Happy Mother's Day, to those who are mothers and to those who have mothers.
I just finished the book Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution that Shaped a Generation by Marc Fisher of the Washington Post. It's a recent book on the history of Top 40 radio, underground radio, and talk radio, and how these three areas influenced each other.
I had my first period of radio geekdom during the very dying gasps of the Top 40 era; Washington D.C.'s WAVA, then the area's only Top 40 station (and flipped in the early Nineties to religious programming), became my station in 1984 after we'd moved to Vienna, Va. At that station around that time, Don Geronimo really stepped up his evolution from Top 40 DJ to talk radio host, as his Morning Zoo with Mike O'Meara evolved from a music-focused show to the "Theater of the Mind" soap opera that Don and Mike grew to excel at. (You can tell I'm a fan, right? As if my previous posts about Don's retirement didn't clarify that...)
Something in the Air cites Don Geronimo as someone who took the format and patterns of Top 40 radio and applied these to talk: that's the same thing Rush Limbaugh did, as does Glenn Beck, Tom Leykis and Rick Emerson, all former music DJs. (I'm linking to the only current radio host who I'm actually a fan of; I don't want to point out how to get to the hosts I dislike, and besides they're easy to find online anyway. Listening to Leykis is almost physically painful to me. And yes, I know it's a persona Leykis puts on -- Fisher explains how Leykis's current show grew out of a male chauvinist pig character he'd invented named Ben Dover -- but it's a persona I can't enjoy, or even find interesting. He just grates.) So while Top 40 has gone away, made a dinosaur by the now narrowcasting radio industry, the shape of it is still around, influencing what lots of us hear.
(I fell away from radio for most of my time in college; I concentrated on my film score collecting, and was only passingly aware of what commercial radio was up to. Dating Alicia starting in 1996, my senior year at college, got me back into paying attention to radio; when I moved to Hermiston, OR, I became an avid NPR listener via Northwest Public Radio; and when I moved to Portland in 2001 I began my second significant period of radio geekdom. That's still going on.)
There's a lot of neat radio industry history in Fisher's book, and sections on radio hosts who influenced many of the current DJ generation. Jean Shepherd, the guy who wrote In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, gets his radio career lovingly recreated: how he'd encourage listeners to meet at a certain place and time and just mill around (which reminds me strongly of the "meetup" that xkcd's Randall Monroe, shall we say, encouraged to happen), and the shenanigans that led to Shepherd's fans clamoring for a book that didn't exist, and then to Shepherd teaming with science fiction author Ted Sturgeon to actually write it (I, Libertine, which at most I was only vaguely aware of before this book). There were wild and woolly days of radio, and now I kind of wish I'd been around to see them. The book also shows how underground radio influenced the very non-underground National Public Radio, and opines that NPR may be at its best when it's closer to that underground spirit than to the spirit of commercial radio. It's an awkward push-pull of influences; the book shows how that's happened throughout radio's history.
The book is a little less focused -- and, I think, understandably so -- about the future of radio. Radio's really in flux; content controls that may or may not be loosened in the wake of the 2004 Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction," the new and competing technologies like satellite radio, HD Radio (which DOES NOT stand for "High Definition"; supposedly it stands for "Hybrid Digital," but this makes me think the pushers of HD Radio are trying to ride the coattails of High Definition television), and the madly-evolving role of the Internet in delivering content*. This on top of the iPod revolution, which radio (I think) is trying too hard to mimic with the "Jack FM/We Play Everything" format.
I'm lucky; I've been getting to know DJs in Portland, which seems to have a concentration of idiosyncratic, geeky DJs doing radio that reflects their idiosyncratic geekiness (even if their playlists don't; oy, I'd love to hear what Daria or Cort & Fatboy would program had they complete control of their shows' playlists. Radio Free Daria!). It also means I'm biased, in that I like a lot of the people doing radio in my town and I'm inclined to hope that what they do can be the sort of radio that takes off elsewhere. I wonder if radio might have to become weirder again in order to thrive again, but that might butt up against corporate radio (the book sketches out how radio became corporate, too) and might turn off a lot of people.
The Top-40-influenced part of me, the part that can remember almost to the moment first hearing a Madonna song on the radio in 1983, wants to believe radio can change the culture again. It's done that before. I do know that the influence is still there, quietly, underlying the radio I listen to now. Quiet revolutions can happen, too.
Radio matters to me. It matters to Marc Fisher. I hope it still matters to many other people.
* Part of me wants to make a Haggunenon reference here, but vanishingly few people would get it.