New book explores the history of radio

By Rick Palsgrove
Southeast Editor

Pictured on the cover of Mike Adams’ book, “Columbus Radio,” are three WVKO radio personalities in the 1950s. At right is Columbus radio legend Eddie Saunders, while the other two individuals are unidentified.

In this era when there is a wide variety of electronic media, radio still maintains a strong presence as we listen to it in our cars, homes, businesses, and headphones.

Radio is part of our lives and its history is our history. Author Mike Adams offers a glimpse into the history of radio in Central Ohio with his new book, “Columbus Radio,” published as part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series of books. The book is available for $21.99 at area bookstores and at www.arcadiapublishing.com.

Adams – who was raised in Columbus and became a professor of radio, television and film at San Jose State University – once worked as an on air DJ, music director, program director, and production director at WCOL-AM in the 1960s and early 1970s.

“Columbus Radio” is rich with photographs and traces the origins of radio in the city in the 1920s through its evolution in the 20th century.

Adams recently was kind enough to answer some questions about “Columbus Radio.”

Rick Palsgrove: How important were the on air personalities of the early years and the DJs (disc jockeys) of the later years in attracting and maintaining audiences?

Mike Adams: “Early 1920s radio was a combination of content that existed before broadcasting – music performance, readings from Shakespeare, bird calls, comedy routines – anything that had originated in earlier mediums like the phonograph and live stage. It is no wonder some of the early experimenters were preachers who thought radio could spread the word, or live theatre producers who thought an audio version of vaudeville might draw an audience.

Early on the DJ was used for filler between network programs. In the mid-1950s some big city disc jockeys began to play music for the growing baby boomer generation, now a large teen audience, who wanted the new rock and roll. By the 1960s radio lost all of its original programming to TV and became a music and news service with DJs, but with different types of music for loosely defined audiences based on age, income, and race. It’s that way today.”

RP: Which DJ stands out to you as particularly interesting?

MA: “In Columbus I grew up listening to the ‘Early Worm’ on WBNS, their long time morning DJ from about 1940-60. As a teenager I listened to Cousin Brucie on WABC New York, and Dick Biondi on WLS Chicago. These were top-40 stations with well-known personalities you could receive at night, along with WCOL and WTVN, both playing top-40 in 1960. In 1963 I joined WCOL as the afternoon DJ and stayed until 1973. WCOL was tightly formatted, with an emphasis on music, time, temperature, weather, public service. One of the stations that interested me was the night broadcast from WLAC, Nashville, featuring some funny DJs. Their music was mostly R&B and their commercials were for hair oil and live chickens. Today there are a few well paid DJs, but usually in the morning drive only, with often the rest of the station’s day automated.”

RP: Columbus had richly diverse radio programming with the rock music of WCOL, the R&B sounds of WVKO, the country music of WMNI and others. Why did Central Ohio embrace this wide ranging aspect of radio?

MA: “Probably every medium to large radio market had stations like Columbus because there was an audience for all these genres of music. There were also remnants of big band and so-called adult standards. When FM began to add stations in the 1970s you had room for more formats that attract smaller, but loyal, audiences, like jazz, talk, sports, classical, Christian and college. Stations always tried music formats they believed were not well-represented in the Columbus market, and, if ratings were good, they continued.”

RP: I have memories of WCOL-FM from the early 1970s, particularly that the station would play album cuts as well as singles. What do you think is the most significant impact of the switch from AM to FM for music programming?

MA: “By the 1970s we had better audio systems at home and in cars. This improvement in speakers and amplifiers was the death knell for AM and its limited frequency response. FM arrived with better coverage and high fidelity sound, but at first all the commercials were on AM along with all the money that supported it. FM was experimental in the early days, meaning more and longer songs with fewer commercials and the DJs could talk more. I made the change in the early days of FM rock at WCOL doing shows on both the AM and the FM. From listener response we knew our audience was largely young, better-educated, listeners who wanted to take a chance on the new album music, including the politics and major cultural shifts. As soon as FM became popular, the owners sold commercials, hired DJs, and told them to not talk too much, just what you would imagine would happen with any commercial medium. As FM became more popular  most AM stations moved to talk where the audio quality would not be a problem.”

RP: College radio stations surged in the 1980s and launched bands like R.E.M. What impact did college radio stations have in Columbus?

MA: “The logical station, WOSU, was always a non-student educational and later classical and NPR station. They didn’t allow student programmers. (College radio) with small, loyal audiences keeps the local band scene alive. It’s local radio for a hipper audience of those wanting to take a chance on new music not played on other stations.”

RP: What is it about radio that enables it to maintain a connection to people?

MA: “The most interesting radio is local, even if it is just local weather, traffic and sports scores for local teams. This is what makes the AM/FM radio viable in the car, now the major radio listening place for most people. It is not likely just a single radio station meets all the needs of a listener.”

RP: What is the future of radio?

MA: “Its immediate future is the smart phone and the car. Every radio programmer wants to own those two spaces. Right now, AM and FM still own the car audience, but not by much. Sirius/XM  seems to have reached a peak, their niche. The streaming services from Apple, Pandora, etc., can be received on new car radios, but you have to pay a second phone bill for 4G Internet connectivity. This changeover from the traditional radio to other Internet-connected platforms is happening quickly. But the big question long accepted by FM and AM stations must be answered by the streaming broadcasters – how do we monetize it? While the new displaces the old, it is still radio, whether it comes from a box next to your bed or streamed using the Internet. For those of us who have a wide appetite for all kinds of radio programming, it is surely out there. My book ‘Columbus Radio’ shows how it started and how it was.”

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