Burning Up the Air Jerry Williams, Talk Radio, and the Life in Between
By Steve Elman and Alan Tolz
366 pp., illustrated, $27.95
Golden Wings & Hairy Toes: Encounters With New England's Most Imperiled Wildlife
By Todd McLeish
University Press of New England, 242 pp., illustrated, $26
Pilgrims: New World Settlers and the Call of Home
By Susan Hardman Moore
Yale University Press, 316 pp., illustrated, $35
"When the call came in, the light went on.
"When the light went on, the fun began."
That's how Steve Elman and Alan Tolz, two of Jerry Williams's talk-radio producers, put it in "Burning Up the Air," describing the way it was in 1957 when Williams first went on the air on WMEX-AM in Boston.
And the fun began, they write, because Williams, a pioneer in the talk radio form that continues today, didn't just listen to callers and then paraphrase their comments, as earlier radio hosts had done, but put them on the air in their own argumentative voices - with just a delay button to keep it clean and legal.
The authors track the controversy surrounding the emotion-choked call in September 1972 from a man identifying himself as a Vietnam veteran, in which he described the horrors of the war he had seen.
Williams replayed the call, night after night. Then, in mid-October, he gave a tape to George McGovern, who was running for president as an antiwar candidate. McGovern played the tape on his campaign plane, and then to "stunned silence" at a rally in Minnesota. The tale of the tape became a national news story - and angered Williams's network bosses who threatened him with disciplinary action for releasing it.
After a few weeks, events in Vietnam made the call look like "yesterday's news." But the story resurfaced in 1998 when Jim Braude wrote in The Boston Globe that he had recognized the caller's voice as that of a local labor leader, who denied being the caller.
As Elman and Tolz track the story, they found themselves left with the question of whether Williams had known the call was a fake and, if so, "would that have cast a shadow over all his other great work."
Williams's work included campaigns on seat-belts, school busing, "fees, fines, and taxes," and Michael Dukakis over the decades before his final broadcast for WROL in 2003, two months before his death.
It's mud season in northern Maine when naturalist Todd McLeish sees his first Canadian lynx, as it "calmly waited for its expected release" from a trap set by state wildlife biologists.
This particular lynx, collared and labeled "L18," had been caught so often, McLeish reports, "that it may have learned the trap contained a free meal with only the minor inconvenience of being enclosed for a short time."
In "Golden Wings & Hairy Toes," McLeish, a University of Rhode Island publicist, presents keenly observant profiles of 14 of the region's most endangered species, including birds, insects, and the Northern right whale.
It is in a rural cemetery in Rhode Island that he encounters what may be the state's "last wild sandplain gerardia," a slender plant with pink, bell-shaped flowers, which he describes as "one of the rarest plants in the United States."
It was once common along the coast from Cape Cod to Maryland. "Despite being surrounded by the graves marking the end of dozens of human lives," he writes, "this one plant was perhaps the saddest sight in the cemetery."
Thousands of Brazilians, longtime residents in the United States, have recently begun returning home, prompted not only by fears of deportation, but by economic concerns, particularly the fall of the US dollar against the Brazilian real.
This "reverse immigration" has been experienced in many other immigrant groups over the years. But as Susan Hardman Moore reports in "Pilgrims," it also occurred with the earliest settlers of New England - "at odds," she writes, "with the conventional story of pilgrims laying the cornerstone for a new nation."
During the 1630s, she writes, as many as 21,000 English emigrated to New England. But then, "in the decades after 1640, far more people left New England each year than went there" - perhaps as many as one in four of the original settlers.
In an account both intriguing and challenging, Moore, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, argues that it was a combination of political and religious circumstances that prompted their return.
For early settlers, New England "provided a route to primitive purity [and] a refuge from the threat of popery," as they saw it. With the victory of the Parliamentary Puritans in 1640, "hopes of reform in England rose." And some members of the Massachusetts Artillery Company had already gone back to join the Parliamentary army.
Also, the rapid economic growth New England had experienced was slowing, and that "meant stunted prospects," with a lack of "professional opportunities" for recent Harvard graduates.
Thus, it was "changed circumstances in England," she writes, that "altered the balance of opportunities between colony and homeland." And many early settlers just "unfurled the sails of their spirit and plotted a course for home."
Michael Kenney, a freelance writer living in Cambridge, writes on books of local and regional interest.