"It was all so honest, before the end of our collective innocence. Top Forty jocks screamed and yelled and sounded mightier than God on millions of transistor radios. But on FM radio it was all spun out for only you. On a golden web by a master weaver driven by fifty thousand magical watts of crystal clear power . . . before the days of trashy, hedonistic dumbspeak and disposable three-minute ditties . . . in the days where rock lived at many addresses in many cities."
As a young man, Richard Neer dreamed of landing a job at WNEW in New York–one of the revolutionary FM stations across the country that were changing the face of radio by rejecting strict formatting and letting disc jockeys play whatever they wanted. He felt that when he got there, he’d have made the big time. Little did he know he’d have shaped rock history as well.
FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio chronicles the birth, growth, and death of free-form rock-and-roll radio through the stories of the movement’s flagship stations. In the late sixties and early seventies–at stations like KSAN in San Francisco, WBCN in Boston, WMMR in Philadelphia, KMET in Los Angeles, WNEW, and others–disc jockeys became the gatekeepers, critics, and gurus of new music. Jocks like Scott Muni, Vin Scelsa, Jonathan Schwartz, and Neer developed loyal followings and had incredible influence on their listeners and on the early careers of artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Genesis, the Cars, and many others.
Full of fascinating firsthand stories, FM documents the commodification of an iconoclastic phenomenon, revealing how counterculture was coopted and consumed by the mainstream. Richard Neer was an eyewitness to, and participant in, this history. FM is the tale of his exhilarating ride.
From the Hardcover edition. ... Read more
Customer Reviews (19)
When Rock Lived
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.
This is a good book if you don't know what free-form, FM radio was about.
Richard Neer describes how free-form began on both coasts around 1967. This was a buissness proposition, and an extreamely liberating one. Rock was blooming, so was the couterculture. The right people and the right money was in the right place at the rihght time. Slow but sure and painful, it all fell apart.
The book is inharently depressing, because it talks about the inevitable decline of freeform, step by demographic consulting step.
An interesting read if you don't know a lot about this long ago phonomanon but are interested.
But this is not a book for people who know the story, or musicheads. Some bands are mentioned, but there are no set lists,and no detail about the more obscure music played. I would have liked to have known what each DJ did--what was a New York free form station like on a rainy afternoon, August, 1969. What songs might have been played. How about Januray 1971, snowing in the middle of the night.
The book has details about time and place, but does not go far enough to PUT YOU THERE.
When music people buy a book like this, one hope is they are hipped to new music as a bi-product of the narrative. That does not happen.
The whole thing is a downer.
BUT: the form lives. There isWFMU in New Jersey, USA. They are on the web. I don't work for them, they are non profit. I have no vested interest plugging them. But they are the only freeform stationleft. Obviously, this is not the 60s, and so the implications are different.
But the DJs have total freedom to play ANYTHING and usually do. If anything, they are freer than the 60s DJs were. They obviously have more music to choose from, and wedging a Pat Boone song into a rock set does not have the social overtones it would have in 1970. If you like this idea, check FMU out.
Hum. Maybe there is a happy ending.
Recommended Reading:FM - The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio - by Richard Neer
I finally got around to this one seven years after the initial publication.
Anyone who was around in the late '60s/early '70s in the New York area and fondly remembers the jump from Top 40 AM (WABC 77) to progressive/album oriented/free form rock pioneered by WNEW-FM (102.7) will want to read this one.Not that it has a happy ending.Or middle one for that fact.
Richard Neer (who now lives on as a sports talk host via an audience call in format on NYC's WFAN - 66) joined WNEW-FM in '71 and was there for the good (great), the bad and the ugly.
Much of what I retain in vinyl and much of what I retain in my head musically has a direct correlation to what Neer, Scott Muni, Roscoe, Jonathan Schwartz, Alison Steele, Dave Herman, Dennis Elsas, Pete Fornatale, Zacherle, Vin Scelsa and the others in the glory days of NEW were playing.
But in hindsight, it was a relatively short life span.Format changes along with a revolving door of corporate and program managers eventually put the whole concept and later the whole station in deep freeze.
Even though Neer interweaves correlating progress (or lack of) at stations in major markets like Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angles, and San Francisco, his focus naturally is on the New York City market.As such, much of the impact (IMO) would be lost on anyone who didn't live through these times in NY.
While not one of those tell-all slam books, there are some interesting stories and some surprising conflicts in personality revealed.The most moving moment revolves around the events at the station the night John Lennon was murdered.
Overall, an important book to revisit for the music and characters and finally the sad realization of something which is nevermore.
Ah, Those Were the Days...
I lived through the era recalled by Mr. Neer in this book. As such, I especially enjoyed his asides regarding Zacherle (a personal favorite), Alison Steele, and Scott Muni. His thoughtful, low-key manner (which these days provides a welcome respite from the styles of most of his all-sports WFAN colleagues) translates well to book form. For a 350-plus page volume, this provided a surprisingly breezy and easy read. That said, I wouldn't recommend this tome to those who didn't live in the NYC area during the 70's, or are too young to recall the players involved here. But for those who lived it, this is an informative and welcome trip back to a time when most FM radio stations were infinitely more enjoyable (for the thoughtful music lover) than the unmitigated garbage that resides on that band today.
Personal and meandering, but informative
The most important thing to know before starting this book is that it is not meant to be a historical document of the free-form radio era.A lot of the book has the feel of a man setting his memories to paper before they fade.Fortunately Neer has more interesting memories than most.
All in all, FM is a clear window into the workings of WNEW in New York during the formative years of rock radio.Of particular interest to listeners during that time, Neer brings you into the restricted access world of radio, devulging the conflicts and hijinks that result on the battlefront between air personality and management.
Although his stories of internal WNEW stife and rock stars in their formative years are facinating, any time the subject strays to other subjects, such as other free-form stations of the era, the narrative loses alot of the viceral energy of his personal experiences.Also, Neer will often follow stories to thier conclusion, jumping decades at a time and then back, leaving one very confused as to when a perticular event is happening.
Despite the flaws, FM is still an interesting read and while it fails to give a comprehensive view of free-form radio, the warm and often humorous radio recolections are well worth the purchace price.
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