Once upon a time, radio was pretty much like the TV show The Voice. We only knew what we heard coming through the speaker on our radio.
Those pilots of the airwaves were magical.
We may not have had a clue as to what they looked like, but we created a persona in our minds as if we did. It was never even close to the real person, if we ever happened to meet them.
As a young lad, most of my radio listening occurred at night, after the sun had gone down and when AM radio signals enjoyed the benefit of the skywave effect. The reasons for this were simple. First, during the day I was in school and when school got out, I was outdoors playing sandlot sports. Second, at night the only TV set in the household was controlled by either my parents or older siblings. But the transistor radio was completely in my control. I’d listen to radio stations from all over North America. One of those stations would be the most listened to AM radio station of its day, WABC out of New York City.
Who’s the Black Guy?
I got my best school friend hooked on radio and each day at school we’d compare notes of who we listened to the night before and how far away the stations we picked up were and where on the dial they were located.
Music Radio 77 – WABC out of New York City threw a pretty consistent signal over Western Massachusetts at night and so it got a lot of my after dark listening time. My friend listened to WABC a lot as well, so you can imagine our surprise the first time we saw a picture of the WABC All Americans (that’s what they called their air personalities back in the 70s). We looked at one another and said simultaneously, “Who’s the Black Guy?”
That personality was Chuck Leonard. His cool factor just went up in our eyes. Chuck Leonard was not only heard over WABC late at night but on one of our local ABC network affiliated radio stations doing the feature show “Sneak Preview.” Chuck was famous for one-liners like “The best that ever did it and got away with it.” Yes we heard a lot of Chuck Leonard and loved everything he did. But in our minds, we had never thought of him as being black. And once we found out, we didn’t care.
Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry
In 1958, two hit recording artists were having a backstage fight over who would close the show that night, Lewis or Berry. The decision would be made by the show’s host and producer. He chose Berry. Lewis would end his act with Great Balls of Fire and then torch his piano.
The man who enraged Lewis was the radio personality who is credited with coining the term “Rock and Roll,” Alan Freed.
While many remember Freed for his involvement in accepting payola for playing records on his radio show, Freed was instrumental in integrating Top 40 radio with black artists.
Contemporary music on the “kid’s stations” was integrated with the birth of this type of radio. Everything that wasn’t your parent’s music was embraced. It was the silent rebellion for many of us.
My favorite artists were The Four Tops, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Spinners, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Al Green, Martha Reeves, Gladys Knight, Michael Jackson among many others. Berry Gordy’s Motown Records out of Detroit would craft the sound that quickly integrated America’s contemporary radio stations.
I remember thinking; I should have been born black.
But it was Alan Freed that would be the first to break down the color barrier and integrate the music he played over the radio. It’s almost hard to believe that people in his day considered Freed a threat to society because he was playing “race music.”
You can read a really interesting history about Alan Freed and this period in his life at my professor friend Jay Douglas’ “Out of My Mind” blog.
Radio Formats Begin to Silo
As music radio began moving from AM to FM, the Top 40 – or the best of the newest songs type of format – began to silo into their own formats. Depending on who’s counting, there are at least 20 different music radio formats today. It’s hard to find any radio station nowadays that plays the wide variety of artists, styles and music that one could hear over a single radio station back in the 70s, as this 1970 Top 100 Songs from WABC demonstrates.
In 2001, Robert Putnam wrote a book called Bowling Alone. His thesis was that our American society was breaking down as we became more disconnected from our families, our neighbors, our communities and from the republic itself. While once upon a time bowling leagues had thousands of members, today we are more likely to bowl alone.
The great Yogi Berra captured this societal breakdown this way, “If you don’t go to somebody’s funeral, they won’t come to yours.”
More recently, Sebastian Junger made an interesting observation about PTSD. What he wrote about and famously talks about in his TED Talk is that soldiers don’t experience PTSD from being at war, but from coming back home to America where today’s society is such a disconnect from the close tribal life of a soldier’s military unit. Where they eat together, sleep together, care for one another and protect each other’s life. When they come home from today’s modern warfront, what they find is an alienating and bitterly divided modern society. Maybe a better term for what our soldiers feel should be called “post deployment alienation disorder” says Junger.
The question becomes not can we save our vets, but can we save ourselves?
For radio’s future, the question might not be all that different.