No radio is an island

Rockin’ Down the Dial spends most of its 288 pages following the ups and downs of Detroit radio through the first 25 or so years after the popularization of TV. As Carson contends, after TV, the power of traditional radio drama to generate ad revenue was virtually destroyed and a desperate time in radio ensued, a time when almost any risk – even that of playing music and content generated purely for a teenage audience – seemed better than drowning in overhead.

The result, according to Carson, was a time that rewarded the lone DJ – from Ed "Jack the Bellboy" McKenzie (WJBK) and "Frantic" Ernie Durham (WJLB) to Dick Purtan (WKNR) and Tom Shannon (CKLW) – who could break the unspoken codes of the day to deal directly with the new boomer generation and its, even then, insatiable appetite for culture. In this way, Carson’s book is really about upstart consumption and the companies, both local and national, which attempted to find formats that could be hip with the kids without jeopardizing the format consistency needed to sell ads.

That Carson plays down this aspect of radio – the facts, though at times tedious, are in the book, he just doesn’t seem interested in pushing them very far – seems at first forgivable. But by leaving out any substantive soul-searching or analysis of the times, Carson’s disjointed notes, island-like chapters and themes, and sentimental attitude don’t add up to much – despite the amount of work involved in his study. Instead, Carson is content to let his heroes parade by while Detroit, its people, neighborhoods, politicians, riots and times – its history in other words – pass underneath his radar. Seemingly mirroring radio itself, Carson has decided beforehand that what the public needs-wants is hits and personalities instead of a bunch of talk. The result is about the same as contemporary radio today – cursory and ephemeral.

E-mail Carleton S. Gholz at [email protected].

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