Dead Air

by Larry Mossey

A Highly Unauthorized History of Background Music 

on the Radio and Elsewhere

Book Preview

  • Our Wonderful Subcortex

    1915: Thomas Edison is among the first to use background music to make his workers produce records faster. He did this using our wonderful subcortex.

  • Not Exactly Music

    1963: John Cage pioneers music that isn't really music, to be performed for people who aren't really listening. 4'33" is his most famous composition. Not a single note is played.

  • Beautiful Music

    1973: The elusive Jim Schulke, with music director Phil Stout, creates a background music library especially for the radio, with a formula they call Matched Flow. It's designed to make people forget their radio is turned on.

  • Disk Jockeys

    There's a difference between announcers and disk jockeys, and newspeople, and engineers, and other radio subcultures. And it's important to know the differences.


  • It rocks! 

    Dead Air, for those who don’t know, is the radio industry term for silence on the airwaves, an almost universally reviled happenstance in the business. One place it was not was in the programming of so-called ‘Beautiful Music” stations, more widely known, perhaps, as ‘elevator music’ and often pejoratively as MUZAK, a brand name synonymous with vapid instrumentals. 

    I read the book because I spent 30 years in the radio industry, several of them successfully, and even spent several months as a ‘beautiful music’ announcer near Boston during a period of low income and high marijuana use. It was a union station, therefore the pay was good and the demands slight, so it was a near perfect marriage. All except having to listen to the 101 Strings for a six hour shift, but hey, what job is perfect?

    You might think that an autobiography of a beautiful music announcer would be as boring as the music itself, but in this case it is just the opposite. Sadly, I am afraid this book will appeal largely, possibly only to people who have worked in radio. Or perhaps managed a radio station. Or listened to a radio. Or owned one. So, you know, limited audience.

    For in and amongst the history of how elevator music elevated itself (you see what i did there?) into making people think it helped make you smarter, or work faster, or be nicer, are companion stories of rock and roll dj’s on the floor above, trips across country behind smacked-up truckers, and oh yes, a tutorial on several subcultures of music, some of which are not music at all - you know, like those CD’s your wife has in the bedroom drawer of ocean waves or bird sounds or rustling leaves to help her sleep or possibly to help you sleep so she can sext with her boyfriend.

    It’s a well researched tome, and I looked up “tome” before I used it, which I presume Larry Mossey, the author, (did I mention he’s the author?) did before he used some of the other big words here, which are occasionally added for scientific accuracy and also to impress his gullible readers. I apologize for not mentioning him earlier. He’s probably used to it. Nobody pays attention to a beautiful music announcer anyway.

    Some people will enjoy the history and progression (I did it again, more subtly this time) of background music. Some will like the stories of groupies and hormonal head bobbing in cars in the radio station parking lots. Some may even enjoy the deep dive chapters into Japanese dance club music, synthwave, techno, trance and other genres, although I doubt it. Luckily they come free with every purchase, so download today! 

    Just kidding. I enjoyed it. A lot. Fair warning, I had minor skin in the game. I was employed by Group W (Westinghouse) at some of our AM 50,000 boomers just as the company expanded by buying TCI Cable. Along with that came a funny company called MUZAK, and shortly a whole group of FM stations, all ‘Beautiful Music’ and all at the very peak of that business. As some of us said to the older, corporate generation of managers ‘We will never listen to that sh!t.’ Or, when talking to the President who thought up this great idea, ‘I’m not sure the demographic is going to grow with the format’, a more polite way of saying the same thing. Every single year the average audience age was exactly one year older, meaning the older listeners were literally dying and younger ones were staying away by any means possible. Eventually, of course, my manager died, as dead as the Beautiful music format itself, and unluckily, my career did too. But that’s all of radio, truthfully. If Mr. Mossey only gets a nickel from every radio DJ ever fired and who reads the book he will be one of the richest men in America.


    A great read…

    …with chuckles on every page. If you ever worked Beautiful Music this is a must…even if you just changed tapes for the FM automation down the hall. Wait ‘til you read what happens to the monkey! You’ve earned a place on my bookshelf between Cousin Brucie and Donna Halper. Really happy I got the hard copy.

    -Paul Temple 

    One of the greatest radio chronicles!
    Every year, it seems, there is yet another radio memoir. While they all have some merit, this one leaves them all in the rearview mirror. It's a perfect blend of personal experience and excellent research. Of all the radio formats that have been talked about and written about, Beautiful Music, like it or not, had one of the largest audience impacts in the history of the medium. The author takes us behind the scenes of the small/medium market stations in the Northeast (and elsewhere) to truly give a great overview of what it was like at the height of the format. Having spent 40 years in broadcasting myself, I can relate to every detail of the author's experience. This should not only be required reading for anyone interested in the history of radio, but it could also be an excellent textbook for a collegiate communications history course. A must read!

    -Signe Knutson

    Part memoir, part textbook, all fun.
    I’ve known the funny side of Larry for quite a while, but I never knew he could make learning so much fun. Here, he mixes radio career antidotes and hilarious stories with the history of background music and sounds that we’ve taken for granted all our lives. I’m blown away by the research involved in putting together this totally enjoyable tome that had me laughing with almost every paragraph. If you’ve ever listened to the radio, ever heard music or ever laughed out loud, buy a copy of this book and help us all keep Larry off the radio and out of public places.

    - W. Garling

What is Dead Air?

Dead air is a radio term that means silence, usually undesired, such as too much space between sound elements
(songs, announcers, commercials) or when a station goes off the air. In the context of this book, it refers to
background music—the kind of music that is meant to be heard but not listened to.