FM: The Rise And Fall Of Rock Radio, by Richard Neer
No month stated, 2001 Villard Books
Over the years I’ve become very interested in late ‘60s/early ‘70s FM rock radio, what was known at the time as “progressive freeform,” where DJs were free to spin whatever they wanted and could “rap” as long as they wanted. It was a platform that mirrored the rock scene of the day, with no commercial restrictions and “artist” DJs free to explore. In particular I’ve become almost obsessed with a DJ at WNEW-FM in New York: Alison “The Nightbird” Steele, who did the 10PM – 2AM slot and gave her sets an almost otherwordly vibe; she was so popular at the time that no less than Jimi Hendrix wrote a song about her.*
I was born in the mid-‘70s, far away from any city, but in hindsight I realize now that the regional rock station I grew up listening to (WQZK 94.1 out of Keyser, WV) was pretty much still waving the progressive freeform flag, even in the mid-to-late 1980s. I heard songs on there you certainly wouldn’t hear on “classic rock” today, from the full-length “Time Has Come Today” by the Chambers Brothers to all kinds of long progressive stuff…in fact recently I heard Yes’s “I’ve Seen All Good People” and had a flashback to how I’d always hear that on the radio as a kid and loved it. WQZK would also play Orson Welles’s “The War Of The Worlds” each Halloween, and every April Fool’s Day they’d claim to have “gone disco” and just play disco music the entire day. I took all this for granted as a kid, not knowing that this was aytpical of the average rock radio station (plus it was the only rock radio station in town!), but now that I’ve learned more about progressive freeform I realize that’s pretty much what the station was.**
Anyway this is all just preamble to say that, even though I was born well outside of the progressive freeform era, I still got to experience it somewhat…and heck, if it wasn’t for WQZK, I never would’ve even gotten into rock (it’s how I heard “A Day In The Life,” “I Am The Walrus,” and other Beatles classics as a kid). But over the years I have become more interested in original freeform radio, and again a big thanks to Javed Jafri for his Let The Universe Answer website, where you can find many vintage “airchecks” to listen to. It was through Javed’s site that I finally got to hear some Alison Steele airchecks, and I really enjoyed them – I love the “trip” she takes her listeners on, often mixing songs together for very cool segues (for example Pink Floyd’s “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” into Tangerine Dream on this 1974 aircheck).
I’ve searched high and low for a full 4-hour Alison Steele set, but no luck – I was in contact with a guy whose older brother recorded several of her shows in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s on reel-to-reel, but unfortunately he wasn’t interested in digitizing or sharing them. It was through one of my periodic searches for more Steele airchecks that I came upon mention of Richard Neer’s FM, which focuses on WNEW-FM in the 1970s, with some detail about Alison Steele. Neer himself was a DJ at the sation, starting in 1971 and staying there for 25 years. Today he still works in radio (at least he does per the bio included in this book, but the book was published 20 years ago), but now he’s moved into AM talk radio. FM chronicles the progressive freeform rock radio era, with a focus on WNEW-FM and lots of stories about the various characters who worked there.
I’ll admit that I was unfamiliar with Neer, as well as the other DJs he talks about, but regardless the book was still very entertaining, and very well written. Neer has a definite talent for pulling you into his story and making you feel like you’re there. It’s not dry history, either, with occasional detours into behind-the-scenes gossip and innuendo. In that regard I imagine the book would be very entertaining for people who actually got to listen to WNEW-FM back in the day. And for that matter, Javed also has an aircheck of Neer’s on his site – here. I enjoyed Neer’s book more than the earlier Radio Waves, mainly because Neer mostly sticks to the more-interesting ‘70s rather than the ‘80s of Radio Waves. And also because he uses actual station and personality names, unlike the pseudonyms Jim Ladd strangely decided to use in his book.
Neer also does a great job of making this story both personal and historical; it opens with him and his buddy, Michael Harrison, interviewing for coveted roles at super-hip and super-popular WNEW-FM, in Manhattan. From here Neer will flash back to not only his own origins in radio broadcasting, but also detail – concisely and entertainingly – how progressive FM radio itself got started. Here we have the first line of demarcation between this and Ladd’s book; whereas Ladd, a Californian, gave San Francisco and Los Angeles stations a role of prime importance in the development of “rock radio,” Neer shows how, in most cases, New York stations were already there first. He does however occasionally jump over to developments at trendsetting San Francisco stations like KSAN, though; not giving as much behind-the-scenes info as Ladd does in his more-detailed KSAN material in Radio Waves, but still managing to show how differently each coast viewed rock radio.
One of the biggest differences is that, in FM, KSAN and the other SanFran stations are basically presented as dens of dopesmoking “hippies,” whereas most of the New York talent comes off as straight-edged. Right off the bat Neer buzzkills any hopes that FM will be filled with anecdotes of doing a radio show in the middle of the night while stoned on prime grass; he informs us that he abstains from drugs. Bummer, man! I mean I just want to read like an R-rated version of WKRP In Cincinnati, with drug-fueled, high-libido radio personalities, is that so much to ask?? But anyway Neer informs us that this pretty much goes down the line, with most of the on-air talent at WNEW sticking to booze or nothing (as for Alison Steele, Neer informs us that he never saw her “intoxicated by anything more than a New York Rangers victory”).
So Neer is only 21 when we meet him, interviewing with WNEW Program Director Scott Muni, an idiosyncratic guy (and popular DJ himself) who likes to call people by the nickname “Fats,” even if they’re thin. Neer and buddy Harrison are already veterans of the rock radio biz despite their youth, having brought a regional station in Long Island into the progressive era. They’ve gotten such cred that even The Nightbird deigned to give their station an on-air interview; here we get our first glimpse of Alison Steele, informed that she is a ravishing redhead in her 30s with a penchant for wearing tight leather. In fact she almost sounds like she’s walked out of a Harold Robbins novel: “There was once a summer concert in Central Park when [Steele] wore a thin leather halter top, a leather bikini bottom, with high boots and a bare midriff. Boys were literally falling out of trees to get a better look.” Speaking of Robbins, Neer relates the time when Steele met with publisher Bob Guccione to explain to him why she refused to do any on-air commercials for Penthouse, and it reads almost exactly like something out of Dreams Die First:
“Look,” [Steele] said, “I don’t care about naked women. I hate hair. The only hair on my entire body is on top of my head. Even my eyebrows are shaved, and I’ll leave it to your imagination what else. I can’t stand those hairy-looking women, spread-eagled in front of the camera. And until you do something about that, I won’t read your spots.”
So as you can see, FM is at least a little like Radio Waves in that it comes off like a novel at times, complete with dialog from the various characters. I found this added to the enjoyment, though…and besides, I’ve searched high and low for a trashy paperback about a rock radio station, to no friggin’ avail. But then Neer doesn’t get very trashy here, other than the occasional mention of Steele’s somewhat-revealing clothing, or that DJs at WNEW got their own “groupies.” Neer doesn’t dwell on any of this, however he intimates that he had a few of his own; most memorable is his story of playing a bunch of jazz records late one night to impress a female fan. Another memorable sequence has a fellow jock in a “menage a trois” with a pair of female fans, while listening to his own broadcast on the radio…only to lose all focus when he hears an engineer screw up a segue on the pre-taped show.
Neer of course gets the job at WNEW, first starting off as a weekend personality, with his main job being the Music Director. I was really interested in this and wanted to know more about it. Essentially, the Music Director chose the record library the DJs would select from – Neer gives a lot of behind-the-scenes info on how DJs at WNEW worked, and I was interested to read that the station didn’t really use engineers. Jocks would choose and spin their own records, thus perfecting the flow of their shows. But anyway it was the job of the Music Director to sort through piles of new records and file them away; especially interesting is the mention of “progressive” albums, ie ones to keep an eye on.
I was hoping for some total music-geek stuff here, with mention of obscure acts that never made it big; for example, on Javed’s site you can hear a 1972 Alison Steele aircheck. Toward the end she plays a heavy psych number by a group called Road (the track is “Spaceship Earth,” and Road FYI featured Jimi’s former bassist Noel Redding). I’d never heard this song before and really liked it. But now having read Neer’s book, I can assume that Road was an LP that had been filed in the “progressive” bin (perhaps by Neer himself) and Steele selected it for that night. Her comments after it plays (“I bet that goes right on into the next track”) indicate that it was her first time hearing the song. Thus she must’ve pulled that one out of the bin and decided to play it. Anyway what I’m trying to say is, I wanted a little more info here on what made some records hits and others obscurities; “Spaceship Earth” is total psych heaviosity and right up my alley, but I’d never even heard of it, even though I collect records from the era.
I’m focusing on Steele, because she’s what brought me to the book in the first place. But truth be told, she isn’t in the book very much. More focus is placed on other WNEW talent, like former horror host Zacherley. I’d heard of him just due to my interest in horror hosts many years ago, but I never knew he’d become an FM rock radio jock. He actually comes off as pretty normal, especially when compared to Jonathan Schwartz, a DJ who enjoys flaunting his writing career so no one gets the impression he has to work at the station…while meanwhile he has a penchant for eating food out of garbage cans. Another personality who makes an impression is Rosko, a black DJ who was outspoken on leftist political causes and in fact unwittingly provided Neer and Harrison’s entrance into the fold: Rosko was by far the most popular DJ at the station, but when he abruptly quit in 1971 he opened the door for new talent.
Neer focuses so much on the various personalities that sometimes he himself is lost in the shuffle, and he almost comes off like a faceless chronicler of events. But he too was part of the scene, with his own shows and fans. We get a lot of good info on how shows were run in the ‘70s, and also how live concerts were broadcast, with Neer spearheading many of them. There are even some rockstar appearances; Neer had a nightly chat session with pre-stardom Bruce Springsteen, and another jock became lifelong friends with George Harrison. John Lennon also makes an appearance; a DJ named Dennis Elsas meets him at a recording studio, drums up the courage to ask Lennon if he’d ever like to come by for an interview, and is shocked when Lennon does indeed appear a few days later for a four-hour chat on the air.
In addition to the California stations, we also read a little about WBCN out of Boston, in particular famous DJ Charles Laquidara, whose “The Big Mattress” show sounds like a lot of fun. A spoof of AM talk radio, it featured various personalities voiced by Laquidara himself. I’ve listened to a few of the aichecks at the link above and they’re a lot of fun; I especially like Laquidara’s drug-fueled alter ego Captain Squid. But as mentioned for the most part the focus is on WNEW, and, as with Radio Waves, Neer documents how the free reign of DJs gradually narrowed as the ‘70s progressed. Ratings became the be-all, end-all, with jocks constrained to only making idle chatter between hit songs.
As with Radio Waves, I really lost interest in the book as the ‘70s became the ‘80s. But the changes at WNEW were already profound; various jocks had left or been fired, even Alison Steele. Neer, having moved into a management position, was put through an early trial by fire in 1978 when he was asked by management if he thought Steele should be let go; her extracurricular duties (TV commercials, voice over gigs, etc) were getting in the way of her nightly shows. More importantly, she had also clearly lost interest in the music, putting a record on and going out to talk to people in the studio. Neer relates how Steele was given multiple warnings, but when she left a stuck record on for eleven minutes one night her number was up. Neer has no choice but to say that the woman who basically helped start his career at WNEW should be let go. This will be it for Steele; she leaves without a word, and isn’t heard from again in the text until the very end, where we are informed she passed away in 1995 after a battle with cancer.
To his credit Neer plows rather quickly through the less-interesting ‘80s and ‘90s. I say less interesting because at this point the freeform era had come to a close; WNEW was still freeform enough in 1980, Neer relates, that it could give special coverage to John Lennon’s murder, with long commentary by all the station jocks on what Lennon meant to them. But after this the creativity is reigned in by increasingly restrictive management demands, to the point that WNEW itself eventually drops the entire rock angle. As the novel progresses there is more focus on the politics of running a radio station, and I found all of it less interesting than the earlier ‘70s material.
Overall though I found FM pretty entertaining. As stated Neer is a skilled writer and really captures the spirit of the day, making one wish that more airchecks survived from this era. The book is definitely recommended for anyone who’d like to learn more about progressive rock radio, and is the best one I’ve yet read on the topic.
*This would be the posthumously-released “Night Bird Flying,” which came out in 1970 on The Cry Of Love, which was the first album put out after Jimi’s death. The story of it being inspired by Steele seems to have come from Steele herself; in fact, this is how I first even heard of Alison Steele. In 1995 I got the Hendrix CD Voodoo Soup, which featured a booklet with liner notes by Michael Fairchild. In these notes Fairchild relayed the story on “Night Bird Flying;” supposedly one night Steele was playing the song on her show and she received a call from Jimi’s former manager, Michael Jeffery (who himself was killed in a plane crash, in March 1973). Jeffery told her that the song had been inspired by her show. Interestingly, this story is not relayed in FM, even though the short chapter devoted to Steele is titled “Night Bird Flying.” While Hendrix is occasionally mentioned, we’re told that the only WNEW personality he had any contact with was Rosko. Hendrix was also a gifted artist, and a drawing has surfaced with what seems to be early lyrics for “Night Bird Flying,” along with a winged female figure that might be Jimi’s take on Steele’s likeness (not to mention a jutting phallus!!); you can read about it here.
**Something I remember vividly from the mid-’80s is the incessant promo WQZK would play, announcing that they’d gone digital: “It’s final, we’re off the vinyl.” And then you’d hear a stuck record being yanked off the platter. I’ve searched high and low for audio of this promo over the years. No luck.