Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation

Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation

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by Marc Fisher

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A sweeping, anecdotal account of the great sounds and voices of radio–and how it became a bonding agent for a generation of American youth

When television became the next big thing in broadcast entertainment, everyone figured video would kill the radio star–and radio, period. But radio came roaring back with a whole new concept. The war was over,


A sweeping, anecdotal account of the great sounds and voices of radio–and how it became a bonding agent for a generation of American youth

When television became the next big thing in broadcast entertainment, everyone figured video would kill the radio star–and radio, period. But radio came roaring back with a whole new concept. The war was over, the baby boom was on, the country was in clover, and a bold new beat was giving the syrupy songs of yesteryear a run for their money. Add transistors, 45 rpm records, and a young man named Elvis to the mix, and the result was the perfect storm that rocked, rolled, and reinvented radio.

Visionary entrepreneurs like Todd Storz pioneered the Top 40 concept, which united a generation. But it took trendsetting “disc jockeys” like Alan Freed, Murray the K, Wolfman Jack, Cousin Brucie, and their fast-talking, too-cool-for-school counterparts across the land to turn time, temperature, and the same irresistible hit tunes played again and again into the ubiquitous sound track of the fifties and sixties. The Top 40 sound broke through racial barriers, galvanized coming-of-age kids (and scandalized their perplexed parents), and provided the insistent, inescapable backbeat for times that were a-changin’.

Along with rock-and-roll music came the attitude that would literally change the “voice” of radio forever, via the likes of raconteur Jean Shepherd, who captivated his loyal following of “Night People”; the inimitable Bob Fass, whose groundbreaking Radio Unnameable inaugurated the anything-goes free-form style that would come to define the alternative frontier of FM; and a small-time Top 40 deejay who would ultimately find national fame as a political talk-show host named Rush Limbaugh.

From Hunter Hancock, who pushed beyond the limits of 1950s racial segregation with rhythm and blues and hepcat patter, to Howard Stern, who blew through all the limits with a blue streak of outrageous on-air antics; from the heyday of summer songs that united carefree listeners to the latter days of political talk that divides contentious callers; from the haze of classic rock to the latest craze in hip-hop, Something in the Air chronicles the extraordinary evolution of the unique and timeless medium that captured our hearts and minds, shook up our souls, tuned in–and turned on–our consciousness, and went from being written off to rewriting the rules of pop culture.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Dave Marsh
Fisher’s book is at its best when he lets himself speak about passions that are almost but not quite private: the importance of his first transistor radio; the way that radio and its successors blew musical winds of change into his life; the near magical effect of listening to someone who is committed not to playing good music or making political points but simply making good radio, whatever form it may take. In such moments, readers will find that they and Fisher have much to share - not as a generation, but simply as lovers of a medium that, however scorned and abused, retains its fascination.
— The New York Times
Douglas Brinkley
What makes Something in the Air so charming is Fisher's upbeat belief in the redeeming power of radio. He is, essentially, anti-TV. You get the feeling Fisher would like to pull out a Magnum and blast away at every TV screen he encounters, as Elvis Presley once did. When Fisher was 12 years old, he tells us, he used to sleep with his cream-colored plastic box transistor radio under his pillow. Metaphorically speaking, he's never stopped.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
There's not a bit of dead air in this well-written and researched history of radio and its pivotal role in the emergence of American youth culture. Washington Post columnist Fisher (After the Wall: Germany, the Germans and the Burdens of History) traces the evolution of radio from the 1950s, when the spread and popularity of television made it almost extinct, to its rise to become "the sound track of American life" and "the mere act of listening made you feel like a part of a secret society." Built around narratives compiled from nearly 100 interviews, Fisher knits together a compelling story detailing how radio helped penetrate race barriers, created a "shared pop culture" and was the "birthing room of the counterculture." Fisher shows readers how the personalities of radio shaped our popular culture, from visionaries like marketing genius Todd Storz to radio artists Cousin Brucie of New York and Jean Shepherd, who was a precursor to Garrison Keillor and Ira Glass. He follows radio's decline from a medium driven by freedom and passion to one comprising wastelands of unmanned stations, prefab formats and narrow niche markets. Fisher does more than take a nostalgic look backward at what we've lost. (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Washington Postjournalist Fisher (After the Wall) provides a lively account of U.S. radio during the last 50 years, contending that it created a community among disjointed and lonely Americans and changed the way they lived and thought. He begins with the accomplishments of Top 40 radio creator Todd Storz and continues with the advent of R&B record programming, African American DJs, New York's "Cousin Brucie" Morrow, and more. Fisher devotes his strongest chapters to late night/early morning free-form radio innovators before describing the importance of FM radio's Tom Donahue to the rise of psychedelia. He shows the evolution of radio from singles-obsessed pop to album-oriented rock and outlines the rise of right-wing, misogynist shock-radio personalities like Howard Stern. In the last section, Fisher bemoans deregulation, consolidation, and the corporate stranglehold of Clear Channel but has hope in such new trends as the Internet and low-power FM radio. Though never incorporating the social history he promises, Fisher has conducted interviews with dozens of former DJs and infuses a genuine enthusiasm into this animated history. A much-needed book about radio that should appeal to general readers; recommended for performing arts and telecommunications collections.
—Dave Szatmary
Kirkus Reviews
The golden age of radio as told by grizzled deejays, canny programmers and one passionate listener. Over the past decade-plus, the advent of the iPod, podcasts and satellite radio has marginalized AM radio to the point that few bother with amplitude modulation unless they're in their car and need some traffic and weather on "the 8s." Unless listeners can choose exactly what it is they're listening to, they simply won't. Obviously, that wasn't always the case; beginning in the early 1950s and climaxing sometime in the late '80s, AM radio spread music and messages across the airwaves far more effectively than pre-cable network television. All these advancements and shifts within (and without) the medium beg the simple question, Was radio better then or now? At the very least, according to Fisher, in the beginning, pop radio was far more personal, colorful and affecting. A veteran Washington Post politics/culture columnist, Fisher presents a version of radio's cultural development via a series of mini-biographies of AM heavyweights, like iconoclastic humorist and jazz lover Jean Shepard, maverick programmer Todd Storz, the effervescent Bruce "Cousin Brucie" Morrow and oh-so-macho mouthpiece Tom Leykis, among others. The FM side of the dial is touched on only briefly, most memorably in the informative discussion about the roots of National Public Radio. As this book is at heart a celebration, Fisher focuses primarily on the positive, only briefly recounting such black marks as the oft-reported Alan Freed payola scandal and Steve Dahl's infamous 1977 "Disco Demolition Night" in Chicago. Fisher (After the Wall, 1995) elicits engaging, often hilarious stories from his interview subjects,particularly the tale of Cousin Brucie's 1965 encounter with the Beatles. Some might question the author's choice of featured personalities-a chapter about Dick Biondi, for example, would have been welcome-but this is a Fisher-eye view of radio, and that's more than acceptable. An authoritative, enthusiastic, eminently readable slice of pop-culture history honoring a medium that sadly seems close to extinction.

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Random House Publishing Group
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Random House
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Meet the Author

Marc Fisher, whose column appears in The Washington Post three times each week, reports and writes about local, national, and personal issues. His blog, “Raw Fisher,” and his online chat program, “Potomac Confidential,” appear on He also writes “The Listener,” a radio column in the Post’s Sunday Arts section. Fisher is author of After the Wall: Germany, the Germans and the Burdens of History. He has won numerous journalism awards from the Associated Press, the Overseas Press Club, the Society of Professional Journalists, and many other organizations. Fisher lives in Washington with his wife and their two children.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Something In The Air is the best book I've read all year. Its compelling stories and elegant narrative blend to form a book everyone should read. Fisher takes the audience from the Golden Age of radio to today, telling stories of deejays like Cousin Brucie and all-night storytellers like Jean Shepherd. Written with particular excellence is the story of the book Shepherd and listeners praised despite the fact that it did not actually exist.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In my hometown of Chicago, the big Top 40 DJ was Larry Lujack and every kid imitated him. Every city had somebody like that on the radio, and this book is the first one that explains what that attraction was all about and why our popular culture has lost that sense of everyone being together. Great characters from all around the country in this book, including Jean Shepherd, Bob Fass, Tom Donahue and more. But most importantly, this is a book that explains what happens to old media when a new technology takes over.