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Mark Gauvreau Judge

Against Narrowcasting

Radio as it was and might yet be.

In the winter of 1985, a radio station in Washington, D.C. introduced me to my first real love. I was a student at Catholic University. One morning, getting dressed for class, I was listening to WHFS, a rock and roll station that gave its DJs freedom to play offbeat and genre-crossing songs. I had been raised on the canon of white rock and roll—the Stones, the Who, the Beatles, etc.—and that morning WHFS played something different: "Cherry Pie," a song by the then-new black singer Sade. I was smitten.

That night, I went to a record store in Georgetown to buy Sade's album (on vinyl!). The store was close to a bar, and I decided to stop in for a beer. There I met a girl I fell in love with. And WHFS had played the song that led to our meeting. To this day—and even though the relationship didn't last—I go a little gooey when I hear "Cherry Pie."

As Marc Fisher notes in his terrific book Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution that Shaped a Generation,, my experience 20 years ago is one that would be difficult to repeat today. To be sure, kids will always hear new songs and fall in love to them. But radio these days has become so narrowcasted, marketed, and niche-targeted, it's rare for listeners to hear anything outside their routine experience. There are radio stations that cater to black tastes, white tastes, jazz tastes, classical tastes, and various slices thereof. And that doesn't even begin to address the ultra-niche programming that has come with internet radio.

What's missing is the benevolent dictator, the DJ who not only plays the favorites but gets to give you what you need but didn't know you need. Fisher's book is an homage to such men: Todd Storz, who started the top 40 format in the 1940s; 1950s giants Wolfman Jack, Murray the K, and Cousin Brucie; 1960s freeform pioneer Jean Shepard; and talk titan Rush Limbaugh. Fisher, a reporter for the Washington Post, has done his homework and then some. It's obvious that radio is his passion, but it is a passion buttressed by what could only have been years of research. Fisher has apparently talked to everybody involved in radio. If you've ever wondered what the ratings were in Omaha in the 1950s, you'll find it in here.

Making it all interesting is Fisher's ability as a writer. He fell in love with radio as a 12-year-old in New York, listening to his transistor under his pillow after dark, and he understands the mystical feeling and special intimacy that comes—came?—through connecting with other people without the aid of sight. Here he describes how DJ Hal Hancock became entranced by radio as a boy:

San Antonio wasn't much of a city back in the 1930s; the night sky was still dark and clear enough so a boy could lean out the window and lose himself in a field of stars. And if you turned on your am set after dark, that clear sky delivered voices from halfway across the continent. Stations in Dallas, St. Louis, even Chicago, pumped southward the sounds of another planet, a lush, rich place where gentlemen and ladies stepped out each night, flitting from one hotel to another, dipping into ballrooms where the finest bands in the world served up jazz so hot you could dance till dawn. On a steamy Texas night, Hunter Hancock loved to close his eyes and plant himself in those ballrooms high atop the Ritz or the Royale, listening to Basie and Benny, the Duke and the Dorsey Brothers. … [H]e imagined that through the gentle static, he could hear the sweet murmurs of the lovers who buzzed in the background as the announcer set the stage for the next number.

Something in the Air is filled with such detail. It's also a work of advocacy. Fisher laments the paradoxical loss of freedom as radio has enjoyed an explosion of markets and bandwidth. In his diagnosis he is mostly fair, although occasionally a liberal blind spot appears—and it should be said that this is rare, and that Fisher has no reluctance blaspheming against the sanctum sanctorum of lefty radio. Indeed, one of his best chapters is on NPR. Like the most narrowcasted punk-rock ghetto on XM satellite radio, NPR has its programming controlled by numbers people, right down to focus-grouping snippets of classical music to see which bits are most well-received by listeners.

Fisher is much easier on the stoner left that ran fm radio in the '60s and '70s. In his section on the hippy DJs of that era, Fisher explains that "flower power and the Age of Aquarius could not camouflage the pain of a generation that repeatedly poked its parents in the eye." Free-form DJs of the time criticized the war in Vietnam, opposed certain advertisers, and talked like they were stoned (or talked when stoned). Content was everything.

But then a switchback occurs when Fisher turns his attention to Rush Limbaugh, arguably both the most successful and free radio personality of the last 20 years. When it comes to Limbaugh, "content is secondary," Fisher says. "Scratch almost any successful radio talker, and you find an ex-deejay like Limbaugh who has repurposed his quick-tongues manner of dispensing shreds of meaning, switching from music to talk while serving his twin masters—the clock and the spots." Wait a minute. In the 1960s and 1970s, free-form radio was an expression of the political anguish of a generation. So why doesn't Fisher entertain the possibility that Limbaugh's audience was seeking something very similar? This generation—indeed a large swath of the population—was in anguish over the drugs, race rage, welfare state entitlements, and promiscuity bequeathed to them by the 1960s.

Still, it would be unfair to call Fisher an ideologue. In fact he has a deep appreciation, even a love, for all the great radio personalities, no matter what their politics. His accounts of how the squares mixed, often with bad results, with the counterculture types are honest and fair. And he laments, as I do, that with all of our new radio freedom, no rock and roll station would be caught dead playing Sade. Somewhere a college kid is the worse for it.

Mark Gauvreau Judge is the author most recently of God and Man at Georgetown Prep: How I Became a Catholic Despite 20 Years of Catholic Schooling (Crossroad).

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