Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, “The radio business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” One of many appealing things about Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation is that the author, while conceding Thompson’s points about the medium’s cash nexus, is a true fan who appreciates its potential, albeit rarely achieved, for greatness. As an adolescent, he listened to raconteur extraordinaire Jean Shepherd on a cream-colored transistor hidden under a pillow and in college hosted his own all-night show. Like the late David Halberstam, who died in an auto accident in 2007, Fisher proves himself to be an esteemed journalist, an excellent historian, and, at times, an insightful participant-observer. Based on a hundred interviews and extensive secondary research, his book contains “not a bit of dead air” (to quote from a Publishers Weekly review) and is a welcome supplement to Erik Barnouw’s three-volume A History of Broadcasting in the United States (1966-1970).
In a dozen chapters about broadcast innovators, Fisher captures the vicissitudes of a nearly century-old industry adapting to technological change and defying periodic predictions of its impending demise. “As it ages,” Fisher writes, “radio absorbs the new, co-opts the rebellious, and reinvents itself every step of the way.” Big consoles quickly became affordable during the Jazz Age (a model costing $34.95 appeared in the 1927 Sears catalog). During the 1940’s, sets commonly appeared in kitchens and bedrooms. In 1949, however, a Life magazine article wondered, “Is Radio Doomed?” News, live drama, variety hours, game shows, situation comedies, soap operas, and other staples seemed better fitted for television. As ratings plummeted, Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Ed Sullivan, Sid Caesar, and other celebrities jumped ship, including former deejays Mike Wallace, Dave Garroway, Hugh Downs, Bill Cullen, and Soupy Sales. Even Arthur Godfrey, “Mr. Morning Radio,” telecast his show. No longer the family entertainment center, radio morphed into sundry niches, including the Top 40 format. The objective: to capture and retain a devoted following.
In 1949, Todd Storz, with help from his family, purchased KOWH in Omaha, Nebraska, for $75,000; at the time, local ads sold, as the saying went, for “a dollar a holler.” Observing waitresses putting dimes in jukeboxes to hear their favorite tunes even though they had been playing all day, Storz believed repetition to be the key to success. As one station manager told a skeptical deejay, “About the time you don’t like a record, Mama’s just beginning to learn to hum it. About the time you can’t stand it, Mama’s beginning to learn the words. About the time you’re ready to shoot yourself if you hear it one more time, it’s hitting the Top Ten.” Within two years, KOWH’s market share jumped from 4 to 45 percent. Storz sought out flamboyant personalities and had them mix in news, local doings, weather, traffic, jingles, call-in contests, offbeat sound effects, and stunts (including treasure hunts that caused maximum consternation from law-enforcement authorities). In short order he acquired half a dozen stations from Minneapolis to Miami. We all learned from Storz, one protégé admitted.
Trailing behind Top 40 for market share were stations playing jazz, show tunes, classical compositions, big band standards, and so-called race records. Only the latter flourished, thanks to the growing popularity of rhythm and blues, which gave birth to rock and roll. White deejays Hunter Hancock in Los Angeles and Alan Freed in Cleveland attracted fans of all stripes, and before long African Americans such as Hal Jackson in New York and Dr. Hepcat (Lavada Hurst) in Austin carved out careersDr. Hepcat with a line of patter resembling rap. When Memphis executive Bert Ferguson hired a black host, he received bomb threats, but with 40 percent of the city’s population African American in 1948, WDAI’s format clicked and spawned imitators in Birmingham and Atlanta (home to the first black-owned station). Memphis residents could dig Brother Theo Wade at dawn (“Get up outta that bed, children”) and Rufus Thomas at dusk (“I’m young, I’m loose, I’m full of juice. I got the goose, so what’s the use?”). Bluesman B. B. King even had a show of his own.
With the advent of rock and roll, Top 40 became more youth-oriented. Deejays such as New York City’s Cousin Bruce Morrow were pied pipers to a special subculture that liked the lingo and frenetic pace. Critics predicted that sponsors would balk at shows appealing mainly to teen angst and complained that the fare was poisoning young minds and promoting sexual license and race mixing. Of course, Top 40 charts also included ballads (“Davy Crockett” was number...
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