Dead Air

People today know me as a newspaperman, but I got my start in radio at an early age – 15, in fact. I had my FCC license (required at the time to operate a radio station transmitter) before I had a driver’s license. I worked throughout high school at WHAL-AM (now WZNG-AM) in Shelbyville, which was, towards the end of my time there, co-owned with what was then WYCQ-FM. I was active at the campus radio station at Oral Roberts University, and for a year after college I worked at KTCR-AM in Wagoner, Okla., which was owned by the Durfey family. The late Dr. Thomas Durfey was my academic advisor at ORU, and his son Kendall was my best friend at college, and Kendall and I roomed and worked together for that year in Wagoner. (You can learn more about Kendall, and hear some of our collaboration, here.)

Anyway, when I saw Bill Young’s Dead Air: The Rise and Demise of Music Radio on a one-day giveaway promotion for the Kindle, I jumped on it.

It’s a good book – which is incredibly frustrating, because it should have been a great one.

The (apparently self-published) book is horrifically-edited. I assumed it wasn’t edited at all – that, like the dad-blamed idiot who wrote Soapstone, Young had simply published it himself without a sounding board.

Then, I read the copyright page, and Young actually credits his editor, who has worked at Texas Monthly and been published in Esquire, GQ and the New York Times. Well, I don’t care about the editor’s CV; he did a crappy job of editing this particular book. Young has a lot of fascinating material here – the makings of a great book – but it’s bogged down in almost every kind of mistake that an editor is supposed to catch:

  • There are infuriating copy-editing mistakes, such as possessives in place of plurals. I’m not talking about a mistake here or there; I’m talking about tons of them, throughout the book, front to back. There are also a few easily-corrected misspellings or other errors. Some of these, like “Silvia” Plath, could have been looked up from legitimate reference sites in 15 seconds on the Internet. Even the title of the Kindle book as uploaded to Amazon has a typo, with the letter “I” in “Air” wrongly capitalized. “Forty” is misspelled in the heading over chapter 40.
  • There are numerous explanations or definitions, and even a couple of anecdotes, repeated in the book. One particularly-egregious example has to do with a story in which a radio station, as a publicity stunt, publishes an ad apologizing for the use of bad language by someone interviewed in a news report. The entire story, including the entire paragraph-long wording of the ad, appears at two different places in the book. Did the editor not notice that? Did the author not notice that?
    I’ve counted at least three different instances in the book where Young explains that, in the mid-60s, KILT promoted its own concerts, but then by the end of the decade, professional concert promoters took over and KILT became the “media sponsor” for concerts in return for giving them advertising time. Each time, he writes as if he’s presenting new information. Again, the editor should have caught this and fixed it. 
  • The book seems to be a little unclear on its purpose. The title promises a broad look at the radio industry, while the book itself is more of a personal memoir, a Texas-centric account of that industry as seen through Young’s eyes. There’s nothing wrong with a memoir – Young was such a key player and knew so many of the other key players that his personal story is well worth a book, maybe more than one – but it’s a little bit of a bait-and-switch. If the book really is a memoir, change the subtitle to reflect that, and focus it a little bit more on the personal story. If the book is really about an industry, don’t bother taking time to tell us about the fast-growing tree in the front yard of Young’s newlywed home. That’s the kind of detail that, even in a memoir, is of questionable interest. A good editor would have insisted that the book take one path or the other, and suggested that the marketing match the content.
  • Most of the book is arranged in loose chronological order, so a section about two-thirds of the way through about the birth of Top 40 radio is out of the timeline and feels completely out of place. There are also some other instances where the book starts to ramble a little bit and a good editor could have roped it in.
  • Some of the chapters near the end of the book read almost like lists of names — “Hey, I worked with these people, and they’ll be disappointed if they don’t get mentioned in my book.”

I swear, this book makes me want to advertise my services as a book editor. It’s a good book – very much worth reading, in spite of my complaints, if you have any interest in radio. But I, or any of a number of other people, could have made this a much better book than it is.