The Rise Of Freeform Radio in the 1960s

UPenn_student_hosts_radio_showIn the mid-1960s FM radio featured a handful of “progressive” or “freeform” programs that became foundational influences on a growing counter-cultural generation. Coinciding with the youth backlash against the sterile consumerism of the 1950s, against the “plastic people” as the Mothers of Invention coined them, listeners were primarily urban kids, many recently radicalized by the civil rights, free speech and anti-Vietnam war movements, many others were just lovers of provocative thought and music.

In the early days most FM and AM stations were owned by the same broadcasting companies. AM simply duplicated their programming onto the FM band in an effort to broaden audiences. Everything began to change in 1964 when the FCC moved to enact a non-duplication rule in an effort to broaden the chances for under-represented demographics to be served. The rule, emerging in the midst of the civil rights struggles, was at first vigorously opposed by many established AM/FM affiliate stations as an egregious example of government overreach, not to mention the financial costs of hiring new staff and DJs.

Not all stations resisted, WBAI in New York and Pacifica stations in California were early adopters for example, but powerful owners did manage to delay official enactment until January 1, 1967. Once passed the FM Non-Duplication Rule required FM stations to broadcast original content over 50% of their broadcast day. This little remembered event was a key moment in the cultural formation of the 1960s and early 1970s (and my life!). Programmers could no longer take the lazy route of repetitiously spinning Top 40 banality, they were forced to begin experimenting. Many gave disc jockeys more freedom and control over the material on their shows. These new “underground” jockeys began to manipulate their playlists to feature a broad range of genres interspersed with political and cultural discussions, comedy and interviews. The style came to be known as freeform. There was no preset playlist schedule to follow. The only rules were those laid down by the FCC regarding profanity and station identification. With no stylistic boundaries, programming was shaped by the intellectual eclecticism and uniqueness of the individual personalities behind the mic.

The first prototype for what would become freeform radio was Pacifica Radio (KPFA in Berkeley, California) launched in 1949 by a group World War II conscientious objectors. KPFA was dedicated to free artistic expression and countering many of the accepted political norms of the early postwar period. The first so-called freeform radio show was Night Sounds hosted by John LeonardIt was here that beat poets like Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti and Kerouac were heard for the first time over the airwaves. This was powerful stuff. Other founding fathers included WBAI New York’s Bob Fass, WOR New York’s Murray the K (who called himself the 5th Beatle) and in Los Angeles it was KPFK’s pioneering talk show “Radio Free oZ” hosted by the Firesign Theatre troupe.

But perhaps the most recognized commercial freeform station was San Francisco’s KMPX, with its DJ/program director Tom “Big Daddy” Donahue. His timing was perfect, coming online in the run-up to the summer of love just as the San Francisco sound was beginning to peak. On any evening in San Francisco one could tune in and hear everything from the Stones, Mingus and Miles Davis to Mongolian chants. KMPX-FM and Donahue were the amplifiers that first brought the likes of Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service to the Bay Area and world.

One evening in April 1967, Donahue invited Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia to be guest DJs on KMPX. Listen to the show below. This fascinating time-capsule has Phil and Jerry discussing the Grateful Dead’s brand-new debut album, their upcoming first tour in the east and odd topics such as a top-secret “sound gun.” But the real treat is the exposure of the musical influences that shaped Garcia and Lesh, both very young at the time, culled straight from their own personal record collections! I have visions of them riding the Muni bus from the Haight to downtown, stacks of wax tucked under their arms. Listen and Enjoy…

Murray the K interviews the Beatles:

Bob Fass Interviews Bob Dylan on WBAI 1966:

Bob Fass from Chicago ’68: 

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