Rock History 101: Freeform Radio
BY LEN COMARATTA ON MAY 15TH, 2011 IN
Rock has a lot to thank FM radio for. With the opening of the FM band, rock provided an inexpensive source of material that allowed for the development of formats different from the Top 40 banality. Programmers brought with them the notion that not only did the style of music have significance but also its presentation. Before the early ’60s, most music was delivered via the single, without much thought to the actual album as a whole. That changed with the development of FM.
In the early days of FM, broadcasts were principally educational programming and classical music aimed at a more “upmarket listenership.” AM stations simply duplicated their programming onto the FM band, widening their audience with little effort. In 1965, the Federal Communications Commission enacted the FM Non-Duplication Rule. Until this law, AM stations were allowed to rebroadcast the majority of their programming on their FM stations. However, with the passage of the FM Non-Duplication Rule, as of January 1, 1967, FM stations would have to broadcast original content over 50% of their broadcast day. Station programmers and owners now faced with having to create original content were forced to exit the box that was the Top 40 format and begin experimenting.
Some station programmers held the assumption that their FM audiences would be a bit more mature than their AM counterparts. As such, many gave disc jockeys more freedom and control over the material on their shows. Their style and presentation on the mic was even different from that of the popular AM hits-driven DJs and was more akin to the conversational tones often heard during Radio’s Golden Age. These “underground” jockeys would manipulate segues between songs to allow for an expansion beyond any single genre and favored non-singles over the typical two-and-a-half-minute pop song. FM’s open-mindedness also fed the creativity of bands, giving them a forum to put their art on display. This allowed for the development of longer, more complex material not suitable for Top 40 pop radio. This style of programming came to be known as freeform.
The most straightforward definition of the freeform format is simply that the program’s host is given complete and total control over the content of the show, regardless of style, genre, or perhaps most importantly, commercial viability. There was no rotation schedule to follow, and the only rules were those laid down by the FCC regarding profanity and station identification; everything else was up to the DJ. With no stylistic boundaries, programming was as diverse and unique as the personalities behind the mic. Freeform DJs shared a loose ideology, a sense of spontaneity, and a desire to expose lesser-known artists and songs. Some engaged in conversations with the listeners, drawing them into the development of the program, even entertaining live call-ins. Many leaned a bit on the radical or liberal side of the spectrum; however, aside from occasional Vietnam-era sentiments, most hosts rarely were overtly political. Looking back through eyes filtered by today’s commercial radio landscape, this concept was and still is revolutionary, especially when one considers that freeform exists in direct opposition to commercial radio’s stricter control over programming.
By the late ’60s, freeform programming was more common on FM bands in the larger markets, eventually becoming the medium and style of choice to tap into an ever-expanding youth culture. Sharing ideals such as diversity, freedom, and perhaps even a slight tinge of radicalism, freeform radio is easily thought of as a product of the ’60s. However, while its development and maturity did occur during this era, the true roots of the freeform format extended back to the beginnings of public radio–almost 15 years earlier.
The first community public radio station in the United States was Pacifica Radio (KPFA in Berkeley, California). Pacifica was launched in 1949 by Lewis Hill and a small group of fellow World War II conscientious objectors. Hill was a journalist and progressive poet who sought to create an outlet dedicated to free expression, where cultural and political ideas counter to the norm could be presented, discussed, and realized. It was on KPFA that beat poets like Ginsberg and Kerouac gained their initial radio exposure.
Shortly after KPFA started broadcasting, it became home to what is considered to be the very first freeform radio show. Though many have filed claims as such, conventional wisdom bestows the honor to author John Leonard and his show Night Sounds. It was on Leonard’s show that the listener was exposed to collages of music, poetry, and commentary seamlessly integrated into a program. Pacifica’s New York affiliate, WBAI, featured two programs, Chris Albertson’s Inside and Bob Fass’s Radio Unnameable, both inspired by Leonard’s production. KPFA staffer and freeform radio pioneer Lorenzo Milan started KRAB in 1962, a freeform outlet in Seattle, WA. Milan was also instrumental in the founding of many community stations around the nation that were freeform-oriented.
Freeform has always been more at home on the left side of the radio dial in the lower frequencies (<92MHz), where the non-commercial stations traditionally broadcast. However, after the non-duplication ruling, experimenting with freeform in the commercial band became slightly more accepted. New York’s WOR experimented with freeform under the guise of “progressive rock.” WOR’s DJ/program director Murray the K encouraged his fellow DJs to explore beyond the charts and dive deeper into the albums, even encouraging music with social messages. Scott Muni, program director for WNEW, also in New York, began tinkering with the format in the early ’60s. When Pete Fornatale joined the station in 1964, to avoid being caught up in the drudgery that had become Top 40 radio, he suggested “a rock n’ roll show that would play album cuts, islands of music that would come together in some cohesive theme.” It was this philosophy that helped Fornatale break country-rock in the New York market.
New York did not hold the rights to freeform. As the format’s popularity began to grow, other stations in other markets followed. Baltimore/Washington D.C. station WHFS dabbled in freeform when it first began, though by the time the station switched to Spanish programming a few years ago, it had already fallen far from the freeform tree. Sacramento DJ Johnny Hyde’s show The Gear on KXOA mixed live interviews with experimental music and deep cuts. But perhaps the most recognized commercial freeform station was San Francisco’s KMPX, with its DJ/program director Tom Donahue.
Donahue’s approach to programming the station was to streamline the content to focus on the music. He did away with the gimmickry typically associated with mainstream Top 40 radio. “No jingles, no talkovers, no time and temp, no pop singles”– just a hard-lined, progressively minded approach to playing music. The timing was perfect. Donahue’s makeover of KMPX began in 1967, just as the San Francisco sound was beginning to peak. Donahue was so successful at KMPX that he was asked to do the same with Los Angeles sister station KPPC. (Donahue was also an instrumental programmer with Los Angeles’ KMET and San Francisco’s KSAN during this time.) KPPC ran with a progressive freeform format until 1971, when it voluntarily responded to an FCC ruling implying stations needed to maintain stricter control over their programming. This ruling had nothing to do with KPPC but rather a Des Moines freeform station accused of “questionable practices.” To avoid any hassles, many stations voluntarily altered their programming. On a side note, KPPC became KROQ in 1973, and after program director Rick Carroll introduced the “modern rock” format, it would go on to become one of the most successful stations in Los Angeles and the United States.
KPPC’s successful change to the freeform format led another Los Angeles station, KABC, to alter direction with its programming. A year after its format change, KABC became KLOS, future home to Jim Ladd, one of the more notable contemporary DJs still practicing in the format. Ladd’s talents and desire to spread and play music for the sake of music was captured in Tom Petty’s “The Last DJ”, a song reflecting the absence of free thought and expression in pop culture and lamenting the loss of outlets like Ladd’s program and other legendary freeform shows.
The first nail in commercial freeform’s coffin came in the guise of FCC rulings such as the 1971 Des Moines ruling. The Nixon administration had grown increasingly agitated with the counterculture, at times nearing the point of paranoia. Seeing many FM stations as outlets for radical, seditious thought-speak, it sought to remove any potential threats. Using the FCC, many stations’ licenses were threatened as a means to control them and their content. As the more cautious climate of the ’70s began to creep in, programming consultant Lee Abrams developed what would become commercial freeform radio’s death knell: a format called album-oriented radio or AOR. As the decade ended, AOR and modern rock had become the dominant formats on FM and AM radio, with AOR peaking in the early ’80s.
Commercial freeform radio may not have had the support or backing to withstand political and economic pressure, but freeform radio still exists. Non-commercial and college radio stations have always been more open to the format and as such have done a huge service in continuing the sonic explorations only found through freeform. Of all these stations, there is one that is perhaps recognized more than any other when it comes to practicing what it preaches: WFMU.
WFMU began broadcasting in 1958 from the campus of Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey, and is the longest-running freeform radio station in the United States. In 1995, the station separated from the college and became completely independent. Continuing its progressive mindset, WFMU has even expanded to 15 hours a week of internet-only live programming, thumbing its nose at the language restrictions set in place by the FCC.
In its early days, WFMU featured a student DJ named Vin Scelsa and his show Idiot’s Delight. A brilliant production and eclectic mix of music and reviews, Scelsa’s show even included interviews with authors and artists beyond musicians. He continued his own unique brand of radio by taking his show to various other freeform stations in the New York market, such as WBAI and WNEW, where he continued hosting Idiot’s Delightuntil 1999 when WNEW’s format changed. Scelsa then took his show to both Fordham University’s WFUV and Sirius/XM radio, where it can still be heard.
With the mass consolidation of radio markets following the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, any freeform radio station still broadcasting faced even more resistance and pressure from commercially minded owners. As the blanching of America’s radio programming spread its mind-numbing banality, diverse and eclectic programming was forced to find alternative outlets. Some programs such as Idiot’s Delight found a home on satellite radio, while other programs such as Radio Free Phoenix exist quite comfortably on the internet. The internet and satellite also allow for programming free of FCC restrictions, thereby providing another possible route of evolution for freeform programming. However, it is college radio that has always provided a sanctuary for this style of programming. And with the rise of the internet, many of the disadvantages faced by smaller stations as a result of consolidating markets can be circumnavigated, giving college and/or independently minded stations the ability to compete locally as well as broadcast their programming, effectively, to the entire world (barring any licensing issues of course). Freeform radio has always lived a sporadic, spread-out existence; however, as long as there are DJs and program directors who are true music lovers, like Jim Ladd or Vince Scelsa, with a desire to celebrate music (and other artistic endeavors) with their audiences, freeform will always trounce any effort to stifle it. Freeform began as an experiment, and over eight decades later, the experiment is still going strong.
Len Comaratta is a freeform DJ at WUVT-FM. His show, The Rare Groove, has been broadcasting for over 10 years and can be heard weekly, every Thursday evening, 9 p.m. - mid EST at www.wuvt.vt.edu.