What is Freeform?
Freeform is an aesthetic, an experience, a desire to place artistry and creativity above all else. To learn what Freeform Radio is all about, the best place to start is to listen to the shows and the deejays.
But how did it start? Why did it matter? And what does it have to teach us today?
By James Pagliasotti email@example.com copyright 2022 All Rights Reserved Freeform radio played the curatorial role in making the classic era of rock ‘n’ roll music. Without it, that period of absolutely staggering creativity might never have happened. A lot fewer people would have known about it and had the pleasure of being there when it happened. Freeform radio changed the music business and enabled the counterculture to dominate popular culture for years to come. For all that it accomplished, it was a brief, brilliant, and ultimately doomed experiment in broadcast media, a radical approach to treating the audience like the true beneficiaries of the public airwaves. In its short lifespan, a staggering body of precedent-setting work was achieved. It was one brash gasp of free expression on the FM band. It was unique in the distinct respect it paid its audience. And it was exactly what the new generation of creative musicians needed to succeed. By playing that curatorial role in bringing the new music to the public, freeform radio became the critical component in producing that rich foundational era of our culture. A few daring custodians of the public airwaves prioritized the audience and the public good in that storied time. Some of them were courageous and visionary. Some were merely desperate. Whatever took them there, it wasn’t to last. Doom was delivered by media corporations that bought them all and turned them into propaganda mills shilling for advertisers. Before they did, freeform opened the airwaves to innovative musicians who were ready to change the face of popular music. All they needed was access. In its time, freeform radio brought that great music and all those innovative bands into the public consciousness when no one else would give them airplay. It gave those musicians the exposure that made their music known to a loyal and discerning audience that was hungry for more. It was a custom atmosphere that was perfect for the times. On these few very influential stations, the unofficial underground radio network, there was a place where it all came together in a new, inventive, and highly productive way: the songwriters who wrote the music, the bands who played it, the record companies that produced it, the stations that broadcast it, the promoters who booked the concerts, and the huge audience of fans who made it the soundtrack of their life. And they thrived. Creativity was the calling card. Freeform radio was the facilitator. There’s never been anything like it before or since. It’s a tale worth telling by the people who were there. * Treatment It was called underground radio. Freeform was a better name for it. Radio without walls. No separation between the different genres or types of music. No restriction on what you could play if you were at the console, turntables at the ready, microphone looming, records in hand. “I can play whatever I want?” you’d ask the program director. “Anything that works,” he’d say. What he meant was: “if it doesn’t suck.” This radio was different. Intentionally so. It was diverse, absent the traditional approach of segregating music into different types for different audiences. Great music, the freeform players realized, works together whatever the genre. Can Shostakovich, Jimi Hendrix, and Dizzy Gillespie fit together in a musical set? Of course, they can. Add Woody Herman, Pee Wee Herman, Flatt & Scruggs, Bach, Kate Smith and Bessie Smith. It works. Brilliantly. They proved it, day after day, show after show. Where did it come from? The cosmos, it seems. But there’s an earthier answer. Television created Top 40 radio by freeing up all those stations on the AM band from the service they used to provide: news, weather, sports, entertainment. Instead of gathering around the radio, people now settled down in front of a little green screen. What to do with all those radio stations? Hello, rock ‘n’ roll. There were lots of kids with cars, transistor radios, a craving for excitement, a need for music. Radio brought it to them. On nearly every frequency, it seemed. Don’t like that tune, spin the dial, push that button, there’s another song playing on another station. Sooner or later, you’d find a good one. Go, go, go, Johnny B. Goode. Right? The sound was tinny, and it was monaural, but the signal carried all over town, all over the state, all over an entire sector of the country in some cases. The songs were played in the order dictated by the program director. The hyper-amped deejays distinguished themselves by their quirky personalities. Pukers, they were called. They knew how to talk, but not too much of anything about the music. They didn’t need to. Just play what you’re told when you’re told as you’re told. And stars were made. Alan Freed, Dick Clark, Casey Kasem, Cousin Brucie, Charlie Tuna, Murray the K, Wolfman Jack. “Ah-oo! Ah-oooo! The Wolfman coming atcha!” Money was made, too. Lots of it, baby. So much in fact that payola put a big dent in all that fun. Record company promoters paying deejays to play their songs. Who’d a thunk it? They all played the same songs anyhow. Over and over again. The ones who got paid played some songs a lot more than others. Talked them up. Pushed them up the charts. Made hits of songs that deserved it and many more that didn’t. It wasn’t a way to build trust with the audience, but it sure worked for the record touts and advertisers. That’s all that really mattered. * It came to us when we were kids in the tents we made from the bedsheets at night lit by the dial of the transistor radio with a cord to a bud that was plugged in our ear and all those breathtaking sounds it brought our way. Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, Teresa Brewer, Fats Domino, Lonnie Donegan, Nervous Norvus, the Platters, Gogi Grant, Bill Haley and the Comets, and, of course, Elvis. That was 1956. We did socials and sock hops and the parties our friends threw and all of it was about the music. Sonny James, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Knox, Sam Cooke, Ferlin Husky, Johnny Mathis, Marty Robbins, Ricky Nelson, Tommy Sands, Billy Williams, the Del Vikings, the Rays. Well, it was all about the music and the girls, too. 1957 flowed into 1958. Elvis joined the Army. The Champs, Conway Twitty, Cozy Cole, the Elegants, the Silhouettes, Danny & the Juniors, the Coasters, Monotones, Little Anthony & the Imperials, Jimmy Clanton, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bobby Freeman. It just kept coming. Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, the Big Bopper. Roger Peterson, too. February 3, 1959. The Day the Music Died. Somehow it was the beginning of the end. At least for a while. Payola. Crapola. Top 40 radio that was paid for and sounded like it. That’s all there was. Local radio. KIMN in Denver, yes, Pogo Poge, Jay Mack, Roy “the Bellboy” Gunderson, even Gary Owens. At night there was more. WLS Chicago, KOMA Oklahoma, KAAY Little Rock, Arkansas, and in a few years hence, XERF in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico with a signal so powerful it was said to kill birds in flight that flew too near its mighty tower. You could hear it all over the United States. The Wolfman comin’ atcha, baby! * If reach defines broadcasting success, Robert Weston Smith was the epitome of Top 40 radio at its peak power. He knocked around in the shadow of the greats of early rock radio, created one piece at a time a persona that became the infamous Wolfman Jack, and in 1963 became the most widely heard deejay in the business by joining XERF across the border from Del Rio, Texas. The station broadcast at 250,000 watts, five times the maximum allowed U.S. stations. As he famously said, “You can drive from New York to Los Angeles and never lose the station.” There were a number of Top 40 jocks who became well known, guys like Alan Freed, Murray the K, Cousin’ Brucie. None of them had the reach and impact of Wolfman Jack over the years. Only American Bandstand producer Dick Clark reached a national audience and only on television. On radio, nobody played to a bigger audience for all those years than the Wolfman. His role playing himself in American Graffiti included a fractional piece of the gross, which reputedly set him up financially for the rest of his very active life. The Doors and the Dead both paid tribute in song to his legacy, which lives on in syndication of his old radio shows long after his passing in 1995, fittingly maybe it can be said of a heart attack immediately after a broadcast. The Wolfman still comin’ atcha! * In those early days, for everybody in the music business, it was all about record sales. On the road, you did the best you could not to lose your ass. You played clubs, joined little barnstorming tours, maybe got lucky and appeared on Bandstand or one of those other television shows, and none of it made you money. Not much, anyhow, even at best. At worst, you ran up a debt against sales. Selling records was the goal. The way you sold records was air play. All those gigs, the back-breaking travel, shitty motels, road food, the obnoxious promoters, rowdy crowds, schlepping gear from town to town, all of it got you a little attention. What made or broke you was radio. That’s how you reached those pubescent kids full of wonder and dreams who just might make you part of their soundtrack if they heard your song enough to take it in, dig it, buy a .45 at the local record store, call for it on the request line of their favorite station, tell all their friends about it so that they might do that, too. If all that came together for you and you reached enough of them like that, you just might make a buck or two. You just might get to cut another record. Rinse and repeat. Radio ruled the business. * Folk music by 1960 was the place to be. But only a little of it ever got played on the radio, the Kingston Trio, New Christy Minstrels, the Smothers Brothers, the commercial version if any at all. Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley. The really good stuff was hard to find, late at night, here and there. Sometimes at that junction where folk music, blues, rhythm & blues, and country music merged. Roots Shows, they were called, and you were lucky to find them. Or maybe your town had a black station. Good on you if you did. If you could find them, there they were: Josh White, Leadbelly, Mavis Staples, Woody Guthrie, Flatt & Scruggs, Bukka White, Big Mama Thornton, Odetta, Pete Seeger, and later Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Carolyn Hester, Jack Elliott, Judy Collins, Tim Buckley, Dave Van Ronk, and, of course, Bob Dylan. That was the music that was happening, the singers and players who mattered, but they got very little airplay. Top 40 radio kept churning out the crap and all the stations were minting money. The music they played was all you knew if radio was your only source. It sucked but it’s what it was. The good music was being made in clubs but nobody else got to hear it. There were exceptions but they were rare. An actor in New York named Bob Fass got a gig midnight to 6:00 a.m. on the Pacifica station WBAI, where he created a show called Radio Unnameable, which was long on politics, drama, and anything goes music. “Good morning, cabal,” he’d announce as the clock ticked off the first minute of a new day. He and colleague Steve Post a few years later played not a whole lot of music but what they did play was of their own choosing, so freeform in that sense. No less a celebrity than Wavy Gravy called Fass “the father of freeform radio” and Ralph Engleman, in his book, Public Radio & TV in America: A Political History, cites Fass as "the first to develop the full potential of free-form radio and make it a major vehicle of the counterculture.” Be that as it may, he was an early example of the vast potential for anarchic artistry in radio when freedom is permitted. * The Beatles saved Top 40 radio in 1964. They ushered in the British Invasion. The Stones, The Who, the Yardbirds, Herman’s Hermits, Chad & Jeremy, the Hollies, the Animals, the Dave Clark Five, Them, the Kinks, Small Faces, Gerry & the Pacemakers. Pop music, sure, but good pop music. Those very hot three-minute tunes that crackled like fireworks and got the teenagers bopping again. By 1966 things were changing. Pop and Folk and Rock were converging. Blues and Country, too. Three albums in particular tipped the scales: Blonde On Blonde by Bob Dylan, Pet Sounds by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, both released in May of that year, and one month later, Freak Out by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Everybody was listening to those albums, especially the musicians. But they got no airplay on Top 40 stations. Their songs were too long and too complex to fit the format. Some people on air actually heard the coming tide that was about to wash over them. That awareness, vague though it was, would converge with regulatory changes to tee up a new moment in broadcasting, one that although short-lived was perhaps its most creative. Perhaps, too, it was a wrinkle in time where listeners actually came first. That wave would become a tsunami. Some of the big names in rock ‘n’ roll broadcasting dipped a toe in the tide just before it flattened them. At WOR-FM in New York, much was made about cleaving it from the dominant AM station in anticipation of the coming FCC non-duplication rule. They purchased stereo equipment, announced that big name deejays Murray the K, Scott Muni, Johnny Michaels, and Bill Mercer would be helming this new station, of which it was said the new programming policy would encompass all types of popular music. Robert A. Smith, VP of WOR said, “We will not have shouting disc jockeys on FM, But if there can be a quality rock station, that’s what we will be.” (Italics added). Sounds as though maybe he had his doubts. And for good reason. Labor issues were said to prevent the deejays from working when the launch date arrived July 30, 1966. The union insisted they be paid the same rate as AM personnel. WOR wanted to pay less. So the new format for several months became “discs without jockeys,” a canned broadcast of songs chosen who knows how but not well. By the time the illustrious foursome finally came aboard, they were formidable in introducing new music, but free as their individual choices may have been, the format was hits oriented and a “top 100” approach to a playlist. Whatever the shortcomings of this brief corporate flirtation with innovation, WOR-FM accomplished something notable for what it signified about the future of this FM band: its audience came not from other stations, although there was some of that, but rather by attracting new listeners, people who were looking for something better than Top 40 pap. Among college students especially, there was evidence that loyalty was being built that better stations to come would successfully cultivate. Although the station achieved enviable ratings, the suits at WOR began to exert control. By October of 1967, the playlist had shrunk to barely 30 albums. Bill Mercer, the highly regarded “Rosco” of its late night broadcast, resigned on the air in a heartfelt five minute statement to his listeners, whom he told, ''When are we going to learn that controlling something does not take it out of the minds of people?'' and declaring, ''In no way can I feel that I can continue my radio career by being dishonest with you.'' Within a month, Muni and Michaels left, too. Muni joined Rosco across town at WNEW-FM, a Metromedia station that swooped up the “progressive” format WOR so quickly had abandoned, opened it up to a true freeform format, and became legendary. It is widely and passionately argued whether WNEW or KMPX was the “first” freeform radio station, but it hardly matters. Late in 1967, a new type of radio was birthed on the FM band and spread from both coasts into the interior of the country, making the new music available in ways broadcasting never before had been done. It was magical. * Thank god for college radio stations. That’s where freeform radio often could be found and still is on little stations with a signal that maybe covers the campus and a few blocks into the neighborhood. Students and others with a passion for the music and a powerful desire to communicate are bringing tunes to the audience unimpeded by the powers that be. Sometimes, yeah, it’s self-indulgent, sometimes less artistry and more sheer bravado, but still it’s a place where the spirit lives and a modicum of freedom on the airwaves is allowed. That’s the point, after all: if you let it rip, sometimes the genie gets out of the bottle and wishes are granted. The length of the song was not an issue, only whether or not it rang their bell. It’s all about kids looking for the good stuff to play. That’s the tradition that perseveres. One such, WFMU, has persevered since 1958 when it began at Upsala College in New Jersey, until 1968 when it became a freeform station, through many an up and down time, a strike and walkout by the staff, an administration that reasserted its authority and control of the station, which gradually over the next few years drifted back to freeform, through the purchase of the license by Auricle Communications, a non-profit consortium of the station’s executives shortly before the college went broke and disbanded in 1995. Unlike many underpowered stations, WFMU broadcasts on a 1250 watt transmitter and, with translators and repeaters, it covers New York City, the Hudson Valley, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. In 2005, it began livestreaming its content. It’s a major player in the major market in the U.S. and available on the internet worldwide, too. Under the leadership of General Manager Ken Freedman since 1985 and as an independent, listener-supported community station since 1995, KFMU lays claim to being the longest running freeform radio station in the country. Rolling Stone named it the best in the country four years running in the early 1990s. It truly is the keeper of the freeform flame and a guidepost for others who might want to reestablish the format. Community stations in cities and towns large and small are listener-supported and laser focused on serving their audience. Many of them will tell you they are freeform, and this is where that term of art becomes muddied and loses its clarity. These are stations that have two similarities: they try to offer something for everyone in their community and nearly all of them are affiliated with National Public Radio. So. independent as they may consider themselves to be, they are part of a broadcast network. They fly that flag. It is a part of their brand and a measure of their prestige. That is, some portion if not much of what they broadcast is syndicated and has the quality of sameness that is so stifling in the reach for diversity. It is lefty, it is well done, but it is network. The other part of that equation is the freeform piece, which is usually “freeform” country, or jazz, or rock, or bluegrass, free playing within specific genres. It misses one of the greatest aspects of true freeform broadcasting, which is the symbiotic nature of music that crosses, defies, rejects genre labeling and plays freely in the big garden of tunes. Still, especially in rural America, on the reservations of sovereign nations of Native American people, and in the places where nothing else but corporate radio reaches, community radio is a great gift to the listener, precisely because that listener is first in the list of priorities being served by the use of those public airwaves. It is radio as a basis of community, a voice for those who share it, a place to gather. Give thanks! Thanks, too, for those rare examples of independent radio tied to Foundation funding, where people speak up about what matters to them and do so freely. That was KPFA in 1949 Berkeley, KPFK in Los Angeles, and soon thereafter WBAI in New York City, the flagship stations funded by Lewis Hill’s Pacifica foundation, and later KPFT in Houston and WPFW in Washington, DC. They were the first non-commercial community stations in the country and the root of a grand tradition of no limits radio. Many more were soon to follow. It was radical radio, to be sure. They led in 1962 to KRAB in Seattle where Lorenzo Milam established a successful listener-supported station that by 1968 had spawned a version in Portland, Oregon at KBOO. This was radio specifically intended to broadcast a liberal point of view, one that differed from the standard corporate perspective and the conservative orientation of so many American station owners throughout the country’s Midwestern breadbasket. These stations, at least the Pacifica affiliates, were in it for the long run, politics more than music was their daily bread, and there was the thrill of hearing something other than the corporate propaganda and relentless advertising that most radio was coming to express in unadulterated and unapologetic form. They were free in a way radio had never explored before, but it would again soon enough. They were the forerunners. The landscape in broadcasting had changed and by 1967 new opportunities were there for the taking. The Pacifica example was a harbinger of freedom on the airwaves and therefore for the arts and artful living, too. Commercial freeform radio owes it thanks. * The Federal Communications Commission had a major case of indigestion. They took a couple of years to run the traps and work up the courage to ordain that the time had come for more stations to populate the public airwaves. They were needed to serve the public good the FCC finally decreed and ordered in 1967. Henceforth an entity that owned an AM and FM band in the same market could no longer simulcast the lucrative AM programming on its little listened to FM sister station. Wow! That meant all these companies now would have to create original content and pay the freight to do it. Who me? they asked. What to do? Television created Top 40 radio and FM radio created the Classic Era of Rock Music. It was as simple as that. Here’s why. All of a sudden, stations all over the country that had been mere afterthoughts with tiny audiences and very limited means were up for grabs. So too were the FM bands of large corporate-owned stations in major markets. In both cases, the question still was how to fill the hours on air and how to do it cheaply. The attitude underlying it was: We got the airwaves, whatta you got to offer? It applied both to what talent to use where and also to how much do we dare to invest in any new programming venture? What are these licenses suddenly worth? Big market stations drew larger offers, but all of these little ducklings became swans and there was a froth in the pool of FM radio where little noted licenses to broadcast suddenly had cachet. Lots of creative young people had something to offer, gameplans especially attractive to those smaller stations that were likely to be mom and pop operations. Most of them had never made a nickel. These folks who approached them were not name talent, not for the most part, and few of them ever would be. But they had novel and inexpensive ideas about programming, just enough of the lingua franca of radio to be convincing, and a certainty that lots of people want to hear what they’re going to play. Their pitch was simple: “Do it our way and we’ll work for cheap. In a couple of months we’ll be making money and we can split the take.” More than a few of the station owners said, “Well, yeah!” And off they went together into the great beyond. * Tom Donahue is listening to rock & roll on LSD in 1967 San Francisco and says to himself, “This music has to be heard in stereo. AM radio is a rotting corpse stinking up the airwaves.” He starts calling FM stations listed in the phone book. When he finds one that’s disconnected, he says to his wife, Raechel, “Get my power tie and blow dry my hair. This is gonna be big.” He meets with the owner, Leon Cosby, who appears to be deep in debt and makes a deal to format the station. He, Raechel, and some friends take over the airwaves. KMPX is born as freeform radio. It’s joyous, creative, inclusive, exciting. Something entirely new on the airwaves. What’s not to like? The problems quickly emerge that will haunt freeform radio in the struggle between artistic freedom and management control. Tom’s time at the station doesn’t last long, but his timing is perfect and the example he sets unleashes a “spontaneous discovery” that resonates across the country. Pretty soon he is running KPPC in Pasadena and KMET in Los Angeles, and then KSAN in San Francisco. Freeform radio is happening not just all over California; suddenly it’s happening everywhere. Charles Laquidara is an aspiring actor in Los Angeles. Aspiring but not inspiring. He has a part-time job playing classical music on KPPC in Pasadena, which is not exactly burning up the ratings. But it’s a gig. He does late night shifts when probably nobody is listening. He struggles with the names of some of these composers, but he enjoys the music. Thinks sometimes about whether you could play, say, Jimi Hendrix with a guy like Shostakovich, or maybe Bach and the Stones in a set. He tries it and it works pretty well. Sometimes people call and say, “Wow, that was cool” or “What was that crap?” Charles decides to bag the acting, which is going nowhere, and heads home to Boston. He hears some tunes on WBCN-FM and they’re really good. Calls the station and gets the PD, tells him he really likes what they’re doing. Guy says, “Who are you.” Charles tells him and the guy says, “Oh, you’re that crazy guy who plays Borodin with The Who. Why don’t you come on down?” Offers Charles a gig replacing Peter Wolf who’s leaving to start the J. Geils Band. It’s the beginning of something big. Freeform radio in Boston, where about 15 colleges are within a stone’s throw of the station. It’s a great success. Thirty years later, Charles retires. “Really only 28,” he says. “I took two years off when the show was interfering with my cocaine habit.” Ron Middag is playing middle of the road music on KDIG in La Jolla. In the middle of one fated night, he plays some Dylan and Vanilla Fudge. Next morning, the program director calls him in to the office. Ron says, “Let’s try some of this music late at night.” The PD says, “Do that again and you’re fired.” He does and is. One night before he gets canned, he hears some tunes on KPRI in San Diego, a station a lot like his, except now at O Dark Thirty they’re playing the kind of music he wants to hear. So do a lot of other people. Rock ‘n’ roll, the good stuff, no jive deejays, none of those screaming commercials, just really good songs rolling out one after another with a very mellow guy named O.B. Jetty saying intelligent things about the music, about life. Late night only, right, but a place to start. Ron gets a gig there and soon enough they are freeform 24/7. At one point they were third in the ratings and the audience flat-out loved them. One of them was a young kid named Cameron Crowe, who grew up to be a filmmaker. Soon enough the station will be Almost Famous. Jason Sherman flunks out of college and immediately gets drafted. Good morning, Vietnam! He’s assigned to an artillery battery but somehow slides his way into a gig on local radio station KLIK. Does Bing, Sinatra, Glen Campbell, the Chi-Lites playlist daytime, but gets a show Saturday nights from 10-2 where he can play whatever he wants. “An Intrusion On Your Mind,” he calls it. Armed with a bag of Vietnamese reefer, $5 a pound or $10 for the opiated version, he lets it rip. Jimi, Janis, the Stones, the Who, Procol fuckin’ Harum. The troops love it. Most of ‘em do. Country Joe gets a few calls saying, “You commie hippie creep,” but mostly folks have a sense of humor. When his tour is up, he tells his boss he’s headed for Boulder, Colorado and would love another radio gig. The colonel says, “I want you to look up a guy named Bill Ashford.” He does. Bill Ashford is doing Top 40 in Fayetteville, North Carolina, then a little bit of freeform. Grew up in radio, hanging around the local stations, trying anything he can to get a gig. He does, a couple of them now at different stations and this one’s the best so far. The audience is mostly young guys in the 82nd Airborne at Ft. Bragg, most of them scared shitless and getting ready to ship out to Vietnam. Music is the lifeline and Bill is playing it. He hangs out at The Other Side, a club where all the folk singers play. One of them just in from New York is Judy Roderick, Woman Blue, who wins his heart. He’s on the way to Denver, a Doubleday station KMYR-FM is going to go freeform. She’s heading there to play The Exodus, another club on the circuit. Kismet, you know. Sandy Phelps plays The Other Side, too. Knows Bill and Judy both, him from being interviewed at the club and her from crossing paths as folksingers in New York. Sandy is tiring of the East Coast scene and itching to get back to Colorado, where she grew up. Everybody is heading West these days and Sandy is one of them. Soon enough she’ll become one of the first of very few women on air in freeform radio. And she will do it very well, thank you. Jason Sherman says, “We all had cute girls hanging around, but Sandy had the cutest.” Brian Kreizenbeck wants a gig at KMYR, but they won’t hire him. His reputation for creativity precedes him. Got him into trouble more than once. He was Denver’s first freeform radio guy, midnight to 6 a.m. on KFML-AM&FM, a classical music station, middle of the road music station, everything and anything music station that was perpetually losing its ass. Brian said let me do my thing, I’ll sell the ads, we’ll split the profits. Owner said, okay. Brian soon enough is absolutely kicking ass. The Super Warthog on a roll. Revenues in short order grow to nearly $5 grand a month. Everybody is listening to his show. It’s not easy to fill 6 hours of airtime seven nights a week. He does a lot of music and a lot of comedy, too. One night he pastes a Tiny Tim laugh track on top of a recruitment spot for the Denver Police Department. Fits perfectly, runs verbatim overlayed with hysterical laughter. One night, some insomniac in the mayor’s office hears it and is not amused. Brian is sent packing. He’ll be back. Tommy T is doing top 40 radio at SuperSound Kay-Pix in Salt Lake City and the occasional television gig, weatherman with an attitude. Stands in front of the green screen, describing weather patterns, “a cool front” down here and “partly cloudy” up here, “easterly winds” and “altitudes,” this phenomenon and that, each of them penciled in with a single capital letter on the board, and when he finishes his rap, he points to the screen where it says in big puffy letters: “Peace is Cool.” Thom says, “That’s what’s happening,” and is promptly fired. His top 40 gig pretty much sucks, too, but he does amazing production, ads, station IDs, public service announcements, that sort of stuff with a deep voice and a measure of élan, and soon enough, Doubleday comes calling. KMYR in Denver wants him on staff. Freeform radio in the sorta big city. Thom Trunnell is there! Soon enough he’s program director. After a while, the staff is fired. Some go to WLS in Chicago. Some to KRNW in Boulder. All of them have a good time. Late 1968, a hipster character in Boulder by the name of Steve Thoresen calls me up and says, “There’s this crazy guy named Bob Wilkinson who has a little FM station in town. Does a classical show 6 to 10 p.m. Only 5 watts but it could be cool. I talked him into letting us do 10 to 2 a.m. Wanna split the nights with me?” Headhunter and the Electric Cowboy we call ourselves and bring albums from home to play on the air. KRNW-FM in Boulder. There’s only one turntable in a funky two-room studio on the second floor downtown, but the signal reaches most of the town and up some of the canyons a way into the mountains. It isn’t long before we’re getting some attention. People calling, coming by, bringing presents, sometimes albums to play, beer and reefer, very cute friends, and we are having a great time. Shortly, Bob agrees to go fulltime freeform, except for his 4-hour classical show. First hire is Brian Kreizenbeck, then Bill Ashford, Sandy Phelps, Buffalo Chip, and it grows from there. Butch Grayer, Marcello Cabus, Michael Muirhead, Bernard Heitman, Scotty Coen, me, a few others do weekend shows and fill in here and there. The station makes a little money and gains a lot of attention. There comes a time very soon where you never miss a song that is playing no matter where you are or what you’re doing because KRNW is blasting from every hipster home and shop in town. There are lots of them. * The classic period of rock ‘n’ roll. Where did it come from and how did it happen? It’s a question worth asking if we want to give credit where credit’s due, and particularly if we want to wonder why radical radio mattered. It wasn’t Jerry Garcia who made it happen. It wasn’t Janis Joplin or Ed Cassidy, Grace Slick or Arthur Lee. It wasn’t Jim Morrison or Joni Mitchell, the Byrds or the Band or The Who or the Stones. It wasn’t the Beatles. It wasn’t even Bob Dylan. They are the artists who wrote and sang and played the songs, but it was people you may never have heard of that gave them the reach, the connection, the freedom to grow as artists beyond the Top 40 cliché as pop stars that some of them had achieved and some others never would. Those people provided the musicians the cultural impact that made the classic era of rock ‘n’ roll. Without them it never would have happened. It was freeform radio, the underground broadcasting network, that raised counterculture into the mainstream and gave it the voice to dominate popular culture for years to come. Rock ‘n’ roll at its essence is about freedom. That brief, brilliant era of unbound freedom on the public airwaves is what allowed that brilliant music to flourish. There was magic in the kingdom of rock ‘n’ roll where you lived and breathed a world of imagination and possibility as a kid. Maybe someday your name will be in lights. That was the dream and it reached millions of kids, many of whom eventually did make the marquee and played the tunes for all the rest of the dreamers. Top 40 radio gave us a taste of what could be, but freeform radio was the banquet. It was a feast for the senses and a vivid introduction to what creativity is all about when artistry is the focus and adventure is the purpose. We went places nobody had been. * David Shepardson is doing the lights at The Matrix on Fillmore Street in the Bermuda Triangle of San Francisco circa 1967. Steve Miller is the house band, while folks like Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, the Blues Project with Al Kooper from the East Coast, a couple of Chicago-based bands like Butterfield Blues Band, Siegel-Schwall Band, and many others who were making the new music came to play. The original house band was a little group called Jefferson Airplane, whose lead singer, Marty Balin, had founded the club in 1965 and succeeded in getting no less a music critic than the Chronicle’s Ralph J. Gleason to come see the band. His reviews of their performances helped launch them and the San Francisco sound. A short time later, David is watching all these great bands pack the little 100 seat club night after night. He notices the suits come in, executives from Columbia Records and some of the other companies, one of whom signs the Steve Miller Band to a recording contract. “This is going to be big,” David says to himself of the scene that’s developing right before his eyes, “and I want to be part of it.” Bands are recording albums at the club, a few attempts anyhow by The Great Society, Big Brother, maybe a few others, which gives him a great idea. He puts together a marketing plan, and takes it to KMPX radio, which is still tearing up the airwaves well after Tom Donahue launched freeform radio there the year before and now has departed for other ventures in radioland. David’s message is basic. “Let’s broadcast these concerts live on the air.” He gets hired by Martin Diamond, manager of the station for National Science Network, who’s trying to get his arms around this successful but unruly operation. It takes time to get the live-cast concept going, but he persists. One of the hottest acts in the country, the Ike and Tina Turner Review, is scheduled at Basin Street West in North Beach. David pitches them and they go for it. This is going to be huge. Instead of a few hundred people hearing them at the club, tens of thousands of listeners all over town will be the audience. Stan Gurell, NSN honcho, flies in from New York for the gig, which is electric. Tina has a very suggestive way of playing with the mic while she sings, and manages to drop a few F-bombs, too. “This is going out live?” Gurell asks. “Yes,” David says. “No tape delay?” “It’s live on air.” The show is a huge success and precedent setting in rock ‘n’ roll broadcasting, but Gurell doesn’t get it. It scares him. It’s the only live-cast they do on his watch. He takes a pass, but Shepardson remembers just how great it was. A time will come on KFML in Denver where he’s doing them weekly and making a great station even greater. For now, KMPX is going south fast. The Collective, as the on-air staff is known, is led by Roland Young, a Black Panther who does great shows in between long soliloquies on burning down the country. He and the Berserklies from across the Bay roll into town, play a few tunes, berate the government and corporate America, rile up the public and go home for the evening, letting the embers smolder. Politics of course is a big part of the counterculture concerns. Everybody in the new radio movement wants hard-hitting news coverage that tells it like it is. Some though are more strident than others and music comes second to the proselytizing when they get hold of the mic. The attitude of the staff in general is reason enough that management is nervous, but the radical diatribes live on air by some of them puts the suits in a tizzy. Thom Trunnell is brought in from WLS in Chicago to serve as management whipping boy, a truly losing proposition. “I could have been Mahatma Gandhi and they would have hated me,” he says about the situation. The Collective goes out on yet another strike, which is fast becoming a tradition at the station. Demands are made by both sides, the station gets bomb threats, all hell is breaking loose, and local media can’t get enough of the story. Soon enough the Collective is fired. Or quits. Hard to tell which. Trunnell brings in Bill Ashford, Brian Kreizenbeck, Reno Nevada, his brother Buffalo Chip, and a few others. A new staff for whom playing music was the purpose. “They talked a lot more than we did,” Kreizenbeck said. “They were older than we were, and five or ten years difference was a lot back then.” Great talent was assembled in the aftermath of the strike but good as their shows were, their days were numbered. That was fast becoming a tradition, too, in freeform radio. * It wasn’t just about radio, of course. It wasn’t just about the music, either. It was about a way of life. These new radio people were trying consciously to live it. For them, it was about the choices we could make and the outcomes we wanted to achieve. It was about who we were as people and what kind of a community we wanted to build. And there was an audience for it. It grew from a generation of kids who were disillusioned by the dark underbelly of the American Dream. Like George Carlin said, “You have to be asleep to believe it.” In just a few years it morphed into a counterculture movement that became the predominant culture of the times. Wall Street was dazzled, but that isn’t what mattered. What matters about it is that it ushered in a period of unprecedented creativity in living and being. It was manifest in all sorts of endeavors, especially the arts. And the art that was most attuned to the times was music. A lot of things went into this concoction, but the essential element was freedom. It was a way of being and a way of allowing things to be. It wasn’t always easy or comfortable, it wasn’t without pain, but most of the time it was wonderous and what it taught us was worth all the effort. All these years later, there is a totemic quality about it we can look to when life seems to be unmoored and we need something better that is possible if we want it. And if we remember it. * Bill Ashford is standing in front of the big oak consul in the living room, listening to show tunes, waving his arms to the rhythm of the music like a symphony orchestra conductor. When a voice came on at the end of the song, he realized a little man lived inside the radio and he couldn’t think of a better place to be. Soon enough a time would come when Bill was the man in the radio. He still couldn’t think of a better place to be. He’s six years old but already for him the music is everything. His father is an Army General, so home is all over the place. One thing is consistent. The big oak consul and the music. And Bill conducting. Back to Fayetteville, North Carolina near where he was born. A teenager now, he starts hanging out on the sidewalk where the big glass window at the local radio station WFNC gives passersby a view of the deejay inside playing the tunes. Bill doesn’t pass by. He hangs out day after day and when he’s a little older night after night. Finally gets invited in. Made it. He’s 14 years old and soon has his own show! The die is cast. Bill will spend the rest of his life in radio. And spend it making the music matter. He does radio in North Carolina, in Denver and Boulder, in San Francisco, in Denver again, and in Lake Tahoe. Then Denver again at KLAK, progressive country, and later a series of gigs in the Midwest. When the glory days are past, he does The Rock Garden from his home with his wife, Gail, in Florida, four hours live each evening and another twenty he programs and plays from the can on the internet. Back in the day, he knows the Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man, and he knows all the rest of the promo men, too. But he also knows Mick and Keith, who ask his advice. They’ve done pop, rock, blues, some psychedelic music, Studio 54 disco. They’re doing country-tinged tunes these days, trying to crack that audience, too. “How can we get to the country and western market,” they ask him. “A good place to start,” he tells Mick, “would be to quit making fun of them.” Good advice for a guy who wrote Far Away Eyes, Sweet Virginia, Torn and Frayed, country flavored with a wry twist. Bill commands respect from everybody in the business because, like him or not, his shows are awesome. Nobody disagrees. Ask who does the best shows in the freeform era and you’ll hear a lot of different names, because all these folks took their music seriously and a lot of them did great work, but anyone who ever heard him on the air will tell you Bill Ashford is right up there with the best. Bill knows his music and he wants you to know it, too. As music director at a lot of important stations in the day, he built libraries that were essential to doing the shows these radio artists wanted to do. “The idea,” as Thom Trunnell said, “was to be in a room playing a tune and whatever song you wanted to play next, it was there where you could grab it and keep the mini-orgasm going.” Bill was the one who made that a reality. He was infamous for visiting folks, looking through their record collections, pulling out one or two albums and saying, “We need this for the library,” and confiscating the records. It was for the greater good, after all, and many of his victims would tell you they felt honored to have music that Bill wanted. * Freeform radio was breaking out all over. From Boston and New York to Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and a whole lot of little towns and cities in between. A super nova of cosmic proportions was happening in the culture of the times. Radical, it was. Radio was how you heard about it. Little FM stations that nobody ever had heard of suddenly had an audience, made the ratings, even made a few bucks. It was wild, exciting, a little dangerous even, and after a while the folks that owned the stations became more than a little nervous. There was a cultural aspect to freeform radio that tilted way to the anti-establishment side of things, the counterculture, freaks, hippies, peaceniks. A big part of that was resistance to the war in Vietnam and the people who were profiting from it by the people who were in danger of being drafted to fight it. They and their friends believed in peace, love, and rock ‘n’ roll. The powers that be took exception. So, beginning with the Nixon Administration in 1969, there was pressure in the form of implied threats coming from Washington, DC that was directly aimed at the emerging freeform radio format. The target was songs that glorified drugs. That will teach ‘em. Rock ‘n’ roll had always been labeled a threat to our youth. But now it was a left-wing threat. A political sticker affixed to its chest. That alone should validate its importance in broadcast history. But it certainly gave ownership pause, being federally licensed as they were and not certain themselves how far out on this rocking, rolling limb they were willing to go. Middle of the road seemed so attractive when you’re in the passing lane. * How the new radio stations handled the news was often a matter of what they could afford, sometimes a function of cautious management, and if you were lucky as many were, it was another salvo of innovation and insight fired into the airwaves. Little stations like KRNW in Boulder had no production facilities at all and not even a newswire, at least in the early days. Where we got the news to read over the air escapes memory, but wherever it came from and whatever it was, it met the bare minimum the license required, if that. There was plenty of intensely local reporting, such as the time a home burned down, children were lost, and help was needed, or when bad drugs were said to be making the rounds: “the windowpane is said to be causing bad trips, but the orange sunshine is still groovy,” or when people called in to say they needed housing, a ride to San Francisco, had located a lost dog, and so forth. So there was that, which isn’t all bad by any means. There were the stations, many of them the corporate stepchildren taking a brief flyer on progressive radio but keeping the news reports closely controlled, stories developed from the AP newswire and heavily influenced by government propaganda. Whatever music they might be playing, however hip the deejays, broadcasting that pablum in the guise of news was anathema to what freeform radio was all about. Then there were the innovators, the ones willing to broadcast the counterculture view of the tumult of everyday life in increasingly toxic America. “It was very progressive in its focus,” says Jim Clancy, the longtime foreign correspondent for CNN who left KCFR in Denver to join KFML in 1971 and ran its news department for several years at a time when it was being created from whole cloth. “It tried to bring what mattered most to young people, to their lives, as news they wouldn’t hear anywhere else. Nobody else was going to focus on that.” Scoop Nisker, the noted and some would say notorious news director at KSAN in San Francisco, was perhaps the most skilled practitioner of the soundscapes that were created as context for presenting the news. Using songs, sound effects, street noises, voices overdubbed, all as context for his news reports. No better example exists of this form of newscasting and the environment in which it evolved than Nisker’s famed report on the Kent State massacre, titled Seven Days in May, which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WS9vStrE-QI * Freeform. Think about what that word means. It does not mean free of structure. There is form, but it’s free. Form that emerges from a place without central direction, control, or planning. Unbound. Unpredictable. Uncompromised. Support without restriction. That was the idea behind freeform radio. It was a venue for artistic expression. Music chosen and played by talented, knowledgeable, witty, passionate individuals, an entire staff of them, over the public airwaves for anyone who wanted to hear it. Lots of people did. They recognized the integrity of what these airway artists were offering them and responded in kind. The loyalty they gave freeform radio stations was absolute. Turn it on when they wake up and off when they sleep. Or maybe not even then. It was the soundtrack of their days and nights. Those listeners, the audience, came first. Before the staff, before the sponsors, before all the rules and regulations a federally licensed station had to respect. The listeners were priority one. The entire operation was respectful of the audience. The thinking was if the audience trusted you and the music you turned them on to, the rest of the project would take care of itself. As long as it was allowed to happen, that’s the way it went. News, public service announcements, commercials, even the station IDs, all of it was designed and produced with the listener foremost in mind. Ken Freedman, general manager at WFMU, said about freeform radio, “It goes beyond music…audio, talk, phone ins, anything that makes noise whatsoever” received the same attention and care. David Shepardson, market wizard at KFML, called it “a custom atmosphere” that was created for the audience, one that walked hand in hand with them through the days and nights while the music played. Bespoke radio for the avidly discerning listener. But anarchy is a tough sell. That’s how the corporate types looked at it. An entire staff of out-of-control hippies, doing whatever occurred to them, playing whatever they wanted. The suits liked the success it brought them initially, but only for a time. They began to think about how to make more money out of the format, what new formulas might tweak their ravenous beaks, why calculated changes might be warranted, which necessitated exerting some control. There’s more profit, they decided, in predictability. They got away with it, too. Brian Kreizenbeck observed, “Once you build an audience and get them in the habit of listening, you have to get really bad to lose them.” That was the case at KFML when the original staff was finally once and for all let go. Duplicitous Don Zucker milked an ersatz version of the format for several years before it finally died. Many people in recalling the station refer fondly to that diluted quality they were given in the belief it was the magical KFML of local lore. Like boiling lobster by slowly turning up the heat until all the trust that has been built with listeners is finally cooked. They loved the music and the atmosphere that first attracted them and didn’t notice for a long time that more and more heat was added to the pot. Many a station followed suit. Freeform changed radio in profound ways. It paved the way for many variations on rock ‘n’ roll broadcasting that became tremendously successful stations, minting money for the clever corporations that controlled them. Alternative. Adult Oriented, Progressive, Album Rock, Classic Rock, all the labels the corporate types slapped on their fabricated versions of freeform radio. Stairway to Heaven all day every day on the hour. Hotel California you could set your watch by. An entire playlist culled from the best-known songs of the most popular albums. That’s what the suits made of it. In the beginning, though, it was wild like a colt in the meadow and more than a little unsettling. You never knew what was coming next or where it might kick you. * This was radical radio, diametrically different from the broadcasting orthodoxy of the day. It turned conventional radio on its head, putting out to pasture those carefully crafted strategies for pulling maximum profits from the listening audience and banking instead on building trust. Radical, right? Put the audience first and make your on-air relationship about the music, the music and what it stood for in a tumultuous world where trust was increasingly hard to come by. Everybody wants to be my baby. Radio absent the persistent sense of manipulation, that the music you were offered was merely a means of setting you up for the advertisers, that the ads played at a volume louder than the music precisely because it reflected their order of importance, that the enterprise was a carnival barker in the guise of a radio station and you were the mark. Absent, too, the fear of dead air, the need to fill every second with a cacophony of sound. Freeform could make big noise, of course. But it could be quiet, too. Sleepy, lazy, waking up a little, then a little more, reaching, stretching its muscles, and picking up the pace, soaring through the afternoon, easing off a little for dinner and then rocking through the evening and well into morning. Freeform radio was paced like life. Disc jockey, deejay, is the common name for the performers on air, but radio artists is maybe a better term for what these players were, like painters making beautiful, vivid, compelling portraits and landscapes with music. A palette of sounds, moods, and emotions, layered with poetry, melody, and rhythm is what they used to portray the moment, the theme, the thread, the day, the times. They wanted to share it with you. Like all artists, they wanted to express themselves, to tell you how they were feeling, what they were thinking, where their sense of the moment could be found, and they played songs to do it. These were not songs from a playlist some higher power like the Program Director or the Music Director dictated. They were songs of inspiration, what occurred to them right now, just before the needle dropped into the groove where the record album revolved on the turntable and the music boomed out over the airwaves right into your consciousness. If you were listening and, of course, you were. Why wouldn’t you be? This wasn’t background music, that buzzing wall of sound you barely heard and half ignored until a certain song came up that got your attention for two and a half or three minutes, then the tune was done and the noise began again. You listened because this was the soundtrack of your life. It was the connective tissue linking you and your friends. They were listening, too. This was the anthem that you rallied around, that got your blood beating, your hopes soaring, and sooner or later each day brought the bliss back into your life. This was your link to what was happening, what bands were playing, what people were saying. And it was your link to let them know that you were happening, too. It was the place you knew you belonged. This was a big part of a way of being. A way that flew in the face of convention but one that worked for you. It was the fabric of a community that came together as a refuge from rigid and hostile norms of behavior in celebration of peace, joy, and freedom as a governing ethos of the time. And there were so many artists to help define it, to express it, to lend it the sound and the fury it deserved, in a way that spoke to you. Freeform radio built a loyalty among its community by bringing the bands to the audience and the audience to the bands. * Classic rock ‘n’ roll came to be because there was a synergy among the players that was built on respect. Freeform radio was the linkage that brought it all together. It worked for the songwriters, for the bands, for the record companies. It worked for the promoters who brought the bands to the clubs and the concert halls, for the graphic artists who created the concert posters, the printers who published them, the critics who wrote about them, the newspapers and magazines where those reviews appeared, and it worked for the audience. Ron Middag calls it “an echo system.” Everybody bouncing off everybody else. And resonating. Making a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Freeform radio was where it all came together, and it was precisely because it was made by artists for artists and built on mutual respect. There was artistry in the listening, too. It generated a loyalty that transcended the traditional message of the medium. Nothing like it has been created before or since. * When radio is made by creative people who are given not just the right but encouraged to express themselves, you can hear the heartbeat and feel the pulse of the community it serves. Freedom yields up a diverse representation of the people who are playing the music and the people who are listening to it, the news it broadcasts, the advertisers who are allowed to support it. Freeform radio depended on creativity. It was fertile ground where artistry was not just welcomed but expected. What grew up around that remarkable place and time was a loyal, interactive community. Music gave it a voice, but radio let it be widely heard. It was a gathering place where the most innovative people were celebrated. It was the connective tissue that linked together disparate parts of the local populace and gave them collectively a sense of place. America today is Amazon, Holiday Inn, McDonalds, and Facebook. Every enterprise is driven by algorithms carefully calculating how to manipulate you into spending your money with them. So too is radio. The public airwaves are controlled by corporations that use them as propaganda mills to mint money. Travel the country from north to south and east to west, you will hear the same relentless chirping of the birdbrained, little thoughts on big airwaves, a calculated dumbing down of product and audience, and nowhere from any of it can you gain any feeling for where you are. There is no sense of place because everything is exactly the same. Maybe it is worth reminding ourselves that these are public airwaves. This handful of corporate titans, with their banks of computers working to maneuver you where they want you and their insatiable greed always hungry to be fed, do not own these stations. Rather, they are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to use them for the public benefit. That sound you hear in the background is their hysterical laughter.