The DJs

It would be hard to tell the story of Rock and Roll without also telling that of Pop radio and its personalities. From Rock and Roll pioneers like Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry to the U.K. artists, such as the Beatles and the Kinks, who heard American music and reinterpreted it for American audiences, radio was the place where they got their goods. And DJs were there to deliver them. Ambassadors and missionaries, they brought a steady stream of new music to expectant audiences. Among those DJs, several became celebrities in their own right. Murray the K fancied himself the fifth Beatle. Dewey Phillips was a regular at Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion. Alan Freed was listed as a co-writer on Chuck Berry's first single, "Maybellene" — a situation that, due to Freed's high profile, Chuck Berry liked (until he definitely didn't like it). The DJs were the tastemakers that teenagers everywhere turned to.

Due in the second phase of this project, this chapter's lessons will demonstrate that the story of Rock and Roll radio is also a story of technology. With the birth of the transistor device, young radio listeners could break away from the family console to hear the DJs who geared their programs toward teens. Or they could dial in to the black stations where Rhythm and Blues was presented for African-American audiences but widely consumed by young white people. Of course, this racial mixing that radio allowed cut both ways: as Soul music later revealed, African Americans in the South made up a big part of the Grand Ole Opry's listening audience. In the universe of radio, things were possible that were not possible elsewhere.

Of course, because of radio there was more money to be made on records sold. With the advent of Top 40 radio, the songs that made it to the upper reaches of the charts became even bigger as hits: the shorter the playlist, the more rotations for each chart-topping recording. And record companies had an interest in getting all the airplay they could. No surprise, then, that the 1959 "payola" scandal revealed extensive pay-for-play practices in the industry, bringing about the sad end of Allan Freed's remarkable career as a DJ.

The focus in the chapter's final lesson is Free Form FM radio, the brainchild of DJ and entrepreneur Tom Donahue. Different from Top 40, Free Form — at least in it's purest version — avoided the playlist, letting the DJ create a unique tapestry of musical choices. Born of the hippie ethos, Free Form threw out the rule book. What it didn't throw out, however, was the DJ.