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  • Writer's pictureJames Pagliasotti

Freeform Bobbin



Bobbin Beam is, well, amazing. She became a freeform deejay at WZMF-FM radio in Milwaukee, Wisconsin when she was still in high school. It was a happening station, too, rocking all the hippies on the East side of town, and she wanted to do more than just listen.


So, she drove over to the studio in Menomonee Falls, met some guy on the sales staff, and said, "Hey, I'd like to be an announcer. I think its very cool, I'd like to give it a whirl." He tore off some AP wire copy, said, "Lay this down on tape, do some news, some song intros, bring it in to the program director and let's see what happens."

Bobbin did just that. She loved the music, had a great voice, and at all of 17 years old, she returned to the station and cornered the PD while he was on the air. He listened to her tape, listened to her, said, "I think we have a place for you." Voila, a gig! One of the few women on the air at the time. Part-time to start, but she got hold of the microphone. It was radio, the real stuff, play whatever you want.


Oops, her first show was part of a Beatles Bonanza Weekend, where for four or six or whatever hours, she scrambled so fast to find enough of those three minute songs to fill the airwaves that she didn't even have time to pee. But she nailed it. "I was so amped out, completely drained by the time it was over, but I was really excited. I was on a high for a really long time."


The gig got better and better. "I listened a lot to what my radio associates were playing. My teacher was my station. I listened to their technique and what they were playing, and I started to develop my own taste in music. It was quite wide and vast. We really got into ultimate segueways and themes. Even reading live ads was fun because we'd improvise the text."


She'd play Song For Our Ancestors by the Steve Miller Band into Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum. Kind of a sea theme. "I always liked weather segueways, Rain by the Beatles into Riders on the Storm by the Doors, stuff like that. It would flow together musically, or if it was like a beat you could match up with another one - it was so fun!"


"I always loved the music, she'll tell you. When I was a kid, I could find all those great stations on my transistor radio in the dark, WLS, WCFL, WRIT, WOKY. It was all pop music, Top 40, but I was a teeny bopper and I was all in.


"By the time I was in high school, everybody was listening to ZMF. There was a lot of buzz about it. It was so alternative. You'd hear the album version of Light My Fire and Jefferson Airplane - all this great music and everybody was really excited about it. They played incredible music, song after song....."


Once she was working there, she got to know what a community it was that gathered around that station. "They'd call up. They had us in their living room while they were hanging out. They'd call up to request a song, or call up just to talk.


"We'd get calls from the pizza joint on the east side of Milwaukee. They's bring us pizzas at 2:00 in the morning. It felt like a really great community. We were very involved in the community, always trying to listen to what they were about. We all loved what we were doing. The audience loved it, the people who were playing it loved it, it was a love-in, it really was."

"Whatever we were advertising, too. We had all the head shops, record shops, Pizza Man, which was a monster joint on the east side where all the hippies were, and all the people out in the suburbs, just enjoying the music.


"And the record buys, and all the concerts. There was a concert scene really ramping up at the time. It was like this huge liaison of people at the radio station, people in the record stores, people at the head shops - we all knew each other, we all enjoyed each other, and they kept us all in business."

The business began to change a little, but the serious deejays fought to preserve the integrity of their shows. Management inevitably started pushing the need to make more money. Change things a little here, a little there, but the ZMF staff fought to preserve freeform. Things evolved but freeform survived there until 1974.

She credits Bob Reitman, who was a colleague but something of a mentor, too, with helping her move on in the business. She worked at WQFM, one of the bigger stations in the area, a "kinda freeform" station with some limits. "It got tighter as time went on. It really allowed our personalities to come through and I'm really greatful for that.


"I continued to do radio and grew in the industry. I did album-oriented radio, became a program director, all that, and worked eventually at KGB-FM in San Diego, which was one of the very last holdouts from having pre-programmed music spit out by a computer based on focus groups. By 1990 though it changed and that's when I left the business. I started doing voice-over and working as a voice actress, using that timing I learned from radio."


"Freeform mattered because, the music of the time, we were all on a mission, a mission to be together. You think about the times, the War in Vietnam, everybody was against it. We used to end our newscasts every day by saying, 'and the war in Vietnam continues."


"What have we lost? The ability to hear what the hell is new. It was an obsession to be on top of the new Stones or the new whatever, to get the record guy to stop at your station first. We had to grow with the industry, change and morph. What have we lost? The music moved us, it resonated so deeply with us, and I'm just not feeling that anymore."



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