Author shows why local radio must not be silenced

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For baby boomers, radio was something that surrounded our everyday lives so thoroughly  – at the beach, in the car, at home –  that it became like breathing, necessary and unnoticed.

It has gone through numerous transformations, rising to great heights and reaching the lowest common denominator.

It continues to evolve today, defying predictions of its obsolescence.

Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher has captured the magic and power of the medium in "Something in the Air: Radio, Rock and the Revolution that Shaped a Generation."

"Radio memories…reach into our hearts," Fisher writes. "They are the collective call of the eternal night. In a nation of lonely people, when we hear music that moves us, or a political argument that sways us, or simply another human voice that tells a story, we find company."

Fisher uses his subject as a jumping-off place to confront issues of politics, race, individual freedom and national identity, who we are and what we are becoming.

The book is nostalgic, thought-provoking, disturbing and frightening.

More than the music, the author focuses on the personalities on the air and behind the scenes, many of whom fell in love with radio at an early age and went on to leave their own mark on the medium.

The story begins with the rise of television, that threatened to kill radio in the late ’40s.

That’s when a young man named Tom Storz had the inspiration to replace radio’s live band performances with records.

He was told that the format would never fly, but he combined a tight rotation with colorful deejays and wild promotional stunts to create Top 40 radio.

This revolution coincided with the arrival of rock and roll and the portable transistor radio, with deejays such as Cousin Brucie introducing new sounds and attracting huge audiences.

The music, with its roots in black rhythm and blues, scared white Establishment America and led to a backlash in the form of the payola investigations.

Deejays such as Alan Freed, who named the music, were hounded off the air for taking money from promoters for playing their records.

In the wake of the scandal, music-savvy platter spinners were no longer allowed to choose the records they played. The responsibility was taken over by station managers who were less likely to give new bands a chance, leading to the blandness that characterized Top 40 in the later ’60s and ’70s.

In reaction to this homogenization, underground and college FM stations experimented with free-form broadcasting and political activism. Bob Fass used his "Radio Unnameable" program to reflect and participate in the ferment going on in the streets that AM radio ignored.

Broadcasters such as Hunter Hancock broke through the color barrier to give African- Americans a political voice on the radio.

Fass and others had been inspired by the late-night  talkfests of Jean Shepherd, best known as the author of "A Christmas Story" but remembered by many for his radio monologues.

Through his stories, Shepherd sought to knit together the community of his "Night People."

He would have his audience shout "Excelsior!" from their windows, so they would know others were tuning in. The stunt became the inspiration for the "I’m Mad as Hell!" rant in the movie "Network."

Like the free-wheeling Top 40 format before it, the cutting-edge experimentation of FM was co-opted by owners such as Lee Abrams, who preached the gospel of market research to program music into narrower niches.

Even public radio, founded to counter the news vacuum on AM stations and to give local people a voice, succumbed to the need to raise funds by shifting to national programming that has brought a sameness to its stations across the country.

Deregulation that started in the 1980s put the majority of radio stations under the control of only a few companies, including media giant Clear Channel.

Playlists are now determined by focus groups and on-air personalities broadcast pre-recorded filler to multiple cities thousands of miles apart.

Recent technological developments in online broadcasting and low-power FM, which promised a return to a freer, more regional form of radio,  ran into congressional interference that shut them down and put their audiences into the hands of media conglomerates like AOL.

The survival of freedom of expression, Fisher concludes, does not lie in technology, but in a stubborn American individualism embodied in Paul Sidney, who has broadcast from WLNG on Long Island for decades.

Sidney "runs the only station that sounds like this place," Fisher discovers, relaying local news, advertising neighborhood businesses and playing his own eclectic mix of music.

Listening makes the audience "a part of this place, too, and that is richness beyond words," Fisher says.

That is something we cannot allow to disappear into thin air.

John Matuszak is eastside editor and managing editor of the Columbus Messenger newspapers. He’d like to thank WIXY 1260 AM in Cleveland for those early pop music memories, and WMMS FM for introducing him to little-known performers like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits.

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