stations were popping up offshore all over Europe. Largely as a response to the monolithic power of the BBC, pirate stations Radio Caroline and Radio London thrived as voices of free speech, free formatting, and eclectic rock 'n' roll in the mid-'60s. (Even The Who joined in tribute to pirate radio with their 1967 album, The Who Sell Out.) Laws were changed, ocean platforms were buffeted by the waves and advertisers started drifting away.
Throughout the book, Walker embraces alternative radio in all its forms, chiding the "New Media" bandwagon thus: "The advantages of professionalism have been oversold." At the same time, he derides the aping of the "independent" form by major corporations, be it record companies, big-budget studios or even 'zine Publishers. Hefting the banner of the micro-radio movement, (he discusses the "Mini FM" stations invented by Japanese artists and activists back in '81), he concludes, "If there's an explosion of drivel and paranoia ... at least it's our drivel and paranoia. These voices come unvarnished."
Neer shares Walker's zealous love of open airwaves, the power of new music, the sheer opportunity of the microphone and transmitter and the wonder of "freeform" radio. He also shares Walker's conclusion: The nature of the radio business has become increasingly dismal, especially in the last 10 years.
But while Walker was criss-crossing the airwaves looking for the best in alternative stations, Neer was camping out at the East Coast's original "most progressive" radio station, WNEW-FM. Neer, a DJ and programmer for 28 years, was an insider, a change-maker and a participant in all the in-fighting (and partying, as he notes in the book), during the time that AM radio lost the battle to FM and FM lost its soul to corporate greed.
The change didn't happen overnight. Like Walker, Neer fills his book with anecdotes and scenes from his favorite radio stations. Neer was a player--for a while, a very powerful player who could make or break an artist or record in the NJ-NY metro area. His book is filled with well-known names, famous artists and groups. Indeed, one of the best features of the book is the forward, written by none other than "Little Steven" Van Zandt (Bruce's E Street buddy and a star of The Sopranos). Van Zandt remembers spending his childhood with his ear glued to the radio, enthralled by what was the golden age of FM. An astute pop-culture observer, Van Zandt writes: "Sgt. Pepper changed everything. It was the Exodus of singles and the Revelations of the albums."
Just as Walker loved the politics of alternative radio, Richard Neer loved the non-corporate voice of rock 'n' roll. We hear stories about all the big name jocks: Scott Muni, Jonathan Schwartz and Alison Steele, making (and breaking) the emerging artists of the minute (there were the DJ fights over things like who "owned" The Beatles).
But even as corporate radio gobbled up and co-opted "freeform" radio, as payola poisoned relationships between music directors and disc jockeys and the "hits" turned into oldies, Walker and Neer kept playing and listening to the music and spinning that radio dial. Thank God they not only listened, but took notes, or we wouldn't have these two insightful, insider peeks into a medium that's touched us all.