The original mass medium, radio has also been the most resilient, having weathered the onslaughts of superseding technologies for 80 years. In the Darwinian churn of the media marketplace, neither television, nor computer, nor iPod has yet succeeded in prying radio from its niche in our bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, cars and cubicles.
"[T]he real story of how media evolve ...," Marc Fisher suggests in "Something in the Air," his smart new book about radio and mass culture, "is a story of belonging, of how we cope with being alone in a crowded world." For most of us, radio has been a lifelong familiar, the aural wallpaper of our personal spaces.
Now a columnist for The Washington Post, Fisher was once one of those children of the '50s and '60s who lay awake late into the night clutching a transistor radio to his ear beneath bedclothes tented to muffle the sound well enough to avoid parental detection. Hundreds of thousands of kindred souls in metropolitan New York were plugged into the same moment, listening alone together.
Radio once provided for kids growing up within earshot of any American city a common soundtrack of everyday life. To the extent that the same background music was playing in young lives all over the country, an aspect of shared consciousness was being formed. "Radio," Fisher observes, "popularized the idea of being part of a generation."
The generation Fisher has in mind is his own. Radio and television substantially shaped the mass youth culture that baby boomers made. In its early days, television wasn't tailored to the young. Top 40 radio was.
Top 40 stations restricted airplay to a limited number of certifiably popular records, on the premise that listeners would keep listening if they kept hearing the records they liked best. This insight originated with a callow "radio geek" in Nebraska almost 60 years ago, and was the platform of modernity in the radio business.
His name was Todd Storz and he was 25 in 1949, when his beer baron father bought him a station in Omaha. In the early '50s, television killed off network radio. Stations like Storz's were stripped of national advertising and hours of daily programming. He filled his share of Omaha's air with canned music and news, "each presented as a purely local product."
Storz saw radio's future in the concomitant rise of the suburbs and the post-war birth rate. The farther Americans lived from jobs, the more time they would spend in cars shuttling back and forth to work, and, as Fisher puts it, "the only entertainment medium that had a pipeline into the American auto was radio."
A premature market researcher in selling's pre-scientific age, Storz deduced from watching people play jukeboxes in restaurants and bars that "listeners wanted to hear their favorite songs over and over." When he applied this discovery to programming his station, he found that the fewer songs played on his music shows "the higher their ratings would soar."
Storz conceived of radio as a talking jukebox on an amphetamine jag: a loud, raucous selling machine that clattered and chattered at a manic pace. This idea well suited the temperament and attention span of teenagers, of which more were around than ever.
By the mid-'50s, Storz had done well enough in Omaha to buy radio stations in four bigger cities. His template worked as well in Miami and Minneapolis as it did in Nebraska. By the end of the decade, the Top 40 format he invented was being used to program the music on a majority of the nation's 4,500 commercial radio stations.
Top 40's high season peaked in the middle '60s, when the American landscape bloomed with kids carrying transistor radios. Disc jockeys were celebrities then in the local precincts of a burgeoning national youth market. Fisher celebrates the one he grew up with, "Cousin Brucie," a mainstay of the era's New York uber station, the clear channel juggernaut WABC.
There was a version of Bruce Morrow in every big town, a radio personality around whom a tribe of adolescents banded. Most were subsumed in the tidal wave that washed away AM Top 40 radio in the industrial sea change of the early '70s that Fisher calls "the FM revolution." Some, like Rush Limbaugh, resurfaced on talk radio, which Fisher shrewdly identifies as Top 40's second coming.
In the '70s, a nerdish child prodigy of marketing's new science devised a fresh iteration of Storz's formula -- called Album Oriented Rock -- that ended up "reinventing radio and restructuring pop culture." Lee Abrams spawned a generation of audience taxonomists, able to sort the universe of radio consumers ever more precisely by age, gender, ethnicity, income, spending habits and music preferences. These categorical types amounted to advertising targets.
Music formats were designed to lure each known species of listener into selling range with the appropriate bait, and sold to stations eager for a sliver-sized share of a fragmenting market, providing their five percent had the right demographic characteristics. "Radio now offered Americans not a relationship between listener and deejay," Fisher notes, "but a commodity packaged on behalf of advertisers and sold along with consumer lifestyles."
Even Abrams bemoans the degree to which the radio business followed his ideas all the way to their logical conclusions. These days, stations decide what to play by paying consultants to pay volunteers to react to seven-second snippets of hundreds of familiar songs. [T]he science of choosing music," Fisher sniffs, "has come down to ... five colored lines rising and falling on a computer monitor."
What consultants have determined stations will play is generally delivered to its local audiences by remote control. Most of the voices on radios in heartland America are piped in from corporate headquarters that may as well be in Bengaluru.
Fisher's history of radio's modern age is character driven, its narrative thread pegged to profiles of a series of figures he considers emblematic or seminal -- like Morrow, Storz and Abrams -- or archetypal -- like Bob Fass of New York and Tom Donahue in San Francisco, defining early voices of "the new radio and ... counterculture" -- or exemplary, like Tom Leykis, a pioneer "shock jock." All these men who are not dead are presently advancing through late middle age.
The arc of their careers describes a cultural trajectory and suggests the generational biography Fisher also succeeds at writing. Nothing in "Something in the Air" better serves its author's several purposes than his story of the cohort of iconoclasts who broke risky ground at college and community radio stations in the late '60s, and ended up as cornerstones of good, gray NPR. But then, we are all doomed in maturity to disappoint our younger selves.
(Arthur Kempton, who lives in Chapel Hill, is the author of "Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music.")