History of Radio: Sources and Book Reviews

In writing this series of posts on the history of radio I came across several books that I used as primary sources. Some of them are listed below with reviews. None of these are new. I found a couple of them in my local library and the others I picked up in used bookstores. I have listed them in what I think is the order of interest.

Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, by Susan J. Douglas

Susan J. Douglas bookIf you have any interest at all in the history of radio in America, this is the book to read. How could you not, after all, love an author who introduces Mitch Miller as the “fuddy-duddy host of the sappy ‘Sing Along with Mitch.’”

Douglas notes some of the dates and milestones of radio’s growth, but she is far more interested in what it is like and what it means to listen and how that fuels the imagination. This could well be considered a work of sociology as well as history as it delves into how radio has created communities and fueled youthful rejection of mainstream culture in the 20’s, in the 50’s and again in the 60’s.

Throughout its history radio is a medium that has been dominated by men. The author devotes considerable attention to what different trends in radio mean about men’s perception of themselves in different eras. For example she describes how the nuances of the language used by the radio comedians of the 30’s reflected a “feminization” as opposed the reassertion of maleness that emanated from the war correspondents of the 40’s.

One of my favorites parts of this history is how the author treats the emergence of television not as killing off radio but rather as reviving the medium with a new energy and youthfulness. In the 50’s radio provided the sound track for the flowering of teen culture, as it did a decade later for the 60’s counter-culture.

This is a bottom up history. Douglas has little to say about the captains of industry, the Sarnoffs and Paleys of the world. She is far more impressed by the guys who, working in their garages with a pile of wires and batteries, produced real innovation.

The book ends on a somewhat troubled note as corporate consolidation, advertisers, ratings services and radio consultants have combined to turn radio into a characterless vehicle for fixed playlist formats, leaving no room for experimentation or discovery. Since in the past every slide into corporate mediocrity has been met with a new wave of more imaginative radio, she ponders where that may come from. The book was written in 1999, so things like streaming, internet and satellite radio are not on her radar. While satellite has become as beholden to sterile formats as most of commercial radio, the internet opens up an opportunity for the innovators that’s not limited by bandwidth.

Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio, by Jesse Walker

Jess Walker bookThere’s no ambiguity about this author’s take on the state of commercial radio. “Most radio today is boring and homogeneous, chains of clones controlled by an ever-dwindling handful of focus-group-driven corporations.” He has nothing but disdain for radio consultants, fixed formats and tight playlists. But that’s not what Rebels on the Air is about. This is the story of the folks who hang out on the fringes of the radio dial. Starting with hams of the early 20th century, Walker provides a history of alternative radio: listener-sponsored, community radio, pirates and micro broadcasting included.

As someone who occasionally drifts over to the far end of radio frequency I enjoyed reading about the founding of the Pacifica Foundation and the constant turmoil and that surrounds its stations. Bob Fass, of Pacifica’s WBAI in New York, is anointed by Wallace as the father of freeform. I lost many hours of sleep in my teen years listening to Fass’ Radio Unnameable. I equally enjoyed reading about how WFMU freed itself from its bankrupt college owners. It is one station that to this day has carried on being diverse, unpredictable and free.

Set against a backdrop of corporate consolidation and government regulation, the book contains numerous anecdotes of the broadcasters who defied both. Some were creative geniuses, some were inspirational and some were just weird. This is the flip side of the radio history story line that starts with Marconi and moves on through the networks to the invention of TV. Makes you want to go figure out how to set up a transmitter in your garage.

Sports on New York Radio, by David Halberstom

David Halberstam bookI’m in my 60’s, I live in the New York area and I’ve been a sports fan since I was a child. So I found this book fascinating. If you can’t check off at least two of those three boxes, you might be somewhat less enthralled.

Halberstam, who has worked as a play-by-play man himself, has put together a meticulously researched and thoroughly detailed account of sports on New York radio. Want to know how many Knicks games were live on radio in 1963? Probably not, but this book has the answer.

I particularly enjoyed his account of the heyday of sports radio (yes even before my time) and the marque events that have since lost some if not all of their luster: the Rose Bowl, heavyweight championship fights and New York City college football. The book is organized by sport, a chapter each for basketball, football, hockey, etc., and in the case of baseball, by team, the two current and two former New York teams.

The focus is on the announcers. That includes the superstars of play-by-play, Mel Allen, Marty Glickman, Red Barber and Marv Albert. They weren’t all the nicest of guys. But I was glad to read that wasn’t the case with my personal favorites, the trio that broadcast Mets baseball from day one and for the next 19 years, Lindsay Nelson, Ralph Kiner and Bob Murphy.

We have been conditioned to think of enjoying a game on a scale, the best of which is live attendance, followed by watching on TV. Radio is something we turn to when nothing else is available or when we’re doing something else like driving. But reading this book makes me think we might be missing something. These broadcasters didn’t give you 30 different camera angles but worked with nothing but words and the listener’s imagination. Maybe a lost art.

Contrast that with some of the guys you see on TV, especially if you happen to be watching the day’s 10th live college basketball game. You likely get a couple cheerful dudes doing little more than reading the PR blurbs that they’ve been fed by the teams’ SIDs.

I can’t imagine there is room for another book on this subject. Halberstam has pretty much covered the topic.

The General: David Sarnoff and the Rise of the Communications Industry, by Kenneth Bilby

David Sarnoff biographyA story of a Russian Jewish immigrant who moved from a ghetto on New York’s east side to a penthouse office in Rockefeller Center. (Are you listening Donald Trump?)

David Sarnoff started as an office boy for the American Marconi Company. When that company was swallowed up by Radio Corporation of America (RCA), they got Sarnoff as well and he was to lead RCA and its subsidiary NBC for decades.

Sarnoff was truly one of the founding fathers of modern consumer electronics and home entertainment. He was one of the first corporate players to identify radio for its broadcasting capabilities, rather than as a point to point messaging service. He conceived of the first broadcast network (NBC) and managed RCA to a leadership position first in the introduction of television and later color television. He was someone who was willing to overlook short term profits in favor of building an industry-leading long-term business, something that is woefully lacking in current day corporate America.

The “General” title comes from his work during World War II. Stationed in England he built the communications system that would be used by the Allies during the D-Day invasion. But the title also represents another characteristic of Sarnoff. He was seemingly not a greedy man, but he constantly sought adulation. He lobbied for years, all the way up to Dwight Eisenhower, to be named a two-star general. This guy wasn’t building private mansions in the Caribbean, but he was putting all the money into public relations, building his image and legacy.

Sarnoff was an incurable workaholic. This book has little to say about his private life. It seems to suggest that he barely had one. He was married, apparently happily, to the same woman throughout his adult life. And there is brief mention of the fact that he had three boys. The subject comes up only within the context of Sarnoff acknowledging that he was a pretty crappy father. His oldest son eventually emerges as part of the story, but only after he has himself become a senior executive at RCA.

Do you get to know Sarnoff by reading this biography? Barely. About as much as you might know a guy on the upper floors of your office building who you occasionally greet on the elevator. I found this book in a rather obscure corner of my public library. It’s from 1986. If you find a copy you might have to dust it off.

Others not reviewed here:

The Great American Broadcast, by Leonard Maltin

Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey, by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Book reviews, History, Radio | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

What were Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway doing amidst the enemies of the American people?

Both Sean Spicer, White House press secretary, and Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, had one-on-one conversations at mid-week at the Newseum event “The President and the Press, the First Amendment in the First 100 Days.” They shared the agenda, if not exactly the stage, with numerous folks their employer has categorized as the “enemies of the American people.” That included White House correspondents from a wide range of media, from the New York Times to Breitbart. Or, you might say, from top to bottom.

It was a sedate and reasonable iteration of Spicer that showed up for his interview with Greta Van Susteren of MSNBC. So much so that one later panelist, Glenn Thrush, White House correspondent for the New York Times, questioned what the Newseum might have put in his coffee to calm things down. Likely it was not a coffee additive so much as being humbled a day after his inappropriate comment about Hitler and chemical weapons. Not surprisingly, Spicer’s first act was to apologize, an apology that in fact came across as sincere (as opposed to say the United Airlines’ CEO’s third-day when all else fails apology). It was “not a very good day in my history.” No, it wasn’t.

“As long as we have a healthy and robust media, I’m fine,” Spicer commented. His main complaint was on focus, which he said, “should be on what we are doing right or wrong to make the country better,” adding “the proportion of house intrigue vs. policy is out of whack.” No argument there. Yet in a country that has just elected a reality TV show host as president, I don’t know if you can blame the White House press corps for initiating the personality/celebrity focus of the news.

Conway announced herself as a “very pro-press person.” Then she unloaded a laundry list of complaints. She contends that the media is providing incomplete coverage, saying there are considerable accomplishments of this administration which are not getting any ink or air time. She quipped, “people literally say things that just aren’t true,” a comment that brought more than a few chuckles from the audience. A less lame interviewer (Michael Wolff of the Hollywood Reporter) might have chosen at that moment to ask her about the “Bowling Green Massacre.”

Conway charged the press covering the Trump administration with “presumed negativity.” Later Cecilia Vega of ABC News responded to that saying “I’m presumptively cynical but that’s my job” adding that you have to be cynical considering “this President’s relationship with the truth.” Addressing the journalist-heavy audience, Conway said, “If you were part of the very large group of people who covered the campaign and got it wrong, don’t keep getting it wrong.”

The White House correspondents had some axes to grind themselves. Thrush noted that the tone was set on the very first day after the inauguration when, after criticizing the assembled reporters for their comparisons of the size of the Trump and Obama inauguration crowd, “Spicer shouted at everybody and refused to take questions.”

45Jim Acosta of CNN said “the President has an unhealthy attitude toward the press. On the campaign trail he called us crooks and thieves. He’s doing real damage to the first amendment in this country.”

Bret Baier of Fox News, who was the moderator of the panel of White House correspondents, commented, “he was elected saying he’d be the bull in the china shop. He’s got the bull part down.”

One of the more interesting questions Baier asked the panel was whether they think Trump can be successful. Each said yes…but. Here’s some of those buts.

  • Acosta: “it would take an act of contrition on his part.”
  • Julie Pace, AP: “he would need some self discipline.”
  • Charlie Spiering, Breitbart: “wrangle Congress to get behind his agenda.”
  • Kristin Welker, NBC: “learn how to get a deal done in Washington as opposed to a real estate or business deal.”

But my favorite Trump story of the entire session came in the opening address by the Washington Post’s Pulitzer winning reporter David Fahrenthold. Fahrenthold was describing how he was doing a story tracking Trump’s promises of charity giving and the finances of the Trump Foundation. He found that the latter spent $10k on a large Trump portrait. He went to Twitter to ask if anyone knew where that portrait was. And he got a response. This fine work of charity spending was hanging in a sports bar in one of Trump’s resort hotels.

news

All of the sessions at the Newseum event are available for viewing on the Newseum channel on You Tube.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

History of Radio: How the Radio Changed My Life

I was not the sort of perky teenager who walked in the door ready to chit chat with other family members. If I was home, and wasn’t hungry at the time, I was behind closed doors. And the place where I shut myself in was a room my family called the den. It was our electronics center. It had a TV, a big reel-to-reel tape recorder, a stereo with powerful speakers mounted to the wall, but most important to me, it had a radio.

I was a teenager in the late 1960’s. It was a time of anti-war, anti-establishment counterculture. It was a time of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” though not so much in my high school. The radio was my connection to a whole new world that wasn’t apparent in my home, in my town or in my school.

Vietnan War protester

Image by Diana Davies from New York Public Library digital collection.

The radio changed my life in two ways: music and world view. It opened up a whole new world of music that would shape my tastes and musical preferences to this day. And it opened up a whole new world of public affairs and social movements that I wasn’t hearing about on TV or in the local newspaper. It led me past the conservative views of my parents which were shaped by their experience of war and the socially stifling 50’s.

When I was hiding out in that den I likely had the radio tuned in to one of two New York FM stations: WBAI and WNEW. Up until that point the radio to me was just a source of perpetual jingles and repetitive play of a few songs that either came from cutesy pop bands like Herman’s Hermits or were assembly line Phil Spector ditties.

WNEW-FM and it’s short-lived predecessor WOR-FM opened up a whole new world of music for me. We called it underground rock, although bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane didn’t stay underground for long. There were also local New York favorites like the Chambers Brothers and Butterfield Blues Band. I listened to folk music for the first time and heard the old blues players like Leadbelly and Bessie Smith. I was making liberal use of that old reel-to-reel tape recorder. And on Wednesday nights, instead of hanging out in a car with my friends trying to figure out who would buy us beer, I was on the bus to New York to Thompkins Square Park where performers like Richie Havens and the Blues Project were playing for free. Instead of sneaking in the back entrance to the drive-in on weekends, I was headed to the Village Theater where I discovered the likes of Traffic, the Who and Big Brother and the Holding Company.

But it wasn’t all music. I was also listening to talk radio; a whole different kind of talk radio than angry white man demogogues who polute the AM dial now. I remember 1960’s WBAI for three deejays: Bob Fass, Steve Post and Larry Josephson. They rambled about current events and pet peeves. They brought some of the counterculture superstars like Abbie Hoffman and Timothy Leary onto the air. They chatted with listeners who were unlike anyone I was going to find in my all-white conservative home town.

But WBAI was also about the news. I specifically remember their live coverage of events like the student takeover of Columbia University buildings, the prison uprising at Attica in New York state and the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I heard voices from the inside and voices with empathy for the protesters and rebels. Would I have found myself at anti-war demonstrations, in unbearably long and boring SDS meetings or protesting at Nixon’s inauguration if I hadn’t been a WBAI listener? Maybe, but it was the radio that got me started.

There was no clear distinction between music and politics on these airways. If you were listening to WNEW you heard Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t a-Marching Anymore” and the “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” the anti-war anthem by Country Joe and the Fish.  And if you listened to Rosko at night you would hear him recite Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s anti-war verse.

WBAI had some music too…when the guys weren’t talking. I heard Alice’s Restaurant and American Pie for the first time on WBAI. Both stations relished the fact that they would play a 15-minute song while on commercial ratio 15 minutes brought you a couple 2-3 minute songs slipped in between ads.

When I think back to ‘coming of age’ influences in my life, yes I think of parents and teachers, but I also think of radio guys like Bob Fass and Rosko. In addition to being somewhat anti-social, I wasn’t the savviest of teenagers. Looking back on it I can’t help but conclude that in many ways I was an idiot. But the radio made my smarter, more open to different things, more empathetic and at least a little more worldly.

Posted in History, Radio | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

White sands, clear water.

Clearwater Beach

Clearwater Beach in Florida is listed among America’s top ten beaches by Trip Advisor, Travel Channel, Forbes and others. Here are some of the reasons why.

Clearwater Beach

Clearwater Beach

white sands

Beach entrance

birds

the beach

sunset on the beach

Sunset, Clearwater, Fla.

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

History of Radio: Listener-Sponsored Creativity and Chaos

When radio first started to find an audience in the 1920’s it was driven by the manufacturers who thought they could make money by selling radio sets. But as the cost of programming increased, especially the popular network programming, and the number of Americans who already owned radios grew, the industry turned toward commercial interests to pay the bills. That came in the form of commercial sponsors and then the sale of advertising time. Ad sales is what keeps the lights on at radio stations and that remains true to this day.

But in the late 40’s an alternative emerged with the Pacifica Foundation. It was founded in 1946 by Lewis Hill, a pacifist who had been a conscientious objector during World War II. In 1949 Pacifica’s first station KPFA in Berkeley, Calif., went on the air. It was a station which Jesse Walker, author of Rebels on the Air, says “reflected the anarchist and pacifist ethos of 1940s Bay Area Bohemia.” Not exactly the kind of programming that’s going to attract corporate advertisers. So Hill turned to an alternative source of financing, its listeners.

Today the Pacifica network has four more stations: WBAI in New York, WPFW in Washington, KPFK in Los Angeles and KPFT in Houston. It has also begun to syndicate programming to affiliate stations and has a Pacifica archive. Throughout its 60+ years of existence Pacifica and its stations have remained listener sponsored although as early as 1952 when Hill received a grant from the Ford Foundation it has also benefited from foundation funding. In later years Pacifica received some funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

It is the independence that comes from not being beholden to commercial interests that has allowed Pacifica stations to innovate in terms of the talent it has put on the air, the news reports it has broadcast and the various racial, ethnic and sexual-orientation minorities who were given a voice on Pacifica stations.

Peter Wilson DJ

Gay rights radio show on WBAI with DJ Pete Wilson

In New York, the folks who walked into WBAI’s studio included the likes of Bob Dylan and Ravi Shankar. The beat poets, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were on the air at KPFA and in Los Angeles, the Fireside Theater, a comic quartet whose work could be described as psychedelic mixed audio got their start at KPFK.

In an earlier post, I wrote about WBAI’s Bob Fass and his show Radio Unnameable which many consider the first true freeform radio programming. Fass used his show to organize demonstrations at Kennedy Airport, to report from the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago and to help found the Yippies. Fass and the other on-air personalities were among the pioneers of listener call-in radio. And Jeff Land, writing in Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media,  credits Pacifica with the birth of community radio. Referring to Pacifica in the 70’s Land says: “It is at this moment, when Puerto Rican and Black nationalists, radical lesbians, Asian-American activists, feminist spokespeople, and newly empowered ecologists all begin regularly scheduled programs, that ‘community radio’ is born.”

Pacifica has also consistently been an innovator when it comes to news. A Pacifica reporter was the first to file a report from North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. They interviewed Che Guevara from Bolivia a short time before he was killed. KPFA received a Peabody Award for its programming challenging McCarthyism in 1954. KPFK was awarded a Peabody for excellence in programming in 1961.

As you might expect, Pacifica has often raised the concern of both local and federal authorities. Their track record of provoking these overseers is something they are likely proud of. As early as 1954, KPFA found themselves at odds with the police when they aired a panel discussion about marijuana in which all of the panelists were “obviously stoned” according to Walker. Police arrived and confiscated that tape. In 1960 the FCC requested the tape of a Ferlinghetti broadcast which they were concerned was in “bad taste.” At the same time the House Un-American Activities Committee was probing what it thought was Pacifica’s “subversive programming.” Also in the early 60’s, the FCC held up the renewal of the Pacifica stations’ licenses for three years while is investigated possible “communist affiliations.” WBAI ended up in court after it broadcast George Carlin’s “Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television.”

But neither the FCC, nor legislators, nor the police have been the biggest threat to Pacifica. Rather it has proven to be its own worst enemy, its history being one of firings, strikes, staff revolts and listener demonstrations. There was a group called Take Back KPFA and another in New York, Friends of WBAI, which picketed the homes of board members in 70’s. KPFA went off the air for a time in 1974 as a result of a staff strike. Most of these disputes resulted from two issues, the foundation firing a station manager who didn’t toe the line, or labor disputes deriving from the fact that the volunteer staff, which made up the largest portion of Pacifica employees, were union members that the foundation wanted to decertify.

In the 90’s there were more disputes that resulted from efforts by the foundation to standardize national programming, thus reducing the programming role of individual stations and their staff. Web sites popped up like freekpfa.org, wbaifree.org, and savepacifica.org. In 1999, a Pacifica executive director brought in armed guards at KPFA after a popular station manager was fired. There has also been a racially charged atmosphere at the stations, particularly WBAI. For the decade after its founding in 1960, WBAI had a largely white, male staff. The reaction to that included one program in which calls were screened to keep men off the air. More recently, the station has been criticized, according to Land, for anti-Semitism and Afrocentrism.

Obviously keeping Pacifica’s listeners happy is no easy task. The talent and innovation these stations have brought to the airways is often overshadowed by chaos and turmoil. You really have to marvel at the fact that these stations have hung in this long and are still on the air.

Posted in History, Radio | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sportswriters Speaking Out About Athletes Who Don’t

Most sports figures are reluctant to address social or political issues publicly. No so with sportswriters. Four of them did just that yesterday at the Montclair Literary Festival panel Sports and Social Protest. Their discussion turned out to be a comparative analysis of sports leagues and their players’ willingness to use their position as a platform.

And the leader is the NBA. Jay Schreiber, deputy sports editor of the New York Times, called the NBA “the MSNBC of sports.” Nobody disagreed with that. Since the NBA and the NFL are both African-American majority sports leagues, there was a lot of comparison between the two. Colin Kaepernick aside, NFL players are much more reluctant to speak out on issues.

Filip Bondy, who has had a 40-year career as a sportswriter at the New York Daily News and the New York Times, talked about how social protest by athletes was common in the 60’s, what he called the “Ali era.” He suggested that it stopped as more money came into sports, but has returned of late. “It used to be athletes were afraid to speak because of the money. Now they have so much money they don’t care.”

Montclair Literary Festival panel

From left, Filip Bondy, Mike Freeman, Jerry Barca and Jay Schreiber.

Bondy suggested that the NBA has a tradition of liberalism that goes back to the Democratic Jewish owners of the 50’s and 60’s as opposed to the NFL where the owners are ‘like a country club.” The NBA has taken a stand against gun violence and supported gun control. It also pulled its all-star game out of North Carolina after that state’s legislators passed the so-called “bathroom bill” that discriminated against transgender people.

Jerry Barca, an author and film producer who has worked on ESPN’s “30 for 30,” talked about how in comparison to the NFL, the NBA is an open league. You can talk to the players daily, rather than just on “media days” like the NFL. “The players know they are the product,” Barca quipped, noting that Donald Sterling, former owner of the San Diego franchise, is no longer an owner because of the players.

Barca also pointed out that in the NBA it is the league’s best players and most visible personalities, guys like LaBron James and Steph Curry, who lead the way in addressing social issues, something that makes other players less reluctant to do so and something that hasn’t happened in the NFL.

Schreiber called San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich “the most interesting critic Trump has.” Why? Because he’s a white professional sports coach, works in Texas and has a military background. He has spoken out repeatedly and passionately about Trump’s immigration policies and comments about immigrants.

As for baseball, a sport that is primarily white and Latin, Mike Freeman, who has covered the NFL for numerous newspapers and broadcast outlets, said “those guys say nothing.” Bondy said he has been trying for years to get a member of the Cleveland Indians to comments on the Chief Wahoo logo. With no success.

Los Angeles Dodger Adrian Gonzalez did choose not to stay in a Trump hotel during the playoffs in Chicago last year. And on the other side of the ledger, two white conservative Chicago Cubs pitchers, Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, didn’t turn up for a visit to the Obama White House after they won the World Series. There are 5 or 6 New England Patriots who have announced they aren’t going to the Trump White House, according to Freeman. Two are no longer with the team. This is a team whose leader Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick are avid Trump backers.

Hockey players didn’t even rate a mention at the panel. But soccer players did. Soccer is a sport with a lot of ethnic players. But it is white American team captain Michael Bradley who has led to way in denouncing Trump’s immigrant policies. So has the president of U.S. Soccer Sunil Gulati. Those immigration policies have placed in jeopardy the bid by U.S. soccer to host the 2026 World Cup as well as Los Angeles’ bid to host the 2024 Olympics. The U.S. women’s soccer team has led a very public fight for equal treatment, as has the U.S. women’s hockey team.

The only question that stumped this talkative panel of sportswriters was being asked who in sports they found to be inspirational. It took a minute but they came up with a good answer: Serena Williams.

Posted in Sports | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Writing History and the Stories That Were Never Told

This weekend was the first Montclair (N.J.) Literary Festival, a three-day event taking place at four venues in town. As someone who writes a lot of blog posts about history I started the day by heading to the session titled “Facing History and Ourselves.” Two authors of history and historical fiction and a history professor were on the panel.

When initially presented with the question of why they chose to write about history, the answer was pretty unanimous. There are just so many stories that haven’t been told. And I’d guess that many of those stories would be so much more interesting and relevant to us than a lot of the stories that do get told.  It is hard to call the history that is taught in our schools a story. What we get is dates, names, wars, presidents, etc. History textbooks are generally horrible and one suspects that little research goes into them. Rather they are probably a rewrite exercise.

So we learn about slavery without learning what the slaves thought. We learn about wars without understanding the impact on the soldiers, other than a body count. We seem to celebrate Manifest Destiny but don’t hear from the Native Americans. It is a history of documents, based on PR, propaganda, government pronouncements and historical calendars. I’d like to think that’s changing, but I see no real evidence of it. My teenage son, who goes to a relatively progressive middle school, came home the other day complaining about his social studies class in which the current unit on American history consists primarily of the dates and names of colonial era legislation.

The authors on the panel brought up some other examples. Stephen Tolty, who is doing research for a book about the Vietnam War, described an instance in 1972 when the Nixon White House wanted to respond to a North Vietnamese initiative with an intensive bombing campaign. But the units on the ground in Vietnam ignored this for a few days and instead focused on trying to rescue one of their colleagues who had been captured. Why? Because the American soldiers hadn’t really bought into the narrative that led us to war and at this point assumed it was a lost cause anyway. Our history books tell us about Nixon and Kissinger, but not about these guys.

Author Ellery Washington raised a personal example. He noted how as a gay black kid growing up in Albuquerque, he felt completely left out of the historical narrative. He suggested the feeling of not being part of the story as a possible reason for the kind of top-down anti-intellectualism we are experiencing. Our history texts celebrate industrialization without much thought to the crafters and independent service providers who were put out of business. Do we likewise celebrate the march of technology without giving much thought to the factory workers whose jobs have disappeared and is that part of the explanation for Trump’s election.

Washington commented that “there is a difference between facts and truth. Truth speaks to something larger that includes facts.” I would add that there is also such a thing as untruths that can come from partial facts.

At a time when not only Americans, but Europeans as well, have decided that immigrants are the source of all of their economic and security problems, one of my favorite historical topics is the untold history of immigrants. About a year ago I wrote a series of posts on the history of beer in New Jersey. It was a history made by German immigrants in the city of Newark. And those German immigrants were looked upon in much the same way that Latino and Muslim immigrants are looked upon today. During World War I, some of these pioneer brewers had all of their assets confiscated because of their German heritage. Talty commented: “You can never be American enough if you are a newcomer.”

I came across another example when doing the research for my current History of Radio series of blog posts. The surface narrative about the history of radio starts with Marconi and goes through the U.S. Navy, RCA, David Sarnoff and the broadcast networks. But I came across at least a couple authors who dismissed that and talked about the real pioneers of radio, guys who set up in their garage with soup cans and tin fuel.

We also look to history to provide what Washington refers to as the “foundation of truth” for our society. History is written for people today, not the people who lived at the time that the story is about. That is why, as Montclair State University Professor Leslie Wilson commented, historians raise questions like “were the founding fathers really great thinkers?”

One of my favorite types of history that I think addresses this issue of the stories that haven’t been told is oral history. It is first hand history in the words of the participants. I recently read a great example of oral history in the book “Second Hand Time, the Last of the Soviets,” by Svetlana Alexievich. Oral history is mostly written by interviewing older people who lived through a certain era. Alexievich’s book is about Russia during the transition from the USSR to the post-Soviet republic. The panelists today noted the potential for a far richer range of sources for future historians because of self-publishing, the internet, bloggers like myself and social media. Think about the narrative created by people on the street during the Arab Spring as it was recorded on Twitter. Surely that gives us the opportunity to hear from voices who in an earlier time would be left out of the story. And it might also give us an even bigger challenge when it comes to figuring out the truth.

Posted in History | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

History of Radio: The Enemies of Good Radio

In doing the research for this series of blog posts on the history of radio I read several texts by a variety of authors. There was nary a kind word for the current state of commercial radio in the U.S. Jesse Walker (Rebels on the Air) sums this up best: “most radio today is boring and homogeneous, chains of clones controlled by an ever-dwindling handful of focus-group-driven corporations.”

Who controls commercial radio? iHeartMedia Inc. owns 860 stations. This is the company that used to be called Clear Channel and was sold to a private capital group headed by Bain Capital and Thomas H. Lee Partners in 2008. Cumulus Media owns 443 stations and Townsquare Media owns another 312 mostly small market stations. There are three other companies that each own more than 100 stations, CBS Radio, Entercom and Salem Media Group.

FCC logoAt one time the Federal Communications Commission established limitations on the number of stations a single entity could own as a way to assure some diversity on the radio dial. But in 1992 the FCC began to loosen those restrictions. The FCC policy had remained basically the same since that time. Here it is:

The rule imposes ownership restrictions based on a sliding scale that varies by the size of the market: (1) in a radio market with 45 or more stations, an entity may own up to eight radio stations, no more than five of which may be in the same service (AM or FM); (2) in a radio market with between 30 and 44 radio stations, an entity may own up to seven radio stations, no more than four of which may be in the same service; (3) in a radio market hosting between 15 and 29 radio stations, an entity may own up to six radio stations, no more than four of which may be in the same service; and (4) in a radio market with 14 or fewer radio stations, an entity may own up to five radio stations, no more than three of which may be in the same service, as long as the entity does not own more than 50 percent of all radio stations in that market.

I looked at iHeart’s list of owned stations and found that they do indeed own 8 stations in many, many markets, although some of those areas, like Poughkeepsie, N.Y., hardly seen to me to be major markets likely to have 45 or more stations. So it’s questionable how strictly even these slackened ownership limitations are enforced. Among iHearts’ holdings are many talk radio stations around the country and their standard fare includes Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

There is a parallel here with what is likely to happen at the FCC under the direction of new chairman Ajit Pai. Pai is intent of eliminating net neutrality rules. The result will be that large corporate interests will be able to buy themselves a preferred pathway to consumers, thus allowing the same type of consolidation of control of broadband that we have with bandwidth.

Radio has been a victim of big data long before anyone used that term. By making programming decisions based on ratings and ad sales, station programmers, who were given the control once enjoyed by DJ’s, generally adopted formats that minimized variety and focused on repetition of the most highly “rated” songs. I found this Infographic on Business Insider which claims that one song was found on 80% of radio station playlists. And the song was “Mrs. Robinson.” Being from a 1967 movie, I guess you can accumulate a lot of big data over five decades. This type of programming focus isn’t going to deliver any music that veers from what you’ve been hearing on commercial radio, over and over and over again.

One of the pioneers of this approach to music radio programming is a consultant firm named Drake-Chenault. They created the most widely used Top 40 format starting in the late 1950’s. It restricted music to a minimal number of songs that would be played repeatedly all day on all shows, interspersed with jingles, news updates and lots of ads. They usually achieved commercial if not artistic success. They later developed “jingle packages” as well as formats such as Solid Gold, Hit Parade and Great American Country.

A company called RCS, which is still in business, started making computer software to program music on radio stations some 30 years ago. On their web site they elaborate on what their Selector program has to offer: “Selector delivers consistency in the mix, variety in the flow, balance in the log and control in the entire music library.” Ho-hum.

Knowing that the program director is now the key person to determine what we’ll hear on these stations, I searched online and found this job description on the web site of the Houston Chronicle for a program director. I assume this is a fairly standard description of what commercial radio stations are looking for. “As a radio program director, your responsibilities are that of an administrator. You handle the business of the radio station and leave the voice and personality to the disc jockey. Disc jockeys have to follow your rules even if you may not see eye-to-eye. You may prefer to play safe and repeat music even though your disc jockey prefers to take a risk and make changes to the music. Nevertheless, the success of the radio station lies in your hands.” In other words, if some rogue disc jockey wants to play a song that’s different from what he played yesterday and the day before and the day before that, it’s your job to make him toe the line.

And just in case you can’t find a suitable program director to control this you can always turn to radio consultants. One of the larger firms Radio Programming Consultants, which has offices in North America, Europe and Asia, offers the following assurance: “In our consulting practice the artistic part in music scheduling comes AFTER the technical / applying science.” Not only are these guys admitting that they could care less about artistic considerations in selecting music, they’re trumpeting that fact in all caps! Who would want to listen to a radio station they programmed?

Throughout its history there has always been a response to consolidated conformist radio. Free spirits, pirates and rebels have always popped up snatching some small piece of bandwidth and showing what radio can be. The airways have been controlled by government and corporate owners by monopolizing bandwidth and squeezing the small players and independents to the margins of the dial. But the internet wipes away that limitation, makes the above FCC rules meaningless, and also strips away the limitations of geography and signal strength. Even the smallest operation can stream online and find listeners all over the world. So I think we have a lot more good radio ahead of us.

Posted in History, Radio | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Spring Break for Baseball Fans

Popcorn delivery

Spectrum Field

Clearwater, Fla.

Philadelphia Phillies

Tampa vs. Philadelphia

Charlotte Sports Park

Port Charlotte, Fla.

Tampa Bay Rays

skydivers at Joker Marchand Stadium

Joker Marchand Stadium

Lakeland, Fla.

Detroit Tigers

Posted in Baseball, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

History of Radio: Video Didn’t Kill the Radio Star After All

The first television programming appeared in the early 1940’s. No one saw it. It was wartime in America and we weren’t out buying new home entertainment devices. By the late 40’s, things had changed. Families were reunited, we were on the verge of an age of prosperity and the baby boomer generation was learning to walk. The radio set market was saturated and manufacturers shifted their focus to television sets. The networks did the same. By the early 50’s, NBC and CBS and ABC, the dominant radio program producers for the previous 25 years, abandoned radio. Gone were the comedians, the drama and the variety shows that fueled radio listening. Gone were the days when the family gathered around the radio after dinner.

Was radio, the medium that provided the soundtrack to imagine your own images, doomed? Nope. In fact, for every year in the decades of the 1950’s and 1960’s radio had increased ad sales. Radio reinvented itself and built new audiences, redefining American culture along the way. Turns out radio had some real advantages that the corporate manufacturers and network programmers might have overlooked.

  • Radio is mobile. In fact, after 1947 with the invention of the transistor, radio was even more mobile. You don’t have to sit around a piece of furniture at home to listen to radio. It’s in the car, you could bring to the park, shove it in your purse or pocket or stick it under your pillow.
  • Radio is cheap. Transistor radios were a few bucks. Kids probably only had to mow the grass or take out the garbage a couple times to get enough allowance to get their very own personal transistor radio. And access is free.
  • You can listen to radio while you’re doing something else and not miss a thing. Cook dinner, drive to work, sit outside on the patio, paint the walls; radio is there with you.
  • Radio is local. While we have been accustomed to thinking that the most important programming on the air is networked and national, many prefer and seek out local media and once the networks abandoned radio that’s what it became.
  • Between 1940 and 1960 the number of cars in the United States roughly doubled. And there have been radios in cars since the 1930’s.
car radio

(Image by Scott Webb)

But all of those things might not have led to a true radio renaissance were it not for one more thing. Teenagers. More of them than ever before, because all those baby boomers were becoming teens in the 50’s and 60’s. And these teenagers were intent on defining themselves. They did it with their clothes, their hairstyles, and their musical tastes. They in fact became the trendsetters for style in America. And they were an enormous new market.

There have been three waves of renewed interest in radio since the mid-20th century. Each was in part triggered by a rejection of the prevailing state of mass media in America.

Back in the 20’s radio was the only place where many young people, and especially young white people, could hear jazz, a musical form thought to be outright degenerate and subversive by many of their parents. The same scenario repeated itself in 50’s with rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll, terms that initially were only distinguishable by the color of the skin of the artists making the music. And that was the music that teenagers were playing on their car radio and listening to on their transistors at the beach. Gone were Jack Benny and Ozzie Nelson and Red Skelton. Now we had Alan Freed, Wolfman Jack, Murray the K and Cousin Brucie.

Teenagers at the drive in

Rock ‘n’ roll on radio caught fire. After all, it was cooler to be making out in a parked car listening to Elvis than sitting around the TV with your family watching Ozzie and Harriet. It eventually gave rise to Top 40 radio. But as station owners and advertisers gravitated to this format, they turned it into a jingle-laden ad fest in which just a few songs were played over and over again. And ultimately it led many, including the next generation of culturally rebellious teens to abandon the AM dial. AM Top 40 radio went from being the musical accompaniment of 1950’s teen rebellion to being part of the mainstream mass media that the next wave of radio would rebel against.

FM had been around for a couple decades but was of little consequence. Until the 60’s that is. Music aficionados were drawn to the higher quality sound. The FCC issued a ruling that required stations that had both an AM and a FM outlet to offer different programming on the two. And AM radio had become a commercial wasteland at a time when a new generation of young people were rejecting the commercialism of American society. As a result of all of these factors the number of FM stations in the United States increased from 570 in the mid-50’s to 3,700 by the mid-70’s.

FM was an almost blank canvas and it brought out a new form of radio. Stations like WNEW-FM in New York once again turned the programming over to the DJ and what we heard went by names such as progressive rock or underground music. It was the music by which to join a campus protest, grow your hair or burn everything from a draft card to a bra. And the fact that it enhanced the experience of the most popular recreational drugs of the time didn’t hurt either.

Like early rock ‘n’ roll radio before it, the success of FM attracted the same corporate owners and advertisers as before. And with them came restricted programming, fixed playlists, and narrowly-defined formats. And a complete loss of the vitality that FM had been built with.

In the late 80’s there was one more wave of new programming that brought audiences back to radio. And to the AM dial at that. Talk radio also emerged because of the general dissatisfaction with the prevailing norm of the nation’s mass media, and especially television. There were the so-called ‘shock jocks’ like Howard Stern and Imus who said things you supposedly couldn’t say on TV. There were the far right and seriously loud demagogues like Rush Limbaugh whose outrageous statements attract an audience that probably looks a lot like those who show up at Donald Trump rallies. Even sports developed a controversy courting contingent and most major cities eventually had a sports talk radio station or two where callers expressed outrage over the latest player trade or lack thereof. There were 850 talk radio stations in the mid 90’s compared to 200 a decade earlier.

At the same time, public radio in the form of NPR sprung up as an alternative to the increasing shallowness of other forms of broadcast news. NPR was a tag-on to the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act which was primarily focused on the creation of PBS television. But by the middle of the 70’s about 11 million Americans were listening to NPR news. Criticisms by right-wing politicians and an increased dependence on corporate sponsors have made NPR more risk-averse than it was initially and under the current administration it could well lose federal funding.

Susan J. Douglas (Listening In) comments that “talk radio and NPR led the way in opening up airwaves to a range of voices, some quite unwelcome elsewhere.” David Halberstam (Sports on New York Radio) defines some of those voices as “opinion mongers, political demogogues, holistic health advocates and scam artists.”

So did video kill the radio star? Definitely not. It changed radio, it changed who listened to radio and it changed the programming. But you can make the case that it made radio better. Now what happens with broadband? With streaming? And with smart phones?

Posted in History, Radio | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments