Wednesday, December 27, 2006

"Something In The Air"

[ Excerpt from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 26, 2006, By Roger K. Miller ]

There's a new book out about radio that focuses on the rise and fall of FM rock, and also touches on freeform's place in the history of it all...

By Marc Fisher, Random House ($27.95)

"Virtually everyone in radio," Marc Fisher says, "believes the medium has become less fun, less creative and just plain less worth listening to than at any point since its birth."

Surveys show that listeners believe it, too, and have been turning off, tuning out and dropping out at an increasing rate for the past decade.

So why do station owners, in that popular definition of crazy, keep doing the same thing over and over, hoping for a different outcome? Fisher's highly informative and insightful book provides some persuasive answers.

Although radio seems closer than ever to the death that has been predicted for it since the advent of television, writes Fisher, a journalist and radio columnist for the Washington Post, "like most old media, radio defies predictions of its death."

The book centers on the rock revolution in radio, but that topic is actually only a fraction of its coverage of the medium from the middle of the last century down to today, taking it through several stages:

The early 1950s, when it first struggled to reinvent itself; the development of the Top 40 format and the rise of rock 'n' roll, which became a "bonding agent" for American youth; the emergence of FM, the counterculture and free-form radio; niche specialization and dependence on market research; and digital and satellite technology.

Along the way he discusses dozens of personalities and phenomena, including Todd Storz, pioneer of Top 40, men such as Hunter Hancock and Alan Freed, champions of the "race music" that morphed into rock 'n' roll; the hand-held transistor radio as an instrument of individualism, freedom and rebellion; the night talkers, most notably Jean Shepherd; and much more.

As for the fine mess radio finds itself in today, basically it comes down to radio executives' market-researching, Balkanizing and consolidating the medium nearly to death, although Fisher does not summarize it in so many words.

Research has taught stations to chase after the same demographics using the same music or talk shows presented in the same format, in the process slicing themselves into ever narrower sections of the market.
Radio mostly ignores one-third of the recorded music sold in this country -- jazz, bluegrass, zydeco and others. About half of all stations offer one of three formats -- talk, adult contemporary and country; add oldies and religion and you're up to 71 percent.

Exacerbating this is a 1970s innovation: computers. They make possible stations that are "fully automated robots of pop culture" needing no on-air talent.

Tying it all into a neat, bland bundle is consolidation, whereby a media conglomerate owns many, most or even all of the stations in a community, all of them broadcasting the same pap, sans personnel, from a remote computer...

It shows, coincidentally, what a time of ferment and creativity the supposedly bland 1950s were.
"Something in the Air" ends, appropriately, with a throwback, station WLNG in Sag Harbor, Long Island, run for decades by Paul Sidney.

It is a throwback to not only the 1950s and 1960s, but to a time before standardization: "Everything the consultants say to do," Sidney boasts, "I do the opposite."

Sidney and WLNG have achieved what Fisher maintains has been sorely lacking -- radio's long-ago emotional bond, its sense of intimacy and community with those who by law are supposed to be the true owners of the airwaves ... the American public.

(Roger K. Miller, a former newspaper book-review editor, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor. )

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Bill Ashford Live Today

For all of you who are moaning and growning about the lack of freeform in the present day, you have not checked into Bill Ashford's "The Rock Garden." The following are excerpts from how the project depicts itself:

"... the Rock Garden... is the outgrowth of a chance telephone conversation between John Sutton and Bill Ashford in 2004. Sutton and Q Hutchison were already working together on quality jazz streams from studios in Parker, Colorado, and dispersed world wide by Warp Radio.

"During that first conversation from Florida to Colorado,, the rock stream came up and how it was just languishing because there just weren't enough hours to devote to what would obviously be a major start up. Deals were struck and the project, still unnamed began. Ashford, Sutton and Hutchison poured every laser stroke and vinyl tic when absolutely necessary, obscure to some, but not all, into a mountain of music . Ashford then agreed to work with Hutchison to develop flow streams, that have absolutely nothing to do with playlists. This is a stream of consciousness presentation that rarely sounds the same from day to day...
"Ashford already acknowledges that he was here before the cooling of the earth's surface. Dinosaur Rock indeed. John Sutton jumped into radio with both ears around 1969 and just will not go away. He was one of the men with an impeccable taste and understanding of Jazz, that made KADX-FM, one of the finest jazz stations, ever. Not unlike other trailblazing gems, few though they were, this man and this station were thrown into the water, with an anchor attached. Sutton discovered there are many ways to peel the layers of the onion, so came Oz Productions, in partnership with Jonas Olmsted and the hired gun musical sensibilities of Ashford and his wife, Gail, and others, made tapes for clubs, parties, bar mitzvahs, front range frozen faced week long parties and any other requests. Good, but gone too.

"Sutton eventually hit on a syndicated big band jazz show that aired throughout the nation, primarily on am. Sutton and the real talent in the family. Denise, formed Warp Radio and it would be easy to say the rest is history, but it's not. Warp is currently one of the top 5 and still growing radio broadcast streaming companies on the internet. Next comes Q. Hutchison, whom we're not entirely sure about at all, except to say he wrangles all five current streams on Warp Radio, including his own new offering, Continuum, which is his own uniquely twisted stew of music new and old, balanced with a strong interest in audience participation that keeps Continuum fresh and fun. Q started in radio at 16 at WLBH in Mattoon, IL starting as a staff announcer and board operator. Over the next seven years Q wore many hats, Program Director (making sure programming and staff were in the right places), Music Director (picking out good tunes), News Director (writing and reporting news), Sports Director (reporting sports, sometimes even play by play and color commentary at local sporting events) and the occasional engineering job wiring and rewiring studio equipment. Q moved on to Warp Radio in July of 2000 and still wears a lot of hats. Good thing he has a size 7 7/8 noggin!
"Bill Ashford has been around so long that his rumors have grown their own extended legends. When asked about the many sites, quotes, tribute pages and blogs that exist in remembrance of stations he has been seen in and the man himself, he simply replies that all stories are true, but some actually happened. A couple he will admit to are that he really did believe there were people living in the family console radio and that he did get his first radio job as a teenager in Fayetteville, NC when he just walked in and asked for it. Any experience? Yes sir, listen to it all the time.

"There was a folk music club in Fayetteville, kind of a halfway house for artist to have and extra gig each way between the clubs of New York and Coconut. Most stayed with Ashford when in town and he started traveling to New York and hanging with the first wave of folk-rockers... He heard Bob Fass on WBAI and Rosco and Muni [on WOR]. It was spiritually obvious that THIS was how radio should sound. Ashford's battle cry became "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows..." Actually, the CIA suggested a few changes to his show being broadcast just outside Ft. Bragg, NC.
"He took his family to Denver, where he became one of a very small circle of people to start one of the first five 'underground/freeform' fm stations in America. New York, San Francisco, L.A., Detroit and Denver, where he and that small group of the obsessed, assembled to set Colorado on fire. They were all eventually bastardized by corporate America and what you have now is Album Rock radio.
"During that chance phone call in 2004, it was decided that what we were missing was a freeform station. Not a copy, tribute or heavy guitar metal death machine. What was needed was an outlet that did as it did in the beginning, play whatever the moment called for lyrically, rhythmically and spiritually. We have not stopped building Rock Garden for one day since we agreed in 2004 to treat listeners as we would like to be treated. We have made only one conscious deletion and that has been to leave most jazz out as we already have four fine jazz streams (,, and and some pop stuff heard on Continuum...
"Just like '68 or '70 or now, everyday is different. Currently Ashford is the primary player/programmer at The Rock Garden, with considerable help from Q, who listened to Bill talk, then created and weighted categories and style rotations to create something that sounds like Ashford is there, which he is in the mornings, or not. John and Denise Sutton, Q Hutchison and Bill Ashford are the Rock Garden, open twenty- four hours a day, playing music you love, or just don't know you do yet."

Image at top of Bill Ashford at KFML-AM & FM, Denver, Colorado circa 1971 courtesy of:

Monday, December 11, 2006

Bob Reitman's 40 Years

"Knockin' on retirement's door -- Reitman is knocking on retirement's door after 40 years on local radio"

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Bob Reitman's daily conversation with listeners ends Wednesday, when the 64-year-old Reitman wraps up 26 years as the lead guitar on the WKTI-FM (94.5) morning show.

In the 40 years since he began talking into a microphone at one station or another on Milwaukee's FM dial, he's played out much of his life in public. Still, like everybody, there are things he hasn't shared, and won't share now.

What he's more than willing to talk about are the twin passions that have shaped him: poetry and rock 'n' roll and, especially, the blending of the two in the songs of Bob Dylan.

To look at a life that's been broadcast on the radio since the 1960s, it's helpful to break the story down into its five decades, a period where the evolution of FM radio paralleled Reitman's career:

The '60s

The setting: Bob Reitman came of age in the very first wave of rock 'n' roll. "The guys a year ahead of me didn't get into it, because it wasn't cool, because the freshmen were into it," he recalls of his days at Whitefish Bay High School.

As he moved into his 20s, poetry became important to him. "One of the big things for me back in the '60s were poetry readings at the Avant Garde Coffee House, that was critical."

It was there that "a guy came up and told me his friend was running that show and was leaving town and would I like to do the show." That poetry program, "Sense Waves," on WUWM-FM (89.7) started Reitman's broadcasting career in 1966. He was soon doing a music show on WUWM, "It's Alright Ma, It's Only Music."

As the decade progressed, he made the move into commercial FM radio at the old WZMF, then in a free-form style where deejays were their own program directors.

Influences: While Bob Dylan is the broad canvas of his influences in the 1960s, Reitman points to one song that shows the merger of poetry and the music: "Chimes of Freedom."

"I remember the girl upstairs in my apartment building was a beatnik. I was sick, I had a cold or something, and she brought that down and said, 'Why don't you listen to this?' I mean I'm just listening (to) this song and all of a sudden these words come out, and I've never heard anything like it," he recalled. "Stopped me cold, I mean, I froze in my tracks. It was like a revelation."

He reads from the lyrics: "Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail, the sky cracked its poems in naked wonder."

A quote: "It was the crucible, because that's when I went to WUWM and then we went from there to 'ZMF, that all happened in the '60s. At WUWM, we got ratings. That's because there was a significant amount of people out there that wanted to hear that kind of music. They weren't getting it from top 40."

The '70s

The setting: Starting off the decade at WZMF, he moved on to the old WTOS and then to WQFM, as FM rock radio moved steadily from that unencumbered style to the strict formats of modern radio. His visibility was rising, with Reitman earning a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for an on-air stunt, staying on the air at State Fair Park for 222 hours and 22 minutes in 1976, while he was at WQFM.

Influences: While there are musical forces that shaped him in the 1970s, from Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" album in 1974 and Bruce Springsteen's 1975 concert at the Uptown Theater, Reitman points to the birth of his daughter, Jessica, in 1972.

"That was beyond words. We spent a lot of time together because her mother and I got divorced when she was about 3. So we spent at least three days a week together until she was 18. The great thing about having children is getting to see the world again through the eyes of a child.

"Her mother, Lois, was instrumental in Jessica's growth as a person. Her mother and I have remained friends all these years. Jessica showed me that even if you come from a broken marriage, if both parents are really close to the kids, and they both love that child, then the kid will be OK.

"That was more important for me than being a disc jockey or anything, was being there for her and trying to be a good father."

A quote: "That whole decade went from free-form radio of the '60s into formatted radio in the late '70s. It was painful to watch it. It went away an album at a time, almost a song at a time. If the ratings would drop a little bit, they would panic, and start pulling albums out of the library, or marking only certain cuts that could be played on the albums that were left in there."

The '80s

The setting: WQFM fired Reitman in early 1980. He took a few months off and traveled the country, returning to Milwaukee. He was picked up later that year by WKTI-FM, where he was partnered with Gene Mueller two years later. Producer Gino Salomone joined the team, adding a third personality to the mix. (WKTI, like this newspaper, is owned by Journal Communications.)

Reitman and Mueller did a cameo appearance on NBC's "Cheers," hosted a pioneering broadcast from the Soviet Union well before the end of the Cold War, and got national attention for a bit during the height of the Cabbage Patch Doll craze.

In that legendary stunt, Reitman and Mueller announced during the holiday season in 1983 that a B-29 would drop 2,000 of the hot Christmas toys over County Stadium. Shoppers were told to show up in the parking lot with a catcher's mitt on one hand and a Master Card in the other. Two dozen people showed up.

"That was lightning in a jar. That was something we did on the air. We made it up. We did it and we were done with it - went on and did the rest of the show and forgot about it. The phones started ringing around noon, and it ended up being on two of the network news programs, over 100 newspapers all over the world, Sports Illustrated. It was ridiculous, but it was the antidote for the poison that was going around."

Influences: Professionally, it would be Dallas Cole, then WKTI's program director.

"Dallas knew how to teach me to do morning radio, and he also brought a guy over named Gene Mueller," Reitman said. "It didn't take long to realize that this guy was a genius. He just filled us up and we were receptacles. We went with the game plan, and it worked."

A quote: "The thing that I loved about doing the mornings with somebody like Gene was the spontaneity, the seat-of-your-pants kind of radio. We were never held on a short leash. Nobody ever came to us and said, 'Don't do this.' It wasn't out of control, but there were enough double entendres that I felt worked because the older people would get it and it would go over the kids' heads."

The '90s

The setting: While the morning show continued on through the decade, Reitman began to focus on his health, after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, the disease that had killed his father in 1988, six months before the birth of Reitman's son, Bobby. A third child, Johnny, was born in 1993.

Influences: Again it's Dylan. You can't get through a decade of Reitman's adult life without him. And in a decade of personal changes, including another divorce, the music obviously helped him get through it.

"After a series of albums that were maybe not his greatest, 'Time Out of Mind' blew me away," Reitman said.

A quote: "The cancer gave me the chance to go on the air and tell guys to get this thing checked because I caught it early and I'm cancer-free for seven years."

The '00s

The setting: The show changed dramatically in 2002 with the addition of former WTMJ-TV (Channel 4) anchor Amy Taylor to the team.

"The dynamics of the show change when somebody else comes in, and I think Amy brings us to a whole new level," Reitman said. "I think it's good. I didn't get to work with her long enough to get to know her as well as Mueller and Gino. It takes a while."

But for Reitman, who was wrestling with personal problems that he doesn't want to go into, he focuses on a sunny September morning in 2001, when a plane slammed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center.

"That was comparable, in my mind, to the Kennedy assassination. We were on the air, we watched the second plane go in. It was rough times for me at that point.

"The only thing I could think of doing, and what I did, was I got in my car and I drove out to Holy Hill. Not to pray, but to go somewhere that was stable, something I could look at or feel that was stable, because it was so terrible.

"Mueller took over, you know how good he is, and he and Gino stayed there all day. I couldn't. I couldn't do it. And I couldn't do it because I wasn't as emotionally strong those couple years. It was a tough time in my life."

Influences: There are two of them, both intimate. The first is his mother, Alicia.

"She went through the prostate cancer, she lost her husband, my dad. She went through it again with me, and we won, you know, we came out OK. She's helped me through a number of divorces. I think the world of her, I take her out to dinner once a week, talk to her every day. It makes me really happy that she's 88 and I'm going to be 65 and we're still really close. There's years, you know, when you're in your 20s, you're off on your own. Maybe you come home for Thanksgiving, maybe you don't. But as you get older, maybe your parents get smarter."

Then there's his wife, Nancy. He met her the week after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"This darkness that I've alluded to, a person that really got me out of that and basically made me believe, I guess, I could love again, was my wife, Nancy. I told my mom if I ever mention the 'm' word, shoot me. That really was a monumental thing in my life. I had basically given up in terms of any kind of relationship."

A quote: "During my toughest times, doing that show gave me solace, it gave me comfort. Which you would think would be maybe the last thing I'd want to do, is go on the radio. But, in fact, that was one of the only things I could do. Eventually I got better, and now I'm fine. But radio, thank God, was a source of strength for me."

Epilogue: The end of Reitman's run in the mornings comes with a few years left in this latest decade of his career. And he's not exactly signing off for good. A new version of his old WUWM radio show, "It's Alright Ma, It's Just Music" debuts Jan. 25 in the 7 p.m. Thursday slot on the public station.

Reitman will again be playing records, real records, of the music that's been so important to him.

And, yes, he'll be playing more than Dylan.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Milwaukee DJ Stories

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, FM disc jockey recollections, mostly about 93QFM are at:

93QFM: The Halcyon Daze.

Also contains a great video of the Isley Brothers doing "Who's That Lady"... remember the extended play version? Gets me going even now...

93QFM: The Halcyon Daze.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Bob & Lynnie Fass

Just received this from Lynnie Fass:

"Hi, Malcolm! Great story about Bob Fass (and me) in this weeks December 4, New Yorker AND there're be a book out in January, "Something in the Air" by Marc Fisher , Random House about progressive radio. Thanks for being here, I hope you are well. Lynnie"

(Bob Fass and Abbie Hoffman back in the day, image courtesy of

Link to Fass audio at THE NEW YORKER: FASS: New Yorker

KFML, July 1971 - Part 2

Ed did a follow-up video tribute to KFML. It is at Ed's collection of videos on YouTube. The exact path to the video is:

KFML, July 1971 - Part 2

Ed did a follow-up video tribute to KFML. It is at Ed's collection of videos on YouTube. The exact path to the video is: