Monday, February 12, 2007

The Spirit of Radio

WNEW, broadcasting from New York City at 102.7 on the FM dial, was in my life starting in 1979, the year I turned 15, a ripe age for first love, and for a couple of years after that.

Anglo-American rock music was important to me when I was a teenager; many of you can say the same. Lonely and awkward, parents don’t understand me, sexual longing, wish to be cool; verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, fade out. There are a dozen or so rock artists I could semi-plausibly name as my first love. You know them as well or better than I do. Instead, I would like to write about the radio station through which I heard them.

Of the thousands of late, mostly unlamented AOR stations, my WNEW had two big things to recommend it: the time and the place. The late 70s were a propitious time for FM radio, a time of thrilling disorder, when commerce and creativity seemed to be allies, not opponents. A land rush was on, an early rehearsal for the dot-com boom of the 90s. And New York was a propitious place, as a capital of the record industry as well as of the counterculture.

So at WNEW you had guys like Scott Muni, a seasoned pro from Top 40 AM radio, coming together with people like Vin Scelsa and Pete Fornatale, who were products of the dynamic late-60s college radio scene. To the young rock-n-roll legions scattered across the tri-state area, WNEW’s disc jockeys were gurus. Not entertainers—this is an important point to make since the advent of shock jocks. WNEW’s DJs were never “outrageous,” they were rarely even funny. The secret of their allure was simple hospitality, plus a gentle didacticism. While not neglecting to spin the familiar favorites, they also considered it their mission to turn listeners on to new or neglected music. While respecting the audience’s tastes, they sought to inform and broaden those tastes. This generation of DJs were the original mix-tape obsessives; they paid close attention to the selection and sequence of tracks, testing the power of their medium to create a mood or explore a theme. They were collage artists, assembling musical bits and pieces into something new and sometimes surprising. Confident of themselves and trusting of their audience, they kept the focus on the music they were playing.

In Googling around for this article, I came across an online bio of Pete Townshend, which I commend to you if you’re interested in the subject; it’s a serious piece of work. An important primary source for the biographer was a 1978 interview Townshend did with Scott Muni on WNEW. I don’t believe it could happen today, for a commercial radio station to do an artist interview that will stand up as a scholarly resource in years to come. The DJs were journalists at WNEW; they educated us and supplied context about the music they were playing. They made room for kids to be geeks, not just trend followers.

What was the music they were playing? You already have a general idea: they played many of the white artists currently enshrined up in Cleveland, and they had most of the same blind spots and selection biases that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has. I don’t mean to make our tastes, WNEW’s or mine, out to be better than they were. I didn’t hear much punk music on WNEW; even today I’m still filling in those gaps. I did hear a fair amount of prog rock, though, a subgenre that is not much represented up on Lake Erie: bands like Yes, Rush, and Jethro Tull were big on the station. Prog pomposity was a less grievous sin than punk rebellion was. Also, apart from the arena rock dinosaurs I remember a category of mostly English artists, post-hippies but not-quite-punks: Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Squeeze, Rockpile, the Pretenders. They were smart and incisive, yet life-sized, and they got airplay on ‘NEW, and I like to think they were valuable to me, as I listened on the clock radio in my bedroom, and did the collage-artist work of cobbling together a public persona from bits and pieces.

The thing that cemented my bond to the station was its response to a senseless crime. A great many Metro New Yorkers vividly recall getting the news of John Lennon’s murder, minutes after it happened, from Vin Scelsa on WNEW. John and Yoko were familiar faces in the city and been particular friends of the station (John was tight with Scott Muni). The grief-stricken staff went to all-Beatles-and-Lennon programming for the next several days, sharing music and reminiscences and unfolding news. The culmination was a live broadcast of the Lennon memorial vigil held in Central Park the following Sunday.

I don’t remember the moment I got the news of the shooting, but I have a strong memory of sitting on the floor of my bedroom and listening to the Central Park broadcast. The focal point of the ceremony was a long moment of silence, ten minutes long. I kept silent too; I remember my mother coming into my room wanting to ask me something, and I turned my head and gave her a look, and she left me alone. She understood. Listening to a radio broadcast of near-total silence might seem odd; for that matter, my feeling grief for the death of a rock star I’d never met might seem odd. But I was 16, and a Beatles fan, and the circumstances were especially cruel at a moment when Lennon’s career and life seemed to be on an upswing. And the broadcast was haunting and affecting, like a needle stuck in a run-out groove. I felt present with the friends and family, with the thousands of mourners in Central Park and others keeping vigil around the world. It’s the most memorable funeral I’ve attended, and WNEW was uniquely situated to make my participation possible. Whether one reveres the Beatles or not is somewhat beside the point. It was a rare milestone in broadcasting history, and a remarkable coalescence of a virtual human community.

And some say Lennon’s death marked the apex of WNEW’s distinctiveness and influence. It was downhill from there. MTV arrived on the scene, and strict demographic formats encroached more and more. FM radio was being fenced in. It was just as well that I began to listen less avidly. My social life picked up; I found my flesh-and-blood first love. The next fall I left for college 500 miles away.

First love is na├»ve by definition, and should not have to be explained or apologized for. WNEW cared about us, and we cared about it. The station stayed true to its mission: anchoring us in the familiar, but reaching out and restlessly searching for the new. WNEW formed my tastes, and even influenced my way of enlarging my tastes. I still have a proclivity for seeking gurus or guides to new stuff; newsreaders and weblogs are online updates of the hip-yet-reassuring DJ, helping separate the wheat from the chaff. Maybe there’s a latent desire for authority in that habit. And yet, through WNEW I glimpsed the potential for electronic media to forge something like a community, out of people dispersed in space and maybe even in time, but united by shared interests.

My teenage daughter is an iPod listener. She has no use whatsoever for commercial broadcast radio. She would find it baffling that I have the slightest affection for a radio station; she would sooner have sentimental feelings about our neighborhood Target store. As terrestrial radio struggles to survive, it is designing formats that emulate iPod shuffle mode. The very existence of a human being in a studio, carefully shaping a music-listening experience, may be obsolete and endangered. From a certain point of view, freeform radio was an evolutionary glitch, a cultural and technological anomaly, a transitory eddy in the mighty stream of history.

Aren’t we all? Certainly, my brief encounter with WNEW was a lucky accident of geography, timing, and “term limitation.” But it worked. WNEW enjoyed a heyday as a great radio station, it and I shared a special time together, and it never let me down.

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