Turn Your Radio On
Updated: Nov 20, 2022
There was a new generation of music coming on and a new generation of people who wanted to hear it. There was a new generation of radio personalities, too, who wanted to play it for them. They had different ideas about how it should be done and what the purpose was. Traditional radio was about making money. How many ads can you sell for how much? These guys thought it was about the music. About turning people on to what was happening out there where this supernova of creativity was exploding. Nobody else was prepared for the changes to air play they were about to make.
Ron Middag was a young man with a gig playing middle of the road music at KDIG radio in La Jolla, where nobody was too excited about anything, let alone the music they heard on the air. It was 1967 and you were either a Top 40 station, that old war-horse format now in its second decade of exploiting the teenage market and recently revitalized by the British Invasion of mop-topped lads planting catchy tunes in the furrows deeply plowed by the Beatles in ripe American soil; or, you were something else, playing ill-defined songs that might be described as music to hang the wash and do the ironing by or whatever housework was at hand.
It was a job, in other words, and better than working at a car wash or flipping burgers as a means to pay one’s way through school, but Ron was less than thrilled with the product and he was restless. He noticed in the cut out bin at the station one night a promotional copy of an album by Vanilla Fudge and another by Bob Dylan. As often as not he wondered if anyone really was listening anyhow, and it was Oh Dark Thirty, so he mixed in a few tunes from those albums with the Andrews Sisters and Perry Como and whatever else was on the playlist.
“Who was that?” a few callers asked. “What was that shit?” a few others added. Otherwise not much came of it. Until the next day, that is. The Program Director called him into the office. “Let’s try playing some of this new stuff at night,” Ron suggested. “Do that again,” said the P.D., “and you’re fired.” He did and he was.
In the interim, though, he heard a guy named O.B. Jetty playing exactly that kind of music late night on KPRI in San Diego. No hype, intelligent talk, and all these great new albums that were being released. What a concept! He called up Jetty, arranged to visit, got to be tight with him, and soon enough he was working there, too. Inor Gaddim was his moniker. Soon after that, a third guy joined them and the station went Underground 24 hours a day.
Each of them was doing 8 hour shifts, which is no small feat, but the music was great, the audience was growing, the cash register started to ring, and before long they had a full-time staff of deejays and sales people. Round the clock freeform radio in San Diego was born. It was glorious.
There were ups and downs, of course, and before too long new management arrived. They advised – guess what? – a change of format was at hand. Top 40! Wow, what an innovative idea! There were only a few dozen other stations in the market doing exactly that, but when the whiz kids of corporate think birth these random thoughts, it’s like a boulder that breaks loose from the side of a cliff. Best to get out of the way and run for shelter because it will have its way.
So it was at KPRI. The staff quit. All of them except Ron, who was kept on to do freeform programming in the wee hours of the night, which he continued to do brilliantly. Three months later, when the ratings book came out, his show was faring pretty well with listeners. The rest of the station’s shows, the Top 40 stuff, bombed. A disaster.
That elicited a new manager and a return to the underground format. 24/7 intelligent programming. Freeform with an orientation to return to the familiar at some point each hour from whatever extreme you might have explored. It worked well and the station prospered.
A young kid used to call at all hours of the day and night, talking about this or that song, what group needed to be heard, how much he loved this show or that. He was too young to drive, but he would bicycle down to the station for the chance to hang out with the deejays when the opportunity presented itself, which it did increasingly over time. He even met the journalist Lester Bangs there, which was a pivotal moment in his life. Everybody there got to like the kid quite a lot. The feeling was mutual.
Years later he told the folks who were still at the station he was making a movie. Yeah, they said to themselves, isn’t everybody? This is California after all. When he told them he wanted to feature the station in his film, because it had meant so much to him, they laughed. The original location he used to visit was across the street, where a new building had replaced it. KPRI was in different digs these days. Life moves on, you know.
Well, he said, we’ll just build an exact replica of the original for my movie, which he did. Got them to loan him the poster that hung in a place of honor at the old studio, which he faithfully recreated. The kid was grown up now. His name was Cameron Crowe. The movie was Almost Famous.
Alice Wisdom as Gabriel Wisdom
Ron was long gone by then in a career that included stints at several of the paragons of freeform radio, including KMET, KPPC, and KSAN, where he worked with the legendary Tom Donahue. Later, he did many years in television production. Currently, he’s back in radio as chief engineer for a consortium of stations in Hawaii.
He was one of the originators of freeform radio and has become an active supporter of our project to tell the story of that brief, glorious era of broadcasting history. All these years later, he remembers that kid, Cameron Crowe, as someone who perfectly exemplified the audience he and his colleagues wanted to reach and inspire: people for whom the music was at least as important as anything else in their life, maybe more so. Who knew that one of them would be so taken with it that he’d immortalize the experience on film?