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FM Radio: Power to What People?

Reality — in the form of the FCC, the police, and anti-political radio listeners — is threatening FM and “free radio”

FM Radio

Old AM - FM radio tuner

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—For an idea of where FM rock radio is these days, we turn first to Lorenzo Milam, writing in the program guide of KTAO-FM, his little station in Los Gatos, California.

“Because we are so involved in radio, what comes to pass in radio becomes the touchstone of what’s happening in the world. And these past few months have been terrible for those experimenting with the once-fine hope of free radio. In St. Louis, a free-form experimental radio station is terrorized by the city police who break down the door and drag away the entire staff with some carefully pre-placed bags of you-know-what. In Seattle, a free-form, listener-supported broadcast station will be forced to go through a complicated and expensive FCC hearing because of some words, those words which when uttered terrify a few people because of the horror in their lives that these words represent.

“And in Houston, a radio station is, for the second time, bombed … A man, afraid that the ears of that flat, sad city, cannot tolerate a thousand different people, with a thousand different ideas, pouring into his aether.

“O the fear of men. The storming fear of ideas.”

Lorenzo Milam is more than a verbal/dramatic, concerned observer; he’s a participant. Milam is co-owner of KDNA, the listener-supported St. Louis station that was busted. He was a founder and director of KRAB, the Seattle FM station now going through FCC hearings to determine its status as a licensee. And, as head of KTAO, a small but successful “commercial co-op” station in Santa Clara Valley (wiped out, in nearby San Francisco, by Metromedia’s 50,000-watt KSAN), he is in touch with the KMPX Collective.

KMPX, the first FM station to go “underground” (in spring of 1967), has just gone through its third full-staff upheaval. At this moment the station is into its third week of broadcasting ocean/surf sounds. The last word heard live from the old studios was the “bullsh” of “bullshit” uttered by a Collective member locked in with a dozen fellow staff members just as management shut off its transmitter.

FM rock radio continues to take over more and more of the FM band. The latest unofficial count, in Variety, labels one of every ten FM stations as either “underground” or “hard rock.” And there is fear in the Washington, D.C. air. On the heels of Vice President Agnew’s dope lyric speech in Las Vegas, President Nixon himself starred at a broadcasters’ conference called late last month by Attorney General John Mitchell, to hit out on supposed pro-drug lyrics in rock and roll; to hint to 70 broadcast officials how much the President would “appreciate” their cooperation.

At the same time, the nationwide ABC-FM chain has loosened its taped format and added two important figures to its staff: Tony Pigg, ex-KSAN announcer, and Larry Yurdin, innovative graduate of WFMU in New Jersey and CKGM-FM in Montreal and organizer of the Alternative Media Conference.

* * *

In St. Louis, in the ghetto known as the Gaslight Square, once an appropriate name for a haven of bars and clubs, all that’s left is one bar, one whorehouse, and KDNA-FM. KDNA is close to “people’s radio,” by almost any definition. In August, Jeremy Lansman, Milam’s partner, made an offer: The station would cancel all their ads if listeners would provide subsistence expenses: $3000 a month. So far they’ve been getting it. In return, KDNA’s mike is almost wide open, and the station suffers no false fears of the FCC. They’d just completed a series slapping out at the city’s police, and, now, September 27th at 1:40 in the morning, they were hanging out and making a stereo test when the doors –- back and front -– fell in. Lansman and nine others – —all staff members who lived at the house—were – arrested, along with Mary Nesbitt, who’d dropped by to pick up a Baba Ram Dass tape.. She’d called while the bust was in progress and the narcs, answering the phone, invited her over. Lansman claims it was a plant.

With the arrest and formal charges against Lansman, the station is in jeopardy. Milam and Lansman had fought six years to get the FCC license, won just a year and a half ago from a Fundamentalist Baptist Church. But although decked, Lansman keeps the KDNA ideals high. He insists he’s only one of nine “core voices” that make up the station. “The power’s so diffuse,” said Milan, it’s hard to know who does what.”

Milam is perhaps the reason KDNA sounds so fearless. An heir to what was once a fortune, he has taken his dollars all over the country –- to Portland (KBOO), Seattle (KRAB), Los Gatos (KTAO) and St. Louis – to play radio. At each stop, it’s radio with alternatives in mind. And he has grown to know— – and even love – —the FCC. Magic Christian-like, he beams: “I don’t see the FCC as a villain— – but I may have been sucked in— – I’ve grown to enjoy filling out all those forms and papers. But if you work within the system, it can be benign. The thing so awful about people who protest the Fairness Doctrine is that it’s just a direct threat to their economic return. ‘If we let this guy speak, we’ll have to give air time to another guy.’ That’s evil. The Fairness Doctrine is beautiful.”

KDNA sent out letters to state and local candidates this past election campaign, and 25 responded. “The Peace and Freedom Party people were all steamed up and mad, and it was beautiful. The old people with fears and shit—they came off just boring. It works.”

* * *

In Houston, KPFT-FM, also listener-supported, operating under the old, beleaguered wings of the Pacifica Foundation, has, like KDNA, been raided for drugs. Dave McQueen, now at KSAN, was chief announcer for KPFT in its earliest days, and he remembers the time he found a lid under his car seat and reported it to other staffers. They all looked in their cars: the good fairy had been everywhere! “We took all the dope, kept some for ourselves, and sent the rest back with a report on how we’d found the shit.”

But in Houston, there are apparently some people more clever than the cops. On May 12th, two months after KPFT had finally gone on the air—amid threats from the KKK, the Birch Society, and the Minutemen – the transmitter was dynamited, with $25,000 of damages to repair. That done, the station returned to the air in June.

Last month, on October 6th, it was bombed again, and the station is off the air again. This time, without insurance to cover the transmitter, they desperately need funds to rebuild. Said Don Gardner, former engineer there: “The people doing the bombings have been perfect. First, they blew the transmitter to smithereens. This time we had a concrete bunker built around the equipment, and this time they stuck the bomb right on top of the bunker, and it crashed the concrete right atop the equipment.”

KPFT, of course, has some guesses on the identities of the bombers – —”We’ve been stinkbombed and had our tires slashed by the Minutemen, the Night-riders, before. But we can’t get anybody arrested.” The transmitter was located just outside Houston, so the case is being investigated by the Harris County sherriff’s department, which still hasn’t figured out who did the first bombing. “They haven’t been very helpful,” Gardner said.

The station is asking the FBI to enter the case. “We’re no type of revolution or movement station,” Gardner said. “We’ve always said our station was a place where all voices could be heard.” But some people don’t care to be heard; and others don’t want anyone else to be hearable. KPFT-FM is still off the air. The other Pacifica Foundation stations— – in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York— – are constantly in financial trouble themselves –- being non-commercial, listener-supported operations that feature more talk than music—and WBAI, the New York outlet, has had its own problems with bomb threats. And its transmitters are on the Empire State Building.

* * *

In Boston, a note of hope; a tale of how a dissatisfied radio staff faced up to management and managed a decided victory. And the target was a big one: Ray Riepen also owns half of The Phoenix, Boston’s leading alternate paper, and he is president of the Tea Party, Boston’s counterpart to the Fillmores.

Riepen and Laduidara met the next rock into WBCN, in 1967, trying in the station with concert broadcasts from the Tea Party. From there, it grew into a full-time “underground station,” one of the freest and most successful in the country.

But over the months,WBCN announcers had been complaining about Riepen, for putting them down in public, for hiring people without consulting them, and for showing up at the station only to bad-rap people.

A couple of weeks ago, Riepen called up a new announcer on the air and blasted him for his choice of music. The next announcer, Charles Laquidara – —also the station program coordinator – —fired back, telling his audience about Riepen’s phone calls. “He just called John Brodey a few hours ago and he said, ‘What the hell are you doing, playing “Do What You Like” by Blind Faith? Don’t you know that’s a bad trip for Sunday? Nobody wants to hear a drum solo on a Sunday afternoon.'” Laquidara then played the 16-minute Ginger Baker drumblast “Toad.”

Riepen and Laquadara met the next day, talked things over, and appeared to have settled differences. But then Riepen called Brodey up again; again, on the air; again, to hassle him.

The staff decided to take their accumulated grievances before the Board of Directors of Concert Network, in the form of a long letter, carefully explaining the situation and implying that they might be forced to take some dramatic action, presumably a mass walk-out.

The staff, it turned out, did not have to take any further steps. Riepen quietly resigned as president. Station Manager Leonard Cohen assumed Riepen’s duties.

Riepen, who acquired stock in Concert Network following his successful experiment with rock and roll in 1967, will still sit on the Board— – as treasurer. He still owns his share of stock, and Concert Network now has another full-time FM> rock station, WHCN in Hartford, Connecticut.

* * *

In Sacramento, KZAP-FM has an owner who is going along with a staff experiment: he drops in once every ten days or so, and otherwise lets the staff run the station. They guarantee that they won’t put him or the station in debt; among themselves, they work on a 4/3 basis, staff members working either four days of four hours each or three days of five hours each, and receiving equal shares of whatever money is around. And at KTAO, Lorenzo Milam operates what he calls a “commercial Co-op.” He sells advertising time and air time. Anyone or any group can have an hour on KTAO for $20.

“They don’t mind paying to go on the air,” Milam says. “They understand that we’re using the money to pay our bills.”

The KMPX Collective in San Francisco, Milam says, sees KTAO as a possible model for their form of community radio. “It can be done with a benign autocracy,” he said. “You know, if a person lets it be known that he’ll go out after a certain amount of time.”

But not many station owners can be as flip as Milam, who explains why he’s into running radio stations: “I just want something to fill my days. But I have to get out in four or five years in each case, because I don’t want to die.”

Milam doesn’t take himself and politics very seriously; and unlike the Collective, he owns his stations. He has no one to answer to but the FCC. “And I’ve become an expert on FCC laws,” he says, assuredly. As for politics: “Us as a station should have no policies, except to keep our mikes open to everyone.”

* * *

In San Francisco the KMPX Collective is as political as Roland Young can get. And Young, a charismatic black radio announcer with a voice as smooth as a stick of dynamite, has only accelerated his pace since he was fired from KSAN last year for airing a Black Panther’s statement about what to do with President Nixon.

Shortly after Young joined KMPX this spring, the station staff formed into a collective and began making demands: Equal pay for all, on a 4/3 work schedule; Third World and women announcers, and, above all, no management intereference. They wanted no program director; they wanted to have hiring and firing power. “Our insistence,” they said in a “boycott KMPX” leaflet, was “that our judgment on community needs was superior to that of absentee capitalist owners from New York.”

That was it. The KMPX employees weren’t at a listener-supported station, but at a branch of the National Science Network, where they were, in fact, asking for particular salaries and a company health plan. Young knew this. When he joined the station, he had said: “I don’t think you can have community radio in the context of a capitalist society.” And he proved it.

So, after an afternoon locked inside the studio chanting revolutionary slogans and calling management and other stations “pigs,” the Collective was fired, and management will return to the air with the same format— – only with less of the Collective’s own evolving format of political raps and music consisting mostly of awesome, atonal jazz. “Rock and roll is on its way down anyway,” Young said. “We had run out of records to play. Rock and roll has been taken over by the pigs.”

KMPX’s owners don’t think so. Their plans include live tapes from various local rock clubs and concert halls. The KMPX switchboard will continue and be expanded to include free direct-line phones set up around the Bay Area. A news department will be organized, patterned after the Bay Guardian, San Francisco’s liberal, investigative monthly paper. KMPX manager Creighton Churchill is a former Guardian editor.

“The Collective represented a small segment of the community. They don’t speak for a great amount of people,” Churchill said. “Since the lock-in and firing, the station has only received 12 letters and six calls.” Churchill said he agreed with many Collective goals, but, he said, “authority had been eroded away. A licensee corporation has to retain control of its broadcast equipment. You need authority for that. The NSN was unhappy with the extent that the station had been turned from an information and entertainment outlet to one of political dissemination and – —to an extent— – propaganda.”

The issue is not one of free speech; it’s a matter of control. “While the collective accepted the network’s salary checks, living off the Establishment’s corporate benefit, it also refused, under any and all circumstances, to accept the wage-paying corporation’s direction or control on any material concern,” said management.

Outside KMPX’s headquarters, Joshua, an announcer, said: “The liberals don’t realize there are possibly several hundred thousands of people open to our kind of radio.” Former KSAN news director, Larry Bensky, a member of the Collective, defined community radio: “It’s serving the heads and the minds and the hearts of people – —and serving their lives. And to do that, you occasionally have to step over certain bounds. But management’s so uptight; they wouldn’t allow anything even tepid.”

In its formative stages, KMPX did excellent public affairs programs on women’s liberation, gay liberation, and legal defense. Still, the station failed to get good audience ratings; the Collective denounced commercials on the air; the 4/3 system could only confuse audience measurement surveys, and NSN was losing more money every month.

* * *

Tony Pigg, formerly of KSAN and now with the huge ABC chain, was a member of one of KMPX’s earlier staffs, the one that struck in March of 1968 and moved to KSAN.

“Jon Fox and Roland Young are people I definitely admire and respect,” Pigg said in Los Angeles, where he tapes his weekly 15 hours of programming. “But I’m sort of embarrassed. My heart is with them, but something else is here. I do want to work.” Pigg, perhaps the most attractive of all FM announcers in the country, feels he has compromised himself to some degree to work on ABC. But ABC, formerly “Love Radio,” has made a few positive changes of its own.

“ABC’s all right, despite the plastic studio, the unions, and the basic heavy lack of sympathy here,” said Pigg. “I mean we can play Miles Davis or Pharoah Sanders, 25 minute cuts or whatever. And they’re big enough that they can tell me they’re working on getting it so that we can say shit and fuck. It’s weird, but they got these lawyers in New York…”

ABC also has the power of 17 connected stations to make commercials fit into the stations’ formats. FM president Allen Shaw, who’d entered the FM rock field with little more than a gifted rap and an Eye Magazine concept, has hired Larry Yurdin to do production work. “It won’t be by force,” Pigg said, “it’ll just be a definite plus to have a freak going into the agencies and telling them how ABC wants things.”

The minuses are the taped format and the resultant lack of connection between announcer and listener. “I’m always a step away from saying ‘fuck it’ and going back to Marin County,” said Pigg. But who’s to define community? “The Collective is right,” he says. “Thinking should be re-molded around ratings. They’re going to have to give the people more control. But when they say ‘people’s radio,’ who are the people? Friends you get stoned with? Or people you don’t even know? The free radio they’re after will only occur after some sort of revolution.”

What is the “community?” The black community? Third World? Two of twelve Collective air people were Black; and KMPX is hiring more, including a black woman and another woman for air work. What’s “people’s radio,” when a four-hour Collective sit in generates maybe 100 supporters outside the station, while two years ago, KMPX, rock and roll, got a thousand people dancing in the streets while they picketed, and picketed, and picketed, and lost, because in the end it was management, after all, that owned that particular megacycle.

It is people’s radio because anybody can try and come up with the money and find a channel and do it. But if the goal is to raise consciousnesses, to go beyond rock and moderate liberalism, then reality— – F.C.C. hearing examiners; bombers and narks; and “the people” that continue to tune out at the sound of political raps and atonal jazz riffs— – must be considered.

In This Article: Coverwall

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