Reviewed by Douglas Brinkley
Sunday, January 28, 2007
SOMETHING IN THE AIR
Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation
By Marc Fisher
Random House. 374 pp. $27.95
Ear-splitting static was the curse of AM radio in its formative decades. A far-off bolt of lightning or stiff wind would cause a wallop of staccato crackles, pops and buzzes to emanate out of your home box. Determined to get the static out of radio, David Sarnoff, one of the founders of both RCA and NBC, put his technical mastermind, Edwin Armstrong of Columbia University, on the case. True to form, Armstrong solved the static problem in 1933 with frequency modulation -- a way to increase the bandwidth of the radio signal and suppress interference from other energy currents. "By shifting radio to very high frequencies and adding circuits that separated the FM signal from most sources of interference, you could broadcast music and voice with far superior sound fidelity," Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher writes in Something in the Air. "The only disadvantage Armstrong could see was that FM signals carried only fifty miles or so. Because FM signals don't bounce off the ionosphere as AM signals do, they fall off the Earth as the planet curves."
The birth of FM made it clear that radio, far from being a fad, had limitless possibilities for reinvention. Today, radio has become such an omnipresent backdrop to our daily lives that it's taken for granted, like electricity or tap water or convenience stores. But as Fisher makes clear in this elegantly written and deeply researched study of how radio has shaped American culture, the medium is always amorphous, changing to fit the zeitgeist of every year's consumer needs. Armstrong, for example, may have created FM, but few during the Great Depression owned radios capable of receiving the waves. Sarnoff decided to shelve the idea and let folks live with chronic AM static. But Armstrong wouldn't throw in the towel. In 1940, he convinced the Federal Communications Commission to award licenses for FM stations. Unfortunately, Armstrong became mired in a tangle of lawsuits, with everybody involved with AM denying him licenses lest his creation overtake the fuzzier AM stations. Worse, "his patents on FM expired in 1950," at which point every bad-faith entrepreneur in the radio industry started exploiting his technological innovations for personal profit. Tormented and financially ruined, Armstrong, the pioneer of FM, committed suicide in 1954 by jumping out of the 13th-floor window of his Manhattan apartment.
With such melodramatic stories, Fisher entertainingly retells the frenetic history of radio in America. He offers wonderful anecdotes about such high-profile shock jocks as Don Imus, Glenn Beck, Rick Dees, Tom Leykis and Howard Stern, among others. As it turns out, weirdness seems to follow radio around like a flaming cloak. These pied pipers never fail to surprise and outrage, giving talk radio a clear-cut edge over television's duller, more packaged programming. As Hunter S. Thompson put it, "The radio business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."
The FM station that truly pioneered wild-eyed irreverence was WBAI in New York. With Bob Fass as deejay, WBAI became the voice of the '60s counterculture. His show was called "Radio Unnameable," and a parade of cutting-edge artists would show up at his midnight microphone to jostle and coo with the hip deejay. Bob Dylan, for example, used to appear, performing comic monologues and creating such gonzo characters as Rumple Billy Burp, Elvis Bickel and Frog Rugster. Sometimes he would simply pull out his guitar and launch into a folk ballad. One memorable evening, Dylan played a "Dear Abby"-like advice counselor: A high school student called in wanting Dylan to endorse his hippie hair, but, to the surprise of many, Dylan admonished the caller to listen to his elders and stop playing the dime-store rebel. On another occasion, Dylan implored taxi drivers to deliver free food to the WBAI studio, and he asked women on air to describe their figures in what Fisher calls "glorious detail." Fass's show had become a beacon of both community activism and late-night fun.
What makes Something in the Air so charming is Fisher's upbeat belief in the redeeming power of radio. He is, essentially, anti-TV. You get the feeling Fisher would like to pull out a Magnum and blast away at every TV screen he encounters, as Elvis Presley once did. When Fisher was 12 years old, he tells us, he used to sleep with his cream-colored plastic box transistor radio under his pillow. Metaphorically speaking, he's never stopped. At times, the reader feels that Fisher has drawn an Alamo-like line in the sand, offering a loaded choice between radio (white hat) or television (black hat). "American radio -- like the pop culture it has helped to create, like the country it speaks to -- is ever-adapting," he insists. "As it ages, radio absorbs the new, co-opts the rebellious, and reinvents itself every step of the way." Cases in point: XM and Sirius. Even Dylan now has his own weekly XM show. As his beloved medium adapts, Fisher is out there listening, making sense of the airwaves that remain such a potent part of our lives. ·
Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Tulane University, is the editor of Hunter S. Thompson's letters and the author of "The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast."