Chris Fox Gilson and Carolyn Travis, Directors. Airplay: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio.
In my Music Industry classes at Indiana University we have a discussion segment on the issue of payola. Just a few years ago, at the height of the Spitzer investigations, it was a most controversial topic and we often had heated discussions in class about closed access to the airwaves and misleading public opinion. These discussions have calmed down quite a bit. Actually, this semester I ended up with a monologue as the students were mostly looking at me with an expression of, "why should we care about this issue, nobody is listening to radio anyway?" on their faces. But then I brought in the movie American Hot Wax, which is based on the Alan Freed story and his staging of the controversial rock 'n roll concerts. Of course, it features a very young and funny Fran Drescher, but beyond the entertainment value it was amazing to watch how the students became increasingly fascinated with the story, the music, and Alan Freed's character. In fact, we had to schedule extra time to finish the whole movie as we ran out of time during the initial class session. The lessons from Alan Freed and the payola scandals now transferred easily to the current influence of media on public taste. During the process I realized that rock radio has now become the story of a past generation that needs to be told. 2009 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Buddy Holly's tragic death in a plane crash and the rise of rock 'n roll. What perfect timing for a documentary on the rise and fall of rock radio.
Carolyn Travis and Chris Fox Gilson from Travisty Productions are the producers of Airplay. Some of their previous work includes the 2004 PBS special Rock Radio Revolution, which chronicles the explosion of AM radio in the 50s and 60s, and Wildwood Days, a documentary on the beach resort of Wildwood, New Jersey, America's "birthplace of rock 'n roll." The producers' previous research on the early period of rock 'n roll feeds nicely into this documentary and manifests itself well during the very detailed presentation of the early days of rock radio. The first chapter, entitled "The Devil's Deejays," paints the breeding ground of rock 'n roll as a society with strong racial tensions and a young generation ready to claim the exciting rhythm and blues music coming out of African-American traditions as their own music, their weapon in a revolution against segregation and the strict status quo. In increasing numbers, youngsters of all colors and backgrounds discovered WDIA's black DJs Nat D. Williams and Rufus Thomas and they bought race records, not available in the regular record bins. In 1954, Sun Records owner Sam Phillips brought Nashville DJ Dewey Phillips a new record entitled That's Alright Mama by a white singer from Memphis. Dewey put the record on and the phones lit up. He ended up playing the song seven times that night and as they say, "the rest is history." The christening of this black music now adopted by white DJs and audiences as rock 'n roll came from Cleveland's WINS DJ Alan Freed, the Moondog. He is credited as a tireless promoter of rock 'n roll and also for putting on the first rock 'n roll concerts. The concerts had unprecedented popularity even though several were eventually shut down by the establishment. The powerful music grabbed the emotions of their listeners and as a result they identified closely with the people who played it for them, the DJs. An extreme example of this deep attachment was WIBC's Bruce Morrow, nicknamed Cousin Brucie. His relationship to his listeners was so intimate that he managed to coax runaway children back to their homes over the air with the help of the far-reaching AM signal. The person who managed to clean up the rift between the establishment and the revolution was Dick Clark with his American Bandstand. Even though he showcased the "Devil's Music," the presentation was clean and polished to please the mainstream audience. Through DJ personalities Art Laboe and the Wolfman, the rock 'n roll craze caught on at the West Coast and Mexico. Those Jocks now controlled the making and breaking of hits and happily enjoyed the money, publishing credits, and goods of the widest variety supplied by record promoters ready to supply anything needed to put their products on the air. Those first five tumultuous years came to a crashing halt in 1959 with the payola scandals. The two biggest names in rock 'n roll Promotions, Dick Clark and Alan Freed were indicted for taking bribes to play music. At forty-five minutes into the documentary, the viewers witness Dick Clark's declaration under oath that he had never accepted any payola. Alan Freed was not willing to compromise and pleaded guilty to having accepted bribes. After conviction, the man who was one of the hottest personalities in popular American culture just a few months earlier now had a difficult time even finding a job and died in obscurity just a few years later. The history lesson learned here is the artificial nature of popularity in the music industry, mostly based on commercial value and media image.
The new laws marked the end of the powerful DJ and the beginning of Top 40 radio. Program Directors now selected the music, and frequent repetition of a few hits determined by playlists became the new format. Next enters the British Revolution and the introduction of the FM band. AM Radio became increasingly commercialized and was dominated by the Top 40 preprogrammed format. There was no established model for FM radio and once again the disc jockeys became the promoters of their favorite underground music. Tom Donahue at KMPX became the Godfather of FM radio by playing new music neglected by Top 40 radio, such as the Doors, the Grateful Dead, and Jimi Hendrix. He captivated the listener with an aura of discovery. FM radio became the voice of the war protesters, the angry, the doubters, the hippies, the peacemakers, and the anti-establishment. Pressure was applied by the Nixon administration and the FCC was asked to step back in to apply tighter regulations. The FM band became assimilated by the AM formats and once again radio became a commercial venture to promote Top 40 hits and the new dance music for non-dancers, disco. Considering the time limitations of classroom teaching periods, this might also be a good time to end the documentary and review the cause and effect cycles so well established by the filmmakers as predictors for the following twenty years of history. At this point, students will also be able to draw from their own anecdotes and recollections.
The remaining fifteen minutes of the documentary mostly chronicle the fall of rock radio. The producers only provide glimpses of two more bright moments in broadcasting history with the rise of hip-hop as an antidote to MTV, which took over the Top 40 format, and new variety and personality oriented shows on satellite radio, launched in 2001. The rise of hip-hop and related new music genres fell victim to conglomeration and the mainstreaming of Clear Channel stations. Sirius satellite radio has not managed to become commercially viable even after merging with its competitor XM in July of 2008. According to a recent report in Rolling Stone, satellite radio reported the first-ever drop in subscribers during the first quarter of 2009 attributed to an effort to streamline programming after the merger but most likely an effect of a plunging economy.
At this point, the documentary ends rather abruptly with a few lighthearted remarks by the DJ personalities about being open to new possibilities. What about internet radio, podcasting, new frequencies for low power radio, the demise of Clear Channel, HD Radio, and many other new opportunities in the world of broadcasting? There is no mention of these new technological developments in the documentary, which leads to the assumption that the authors truly believe in the fall, and possibly the death, of rock radio.
Currently, nearly anyone interested has the tools to create a podcast and make it available to the whole world on the internet. In fact, it is not even necessary to work for a radio station with the official title of DJ to broadcast music. I have a friend in Philadelphia who works in a hospital during the day and produces a series entitled Jazz and Poetry as a Live365 station, and there are many similar examples that could be cited. From an educator's perspective, what conclusions can we draw from this documentary, and what discussions might arise in the classroom after screening the film?
1) Radio's history runs parallel to the rock 'n roll revolution as a mirror of revolution and assimilation from rhythm & blues to the British Invasion to psychedelic to progressive rock to disco to punk and hip-hop and the large diversity of fusion that we see today.
2) Music is a powerful emotional as well as social expression. Teens and "tweens" will always be especially deeply emotionally involved in their music; and their music will be a reflection of social trends. Radio, or whichever form of broadcasting it might be in the future, will always function as a connector in this triangle.
3) We have reached another intersection of revolution and assimilation with the revolution in progress on the internet. At the moment we have access to any music out there, we can choose freely what we want to listen to, what we want to support, and what we would like to discover. Unfortunately, the assimilation efforts are already in progress in the form of lobbying against net neutrality by large telecom companies, access restrictions by large record labels, royalty disputes, etc. Are we capable of learning from history this time and avoiding the assimilation of this new medium into the world of commerce as previously witnessed with radio and television?
4) The powerful role of the DJ was unique throughout rock history and limited to a few dedicated and lucky people. Access to making music but also to supporting music and becoming involved in the industry has opened up and be come a more democratic process, again thanks to the internet and new technological developments. How can we take advantage of these new opportunities and become creative entrepreneurs?
5) Today's radio stations are struggling, facing competition from multiple new media who offer a variety of listening experiences. Is radio worth saving or are we ready to leave it behind? If it is worth saving, what would be some strategies to help radio rise as an important catalyst between music and the listener again?
Overall, this documentary is an excellent tool for studying the history of the rock industry and getting to know some of the early personalities and social circumstances facilitating this revolution. I especially enjoyed the reenactments of the outgoing radio mannerisms of some of the early jocks. As with many historical accounts, more emphasis is on the early history. Recent developments are rather condensed with a somewhat abrupt ending that provides very little outlook on current opportunities and the future. Nevertheless, the film sets the stage well for inspiring discussion and productive speculation. I will give it a try next semester.
MONIKA HERZIG teaches classes on the Music Industry for the Arts Administration program at Indiana University. As a jazz pianist and Owl Studios recording artist, she has performed at many prestigious jazz clubs and festivals. Groups under her leadership have toured Germany, opened for acts such as Tower of Power, Sting, the Dixie Dregs, Yes, and more. As co-founder of Jazz from Bloomington, a jazz society fostering appreciation and education about jazz, she has booked and presented over forty national jazz concerts and led educational programs for thousands of school children. Her holiday collection Peace on Earth will be released Christmas 2009. More information is available at www.monikaherzig.com and at her blog at http://blog.owlstudios.com/ blog/monika-herzig.
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|Article Type:||Movie review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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