Wednesday, December 27, 2006

"Something In The Air"

[ Excerpt from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 26, 2006, By Roger K. Miller ]

There's a new book out about radio that focuses on the rise and fall of FM rock, and also touches on freeform's place in the history of it all...

By Marc Fisher, Random House ($27.95)

"Virtually everyone in radio," Marc Fisher says, "believes the medium has become less fun, less creative and just plain less worth listening to than at any point since its birth."

Surveys show that listeners believe it, too, and have been turning off, tuning out and dropping out at an increasing rate for the past decade.

So why do station owners, in that popular definition of crazy, keep doing the same thing over and over, hoping for a different outcome? Fisher's highly informative and insightful book provides some persuasive answers.

Although radio seems closer than ever to the death that has been predicted for it since the advent of television, writes Fisher, a journalist and radio columnist for the Washington Post, "like most old media, radio defies predictions of its death."

The book centers on the rock revolution in radio, but that topic is actually only a fraction of its coverage of the medium from the middle of the last century down to today, taking it through several stages:

The early 1950s, when it first struggled to reinvent itself; the development of the Top 40 format and the rise of rock 'n' roll, which became a "bonding agent" for American youth; the emergence of FM, the counterculture and free-form radio; niche specialization and dependence on market research; and digital and satellite technology.

Along the way he discusses dozens of personalities and phenomena, including Todd Storz, pioneer of Top 40, men such as Hunter Hancock and Alan Freed, champions of the "race music" that morphed into rock 'n' roll; the hand-held transistor radio as an instrument of individualism, freedom and rebellion; the night talkers, most notably Jean Shepherd; and much more.

As for the fine mess radio finds itself in today, basically it comes down to radio executives' market-researching, Balkanizing and consolidating the medium nearly to death, although Fisher does not summarize it in so many words.

Research has taught stations to chase after the same demographics using the same music or talk shows presented in the same format, in the process slicing themselves into ever narrower sections of the market.
Radio mostly ignores one-third of the recorded music sold in this country -- jazz, bluegrass, zydeco and others. About half of all stations offer one of three formats -- talk, adult contemporary and country; add oldies and religion and you're up to 71 percent.

Exacerbating this is a 1970s innovation: computers. They make possible stations that are "fully automated robots of pop culture" needing no on-air talent.

Tying it all into a neat, bland bundle is consolidation, whereby a media conglomerate owns many, most or even all of the stations in a community, all of them broadcasting the same pap, sans personnel, from a remote computer...

It shows, coincidentally, what a time of ferment and creativity the supposedly bland 1950s were.
"Something in the Air" ends, appropriately, with a throwback, station WLNG in Sag Harbor, Long Island, run for decades by Paul Sidney.

It is a throwback to not only the 1950s and 1960s, but to a time before standardization: "Everything the consultants say to do," Sidney boasts, "I do the opposite."

Sidney and WLNG have achieved what Fisher maintains has been sorely lacking -- radio's long-ago emotional bond, its sense of intimacy and community with those who by law are supposed to be the true owners of the airwaves ... the American public.

(Roger K. Miller, a former newspaper book-review editor, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor. )

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