An aimless, down-on-his-luck radio man stumbles into a new town and finds himself responsible for turning an aimless, down-on-its-luck radio station into a serious classic rock station with integrity and credibility. Making his job as the station’s new program director challenging is a crew of lovable crazies, belligerent disc jockeys, and a sexy receptionist. This is, of course, the premise of the beloved (in some circles, anyway) television situation comedy WKRP in Cincinnati, but it’s also the basis for Bill Fitzhugh’s new mystery novel, Radio Activity. Fitzhugh’s setting -- a minor FM station in small town Mississippi -- is not nearly as benign as the world of WKRP, however, and his protagonist, veteran rock DJ Rick Shannon, quickly finds himself tangled in the kind of intrigue and violence that he didn’t expect when he took the job.
Upon his arrival at WAOR in McRae, Mississippi, Shannon is railroaded by the station’s overbearing general manager into not only filling the slot left by the disappearance of the station’s top disc jockey, the “legendary” Captain Jack Carter, but also taking on the duties of the recently departed program director. At first resistant to the unexpected expansion of his job description, Shannon eventually warms up to the opportunity to create a format that will reinvigorate the tired cliché of classic rock radio. With the help of a pair of experienced jocks and a couple of enthusiastic neophytes, Shannon sets about crafting the perfect classic rock playlist.
Unfortunately, Shannon’s attention is distracted by a discovery in his new abode, the mobile home inexplicably vacated by the recently departed Captain Jack. Shannon’s perusal of Captain Jack’s impressive record collection uncovers an unlabeled tape that was, for some reason, hidden in the box that was supposed to contain Chicago IV. The contents of the tape, an incriminating telephone conversation between WAOR’s uniformly disgusting general manager and an anonymous associate, picques Shannon’s curiosity, and before he can stop himself, Shannon is playing private investigator in an attempt to figure out what happened to Captain Jack. The tape makes him suspect foul play, and the prime suspect looks to be his new boss.
The central challenge for Fitzhugh in Radio Activity is the credible transformation of a radio disc jockey into a private detective. It’s a challenge facing any author in the amateur-detective sub genre, and if Dan Brown can convince millions of people to buy an art historian as homicide sleuth in The Da Vinci Code, anything is possible. Fitzhugh, however, in contrast to Brown’s elaborate creation of relevant investigatorial expertise in his protagonist, takes the path of least resistance to character motivation; Rick Shannon decides to track down Captain Jack’s (presumed) killer, putting himself in mortal danger along the way, simply because he has nothing better to do. Perhaps it’s a satirical poke at the life of a radio disc jockey -- existence is so dull that antagonizing killers and extortionists seems like a fun diversion -- but as a convincing depiction of human behavior, it falls short.
Shannon’s real passion is much more believably, if not more enjoyably, represented in his revision of WAOR’s format. The staff engages in long debates about the historical time frame from which to draw the playlist, the perfect songs to play, the artists that should be defined as classic rock musicians, and the correct methods for constructing segues between songs. Ongoing one-upmanship between Shannon and the station’s most venerable DJ over who can play the most obscure, least clichéd tunes threads throughout the book. The overly enthusiastic and voluminous contemplation of music borrows from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, but unlike Hornby’s characters who, deep down, know that they are tunnel-visioned losers, the inhabitants of Fitzhugh’s book seem entirely unaware that anyone with less than an all-consuming interest in obscure rock music from the sixties and early seventies would find their babble hand-wringingly boring and irritatingly trivial.
Fitzhugh’s skewering of rural southern culture is merciless and anything but affectionate, but, again, his efforts are facile and uninformed. His redneck rubes are a collection of caricatures and stereotypes: the blue-eyeshadowed receptionist, the uncouth and malevolent good ol’ boy boss, the surly diner waitress, the dangerous hick lurking in the woods, the corrupt businessmen and law enforcement officers. A satire of the Deep South constructed with even an ounce of subtlety would have been infinitely less offensive, not to mention funnier and more credible. Such a satirical approach has been done well, and recently, in Larry Brown’s The Rabbit Factory, and anyone interested in a Mississipi-based crime story would do well to seek out Brown’s book instead.
As a mystery, Fitzhugh’s plot offers few surprises; everything is put on the table almost from the beginning, and we’re left only with the problem of sorting out the names and dates. Only the most inattentive of readers -- or perhaps disc jockeys who smoke too much dope -- will have any trouble figuring out who did what to whom well before the end of the book. Combined with the musical navel-gazing, the elementary cultural satire, and the somnambulistic character development, the book’s lack of suspense turns the whole thing into a three-hundred-page sleep aid.