It wasn’t always this bad. As recently as a few years ago, on at least some alternative rock stations in some cities, there was a decent shot you’d hear the latest Nirvana, Beck, and New Order. There have been earlier periods when rock radio shone, too. Around 1983, bands like the Talking Heads, the B-52s, the Psychedelic Furs, and even a little Gang of Four and Mission of Burma made it onto the airwaves. And, of course, there were the venerated days of “free-form” or “progressive” rock radio in the late 1960s when both the music and the radio stations were REALLY terrific, if your chronic-clouded memory serves you. What happened to rock radio? Has it been maliciously murdered by corporations and consultants? Did it die of starvation, as rock music nearly did in the crush of the ’90s black artist juggernaut? Or did it OD on its own mainlined pretension and self-segregation? Did rock radio commit suicide?
It’s hard to believe now, but FM rock was once so cool, they made a whole movie about it. In 1978’s FM, Los Angeles rocker Q-SKY is the top-rated station in town because the deejays play the music they like. Enter Evil Corporate Boss, who wants more advertising, less music. Struggle for soul of station ensues. A fine soundtrack issued forth, including the title track by Steely Dan, a valentine to a radio bandwidth: “FM (No Static at All).” The movie FM became something of a metaphor for what happened to the prog-rock FMers of the glory days. The little bud of cool was discovered, deemed valuable, commodified by The Man, and extinguished in its original form. It’s said that America avoids revolutions by absorbing them. This is exactly what happened to cutting-edge FM radio some three decades ago.
The history of FM rock radio is a good tale, encompassing issues of taste, politics, culture, and the central question: Whose radio station is it, anyway? Richard Neer, a longtime free-form deejay, has taken a stab at answering some of these questions in his history of radio, FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio. Unfortunately, Neer’s take on this worthy topic is as rambling and incoherent as an old free-former’s airshift. But two interesting truths can be gleaned from his book: The early days of rock radio weren’t nearly as admirable as we might remember them, and the corporate interests that now control radio aren’t necessarily to blame for the low quality of what passes for rock radio today.
On today’s radio dial, AM stations are strictly second-class citizens. Ruled by Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura, AM is the province of talk shows, sports, staticky ethnic music and the jeremiads of overnight wackos. Thirty-five years ago, the opposite was true. Powerhouse stations like WOR and WABC in New York were found on the AM dial. The jocks—men like Cousin Brucie Morrow—were stars. They had machine-gun mike styles and tight, tight playlists, more Top 20 than Top 40. By contrast, FM was a throwaway bandwidth. What’s more, the FM morning-drive deejay shift—by far the highest-paying, most profitable time slot at any station today—was the least important because practically nobody had FM receivers in their cars. (Amazing, yet true.)
In FM, Neer tells a fascinating story about a fellow called Edward Armstrong, who discovered and promoted FM radio in the 1930s. He instantly realized how much better it sounded than tinny AM. Yet, the big radio companies of the day were heavily invested in producing and marketing AM receivers, and threw up numerous roadblocks. Driven to despair by bad luck and corporate treachery, Armstrong came to believe that his life and work were failures and, in 1954, he composed an apology to his wife and leaped to his death from a 13th-floor window.
But at isolated FM stations like KFOG in San Francisco, WXRT in Chicago, and what later became the Mecca of them all, New York’s WNEW, FM’s stock was slowly rising. At these stations, ownership tolerated experimentation—what was there to lose? WNEW was one of the first to abandon the rigid Top-40 format and embrace what those nutty kids were listening to. Big-voiced, relentlessly cheery, airhead AM jocks were replaced by cerebral deejays who talked to listeners about politics and philosophy. They read poems and polemicized about the civil rights movement and played whatever they wanted. Jocks mixed Miles Davis with Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix with James Taylor. They flaunted their encyclopedic musical knowledge. When it worked, it was groundbreaking. When it didn’t (which was frequently) it was tedious and tyrannical.
Neer worked at WNEW from 1971 to 1999. Though he lived through its glory days, it would be accurate to say that his seat at the revolution was Standing Room Only—he was there when it all happened, but trapped somewhere near the back. Because, while FM contains a few dollops of amusing and illuminating stories, they’re usually happening to someone else. For instance, legendary WNEW deejay Scott Muni once conducted an on-air interview with a very drunk Elton John, who insisted on playing deejay. (When? Possibly the ’80s; Neer doesn’t tell us.) John read a carefully worded commercial for the Pink Pussycat Boutique, a New York sex shop, crafted to avoid an FCC indecency fine. But the glam-rocker ad-libbed: “Do you like to rim your boyfriend? Or do you just like to eat pussy? So if you’re the world’s biggest faggot, or you just like to fuck, visit the Pink Pussycat Boutique.” Terrific stuff. The book cries for more.
As Neer’s colleagues cavort with rock stars, negotiate big paychecks, and reign like gods over the counter-culture radio intelligentsia, you start to feel sorry for him. Neer finally gets his turn when he’s the first American deejay to play Monty Python comedy records. But after scoring an interview, he manages only to coax a “not very funny” Q & A from the hilarious Brits. Afterwards, it’s back to the sideline. It’s as though a history of the American Revolution was written not by Washington or his chief of staff, but by the second-soldier-from-the-right in Washington’s rear guard. For this method to work, the narrator must be funny or insightful. Neer is neither. Worse, he’s a lousy writer. Neer opines: “As the Eagles put it, We are all just prisoners here, of our own device.’” Ugh.
The real problem is that Neer is too gracious to his former colleagues—he commits the cardinal sin of penning a tell-some, not a tell-all. Neer’s either unwilling or unable to dish dirt. At one point, he piques our interest by telling us, “Jocks were doing coke while on the air on a regular basis.” But two sentences later, Neer betrays his hopeless squaredom: “Never having been a part of the drug culture … ” Sigh. FM is crammed with similar copouts, so much so that you’ll want to hurl it against a wall.
Despite himself, Neer provides enough telling detail to show how free-form FM self-immolated. The most important point in the book, one that Neer nails, is that free-form radio’s self-righteousness killed it, perhaps deservedly. “These jocks were interested in self-expression, which often translated into self-indulgence,” he writes. “It’s the elitist attitude that, I know better than the marketplace. I know what’s good, the great unwashed public doesn’t.’” As that passage suggests, deejays lorded over set lists as if they were works of art. The seamless segue from one song to the next was considered a transcendent moment of sublime ecstasy. Jocks wanted only to educated listeners to their own tastes—in other words, a lot of these guys sounded less like jocks and more like jerks.
Not surprisingly, free-form FM rock stations didn’t draw big ratings. In New York, a major AM station could get a 20 share (meaning that among radio listeners, 20 percent were tuned in). Today, program directors get Cancun vacations if they grab a nine share. Even at its apex, WNEW never topped a five share. But it was enough to draw the interest of the money men. Say, they thought to themselves, if we took the edge off this station, reined in the jocks and established a playlist, this thing might actually take off!
And it did. On the West Coast around 1967, two consultants, Bill Drake and Gene Chenault, dreamed up “Boss radio.” Boss took the hip new rock music championed by the free-formers and established “rotations”—hot new songs played several times an hour, interspersed with cuts rising or falling on the charts, as well as some deejay-derived “deep cuts” from albums. Deejay freedom was tightly curtailed. The patter was cut back. And when Boss jocks spoke, they did so with the balls-out basso profundo typical of today’s classic rock stations: “Comin’ up next: Time to get the Led out!”
Boss radio spread to the East Coast and a new generation of consultants. Men like Lee Abrams and Michael Harrison, who once free-formed on WNEW, sought a middle ground between soulless Top 40 AM pop and self-indulgent prog-rock FM. They hit upon a shocking idea. They decided to find out what the listeners wanted to hear, and in the process, ushered in today’s corporate radio. By identifying and capturing a specific group of listeners—say, females age 18-to-34 in the market for a new car and still forming their soft-drink allegiance—they discovered they could sell that to advertisers.
What all this means is that radio has undergone a dynamic political evolution over the last three decades. If the free-formers of 30 years ago set up monarchic-anarchic states in which imperial deejays spun what they pleased, today’s commercial radio is a mob-rule democracy. Neither system offers something for everyone.
The sad truth about modern radio is that it’s not—repeat not—about playing music or talk that listeners like to hear. Radio is about promising discrete audiences to advertisers—it’s an advertising-delivery vehicle. The truth is that most radio listeners don’t want to hear songs they don’t recognize or that haven’t been sufficiently hyped. Only what researchers call “sophisticated” listeners are into music experimentation—and they don’t comprise a big enough demographic to merit many radio stations of their own. (One example is the Adult Album Alternative (AAA) format that plays “safe” music skewed at tasteful adults—Billy Bragg, Son Volt, and David Gray—radio for folks who grew up on Elvis Costello.) In fact, when radio researchers perform what they refer to as “call-outs,” they play seconds-long snippets of songs and simply ask listeners if they recognize them. Sometimes they don’t even solicit a value judgment.
Ever since the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 opened the door to consolidation, more and more privately owned radio stations are being snapped up by large, publicly traded companies controlled by Wall Street shareholders. As a result, only the “money demographics” get radio stations aimed at them. This is why you hear so much rap and R&B, Top 40, country and “adult mixes” of Sting and Gwen Stefani. Niche formats simply don’t make enough money to survive. In Washington, D.C., the nation’s seventh-largest radio market, the following niche formats have been killed in the last few years: nostalgia/standards, showtunes, rhythmic oldies, and opera. Public radio, ever in search of larger, pledge-generating audiences, has done the same, killing chamber and choral music and almost all bluegrass.
FM radio won’t ever be what it once was. The $150-million radio stations are simply too valuable to be lab rats for experiment-minded music directors. Furthermore, as rock music continues its death spiral, more and more FM rock stations are turning to the ever-profitable “hot talk” format. Hosts like Howard Stern and Opie and Anthony peddle their horny, quasi-racist, often xenophobic schtick to the young, unsophisticated males who used to be the province of rock radio. The watershed moment of FM came in 1999, when Neer’s hallowed WNEW dropped rock for talk. It broke his heart.
There’s a case to be made that rock radio developed anemia because the music itself got sick. Today’s rock is dominated by whiners and no-talent mooks. For every Green Day, you get a dozen Blink 182s and Limp Bizkits. Geriatrics like Aerosmith crank out monotonous albums, but seem to be servicing an art form that’s about as vital as the Latin language.
So let me make a recommendation: When I got tired of punching around the radio dial a few years ago looking for good rock, I started listening to stations I’d always skipped over. It was here that I found the best stuff on FM radio today: the black-hits stations. Post-rap singers like Nelly, DMX, and Destiny’s Child produce the catchiest, richest-sounding music being made. Mix-deejays at these stations create new versions of popular songs and craft long music sets with the artistry of the old free-formers. These deejays are also the strongest personalities on radio today because they connect with their audiences, navigating the lexicon and providing a kind of authenticity absent since, well, the days of the old prog-rock FMers. Just look at the numbers: Album sales and concert revenue from these artists dwarf their predominantly white-rock counterparts. And in most large cities, like Washington, the black-hits radio stations are top rated.
For hardcore rockers who believe that someone out there may still find a new way to combine three chords, or for those who just miss the old days, good news is on the horizon: satellite radio. By December, a company called XM will blanket the country with its subscription radio service. For the price of a $400 radio to receive the signal and a $10 per-month fee, XM will beam 100 channels of music, news, and entertainment to your car through a tiny satellite antenna affixed to the roof. Instead of one classic rock station, you’ll get four, broken out by decade and genre. You’ll get a channel of unsigned bands and others for classic country, ’40s Big Band, bluegrass and folk, disco, trance, hard rock, and acoustic. XM and rival Sirius (which debuts next year) ape the hyper-successful business model of cable television, believing that people will pay for “free TV” if it gives them the narrowcasting they desire.
To maintain their listeners, regular radio stations are spending millions to convert their analog signals to digital in hopes of improving sound quality. Their pitch is that AM will sound like FM, and FM like CDs. I’ve tried this technology on FM stations and the difference is palpable. All of this could, of course, lead to the ultimate irony. If AM ends up sounding as good as FM, it could herald the return of music to the AM bandwidth. After all, lots of today’s AMs are just like yesterday’s FMs—undervalued, low-budget places where a station owner just may give a creative deejay and program director license to experiment. We can dream, can’t we?
Frank Ahrens covered the radio industry for three years for the Style section of The Washington Post. He now covers the business of media, entertainment, and advertising for the Business section of the Post.