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A Century's Strongest Signals

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 28, 1999; Page C01

Regular readers of this space know that The Listener is not above cheap publicity stunts and shameless bandwagoning. And so the opportunity to assemble an obligatory century's-end list is not to be passed up.

The 20th century has been called many things--the American century, the automobile century and the bloodiest century, among them. All are apt: It was a century that experienced exponential technological growth and shuddering social upheaval. And much of the news of that changing world came on the radio. For the first half of the century, before the ascendancy of television, it was radio's era.

The first radio receivers were ungainly wooden boxes bristling with switches and dials, straight out of Dr. Frankenstein's lab. Some leaked battery acid; others threatened electrocution. But soon, cheap, safe and small radios spread across the United States and much of the planet. Imagine--news and music from all over the world, coming into your home free. In these days of instant satellite TV news saturation, it is hard to grasp what a revolutionary idea radio was.

Radio's golden age arced from the mid-'30s to the early '60s. After that, television ruled. For transmitting information, nothing beats pictures, in color, in motion, with sound. But for relaying emotion and drama, nothing matches the power of a human voice augering into the cerebral cortex. The history of narrative--of storytelling with audio sights, smells, tastes and textures--stretches from our earliest cave fire days to Garrison Keillor spinning tales on "A Prairie Home Companion."

Now we are poised to enter a century in which storytelling is a multimedia phenomenon. Radio will fly across the atmosphere--and the Internet--on data-rich digital signals, bringing more than just a song to the boomboxes of the 21st century. Before that happens, though, let's take a look back at our retreating century.

After consulting several radio experts, The Listener has created two Top 10 countdowns of radio's greatest hits--one national, one local. The lists are not parallel or chronological. Instead, they are ranked by increasing news value and significance, in our estimation.

Disagreement is expected and encouraged:

National Highlights

* 10. The Rise of FM. Many 1960s program directors lose their jobs--and cost their stations millions--by proclaiming the new static-free band to be "a fad." But college deejays exploit FM to break new music. By 1990, AM is almost dead, resuscitated only by the rise of talk show personalities such as Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern and Don Imus.

* 9. The Hindenburg Disaster. The phrase becomes part of the national lexicon, even parodied on the TV sitcom "WKRP in Cincinnati"--"Oh, the humanity!" But at the time--May 6, 1937--reporter Herb Morrison's quaking voice is racked with anguish as he watches the great dirigible explode into a massive fireball, and passengers leap to their deaths.

* 8. Alan Shepard in Space. Perhaps the last moment when most of America follows a big event primarily on the radio. Stung by the Russians' early victories in the space race, the United States presses ears to newfangled transistor radios on May 5, 1961, to follow the 15-minute cannonball flight of the first Free World astronaut. (The assassination of John F. Kennedy, two years later, becomes one of television's first landmark moments.)

* 7. "The Giants Win the Pennant!" (repeat thrice). Sports is an integral part of radio history, from Jesse Owens's heroics in the 1936 Berlin Olympics to Ronald Reagan's re-created baseball games to great play-by-play men such as Johnny Most, Red Barber and Jon Miller. But nothing tops Russ Hodges' Oct. 3, 1951, call of Bobby Thompson's home run--the "Shot Heard 'Round the World"--that propels the New York Giants into the World Series.

* 6. WDIA. The pioneer black station. Though white-owned, it assembles an all-black air staff at a 50,000-watt station in Memphis in the late '40s. Early personalities such as Martha Jean "The Queen" Steinberg, Nat D. Williams and blues guitarist (then-deejay) B.B. King create a community among black listeners. Along the way, thestation becomes the first in town to gross $1 million a year.

* 5. FDR's Fireside Chats. The picture of a family huddled around an old cathedral-style radio is more than a Norman Rockwell print--it is visual journalism. As America struggles through the Great Depression, President Roosevelt grasps the power of radio as an unequaled tool for restoring a shaken nation's confidence in its government.

* 4. Consolidation. In 1996, the Federal Communications Commission decrees that a radio company can own several stations in one city. The buying frenzy begins: Since then the industry has lost nearly 1,000 owners as big chains devour mom-and-pop stations. Listeners complain of homogenization, the number of commercials increases, and radio chains make huge profits on Wall Street.

* 3. Old-Time Drama, Comedy and Pontification. Okay, this is a cop-out, but an inclusive list is impossible. Here's a start: Radio makes household names of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Amos 'n Andy, Eddie Cantor, Abbott and Costello, Bob and Ray, Walter Winchell and the casts of "Gunsmoke," "The Shadow," "The Lone Ranger" and "Dragnet." Demagogues, such as Huey Long, and dictators, such as Hitler, discover and exploit the medium's power.

* 2. "The War of the Worlds." There has been nothing else like it on radio. On Oct. 30, 1938, at age 23, Orson Welles and his nonpareil Mercury Theater players spring the greatest Halloween prank ever. But not everyone gets the joke: Welles's adaptation of H.G. Wells's 1898 novel of Martian invasion panics as many as one million Americans, studies show later.

* 1. World War II. Like Charles Dickens's "A Tale of Two Cities," World War II is bracketed by famous quotes: FDR's "a date which will live in infamy" and President Truman's "The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima." In between, America is held rapt by Edward R. Murrow's heroic broadcasts from London during the Blitz. News of the D-day invasion comes via radio, as do Winston Churchill's lionhearted rallying calls. The Japanese hear Emperor Hirohito's voice for the first time on the radio--announcing his nation's unconditional surrender. The world's most savage time is radio's finest hour.

Local Highlights

* 10. Special Stations. Most local stations follow the pack; a few lead it. Some examples: Early-'70s WHFS, with legendary deejay Damian Einstein, turning the area on to then-unknown New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen. Also: WAVA pioneers all-news format in 1961; WTOP-AM follows in 1969; and WTEM-AM launches the area's first all-sports station in 1992.

* 9. Eddie Gallaher. At 84, nearly blind, and after 53 years on the air in Washington, he still broadcasts big-band and Broadway hits in the mornings, now on WGAY-AM. His signature line: "It's so nice to know so many nice people."

* 8. Birth of NPR. Congress establishes the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967. National Public Radio incorporates in Washington in 1970 and, a year later, launches "All Things Considered," its evening news show. Now, with more than 600 affiliate stations, the network has made stars of broadcasters such as Diane Rehm, Bob Edwards, Linda Wertheimer and Noah Adams.

* 7. Arthur Godfrey. He launches what some consider the first morning show at WTOP-AM (then WJSV) in the '30s. Godfrey goes national for CBS in 1945, hosting a syndicated show, and becomes the network's biggest moneymaker. In the '50s, he skips to television and helms a variety show.

* 6. WOL, the Soul Powerhouse. Deejays such as "Sunny Jim" Kelsey, Bob "Nighthawk" Terry and R. Seavy "Soul Papa" Campbell are bigger celebrities than the Motown acts they play. The station commands a huge Washington audience in the '60s and demonstrates its influence by helping to quell the riots after Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 assassination. The station's decline begins during '70s payola charges.

* 5. The One-Two Punch. Dominating D.C.'s white stations in the '60s are Frank Harden and Jackson Weaver in the mornings on WMAL-AM and the "Joy Boys"--Willard Scott and Ed Walker--in the afternoons on WRC-AM. The two radio teams concoct silly songs, fictional characters and intricate comedy bits that rival those of Bob and Ray. Just before radio splits into a thousand niches, these dominant personalities cover a vast audience.

* 4. Shock Jocks. Howard Stern launches his career in Washington on WWDC-FM and makes a legendary crack about pricing one-way fares to the 14th Street Bridge following the 1982 crash of an Air Florida plane into the bridge. He is fired shortly thereafter but goes on to New York and superstardom. In January 1986, Doug "Greaseman" Tracht, who succeeds Stern at WWDC, makes a racist slur about Martin Luther King Jr., saying, "Shoot four more and we'll take the whole week off." He apologizes and stays at the station. In February 1999, Tracht--while at WARW--makes a racist slur connected to the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. He apologizes but is fired.

* 3. Cathy Hughes Inc. The hard-driving businesswoman starts as a sales manager at WHUR in 1971. In 1979, she and her husband, Dewey Hughes, buy WOL, where she hosts a call-in show. By 1999, she has divorced Hughes and built her company--Radio One--into the nation's largest black-owned radio group, comprising nearly two dozen stations and riding hot stock. As an activist, she uses her stations to promote black causes, including a boycott of The Washington Post Magazine in 1986. She helps make black talk radio a political force. In between, she pioneers new radio formats, such as the "Quiet Storm" taken to prominence by Melvin Lindsey on WHUR.

* 2. Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. Two key weapons in the American Cold War arsenal. The Washington-based government broadcast services--RFE is funded by the CIA until 1972--penetrate the Iron Curtain to tell the Soviet and Eastern Bloc people what they're missing in the West. An argument can be made that VOA jazz deejay and Washington native Willis Conover is the most widely heard English-speaking voice in the world.

* 1. Marian Anderson's 1939 Easter Sunday Broadcast. The "colored contralto" and "voice of a century" is denied permission to perform in Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Eleanor Roosevelt champions her cause and helps arrange a free concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Anderson stands before the statue of the Great Emancipator and sings "My Country 'Tis of Thee" to a nation that denies her basic human rights. NBC broadcasts the concert live; it is a rare noble act for commercial radio.

To hear audio clips of the century's great radio moments, and to discuss this list--or anything else radio--log on to www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline/ today at 1 p.m.

Thanks to Lee Abrams, Jim Farley, Marc Fisher, Jonathan "Weasel" Gilbert, Mark Lapidus and Sam Spencer for help in compiling these lists. Also, credit to "Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination," "We Interrupt This Broadcast" and Elizabeth McLeod of the Old-Time Radio Web site.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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