FM: No Static At All
Other than its somewhat misleading title (it’s really about the rise and fall of FM radio in and around New York), this is an enjoyable book that takes one back to the time of the hippie, free love and casual drug use in the workplace. To paraphrase Joe Jackson, this is “a book about radio thinly disguised as a memoir.” The author describes his tenure at WNEW, one of the FM powerhouses in the New York area by saying, “At various times in the last decades of the past millennium, the glamour profession might have been professional athlete, politician, actor, rock star, TV talk show host. But I’m convinced that at the beginning of the 1970s, there was no greater glory than being a disc jockey at WNEW-FM”.
The early ‘70s were, according to Mr. Neer, a time when DJs on FM radio were allowed to play pretty much whatever they liked, because FM was new and hadn’t yet turned into the huge cash machine it is today. That doesn’t mean that record promotion men weren’t trying. An account of the non-druggie Mr. Neer being offered a huge bag of marijuana to play a song is one of the funniest things in the book.
The “anything goes” attitude held by the DJs led to a variety of music being heard on stations in the early ‘70s that is unheard of today; what with 20-song playlists, marketing pushes from huge recording conglomerates on a small cadre of “artists”, and music produced by machines instead of instruments of wood and steel. The book chronicles a time when the best music being produced in the many styles labeled “rock & roll” was also, somewhat mysteriously to the listeners of today, the most popular. With the popularity of the music came the popularity of the men and women playing the music on FM radio, who came to become almost as famous in their listening area as the artists whose records they played.
The book chronicles Mr. Neer’s journey from college radio, (when he became a DJ because no one else would show up), through tiny stations (with his best friend always in tow), his eventual landing at the powerhouse WNEW in New York City and the wacky people and goings on at each stop along the way.
And what a trip it was! Among the characters you’ll meet along the way are:
Bill “Rosko” Mercer.
a DJ with the heart of a poet who would begin his show with “a set piece, a ‘mind excursion’ and ‘reality, the hippest of all trips’ over the bass line of some cool jazz . . . He ended every night with the words ‘I sure do love you’ . . . (with) a mild barely perceptible Southern lilt, but his sound was pure honey poured from a jar…”
DJs who invite their friends to hang around in the studio and smoke dope during live broadcasts.
Groupies who love DJs as much as they love the rock stars.
Station managers who hang out with biggest rock stars of the time (Roger Daltrey, Eric Clapton).
In the “rock star misbehavior” category, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and Patti Smith who show up at WNEW in various states of inebriation and proceed to use many of the seven deadly words on live radio.
John Belushi, who does an afternoon show with one of the scions of a famous northeastern family and uses many of the same words.
Dave Herman, a colleague of the author’s who is a major character in the telling of the graciousness and kindness of the late George Harrison.
Mel Karmazin, who ran WNEW and is now the head of Infinity broadcasting, the largest radio syndicate in the USA.
And many more people who, unless you were really into New York FM in the early ‘70s, you’ve never heard of but are just as interesting.
The book also offers practical advice, although it’s not touted as such by the author, on how to deal with many everyday situations, such as:
How to fire someone: Scott Muni, the author’s boss for a while at WNEW-FM had these timeless words for a DJ who just wasn’t getting it done. “You’d better get used to getting fired because as long as you can’t keep away from those drugs you’re using, you’re going to get fired over and over. You’re gonna be fired so many times the word will be emblazoned on your forehead . . . Now get your ass out of here before I throw you through that wooden door or out that window and they have to scrape you off 45th Street”.
How to relate to rock stars: One of the author’s colleagues was interviewing John Lennon (the story of how this came about, as related in the book, is quite interesting) live on the radio and said “You can’t believe how exciting this is for me”. Lennon’s reply was “Yes, I can. It’s like when I met Chuck Berry on the Mike Douglas Show.”
If you long for a time, according to Steven Van Zandt (late of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street band and currently starring on HBO’s The Sopranos) in his engrossing foreword to the book, “(before) anybody 21 years or younger inherited a wasteland of corporate conservatism tightly controlling lifeless depersonalized deregionalized homogenized DJs spewing out depersonalized deregionalized homogenized playlists or adolescent talk reflecting the toxic digital apolitical robotic culture they think we’ve become”, then take a trip back in time with Mr. Neer. He’s a great tour guide and will have you searching the dial (if you can find a radio with a dial anymore) or the Internet for that special station playing “something for everyone.”