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 Leonard. It 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:
Posted in Audio, Bob Dylan, California, Culture, Essays, History, Los Angeles, Music, San Francisco
Tagged Beatles, Bob Fass, Firesign Theatre, KPFA, KPFK, Murray the K, new york, Radio free oZ, WBAI, WOR
Woke up in a much scarier world this morning. Europe now descends on a backward trajectory toward its pre-WWII form of division, rivalry and xenophobia, with Britain and Germany facing off and France stuck in the middle. First Brexit, next America? Divisive rightists, people like Le Pen in France, Wilders in the Netherlands, Hofer in Austria and Donald Trump, with their poisonous nativist rhetoric, just got a big blast of wind in their sails. There is a reason why democracy was feared as mob rule for 2000 years! This clip from Frankenstein captures the spirit of the age quite nicely…
Hegel wrote: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” It’s looking more and more these days like the dusk will come too late….
And yes, that is David Cameron being tossed over the ledge…serves him right!
The milestone incident known as the stand in the schoolhouse door took place fifty-three years ago today, June 11, 1963, at the University of Alabama, when Alabama’s Governor George Wallace attempted to physically block two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from enrolling in the university. It was one of the crucial moments in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and a shining example of graceful leadership under immense pressure.
Previously, in his inaugural address as governor, Wallace had shouted “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” He repeatedly assured his constituents that he would keep his promise and defy any and all federal court orders forcing integration in his state. So on that fateful day he was determined, and honor-bound, to stand his ground. Part savvy politician, part carnival barker, Wallace certainly had a flair for the dramatic and he had staged quite a show for his rabid fans. For his part, Kennedy had to find a way to enforce federal court orders without playing into Wallace’s hands by turning him into a high-profile martyr for the southern racist cause, let alone keep the peace on a campus swarming with white supremacists itching for a fight. The riots a year earlier between whites and national guard troops at Oxford Mississippi over James Meredith had to have been fresh in his mind. (Listen to Bob Dylan’s Oxford Town)
During the stand-off JFK and his brother Bobby were busy working the phones between Washington and their agent at Alabama, Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. They were very hesitant to just “kick the governor out of the way.” Their primary dilemma: sending troops too soon might set off violence, but waiting too long might be seen as a retreat. Their solution: Malone and Hood waited out of site under a federal marshals’ protection while Katzenbach went forth to confront Wallace face-to-face on the steps of the admissions building. He calmly and respectfully served the court order and listened to the recalcitrant Wallace’s prepared statement. Kennedy then ordered Katzenbach to turn away, walk back to the students, and escort them to their dormitories. It worked! There was no riot, but also no retreat. Wallace was able to save face with his people and leave the scene. Malone and Hood quietly returned the next day and registered without incident.
Alabama was the last American state to desegregate its universities. Luckily, due to the Kennedy brothers’ resolve and quick thinking under pressure, the Tide went out with a whimper and not a bang. That night President Kennedy went on national television to give a groundbreaking speech. In the age of Trump it is important to hear his words again on this important anniversary…
Watch the great documentary on these days by Robert Drew. I read somewhere that this was the first movie that Obama screened when he entered the White House in January 2009? See it below:
Watch NBC News coverage of the standoff at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963
Read Wallace’s telegram to JFK from one month earlier condemning the use of federal troops in Birmingham
Posted in Activism, Bob Dylan, civil rights, Essays, History, Movies & TV, Politics, Video
Tagged Alabama, George Wallace, JFK, Katzenbach, RFK, Trump
A Poem on the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy
Trees are never felled… in summer… Not when the fruit…
is yet to be born… Never before the promise… is fulfilled…
Not when their cooling shade… has yet to comfort…
Yet there are those… unheeding of nature… indifferent to
ecology… ignorant of need… who… with ax and sharpened
saw… would… in boots… step forth damaging…
Not the tree… for it falls… But those who would… in
summer’s heat… or winter’s cold… contemplate… the
— Nikki Giovanni
It was 48 years ago today that Robert F. Kennedy spent his last day on this troubled earth. I remember it well. I was 5 years old. Tears flowed at home. This great one, who had already lost his brother to the bullet, met the same awful fate on that terrible night in Los Angeles. Two months earlier he had delivered the news of MLK’s murder so eloquently…
In this election year of 2016, where we’ve seen violence on the campaign trail not equaled since the turbulent decade of the 1960s, we would do well to stop in our tracks and consider that all the hateful rhetoric– the racism, scapegoating, conspiracy theories and war-mongering– leads to no good end. If we think it can’t happen here, again, we are fooling ourselves.