Rather drab, matter-of-fact account of the history of rock & roll radio.
Apr 24, 2012
Being a lifelong radio buff I was very excited to learn of the DVD release of the 2008 documentary "Airplay: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio". One of the primary reasons I ordered this disc was the fact that the film had aired on public television. I had visions of a program that would be something akin to the outstanding PBS series "Pioneers of Television". But alas, this one does not quite measure up to those lofty standards. Nevertheless, for those who lived through those halcyon days of rock & roll radio and who long for a time when music on the radio really mattered "Airplay" is a program that is probably still worth a look.
At age 60 I am a little too young to remember the earliest days of rock & roll radio. Actually, as the legendary Memphis DJ and recording artist Rufus Thomas points out in the film the term "rock & roll" is actually a misnomer. What all those teenagers were turning on to in the early and mid 1950's was actually "rhythm & blues" which would eventually morph into what we now call rock & roll. I envy them because it must have been an incredibly exciting time. One of the strengths of "Airplay" is that it presents interviews with a number of the most influential deejays of the period. Among the featured deejays are Jerry Blavat from Philadelphia, Dick Biondi from Chicago, "Cousin Brucie" Morrow from New York City and the legendary Martha Jean "The Queen" Steinberg who at the time was an enormously influential African-American broadcaster at WDIA in Memphis. "Airplay" also features several rare clips of the legendary Alan Freed as well as an extensive interview with his son Lance. In those days disc jockeys really mattered and it seems that every teen had their favorite. Formats were much less resticted and unlike today these jocks had considerable latitude in what music they could play. Deejays took a great deal of pride in breaking hot new singles while some took a great deal of money known as "payola" for putting a record on the air. As I said it was a very exciting time to be a teen. Many white parents strongly objected to what they considered to be "The Devil's Music" but with the introduction of transistor radios in the mid 1950's they could exert precious little control over their offspring. Watching "Airplay" really does give you a feel for what it must have been like all those years ago.
For a variety of reasons discussed in the film rock and roll radio would evolve into "Top 40" radio in the early 1960's. Most veteran deejays hated the change because one of the major drawbacks of the Top 40 format was that they now had considerably less latitude in selecting the songs they could play. Personally I enjoyed Top 40 radio on the AM dial during my teenage years in the 1960's primarily because most of the disc jockeys were still personalities while the vast majority of radio stations were locally owned and operated. But alas, the Top 40 format would become much too predictable as time wore on and its popularity began to wane. In the early 1970's a new phenomenon known as AOR (album-oriented rock) began to emerge on the FM dial. You can hear all about it in "Airplay" from some of the leading jocks of the period.
So here we are in the year 2012 and I think most will agree that music radio is just a shell of its former self. The influence of highly paid consultants and the dominance of radio by mass media conglomorates like Clear Channel and Entercom have definitely taken their toll. "Airplay" examines the reasons why all of this has taken place and speculates whether satellite radio might offer any hope for the future. As I indicated earlier "Airplay: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio" did not quite live up to my expectations. Overall, I found the presentation to be rather blase. This is not a terrible film but frankly it is not something I would go out of my way to see again. It could have been much better. For me it is "one and done" and as such I can only offer a lukewarm recommendation on this one.
What did you think of this review?
Fun to Read
What's your opinion on Airplay: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio?