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FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Richard Neer

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 … see full wiki

Author: Richard Neer
Genre: Entertainment
Publisher: Villard
1 review about FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio

When Rock Lived

  • Mar 18, 2010
If you grew up like I did in the 1970s greater New York metro area, you will want to read Richard Neer's memoir of life at WNEW-FM during its hard-rock heyday just for the blasts of nostalgic recognition. Radio handles like "Rosko", "Scottso", and "The Nightbird" become vivid personalities, and you are reconnected to a time when people anxiously awaited the latest Moody Blues LP. But even without such attachments going in, you will find "FM" a pretty absorbing read on many levels.

First, there's the gossipy behind-the-scenes aspect, of discovering who didn't get along with whom among a group of high-profile radio disc jockeys to whom the big shots of the day, like Led Zeppelin and Elton John, came a-calling. They called WNEW the place "where rock lives" for a reason.

Then there's the aspect of WNEW-FM's place as an oasis of free-form radio while the medium was changing all around them, a period that ran roughly from just before Neer's arrival as a weekend jock in 1971 to the murder of John Lennon in 1980. The money still came in for a while after that, but as Neer writes, the dream was over.

Finally, there's the fact Neer is a sensible, candid observer of all around him, who can describe lovingly and at some length everything from his first broadcasting experience on college radio to his initial trepidation when cornered by Jonathan Schwartz, a velvet-throated rock-jock mainstay at the time. With a voice like that, Neer thought, Schwartz had to be gay.

"I would learn later that my fears were completely unfounded, and that Jonno went through women like [fellow WNEW legend Scott] Muni went through scotch."

I suspect Neer and Schwartz aren't on speaking terms today, not for that so much as a hilarious anecdote he shares about Schwartz, two willing bedmates, and Schwartz's idea of mood music, his own pre-recorded voice on the radio. But Neer's loss of a Christmas card is our gain.

It's like that the whole way through, Neer explaining the unsavory as well as the heroic aspects of WNEW's rise to fame. Sex and drugs, yes, though more the former than the latter, unless ego counts as a drug. That the jocks had in spades. When Alison Steele a.k.a. "The Nightbird", sensed a new female jock WNEW had hired was a threat to her domain, she got the woman fired. Schwartz eschewed the disk jockey term for one he coined himself: "Jocque du disques". For a lot of jocks, the term "free-form" meant playing whatever they wanted to, and sneering anytime the word "Arbitron" came up.

They're a great bunch all the same. Neer makes clear his overall admiration for their varying personalities and what they did. It's hard not to envy Neer his "Almost-Famous" style proximity to the entire gang and the world they represented, a world that arose greenfield-like in the late 1960s from the underused hinterlands of the FM dial just as rock music became polytonal, expansive and willfully reckless. Neer even fills in the details of the wider rock/FM scene without losing his focus on WNEW.

He takes sidetrips to California, where free-form programming was taken even more seriously and crashed even more spectacularly than in New York. The last 100 pages deal with WNEW after free-form's heyday ended, and are far less vital reading than the 1971-81 section, as new wave and grunge began pushing hard rock into the oldies circuit.

Draggy or not, Neer finds a way to bring it all together, not in such a way as to draw in the uninitiated (his prose is solid but never immersive) but to reward the curious. Radio lovers will enjoy this deep dive into a world, still a part of many living memories, that feels a million miles away.

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