“Why did you become a disc jockey?” It is a question most jocks have been asked. For many in the past, the answer was, “Because I get to play the songs I like on the air.”
Of course, these days, that’s the wrong answer; it’s been decades since most jocks got to choose the music for their shifts. But in the pre-consultant 1960s and early ’70s, it was a way of life for progressive or free-form radio
Richard Neer’s “FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio” tells the story of the birth, evolution and what he calls the eventual death of rock radio. Like most memoirs, “FM” comes with a point of view, but it appears Neer went out of his way to get the recollections of others rather than rely only on his memory and opinion.
Neer’s radio years
These days, Neer is a talk-show host on Infinity’s WFAN(AM). But his years as a personality and program director for rock radio legend WNEW(FM) give him a unique vantage point to decades of change.
The scope and revered place of WNEW’s place in radio history are summed up by the next-to-last line of the book, which calls WNEW “the one station that broke all the rules and got away with it longer than anyone else.” Start with that thought, then go back to the beginning.
The primary focus of “FM” is on WNEW, one of the city’s first progressive stations. Neer also writes about a relatively short experiment in free-form radio at WOR(FM) in New York. That station’s demise led to the seeds that spawned success at WNEW by then-General Manager George Duncan.
Moon, June, spoon tunes
Duncan understood that rock music was changing; its lyrics were becoming more meaningful than its early “moon, June and spoon” mentality, and in 1967, there was a new emphasis on albums rather than short 45-rpm singles, the mainstay of top-40.
Duncan professed the station would go “all the way with meaningful music,” but Neer writes Duncan probably had no idea of what he was starting. As former WNEW personality Jonathan Schwartz said, “We spoke Russian, they (management) didn’t understand it.” But “they” went along with it.
Circumstances helped fuel the change; by late 1967, the FCC was beginning to change its rules about FMs simulcasting their more successful AM sister stations. The numbers of high-quality FM receivers for home stereos and cars were increasing, and although it would be more than a decade before FM passed AM for listeners in music formats, the opportunity was there.
Schwartz, Bill “Rosko” Mercer, John Zacherle and Scott Muni were hired to lay the foundation for WNEW’s progressive format in late 1967 and early 1968. (Alison Steele was already there, a holdover from the station’s old “all-female” jock lineup.)
They would become staples on New York radio for decades, as would future stars like Vin Scelsa, Pete Fornatale, Dave Herman, Dennis Elsas and others who would remain on the New York airwaves into the 21st century.
WNEW was unique, depending on the personality of each jock to set the tone – and the music – for each shift. There was no Selector back then, no grid cards to tell jocks what to play and when to play it. If an album wasn’t part of the station’s library, chances are the jock brought it in from home.
It was a mulligan stew of music. At any given moment in the station’s earliest days, listeners never knew if they’d hear the Beatles, Frank Zappa, Led Zeppelin or Miles Davis. WNEW brought listeners music not heard on any other station.
Neer writes that as a child of the ’60s and early ’70s, free-form radio essentially was improvised – but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t thought out well. Jocks not only had the freedom to choose music; they took care and time to plan their sets based on songs that sounded good together, or expressed themes. They were allowed time to talk, to express their views and opinions between musical sets, which helped listeners feel kinship with the personalities, even an ownership stake in those stations. Listeners felt that WNEW and its counterparts in other cities were there for them, Neer writes; and they pledged their loyalty.
While Neer primarily writes about the radio revolution at WNEW, it doesn’t take a New Yorker to enjoy this book. He pays plenty of attention and respect to changes around the country. Chapters are devoted to the stories of stations like San Francisco’s KSAN(FM), with programmer and personality Tom Donahue; WBCN(FM) in Boston; and WMMR(FM) in Philadelphia.
There are lots of stories about the jocks and programmers. The competition and in-fighting among the eclectic group at WNEW played a prominent role in the station’s success and ultimate failure; Neer writes of parades of programmers and executives who attempted to keep the flame lit – or worked to extinguish it.
By the way, skeptics who consider current Viacom president and Chief Operating Officer Mel Karmazin the Antichrist might also be surprised to read Neer’s recounting of Karmazin’s positive role in managing WNEW during some of its most successful years. (Viacom owns the station, now running a talk format.)
“FM” also addresses the rise of consultants, in particular Jeff Pollack and the team of Kent Burkhardt and Lee Abrams, now with XM Radio, whose “Superstars” format changed album rock radio. It looks at how progressive radio stations evolved into moneymaking album rockers as owners realized the potential gold mines they had in their FM signals.
Sharing the spotlight
Neer shares the spotlight with friend Michael Harrison, whose career paralleled his own for a time in New York. (Harrison is the publisher of “Talkers,” an industry trade for talk stations.) The personal experiences of both provide a solid foundation for understanding what rock radio was during the early ’70s and what it became.
Their careers are talked about in the context of the greater sum, not in the “glory” of their own accomplishments. The personalization of the story makes “legends” like Muni come to life, rather than seem like figures in a history book.
There’s some interesting trivia as well; for example, how the “WPLJ” calls came to being, the future talk show host who was part of WNEW’s experimental all-female lineup and the true inspiration for the TV series’ “WKRP in Cincinnati” infamous “turkeys don’t fly” Thanksgiving episode.
While there’s no shortage of trauma and drama – lost jobs, backstabbing, changed formats, drug and alcohol abuse – the book also provides an abundance of fun stories about some of the best-known people in radio and rock and roll.
“FM” may not make you long for the good old days but it’s a great revisiting of the emergence of FM radio. Some of the stories will amaze young veterans, who may find it incredulous that jocks, at one time, were allowed to program their own shows. At the least, “FM” will help with the understanding of how rock radio got to its present state.
This 367-page hardcover from Villard Books lists for $24.95 and is available from Amazon.com. Its ISBN number is 9462953.