The Barnes & Noble Review
Radio veteran Richard Neer's FM is a journey through the history of rock-'n'-roll radio. As he recounts his own broadcasting career, Neer simultaneously traces the development, heyday, and eventual demise of free-form radio. He chronicles the legendary deejays at pioneering rock stations such as WNEW, KSAN, and WFMU, who brought both politics and exciting, undiscovered music to listeners across the country during the 1960s and '70s.
Neer got his start at a college station on Long Island, then moved up to the small classics station WLIR, where he and his pal Mike Harrison dreamed of working in the big city for the free-form station WNEW. Neer provides a crash course for readers in the basics of free-form radio, a unique format that encouraged deejays to choose the records they played on the air -- a concept that seems strange in the light of contemporary radio and its focus on the hits. But free-form radio was a flourishing, vital format during the late '60s and the '70s -- until the big corporations that owned the stations shut it down. Seeking increased ratings and revenue, management gradually introduced more and more rules in an attempt to tame the deejays, who were accustomed to selecting their own offbeat records for airplay. Neer describes the epic battles fought between hot-tempered deejays and hopelessly mainstream consultants brought in to raise the ratings. WNEW deejay Vin Scelsa, who got his start at the communal, wildly free-spirited college station WFMU, resigned almost weekly over limitations being placed on his music choices.
Along with Scelsa, Neer worked alongside many radio icons at WNEW -- including Scott Muni, Alison Steele, Pete Fornatale, and Dennis Elsas. Neer shares many personal anecdotes about his coworkers, but the strength of his convictions and the quality of his writing prevents FM from becoming a gossipy tell-all. Although wildly different in personal taste, all of the WNEW deejays shared a common passion for the music. Music was an integral part of the vibrant new youth culture that swept the country in the mid- to late '60s, and emerging FM stations like WNEW played a big part in bringing new musicians to the public. WABC was one of the first to heavily promote the Beatles when they first appeared in the States, and WNEW itself played a role in introducing Bruce Springsteen to a wider audience, broadcasting an early concert live from The Bottom Line in Greenwich Village.
The conflicts described in Neer's book -- individuality versus corporate culture, integrity versus ratings -- reflect such central themes in American culture that FM can be seen as an allegory for many media industries. Neer balances this aspect of FM with the personal, unique stories of the deejays, program directors, and musicians, making this the definitive book on rock radio history. (Julie Carr)
Rock music had become my religion. Radio my church. And these DJs my priests, rabbis, and gurus. They would preach from the gospel of Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, the Book of Townshend, the Song of the Byrds, and the Acts of Davies. The New Testament would include Procol Harum, Them, Traffic, Cream, the Jeff Beck Group, Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin. After Sgt. Pepper it was the Exodus of singles and the Revelations of albums. And we listened and listened and listened and learned. WNEW, 102.7, was our local Temple of Solomon and somehow these stations were popping up in every major city simultaneously like a planned invasion from outer space. And with them a new generation of DJs, our generation, speaking to us. Personally. Understanding as only we understood. Inspiring us, motivating us, conjuring up images and stimulating the senses as only radio can do when it is in the hands of the righteous. And then it was over.
In 1979, the Ramones declared the end of the century. To many music insiders, this proclamation rang true: Rock and roll radio or free-form FM that allowed DJs to select music was dead, so there was no sense in dragging out the 20th century when it had already crested. Born after an FCC ruling in 1964, free form was never as "free" as it sounded. In this affably told history of music freaks vs. corporate monsters, Neer reveals that FM was a doomed marriage of commerce and creativity. In fact, FM was molded into a competitor of jingle- and single-heavy top-40 AM radio. Suddenly, there was pressure on musicians to craft quality albums (take the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band), as DJs (like Murray the K) sometimes played entire sides to compensate for the lack of advertising. First a jock at an AM college station, Neer went on to land a program directorship at New York's WNEW-FM. His 30 years there inform the bulk of the narrative, though glimpses into the evolution of other New York and West Coast power stations are offered. Readers will get an inside, but not necessarily enthralling, view of the legendary station owners and managers, jocks and rock stars of the free form era. It's important that this story be told, but Neer's voice doesn't come across compellingly on paper. (Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Neer began his career in professional radio during that brief, shining moment in radio history between the late Sixties and early Seventies that saw the rise of FM and "free form" radio. Much like Michael Keith's collection of oral histories, Voices in the Purple Haze: Underground Radio and the Sixties (Praeger, 1997), this work is not a definitive overview of the birth of FM radio or of free-form radio itself but is rather an entertaining, informative memoir focusing primarily on the author's experiences at WNEW-FM in New York. (Related activity at other New York-area stations and at a few West Coast stations is discussed as well.) Brief accounts of appropriate historical background are included. The countless personal anecdotes and tricks of the trade more than make up for the uneven coverage and the confusing time sequencing of chapters. This book will undoubtedly be of great interest to those seeking to break into big-time radio, particularly alternative stations, as some things never change. For larger public libraries and academic libraries supporting broadcasting programs. Angela Weiler, SUNY at Morrisville Lib. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
A warmhearted memoir-cum-history of rock 'n' roll radio's glory days. Neer, a New York-area broadcast veteran, was fortunate to begin his career just before simultaneous explosions in the national counterculture and in FM radio's commercial potential. (His techie-oriented tangents explain how "frequency modulation" broadcasting with superior sound quality, available for decades, was shunted aside so that companies like RCA could maintain their AM-based monopolies.) "In 1966," he writes, "free-form radio was in its infancy on commercial airwaves." While the payola scandals of the 1950s had hobbled the earliest rock DJs, the low expectations of corporate license owners for their nascent FM subdivisions fueled a brief, ultra-subversive era in which the antics of low-budget stations like the infamous WFMU stoked competition among corporate-owned, Manhattan-based competitors WPLJ and WNEW (Neer's home). Neer depicts with nostalgic relish the glory days of free-form radio (through approximately 1980), which coincided with the prime years for what's now considered "classic rock." Because FM radio support was then essential to "breaking" records, DJs like Scott Muni, Pete Fornatele, Vin Scelsa, and Neer himself enjoyed substantial clout in the industry and palled around with groundbreaking musicians from Bruce Springsteen to Gene Simmons. (The celebrity anecdotes-George Harrison turning his home into a hostel for stranded DJs, Elton John's salacious on-air improvisations-offer some funny moments.) Later, he maintains a cold restraint in detailing the short-sighted, bean-counting programming strategies handed down by broadcasting conglomerates that grew powerful thanks to 1980s deregulation.Companies like Infinity first revoked the DJs' prized creative autonomy, then tinkered endlessly with tightly circumscribed formats, alienating listeners. Ultimately, Neer's generation of pioneering jocks were fired en masse in the 1990s, as WNEW pursued a ridiculous "half-alternative, half-classic" format that sounded its death knell. A good sense of the rock and radio personalities of the era, though Neer's surfeit of detail may turn off all but the truly obsessive.
"Rock music had become my religion. Radio my church. And these DJs my priests, rabbis, and gurus. They would preach from the gospel of Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, the Book of Townshend, the Song of the Byrds, and the Acts of Davies. The New Testament would include Procol Harum, Them, Traffic, Cream, the Jeff Beck Group, Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin. After Sgt. Pepper it was the Exodus of singles and the Revelations of albums. And we listened and listened and listened and learned.
WNEW, 102.7, was our local Temple of Solomon and somehow these stations were popping up in every major city simultaneously like a planned invasion from outer space. And with them a new generation of DJs, our generation, speaking to us. Personally. Understanding as only we understood. Inspiring us, motivating us, conjuring up images and stimulating the senses as only radio can do when it is in the hands of the righteous.
And then it was over."
from the Foreword by Steven Van Zandt