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Radio’s Top 40 Democracy: A Q&A with Author Eric Weisbard

There are a number of radio and music scholars who write for both academic and non-academic audiences. Eric Weisbard is one example of that. In the 1990s, he made his living as a rock critic for publications such as Spin and the Village Voice and today he is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at University of Alabama. In his new book, Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music, Weisbard delves into the history of radio formats. Specifically, he argues that radio formats have ultimately created multiple, “parallel mainstreams.”

As is the case for many scholars who end up writing about music and radio, Weisbard has a college radio past (he was on the air for 5 years in the 1980s). And he occasionally dabbles in radio to this day. Last week, I spoke with Weisbard about not only his book, but also about his personal connection with radio. He told me that the book grew out of his dissertation and explained that he expanded on that work by taking a look at radio in the 2000s and by digging into the history of rock radio station WMMS in Cleveland. Weisbard admitted that he isn’t a radio scholar and said that his approach is very much informed by his education and work as a historian.

Jennifer Waits: Tell me about your experience in college radio and how that informed your research.

Eric Weisbard: My college radio station, WPRB in Princeton, was the place that got me interested in music and very much led me on the path to both studying it and writing about it professionally…And I would also say that the college radio perspective of wanting to kind of present a view of music that’s different from the mainstream, ended up informing all my writing. So even though this book is a celebration of mainstream music, in some ways it’s written to tell people that what they think about the mainstream is wrong. So, in that way it’s very much in the spirit of college radio.

Jennifer: When did you do your dissertation?

Eric: In the years after…rockism and poptimism emerged as debated topics…I started working on my dissertation in 2005. In a lot of ways this began as an attempt to put a history around concepts like rockism and poptimism, even though…I ended up deciding that actually thinking about formats and genres was a way to take that discussion some place new.

Jennifer: Did you do radio in graduate school?

Eric:  No. Having been in college radio and having an affinity for radio is one of the reasons why when I started this project, radio was something I used as a touchstone. But the truth is that I’m not a radio person by and large and I’m not a radio scholar by and large. I’m a former rock critic teaching American Studies with a PhD in History who’s very interested in how music intersects the culture as a whole. From my perspective, radio is the most essential way that happens.

Jennifer: In your book you talk about radio formats as “under theorized” and music genres as “highly theorized.” Could you explain that a little bit more?

Eric: Formats, which attempt to match a group of sounds to a group of people, are different than genres, which are much more about an ideal of what music can be about…There’s something different about saying “my main concern is that this music speaks to a group of people” than to say “my music has to sound a certain way.” In other words, you’re prioritizing your ability to connect with people over your ability to make a particular kind of musical statement…Even though the desire that informs formats is a commercial desire…sometimes music that uses format thinking rather than genre thinking ends up speaking for groups of people who get left out when division of music is a more idealist one. And that’s the provocative claim of the book.

Jennifer: What do you think some of the most compelling formats might be?

Eric: I think the formats have basically stayed the same since the 70s, with the exception of the expanded role for Spanish language radio…When the commercial center of radio shifted to FM in the 1970s, it was right at the moment that all of those late 60s social and cultural issues had put identity right at the forefront and so different groups of Americans used this new space, FM radio, to claim portions of the center for themselves…The big picture is a small group of formats, Top 40, adult contemporary, rock, country, R&B, and since the late 1980s/1990s, Latin radio, those formats are the core formats of commercial radio…They each speak to different populations and groups of people who use them to hear stuff that wouldn’t be central otherwise and to have an experience of the culture in which who they are is defined as quintessentially normal.

Jennifer: Do you think freeform is a format?

Eric: Someone corrected me recently, because I’d always sort of thought that freeform was short for “free of format,” and he informed me that, no, freeform is a phrase that predates the format system. So it’s just a nice coincidence of language that you can hear freeform as meaning free of format. But what I think is that there’s no absolute rule for how different kinds of rock come across on radio. And, freeform, out of which, a lot of AOR evolved in the 1970s, out of which a certain amount of modern rock evolved in the 80s and 90s, out of which, I suspect, a certain amount of internet radio has evolved in the 2000s…Freeform remains this place of a kind of musical elitism that speaks to a certain section of the listening audience, but even more-so speaks to people who intend to be part of the creative class themselves…I now see it as very much connected to larger trends in American culture…being different from the mainstream…an expression of a certain kind of elite status. Is that cynical?

Jennifer: You devote one chapter to Cleveland rock radio station WMMS and all of its format changes over the years. Does the station hold special significance for you?

Eric: I knew I wanted to do a radio chapter and when I was thinking of how to bring rock more into this book…at some point I realized that WMMS was perfect for my purposes for a couple of reasons. One was, it was a midwestern station and I was really interested in how what had been seen as a collegiate thing/the rock of Woodstock had become by the 1970s, what’s often called blue collar rock, the rock of Bruce Springsteen, the rock of…Bob Seger, …the rock of any kind of sort of Heartland artist playing for a Heartland audience. And so I loved the idea of picking a midwestern radio station to follow this. And Cleveland, as the city of de-industrialization and rivaled only by maybe Detroit, was a great place to think about these things.

Then, the second amazing thing. It turned out that the program director of WMMS, John Gorman, who ran the station from 1973 to 1987 and then again for a couple of years in the 1990s,…had kept files of all his station memos for those many many years. He’d done his own memoirof the radio station on his own terms, based on those memos and since he was done, he was willing…[and] very generous to let me…just read through those memos and get a sense of the station from the inside.

Jennifer: What do you love about radio?

Eric: From the perspective of playing songs on the radio… last Friday night, for example, a friend who has a show on the NPR station here in Tuscaloosa, invited me to spin records for 2 hours. From that perspective, I love…playing anything you feel like, making connections and that’s the throwback to my college radio days. From the perspective of the person who wrote this book as he listens to radio still as almost a voyeur into other kinds of cultures, what I love about radio is that it makes the world normal…that it makes the world normal in five completely different ways simultaneously in virtually every place in America. That’s what I love about it.

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