FM Underground Radio: Love for Sale

Before Howard Stern had to go satellite to avoid censorship, rock radio stations were being softened, and silenced

Dean Burch - FCC Chairman; Pledges no second-guessing, circa 1970. Credit: Millard Smith/The Denver Post via Getty

San Francisco— — FM rock radio— — with new step-parents like Spiro Agnew and Dean Burch on the scene — —is going through some agonizing growth pains.

The aches cropped up suddenly last week, as the San Francisco FM scene spun through a quick succession of major changes— — which were, more correctly, indications of a new fight taking place, with FM rock in the middle, a mythical battle between station owners (we can call them the Chickens) and the FCC (the Paper Tigers).

It appears that "underground radio," under the regressive nursing of network and/or corporate owners, is becoming just another spinoff of commercial, format radio. Top 40, middle-of-the-road, classical, country, R&B, and, now, "underground."

In short, underground radio is safe stuff nowadays, no more "progressive" in terms of hard politics, experimentation with music, or communication with the so-called "alternate culture" than the everyday AM station. FM stations are sounding scared, but most of the fright, most of the fear, has been internal. The FCC, the governmental licensing body, has been making noises with its new chairman, ex-Goldwater campaign manager Dean Burch. But in 36 years, the FCC has lifted one (1) radio station license for something said on the air. A paper tiger.

The animal came to life last week in San Francisco, where the new radio form began almost exactly three years ago at KMPX-FM. This is where the first confrontation between true overground (KMPX management) and underground (its first full staff of longhairs) took place, partly over censorship the owner attributed to "FCC regulations." The staff struck in March, 1968, and won a victory, of sorts, by finding a receptive new station at KSAN-FM. KSAN then became one of the first full-time rockers owned by a large corporation. It was inevitable that the immediate, warm paternalism would soon turn to lukewarm plasticity.

Here's KSAN, Metromedia's flowerstand in San Francisco. The communications corporation also runs an AM station and a UHF television station here, along with radio and TV outlets in half a dozen other major cities. Metromedia is big— — and it has just fallen, hard.

Tuesday afternoon, March 3rd, and KSAN's spacious downtown offices are quiet. Well-lit and hushed, like a library reading room. Down the short hallway, past the Sears psychedelic wallpaper (the same pattern on the walls at sister station WNEW-FM in New York), Bob McClay is behind heavy doors, doing his show. In a nearby cubicle a UPI wire machine drones, periodically spewing out the news on its roll of yellow toilet paper.

In the lobby, a boyish, neatly-suited time salesman, a weekend announcer, a regular announcer, and a couple of visitors quietly go over KSAN's woes. The big news today is KMPX, which had been limping along since the strike with a rather lifeless crew built around three scabs. Purchased by the National Science Network last winter, KMPX has suddenly picked up. The entire announcing staff has been fired; Bob Prescott, part of the original KMPX-KSAN family, has been appointed program director, and he's hired a number of fine people— — two weekend announcers hired right off of KSAN; two other ex-KSAN men, and Ed Hepp, one of the best of the original, pre-strike staff at KMPX.

KSAN had also opened up the credulity gaps in recent days. For starters, KSAN had to knock off a crass ad for a new pornflick Female Animal, because of listeners' complaints. The ads were outrageous — —putting women down as animals, as trained nymphs. Finally, KSAN toned down the ad, adding a disclaimer from Women's Liberation Front. But the damage had been done. Female Animal only topped the list of increasingly gross commercials (for a supposedly hip station) polluting the KSAN air.

But more to the gloomy point was the departure, a few days before, of Wes "Scoop" Nisker, the station's ingenious/genius news director, a revolutionary/artisan whose collage/newscasts of absurdist/satire were the life of the station.

He quit after general manager Willis Duff decided to axe the admittedly onesided newscasts for a more straight-forward approach. Nisker, who joined KSAN after walking into the studios one day with no prior broadcast experience, lasted a year and a half. And he represented, to many, the last of KSAN's few political balls.

Three months ago, black militant Roland Young had been canned for reading a letter supporting Black Panther David Hilliard's alleged threat to "kill" President Nixon. Last fall, Milan Melvin quit after a warning for rapping on the air about his draft resistance activities. Then-program director Stefan Ponek tried to explain management's side by citing the FCC's fairness doctrine, a statute that requires only that both sides of a controversial issue be aired. It was, in retrospect, the first time Metromedia would make use of the FCC to explain away its own fears.

Nisker blamed his own departure on "the climate in Washington."

"Agnew's media attacks — —note that he attacks both those who dissent and those who report it— — the current makeup of the FCC, and the general repression and regression being fostered by the Nixon gang has the media managers running scared," he said.

"Well, not really," Duff replied. "First, I think Scoop will admit that he was ready to leave for some time. It's an emotional drag to have to be so creative so often." Nisker produced two newscasts daily, each lasting from five to ten minutes, and he spent several hours splicing and producing each program.

"My principal concern," Duff said, "was that they were slowly becoming more and more editorial commentary and less and less coverage." Larry Bensky, formerly with Ramparts, the New York Times, and Dock of the Bay, has taken over and is delivering the news— — loose, with radical interpretations now and then— — but with no satire.

"The FCC," Duff said, "is not into censorship. The only thing close to it is queries about reports they get by mail. The strictures people are talking about, because of Burch, are on music, so it's affecting our stand on music only." Duff said he clipped the words "god damn" out of Les McCann's version of "Compared to What?" Last year, KSAN also blipped "mother-fucker" out of the Airplane's "We Can Be Together."

Tom Donahue, now back at KSAN, has said he would never tamper with a record unless the artist involved was contacted. "I'd rather not play it at all— — if it really violates any FCC regulation."

On the Scoop Nisker issue, Donahue backed up Duff: "He just wants more of a balance," he said. "The concept at the beginning was sort of a Mad Magazine approach, without a lot of heroes. Where it fell down was where it developed heroes. I frankly don't think we need any."

Whether or not the FCC is really scaring the stations— — and it isn't— — FM rock station owners seem to be frightened that something is happening here. In Philadelphia, Metromedia canned a weekend man, Robert Binckley, after he played a Lenny Bruce cut— — and a rather tame one, at that –— one Sunday morning on WMMR. In reaction to Dean Burch's declared war on on-the-air obscenity, Metromedia in New York has finally caught up with the lyrics of Steppenwolf's "The Pusher," which has been out fully four years, and banned the record. The lyrics, by the way, are anti-dope, like everything else Metromedia airs that pertains to drugs. In the area of dope, the corporation somehow forgets the "fairness doctrine."

"The Agnew thing really scared a lot of people," a source at ABC said. "It was really felt from the corporation standpoint, and ABC's pretty uptight about it. We have to carry Agnew speeches now — —even on the FM rock format."

"Look," an official at the Federal Communication Commission in Washington is saying. "The FCC has all the power it wants. There are seven men on the commission. Some dislike four-letter words; others say 'Let's look at the context in which they were used.' The FCC is bound by the First Amendment. There's also a statute, dating from 1934, that gives the FCC the power to revoke a license for 'obscene, profane, or indecent language.' But what does that mean? There's never been a court test for a broadcaster."

In the one case where the FCC took away a license, in 1962, the case was reviewed by courts, but it was a case of anti-Semitism.

Three weeks ago, the official pointed out, a non-profit station, KRAB-FM in Seattle, was "punished" with a one-year license renewal, awarded in place of the usual three-year renewal. Testimony revealed that the station had run an autobiographical novel by a local minister in which he recounted some of the hottest times he had under the collar. He talked about fucking, about cunts, and about doing it in the backyard near heaps of dog shit. He used those words; the station ran the show for two and a half hours out of its scheduled thirty; and the FCC came up with a split decision for the one-year renewal. Two commissioners— — Kenneth Cox and Nicholas Johnson— — dissented. They argued for a full license renewal for KRAB, arguing that the program was an isolated incident.

Commissioner Johnson is considered the radical on the FCC, the bane in broadcasters' preoccupation with profits, the sworn enemy of an industry historically pampered by the Government for airing three decades of safe, banal pablum.

Nicholas Johnson, also understands rock and roll. "The proposition," he said, "has always been that the greatest freedom of speech is reserved for the media with the least potential of influence. A whole lot of people have discovered music as an important medium, so now the pressure is on the music as well as the station.

"We're a do-it-yourself kind of country," he said. "We've always had to fight for our freedoms. I think we're in for a few years now of fighting."

Another FCC official agreed, explaining, "Burch and the other new member of the FCC replace two conservative men. But these two are more aggressive. They may push harder. Also, the political climate has changed drastically. We now have a Chief Justice, an attorney General, a Vice President, and a President who don't understand the First Amendment. And the Supreme Court is being filled with neanderthals. So it's kind of tense."

"Censorship," Johnson said, "is something that constantly has to be watched. But it's only fair to note that in the 30-year history of the FCC, there've certainly been few instances where a broadcaster lost a license for reasons other than doing things like running lottery contests, perpetrating frauds, or neglecting technical requirements."

Tom Donahue, veteran of AM (WIBG, Philadelphia; KYA, San Francisco) and Pioneer of FM (KMPX and KSAN): "The FCC receives 18,000 complaints a year. They hardly have the staff to take care of the mail. They send you a copy of the letter and ask for your side of the story. And that's it."

Whatever the FCC's role or non-role, past and present, FM rock has been pretty much chicken, chicken-shit, and bullshit. There have been exceptions, of course: "A bunch of freaks," as one observer described them, took over WFMU, a college station in New Jersey, and when there's enough money around to allow them to open up, they air programs like "Kocaine Karma" and personalities like Danny Fields.

But the typical FM rock station comes on with waves of good vibes, builds an audience of loyal listeners by playing album cuts unheard on AM, by talking with, instead of to, listeners, and by opening up the station to the community. As the audience builds, however, the ratings, "the numbers," climb, and station owners suddenly have a marketable commodity. Suddenly the air is filled with increasingly uptight advertisers, administration takes over, and everything is sterilized. Suddenly there are playlists; certain records have to be banned. No more interviews — —can't stop the flow of music. No politicizing— — remember the fairness doctrine. Got to have that license in order to let you do your thing, you know. Suddenly there's no "community" out there, but a "share" of the "quarter-hour audience" instead.

And, in the end, FM rock stands naked. It is, after all, just another commercial radio station.

In New York, where a definition of "community" in almost any sense is nearly impossible, FM radio hardly tries to relate to the streets. WOR-FM reverted, after a short trial with underground rock, into a Bill Drake Top 40 robot-rock format. WCBS has been trying, since last year, to go "progressive," under the leadership of ex-KMPX announcer Gus Gossert. But he's already given up on anything close to what San Francisco once had. WCBS has jingles, breezy announcers, and a lot of listeners. That's New York.

As for Metromedia, "99 percent of the things we do are quite similar to Ksan," says George Duncan, general manager at WNEW-FM. "The music's a bit more restrictive, and we are more structured."

Specifically, says Richard Robinson, a former weekend man there, "they allow no guests, no phone calls on the air; you clear everything before you play it. New York radio is basically corporate rock—mainly because of Metromedia."

"But Metromedia," Duncan argues, "is of course responsible to its stockholders. But it's progressive socially and politically. It's singular in that it's putting its money where its mouth is. I mean, you have to turn a buck to stay in business. It doesn't mean we've copped out." Last year, Metromedia TV produced a play for TV, Red, White, and Maddox, that ripped the axe-handling governor from Georgia –— and his white supporters —– apart. The company couldn't find any sponsors, but aired the play anyway on various Metromedia stations. That took balls.

Much worse than the corporation-owned stations have been the network stations – — specifically, the ABC-FM "Love" stations.

ABC is another story.

Manufactured in the New York ABC studios, "Love" is fed, by tapes, to all seven ABC-owned stations –— in New York, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Houston. Stations rotate tapes, sometimes repeating segments, and add local announcers who run giveaways, and coordinate gimmicks. Last month, listeners were asked to send in names of favorite artists to help ABC put together the world's greatest pop festival. The "event" turned out to be an all-requests weekend.

"Love Radio" (the phrase, after nearly a year and a half of use in IDs, jingles, and advertising promotions) features a 24-hour anchorman called "Brother John" (recently reverted to his real name, John Rydgren), who reads poetry, ala Rosko, and presides over the format's bland blend of "progressive rock," seemingly guided by the trade magazines.

Love is nice enough. But here's how ABC sells their "Love" to advertisers: A photo of a huge carton with the "Love" logo on the front. Inside the box, four youngsters who appear to reside safely in the 18-35 age range broadcasters like for their demographics. One is a black with a moderate natural; one is a chick; one cat has Donovan-length hair; the other, early-Bobby Sherman.

And if that don't get you, the copy will:

"Like any successful business, we invest in new products, too. One of our latest ones is called LOVE ... it communicates to a new kind of audience ... the audience that thinks, feels, and buys in the same way. A group with whom the buying power of the country rests. And LOVE is the only concept on radio that's effectively reaching them ...

"As marketing and business men, we anticipate the needs of the changing market. That's why it took almost a year of research and development to launch the LOVE format. A process similar to the way you market your new products. And though you won't find our new products on supermarket shelves, at least we can help you move yours off them."

Besides John Rydgren, Love Radio features Howard Smith and a former AM jock named "Bobaloo." Allen Shaw, creator of the format, calls it "our unique, new approach to radio." It's more like the Eye Magazine of rock radio, and may it have the same fate.

Given the paranoia that has so much— of the radio industry transfixed, and the inevitable boorishness of non-profit, nondirectional radio, it would appear that radio will have to find an alternative to the public airwaves, an alternative to corporate or network funding — —if it is to succeed in doing its most vital job: that is, relating to, responding to, and serving the immediate community. It may be some form of pirate radio, operating off the coast like the British ship/stations. Or it may be cable radio, an adjunct to the rapidly-growing field of cable TV (transmission over wires). As of now, the FCC has no control of cable radio, although it is moving to cover cable television.

Tom Donahue, the man who usually has the answers, is back on the radio scene, back at KSAN after nearly a year off to launch several ventures in TV and record producing with his new company, North Beach Productions. He has personally returned to the air for a weekend shift (portions of which may be syndicated as before, to other stations), and his company will act as "programming consultants" to KSAN.

Instead of putting down or writing off what exists, Donahue works with what he has. "I don't think anything is changed by the argument, that if I can't say 'fuck' I'll stomp out of the station," he said. On the other hand, "I don't think the American people are going to long tolerate the repression at a level that extracts their liberty. The radio has viable functions that aren't in violation of FCC rules. And, actually, the Fairness Doctrine makes sense. If you're telling the truth, then there's no fear of the other side. The others, if they're assholes, will always sound like assholes."

Metromedia, he said, is no longer revolutionary, maybe never was — —"but it's still the best station of its genre."

Donahue has a full set of programming ideas that will, if they work, open the station up to listeners, to local and visiting musicians, and to other radio stations. But while he plans to reinstate a "satirical" form of newscasting, the station, he emphasized, "is not conceived of as an outlet for political expression. It can't be taken over by any segment of its audience.

"It's a peculiar situation," Donahue said. "It's not a game we're in that you win. We never will satisfy everybody. All you can do is decide who you are and do the best you can, and say 'fuck you' to the rest of the world."

As for advertising, the quality of which has been steadily worsening as more "Establishment" accounts are drawn in— — and this is a symptom prevalent at FM rock stations through the country— — Donahue couldn't promise much. "Eventually, we'll get to the position where the station pays its own way. Then we'll have total control and we can start rejecting ads. Metromedia right now has a number of stations not making money. This is one of them."

It costs money — —lots of it— — to buy a station, put it in good enough shape to get a license, and then run it well enough to keep it on the air.

This is where the FCC— — and any scare talk about FCC license-renewal hearings— — has its effects. Just one letter from one irate listener can be cause for a hearing. And just one hearing can tie a station up for tens of thousands of dollars— — in research, legal fees, and transportation. A major cause for the financial problems that wrack the Pacifica Foundation and its educational/old left stations have been the "obscenity" complaints and challenges to their applications for licenses, necessitating drawn-out FCC hearings.

For awhile, just after the strike, KSAN was magic— — hip, and rich, to boot. It was an exciting time for radio. KMPX had made the national magazines, and Metromedia was trying out "progressive rock" at its then all-girl WNEW-FM.

Bob Prescott, new program director at KMPX, saw it all from the inside. He was a KMPX announcer who worked several months as operations director under Tom Donahue, while Donahue was busy setting up KMPX's sister, KPPC in Pasadena. Prescott was on the strike line, and, at KSAN, he was morning man until last September when he was notified that he was fired while he was on vacation.

"At KSAN," he said, "there was the traditional established power form of functions. It made it necessary for people to withhold criticisms and do a lot of bitching in corners. I saw things happening there where people didn't know about them — —then changes were made, boom!"

To make it so that things don't happen like that at KMPX, Prescott is hoping to be a non-leader, "so that all of us may be leaders." He also hopes to see KMPX move out of its current hideout, a dismal shelter-type warehouse near the Cannery, to a house. "I'd like the station to regain the spirit it had in 1967," he said. "But we've got to do it inside the station before we can do it outside with the community."

KMPX now has a corporate parent, the National Science Network. New general manager Marty Diamond, who joined KMPX's sales staff last spring with no prior radio experience, won't promise anything revolutionary from the NSN. They, too, have just paid out a lot of money to get KMPX and KPPC going, and they simply aren't ready to take on the FCC. But, says Prescott, "the NSN people react to what I say. I think we share a concern for everybody at this station, and we're knitting a web of life here first."

Good, strong competition between KSAN and KMPX may be just what San Francisco, the microcosm, needs. But what's needed depends on where you stand, and how much, if any, commercialism you can stand.

As far as Scoop Nisker is concerned, what's needed is a "progressive community radio station that really serves the needs of the entire community and reflects the energies of the entire community. Man does not live by rock and roll alone. The FCC says that the media should be accessible to the people, so let's open it up."

Easy to say — —and easy to do, too — —if the station doesn't have to fill an eight-spot-per-hour quota, or pay Aftra or Nabet scales, or carry a 25-man payroll, or answer to people who spend their time cringing at "dirty" words and studying rating books. Until someone comes along and builds that kind of station, we'll have to tolerate the drivel and dig out the gold. Just like in real life.