Category Archives: Culture

Seeds of the Sixties: The Rise Of Freeform Radio

UPenn_student_hosts_radio_show

In 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: 

Anniversary: Dien Bien Phu

On the evening of May 7, 1954 the last remaining French position, strong point Lily, manned by Moroccan soldiers commanded by a French officer, surrendered to the attacking Vietminh, ending the two-month long siege of Dien Bien Phu and with it the French-Indochina War. The French fought long, hard, and at times effectively, for French Indochina. The U.S. government gave more financial aid to the French cause in Indochina than it gave to France in the Marshall Plan. But in the end Eisenhower refused to send troops to rescue the garrison.

Dien Bien Phu was unquestionably an important event in world history. In a sense it was the last stand of western colonialism in the Far East. The Brits had already fled India and were in the midst of the Malayan Emergency. The Dutch war of reconquest in Indonesia had been futile. Unfortunately for Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese people, their Chinese and Soviet allies sold them short at the bargaining table later that year in Geneva. That, mixed with American actions to negate the treaty in subsequent years, set the table for the second Indochina War, known to many Vietnamese as the “American Phase.”

The picture below is probably the most famous of the battle, in reality it was taken after the battle as part of a re-enactment staged by a Russian filmographer…

Vietnam People’s Army, First publish in 1954. – Vietnam People’s Army museum (still from Soviet filmographer Roman Karmen).

The Century Of The Self (BBC)

What do Sigmund Freud, Joseph Goebbels and Betty Crocker have in common? Ever wonder why anyone would choose to buy a Rolex when a Timex keeps time just as well? Hint: some smart people figured out how to tap into our unconscious fears and desires and over the past century we’ve been the unwitting subjects of a wildly successful mass experiment in consumer manipulation and social control. Adam Curtis of the BBC reveals who they were and how they did it…

On Every Box of Cake Mix, Evidence of Freud’s Theories (NY Times Review)

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The Great American Narrative: The Art of the Con

Sarah Sanders is leaving us. Turning in her tin star to ride off into the sunset. A snake oil saleswoman raised by a snake oil salesman fronting for one of the greatest American con men. It’s the great American story. From PT Barnum and Buffalo Bill to Bernie Madoff and the TV evangelists (and TV Generals too) America’s history is littered with “heroes” whose only great talents were for fooling us for a quick buck.

There is a reason that Hollywood is known as the “Dream Factory.” A primary exercise in movies and television is the production of contrived experiences. The TV product is specifically tailored to be interspersed with fantasy images designed to sell us things we probably don’t need. A by-product of this simulation is the creation of the celebrity. A person who, as Daniel Boorstin points out, is well-known for no good reason other than for his/her well-known ness. The existence of public relations and marketing, one of the most profitable of American businesses (fantasy image makers that have actually made themselves into a fantasy image–Madison Avenue and Mad Men), is dependent on hoodwinking the masses into buying things simply for status. In fact capitalism probably can’t stand on its own if people only buy what they need to survive.

In this age of media saturation we live in a country that has defined itself through its deceptions. We the people are delusional about who we are and who we’ve been. We have constructed our self-image based on received stories consumed through mass communication. We are never satisfied because our extravagant expectations rarely match up with reality and so we are forever searching for the next big thing, or hitting it big, or making the big time. Much of our national story is set on these shaky grounds of designed misconception. The art of the con itself is based on creating illusions, and the best artists are the most deceptive ones.

Within this communal hallucination one space where the real continues to transfix us is in the realm of true crime reporting. We are fascinated with the spontaneity of crime, it’s one of the rare experiences that is not totally contrived, that’s why its influence is outsized proportionally in the news cycle.* We love to make fun of the incompetents, we secretly admire the masterminds, but we are always afraid of being a victim, thus we are easy targets for the personal security rackets. Even so, that spontaneity soon evaporates since everything is fed to us through the filtering medium of the lens and the slanting pens of editorial offices. Kennedy won the election because Nixon didn’t have a close enough shave, but Nixon really won because Kennedy cheated in Texas and Chicago. Kennedy was a good guy killed by a lone outlaw (really?) and Nixon was an outlaw killed by a two good guys, a deep throat and a tape recorder. Kennedy goes down as hero, Nixon as villain. As unseemly as it all sounds it has all become national folklore. The real has become laborious, its minutiae too difficult to comprehend and its details too boring to memorize. The condensed, filtered, repackaged fantastic interpretation becomes more appealing, more exciting, easier. It’s almost as if we like to be duped. As if, like Barnum told us, being suckered is part of the experience of being American. We’re all on reality TV.

These threads converge in the Trump scenario. The ascendance of Donald and Sarah, both celebrities, both only recognizable for being recognized in the media, neither with any appreciable “real” talent, is the predictable reappearance of two of the foundational forms in the American drama- the con man and his trusted sidekick. But here the Donald takes it to a new level by representing the merger of several archetypal character types found in the American mythological narrative. Depending on who you ask Trump assumes the role of con man, outlaw or tough lawman. Sometimes all three at once, and that is somehow ok for many of his supporters. The fact that he seems to stand out above the sordid crowd alerts us to what is most sinister about him. He and Sarah spin up a show that is patently outrageous, they are the attention getters. Yet the true crime, the ongoing stagecoach robbery and swindling of the passengers, continues relatively hidden behind the scenes. The equivalent of throwing a smoke bomb in the other direction– I’ll create a diversion while you rob the bank.

American history is a mythical history. From the frontier days to the modern world the outlaw, the con man and the lawman have been, and continue to be, central characters in that myth. The overarching theme is the struggle for the acquisition of wealth, property and security between the powerful and the powerless, haves and have nots, whites and non-whites, bosses and workers etc. Depending on the time and circumstances the fortunes of the groups have changed in relation to each other. But the long term trend, albeit not entirely linear, has been the consolidation of victory for the few. Historically a reliable brake against the greed of the powerful, many of them legalized outlaws, con men and law men, has been their fear of the masses. That is, the fear of democracy. Now the stage in the theatre of democracy, upon which our national mythology has been acted out, is in danger of being condemned for its rotting foundations. Historian Eric Hobsbawn put it succinctly– “One of the worst things about the politics of the past 30 years is that the rich have forgotten to be afraid of the poor.” Not only do they no longer fear us they have actually convinced many of us that the outlaw con man is the best lawman. And every good sheriff needs a loyal deputy–adios senora Sarah…

With so many unfilled posts in his administration the next feature on the Donald double-bill: The Searchers

* A side note: This may be why sports are so popular? They are one of the few remaining forums for spontaneous non-contrived experiences. That’s not to say that the spectacle surrounding sports isn’t the equivalent of a PT Barnum event– a circus– but the game itself still maintains a sense and tension of the real. Anything can happen. The popularity of pro wrestling on the other hand informs us that the power of the contrived still remains immense in the American psyche, even in the domain of sports.

Related:

https://parallelnarratives.com/2016/07/11/the-century-of-the-self-bbc/

We know a lot less than we think about the world – which explains the allure of “simplism”