Spring of 1978 saw the release of FM, a movie about an L.A. album-rock radio station where the DJs take over after a smarmy sales manager tries to force the station to run commercials for the U.S. Army. Sales vs. jocks: The Neverending Radio Story. Sales men and women were always valued higher than jocks at radio stations, because sales people actually walked in the door with the checks from the clients that kept the place running. Jocks were considered big egos who demanded big money if they got popular, which started the trend towards "more music and less talk" and eventually led to the computer-assisted voice tracking we enjoy today (those stations with the cute names, like Bob and Ben and Fred, that are really just mp3 players programmed by somebody other than you). Truth is, salespeople were always paid better than the jocks, because they collected commissions -- there's an old DJ joke that goes when you look at a radio station's parking lot, the convertibles belong to the sales people; the cars with rust holes in the roofs belong to the DJs.
FM the movie also highlighted the death of the AM band as radio's music delivery system. Traditionally, AM stations had been the Top 40 power houses, playing rock and roll served up by bigger-than-life DJs. But over on the FM band, stations like KMET in L.A. and WNEW in New York moved rock away from hits and into album cuts with laid-back DJs. By the mid-70s it was cool to listen to FM and lame to listen to AM. Eventually even Top 40 moved to FM.
I was working nights at Top 40 WTSN-AM in Dover, New Hampshire, when FM hit the theaters. Our rival, Top 40 WHEB-FM in Portsmouth, began playing the movie's theme song, Steely Dan's FM (No Static At All) once an hour -- their way of saying, "See, everyone thinks FM is better than AM, you lame jerks!" (At least that's the way we took it at WTSN. We were probably right.) Our midday DJ, Mike Kelly, had read in one of the radio trade papers about an AM station in the Midwest that decided to fight back: someone there found out that Steely Dan's Donald Fagen sang "Aja" in the same key as "FM," and spliced the "A" from "Aja" in place of the "F" in "FM," producing a version of the song that went "AM, No Static At All." Kelly spent three days in the production studio with reels of audio tape and razor blade -- because that's how we edited in the days of acetate -- valiantly trying to create his own Frankenstein "AM" version of "FM." But he had to make hundreds of cuts in a three-minute song, and every version came out choppy. He gave up, just as AM radio eventually gave up and became the home of right-wing talk radio.
We were all vindicated in September of 1978, though, when WKRP debuted on TV. Here were a bunch of fun-loving, lovable losers playing rock and roll on a dying AM station with a hot blonde receptionist! The WKRP DJs never wore headphones on the air, which was wrong, because in real life would have resulted in lots of squealing feedback -- but, other than that, it was exactly true-to-life. Mostly because the sales guy was an asshole.