On the Air Exhibit Retrospective
Before MTV, before Spotify, before surprise album drops from streaming services, there was radio.
Not the radio you’re familiar with. This was a time when radio personalities didn’t just play the rock stars—they were rock stars. Furthermore, they were so influential that they made rock stars.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s On the Air exhibit is a love letter to the golden days of radio. Between displays of relics from famous disc jockeys are interactive digital stations that let you search famous deejays by region and time period and listen to real recordings of their programs.
Rock and Roll’s Roots
Imagine a radio station broadcasting a live concert a week with stars like John Mellencamp, Lou Reed and Peter Frampton. That is what Cleveland-based station WMMS did with their Coffee Break Concerts, many of which took place at the Agora. To call this time a golden age is an understatement.
The roots of rock and roll can be directly traced back to radio. The laundry list of stars who owe their success to their advocates on the radio is staggering: Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Ronettes, Del Shannon, Ike and Tina Turner, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen and more.
Of course, the first deejay that comes to mind when we talk about rock is Alan Freed. The Cleveland deejay did more than advocate for rock and roll—in a way, he invented it. Freed was one of the few white deejays spinning R&B records, which he called rock and roll. He wasn’t the first to say it, but Freed popularized the term. His Moondog Coronation Ball is widely considered the first ever rock and roll concert.
Alan Freed was not the only deejay competing for dominance of the airwaves. Big Jack Armstrong, Ernie Anderson, Pete “Mad Daddy” Meyers, Johnny Holliday, Bill Hawkins, Wolfman Jack, Cousin Brucie Morrow and Tom Donahue were all in the mix, each one’s ploy for publicity wilder than the next.
Wolfman Jack, who was hired to compete with deejay “Cousin” Brucie Morrow, distributed miniature tombstones that said “Cousin Brucie’s days are numbered.” Jack Armstrong had a formal fan club (and we have the application to prove it). FM deejay Tom Donahue wrote an article titled “AM Radio Is Dead and Its Rotting Corpse Is Stinking Up the Airwaves.” Pete “Mad Daddy” Meyers jumped out of an airplane at 2,200 feet and parachuted into Lake Erie. Working in radio was as much about charisma and daring as it was music.
Can't Miss Artifacts
These disc jockeys wielded the might of the mic, so it’s no surprise that they rubbed elbows with the greatest stars of their time. You might say that they were even more powerful than the stars whose records they spun. On display is a photo of Big Jack Armstrong and the Beatles, taken after the Beatles had been rescued from a stampede of fans and Armstrong told them it wasn’t safe to perform. (Lennon quipped that Armstrong could be electrocuted at his job.
Or come check out the postcard of Bill Hawkins, a celebrity in his own right as the first black deejay to be hired by a white station. If you’re a Springsteen fan, come see the carton of “Bruce Juice,” an advertising stunt by a deejay who played Springsteen before he was big.
Between promotional tombstones and rock and roll-themed orange juice, there’s no shortage of evidence of the forceful personalities that pushed rock and roll forward.