{Excerpts from an Essay-with-Soundtrack series on the history of underground radio, entitled “Notes from the Underground of Radio,” which the Gypsy Scholar broadcast during September of 2008, a period when KUSP was going through what the management called “Restructuring,” a euphemism for the cutting of all the locally-produced afternoon music programs and replacing them with NPR national programming.}




Notes from the Underground of Radio




RE-VISION RADIO’s TOWER OF SONG … is a “Soul-making” program, because it’s essentially an “underworld perspective”—a seeing below surface appearances to the occult or symbolic truth of things. Thus, Everybody Knows, TOWER OF SONG is truly Underground Radio. –“Re-Vision Radio Manifesto & Visionary Recital”


There was a mystique that surrounded these stations. As if some private, magic door had been found to a new dimension, members of the audience told each other about it. . . . but it was a staple of the underground format. There was a sense of accomplishing something mighty creative. Not just disc jockey work, but weaving songs together in progression to make a statement or a theme. –Ed Shane (Program director of Atlanta’s pioneer underground station, WPLO-FM)


And the music on the radio, and the music on the radio
Has so much soul, has so much soul
And you listen, in the night time
While we're still and quiet

And you look out on the water
And the big ships, and the big boats
Came on sailing by, by, by, by
And you felt so good, and I felt so good …

–Van Morrison, “Take Me Back”



Apologia & Introduction



Radio was now in the throes of the battle for the souls of America’s youth. It had won one battle, and it was about to engage in another, which would be waged from a different direction. –Thom O‘Hair (Early 1970s program director at KSAN-FM)


From his imaginal window in the Tower of Song, the Gypsy Scholar looks back to underground radio of the 1960s and especially its “freeform,” late-night programming. . . .

This musical essay series is essentially about the rise and fall of what was dubbed “underground radio” in the sixties. It is presented with the hope that in the increasingly hegemonic environment of corporate media, when “independent” radio stations are one after another disappearing, the anarchistic spirit of underground radio may rise again one day in another form, suited for the sensibilities of the new times. However, I should caution that this musical essay series it’s not just a nostalgic look back at the golden age of underground radio—of freeform, experimental radio— but, more importantly, it’s presented as a needful reminder of what the ideals of “independent” radio should be. In other words, at another critical time, when another new technology is promising great changes to the medium, like FM was in the sixties, it may be useful to take a look back at the sources of what we today call “community radio.” [1]  As the old adage goes, those who ignore history—in this case radio history—are doomed to repeat it. So, given what is happening to “community radio” all around the country today, I feel that there is no time like the present to re-view—to look once again in depth at—the history of the experiments with FM radio, both the non-commercial and the commercial variety. Again, this historical information is presented in the hopes that our Santa Cruz radio community won’t end up singing along with the song, “Don’t it always seem to go / You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” [2]


The Counterculture Finds Its Freeform Home: Zapped Into Underground Radio



I heard this song about two A.M.: “Something is happening here / But you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mr. Jones?” It was Bob Dylan, and I was listening to the words. And I remember thinking to myself, “What the fuck is this? What is this guy talking about?” It was absolutely hypnotic. It was as if I had just been changed to a different frequency, zapped right into the radio. –Annie Gottlieb (Freelance writer and cultural critic)


Radio became a habit, then an addiction. I would retire to my room earlier and earlier in the evening to listen. I began collecting favorite stations and remembering when the best time was to pick up their signals. The radio helped cure my fear of the dark. My little room became my sanctuary—a holy place of comfort and refuge. The radio became a close friend, one who always had a smile on his face, good news, and a joke or two to share. That feeling of comfort was a lesson that I never forgot, especially when, years later, it was my turn be the friendly voice coming out from behind the yellow light. –Quincy McCoy (Veteran radio personality)


Ultimately, this localization decision would coincide perfectly with the availability of the empowered sixties generation. Drawing on their “can-do” parents’ belief that anything is possible, and driven by their own anger about shattered dreams, these young people saw no problem in recreating radio in their own image. —Carla Brooks Johnston (Writer and consultant on public policy and the media)


They use the radio as a background, the aural prop for whatever kind of life they want to imagine they’re leading. –Tom Wolfe (Novelist)


As we have seen, the term “underground” takes us back—way, way back—to the radio world of the 1960s and ‘70s, when it was used to designate avant-garde, freeform (or “experimental”) radio. [3]  Many of these radio stations were founded in this period (including “community” radio stations), when cultural experimentation had a significant following, particularly among the young. The young generation of baby-boomer listeners, tiring of an AM radio industry of bland commercialization, routine conformity, and institutional consolidation, wanted something different, and by the late ‘60s were tuning into the new sounds of an experimental radio format—often pioneered by ex-AM DJs frustrated by that medium—that came to be known as “underground radio.”  

It was music that most defined, and at the same time distinguished, underground stations from the rest of the pack on either radio band AM or FM. [4]  (Since FM has a wider dynamic range than AM, there are better high ends and low ends, which accounts for how rock ‘n’ roll fit perfectly with the FM airwaves.) For a number of reasons it was on FM radio band that new “experimentation” occurred. Mike Gormley, music journalist for the Detroit Free Press, wrote at the time: “It’s now up to FM stations to try new things, to invent new ways of doing old things and, well—experiment.” And, according to Ed Shane of WPLO-FM, this freedom to experiment “inspired spontaneity” for underground deejays. Furthermore, were it not for the outcropping of underground stations, many rock artists (some of whom would later became prominent fixtures of the music scene) may have gone unnoticed. . . . On the radio format tree, underground has a variety of ancestral as well as descendant limbs—family branches. Underground is directly related to what may be most accurately called “freeform radio,” which had its roots in the nocturnal experimentation at fledgling commercial FM stations and in the musical eclecticism found at some of their commercial-free counterparts in the lower portion of the megahertz band. . . . [5]


Underground Radio’s Mythic Underworld


There never had been a commercial radio format that gave its practitioners the opportunity to plumb their creative depths as did underground. (Fornatale and Mills, Radio in the Television Age)


I emphasized what one pioneering deejay of the revolutionary era described as “underground and everything that it symbolized,” because I want to talk about everything that the term “underground” symbolizes from a mythic perspective, including the political sense of “revolution from below.” In other words, I would suggest that when we are forming an image of “underground” in our minds—as in “underground movement,” be it radio or any other subversive organization—we inevitably fall back to unconscious associations of a mythic nature. Even the great political theorizer, Marx (the young, would-be Romantic poet), had borrowed the symbolic phrase—“revolution from below”—from the proceeding generation of Romantic thinkers and writers, who proposed that real transformation, whether psychic or social, occurred due to an “upsurge from below,” or “an upsurge of the unconscious and the primitive.” (And rock ‘n’ roll, or rock, is nothing if not “primitive,” as more than one rocker has pointed out.) Therefore, the phrase connotes a psycho-mythic phenomenon, and is only later literalized into a strict political reality—not the other way around (i.e., a literal phenomenon is mythologized). It is in this frame of reference, then—the context of the mythic underworld— that I would put the sixties phenomenon of revolutionary “underground radio” (for instance, the same underworld of Greek mythology into which the archetypal musician, Orpheus, descended; i.e., the realm of Hades). . . .

We have seen how underground radio was invented to provide a real alternative to standardized and hyper-commercialized Top-40 radio of the ‘50s and ‘60s, a superficial (without depth) phenomenon catering only to the marketplace dictates of the big record companies. In this corporate-driven music industry, there may have been “soul music,” but the medium through which it was broadcast was essentially soul-less. Underground radio, though relatively short-lived, came along to fill the void of this loss of soul on the American airwaves. [6]  Larry Miller (original underground deejay and programmer at KMPX-FM and WABX-FM) has this to say about the kind of music played on underground radio: “Plenty of folk rock, filled with cogent messages about the times, got on the air. Later on, these stations played a lot of real soul music, too. Things that weren’t heard anywhere got their day on underground.” . . . .

Today, some of us are also aware, especially in the last decade or so, of how many threatened “independent” radio stations, always tempted by the standardized national models and the almighty dollar, have sacrificed their unique identity to the corporate media monopolies; i.e., they have lost the “soul” of their programming. In this context, it is interesting to note that soul, or psyche (the Greek concept), along with the concept of depth, also has a mythological reference, and both are inseparable from the depths of the underworld. Therefore, concerning the mythic associations of “underground radio, at this point in the discussion (given we hear a lot about “in-depth” radio programming these days), I think it would be enlightening (especially as to why the Gypsy Scholar’s “Re-Vision Radio Manifesto” states that the Tower of Song program “is a ‘Soul-making’ program, because it’s essentially an ‘underworld perspective’ . . . is truly Underground Radio”) to take a short digression into what could be called the dimension of depth, as it relates to the Greek notions of the paired realities of soul and the underworld.

The Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus brought together psyche, logos, and bathun (“depth”): “You could not find the ends of the soul though you traveled every way, so deep is its logos.” After Heraclitus, depth became the direction, the quality, and the dimension of the psyche. Heraclitus also stated: “The real constitution of each thing is accustomed to hide itself.” So, his statement about the depth of the soul also hints that visibilities, the surface of things, are never enough for the soul. It desires to go beyond, to go ever inward and deeper. One could say that, according to Heraclitus, if we want to arrive at the basic structure of things, we must go into their hiddenness (their occultation), or darkness, because he suggests that the true equals the deep. “The hidden harmony,” declared Heraclitus, “is stronger than the visible.” Therefore, with the help of this ancient Greek philosopher, we can begin to come to a new way of understanding the concept of psyche, or soul, which is, after all, the term that is used a great deal when describing one of the popular forms of music since the 1950s (and also a generic term for profundity—depth—of feeling in music; i.e., it has “soul,” or it’s “soulful”).

To paraphrase the depth-psychologist upon whom I’m relying in this discussion, the concept of soul can also be a perspective, a viewpoint toward all things; an operation of penetrating insight into the depths (bathun) that makes soul as it proceeds. In other words, soul itself is “an underworld perspective,” a primary movement of deepening that makes hidden connections—”Soul-making” (a term from the Romantic poet Keats). Again, to be clear, the mythic designation of “underworld” is a purely psychical dimension or world (not to be confused with Christian conceptions of hell or even pre-Christian conceptions of a literal under-earth, afterlife realm; just as “soul” here is not to be confused with the Christian disembodied entity that survives death).

. . . or to say this in another way, underworld is the mythological style of describing psychological cosmos. Put more bluntly: underworld is psyche. When we use the word underworld, we are referring to a wholly psychic perspective . . . . This means that the underworld perspective radically alters our experience of life. It no longer matters on its own terms but only in terms of the psyche. To know the psyche at its basic depths . . . one must go to the underworld. . . .

     It is in the light of psyche that we must read all underworld descriptions. Being in the underworld means psychic being, being psychological, where soul comes first. “Entering the underworld” refers to a transition from the material to the psychical point of view.  (Dr. James Hillman)

Suffice to say, then, sixties “underground radio” put soul back into soul music (all revolutionary music being soul-music)! . . .

If, as we have just seen, the literal point of view stops at the surface of things and the “underworld perspective” of soul sees the hidden, symbolic truth of things, then this same opposition can be put in metaphoric terms of the dayworldand thenightworld,” respectively. Remember that Heraclitus insisted that if we want to arrive at the basic structure of things we must go into their “hiddenness,” or “darkness.” Thus, the metaphor of darkness belongs the nightworld and is naturally at home there. Again, I’m talking in metaphors. By the term “dayworld,” I do not mean the daily world but rather the literal view where things seem as they appear, where we have not seen through into, as Heraclitus put it, their darkness (i.e., their occult reality). The “dayworld,” then, is style of thinking in literal realities, whereas the “nightworld,” on the other hand, has to do with the chthonic underworld of Greek mythology—of “Night and her brood” ruled over by the dark goddess Hecate.


Underground Radio & The Romantic Nightworld

In the middle of the night

I go walking in my sleep

From the mountains of faith

To a river so deep … 

—Billy Joel, ‘River of Dreams’ (Tower of Song theme-song)

There is one part of the night about which I say, “Here time ceases!” After all these moments of nocturnal wakefulness, especially on journeys for walks, one has a marvelous feeling with regard to this stretch of time: it was always much to brief or far too long, our sense of time suffers some anomaly. It may be that in our waking hours we pay recompense for the fact that we usually spend this time lost in the chaotic tides of dreamlife! Enough of that! At night between 1 and 3, we no longer have the clock in our heads. It seems to me that this is what the ancients expressed in the words 
intepestiva nocte … “in the night, where there is no time”.… —Nietzsche, Nachlass


You Higher Men, it is going on midnight; I want to whisper something in your ears, like that old bell whispers it into my ear—as secretly, as terribly, as cordially as that midnight bell, which has experienced more than any one man, says it to me. It has already counted the painful heartbeats of your fathers. Ah! Ah! how it sighs! how in dreams it laughs! The ancient, deep, deep midnight!" —Nietzsche, “The Nightwanderer's Song” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)


By resurrecting the term “Romantic nightworld here, I’m (as my “School of the Night” page demonstrates) participating in a counter-cultural project of “reclaiming” the reality of darkness from its entirely negative (Christian) valuation—a kind of postmodern “revaluation of values.”

The early mythical distinction—and antagonism—between day and night seems fundamental in Western culture. This diurnal/nocturnal divide (the nocturnal associated with the evil side of things) was particularly prevalent in the Christian Middle Ages and in the Renaissance. [7]  Then, in the nineteenth century, with the alternate concept of the “Romantic nightworld,” the nocturnal world was revisioned as a realm associated with a lunar world of rebirth, imagination, poetic creativity, magic, mysticism, and soul. The "Romantic Nightworld" then became an overarching, poetic meme for all the values that had been repressed in mainstream (Christian) culture—those, for instance, associated with the moon and the feminine—due to the tyranny of the dayworld (patriarchal) ones. Thus, the Romantics celebrated the "feminine" realities of the "Nightworld:” imagination, myth, dream, the unconscious, feeling, magic, mysticism, and drug-induced, altered states of consciousness; i.e., the entire realm of the so-called “inferior” or non-rational part of the psyche. Thus, it wouldn’t be too much to say that the Romantic poets returned—went way, way back—to an archaic lunar mythology, one associated with a matrifocal worldview presided over by a Great Mother figure. (Robert Graves’ poetic myth of the mysterious “White Goddess applies here. Suffice to say, there is long legacy of the association of poets to the moon, which survives rather negatively in the modern world as “lunacy.” But, as my “School of the Night” page demonstrates, this lunar association is actually a fundamentally positive one. Thus even Nietzsche celebrates his “nightwanderers,” his “artists,” as divinely “moonstruck”!) As archetypal psychologist James Hillman would put it, the Romantic Nightworld has to do with “the soul’s connection with the night world, the realm of the dead, and the moon.” (But long before Hillman’s insight here, there was this from literary critic Northrop Frye: “I see Romanticism as the beginning of the first major change in this pattern of mythology [Biblical/patriarchal], and as fully comprehensible only when seen as such…. Such myths tend to become mother-centered myths, where nature is an earth-goddess renewing her vitality . . . every spring. . . . The mother-centered myth has always been attractive to poets . . . .”)

The Romantic poets, writers, and philosophers championed the "Romantic Nightworld" as an essentially lunar world that corrected the imbalance of a dominant solar world, which had become too one-sided with hyper-rationalism, scientism, regimented order, masculine values, and etc. etc. In this lunar “Nightworld,” the values of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European society were overturned in favor of everything that was rejected and cast out, at least since the fifth-century Greek rationalists, as the realm of the “irrational:” mystery, myth, mysticism, poetry, imagination, fantasy, ecstasy, altered states of consciousness, and the feminine. The Romantics associated these alternative values with a "lunar" consciousness, which was socially repressed in favor of the "solar" ego-consciousness (and the reigning "scientism" of their time).

Following in the footsteps of the Romantics, Friedrich Nietzsche would later develop the meme of the "Romantic Nightworld and its opposition to the dayworld in terms of the opposition of the Dionysian vs. Apollonian consciousness and his revolutionary project of the “revaluation [or transvaluation] of all values." (For, Nietzsche, the ideal was the perfect synthesis of the Apollonian and the Dionysian principles.) The "Romantic Nightworld," then, was under the aegis of the god of ecstasy and excess, Dionysus, instead of the god of limits and ego-consciousness, Apollo.

Therefore, we can understand that the Romantics took the side what has since been called "the Night-side of things." The realities of the “nightworld” are symbolic and fluid, associated with the feminine, the moon, water, dreams, imagination, hidden meanings and connections, poetry, love—and music! Orpheus in the underworld! Yes, it should be remembered that the archetypal musician/magician—”the father of song”—played his most enchanting music for his underground audience. In sum, then, the “nightworld” is the imaginal landscape of soul’s “underworld perspective.” (Hillman). . . .


The Golden Era of Freeform Underground Radio & The Counterculture



Freeform radio is an art form. The airwaves are the empty canvas, the producer is the artist, and the sound is the paint. –Julius Lester (Folk-singer, college professor, and civil rights activist)


These stations rolled the counterculture into the mainstream and gave the baby boomer generation its first taste of legitimacy. –Kate Ingram (Programming staff member at KSAN-FM}


You know, a lot was happening in the 60s that commercial underground stations subordinated to their sex, drugs, and rock and roll message. There were other Issues too--the poor, the blacks, women, the gentle folk who joined Rachel Carson's environmental movement and “the small is beautiful” drive. The entire society was upset, except for the older generation who survived the Depression, won the war, and couldn't understand why the kids weren't grateful and obedient. For many of these other “movements,” there was music and radio, too. Perhaps folk music more than rock—political folk music, which was more likely to be heard on the public, noncommercial stations—was the real underground radio medium for many of us. —Carla Brooks Johnston (Writer and consultant on public policy and the media)


Concerning the history of underground radio and rock-in-roll music in the 1960’s counterculture, I would make the connection between the mythic underworld and the mythopoetic nightworld, since, as we shall soon see, much of the cutting edge of freeform, underground radio happened on the late-night programs. (Some underground radio historians claim the earliest freeform radio show was the late-night show, “Nightsounds,” begun in 1949 on non-commercial KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, and hosted by John Leonard. This freeform radio pioneer was producing collages of music, poetry and satire.) Thus Dave Dixon, a deejay during the underground era at WABX-FM in Detroit, remembered an early pioneering deejay: “He did this on his all-night show, which, I suppose, was considered by management to be the place to try a little something different.” However, I think there’s a deeper reason for this, and not just because most radio managers feel they have little to lose if a deejay “experiments” at night, since it’s a notoriously low listening time-slot. It is evident to the Gypsy Scholar, as host of one of these late-night music programs, that this diurnal or daily alteration impacts the atmosphere of radio; that is, the energy at night and its rhythms are of a radically different quality than during daytime radio. As the Gypsy Scholar sees it, after the all-night radio program (just like in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), the magic of the Romantic Nightworld (the animated and enchanted night) fades at the break of dawn with the return of everyday, quotidian reality—and the Tower of Song also fades from view. . . . 

This, I maintain, is the mythic backdrop against which we can re-vision the deeper meaning and significance of the sixties phenomenon of underground radio. . . .

It would surprise most avid radio listeners today that as late as the mid-1960s you couldn’t hear countercultural rock music on radio. Except for the few tightly formatted Top-40 AM stations, there was no outlet for the booming psychedelic rock scene. Into this void stepped a deejay, producer and concert promoter by the name of Tom Donahue, who began broadcasting four hours of modern rock every day on KMPX, a small FM station in San Francisco, which was known primarily for foreign language programming. The show was an immediate success, and within two months, in June of 1967, KMPX was a full-time freeform progressive rock station, and Donahue became known as “the father of underground radio.” Although it was commercial, KMPX was an “underground” station in that its deejays played extended experimental and psychedelic music that addressed the culture of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll more openly than any previous San Francisco station. . . .

And in the ‘60s underground radio—here and abroad—helped spread the revolutionary message through music. In fact, for the sensibilities of those young people of the worldwide sixties counterculture music and social revolution couldn’t be separated:

Our generation secretly knew that music and political revolution were inextricably connected, and we believed that music, especially rock music, could change the world—and that’s why underground radio was so important. This is why the young generation, who began listening to rock ‘in’ roll on AM Top Forty, came of age with the FM underground. [8]

Gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson summed up this partnership of music and revolution on underground radio best when he declared: “The radio was screaming “Power to the People—Right On!” Thus, the quest for sweeping social reform of what was at that time called simply “the Movement,” was highly eroticized (as indicated by the famous motto, “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll”). This dual quest was reflected in songs that mixed sentiments of social protest with erotic desire. . . . Ed Shane (program director of Atlanta’s pioneer underground station, WPLO-FM) adds the connection with the counterculture:

At the time, I think we all felt we had something unique to convey. The music, the culture, the counterculture, the hippie movement all nudged us on. All of these things did contribute, and looking back they seem to me to be in unique alignment with other forces of the time that really helped establish the milieu for the emergence of commercial underground radio.

Another distinguishing hallmark of underground radio was the interaction and kinship between the deejay and the listener. A veteran of underground radio (a production director during underground heyday of KSAN), Roland Jacopetti, tells us:

For me, the inspiration behind the emergence of underground radio was in the desire on the part of radio people and music people to share their delight in what they knew and loved with the public. . . . Consideration for the listener, and a feeling of kinship with the audience, strikes me as one of the hallmarks of underground rock stations.

Of all these factors that combined to create a need for a different kind of media, what could be singled out as the most influential to the founding of underground radio is the counterculture. After all, the new-found freedom of the ‘60s, the kind that youth was experiencing after the repressive ‘50s, was in no small amount due to the big three factors (those that later fueled the culture wars launched by the New Right): sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. In his book, The Movement and the Sixties (1995), Terry Anderson shares the now widely-held view that youth dissatisfaction with the political norm of the day lit the fires of dissent, as he broadly describes the movement developing as counter to the political establishment: “The counterculture was a counter to the dominant cold war culture.” [9]  For the counterculture and underground radio, we can observe that so-called “freaks” established and tuned into a few hip FM stereo stations, such as KMPX and KSAN (known as a “community rock station”) in the Bay Area, WBAl (or “Radio Unnameable”) in New York, and “Up Against the Wall FM” in Madison. These were some of the first, and soon other listener-sponsored stations went on the air in many other cities, including Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington, D.C.—all playing progressive/psychedelic rock music and all giving clues to the counterculture. The other famous underground radio personality, Wes “Scoop” Nisker (of KSAN-FM), in his autobiography, characterized underground radio as counterculture:

            For a few years before the profiteers took over, KSAN and stations like it across the nation were rightfully termed “underground radio.” We promoted antigovernment protests, we savagely criticized the president and congress, we preached against capitalism and the Judeo-Christian religions, we openly encouraged the use of marijuana and LSD and, of course, we played the music to accompany all these activities. We were truly tribal radio, filling the heads of American youth with a call to sex, hugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and revolution.

Jon Pareles (an American journalist who is the chief popular-music critic in the arts section of The New York Times), in a 1996 article, reflected back on the extraordinary relationship that countercultural baby-boomers had with their rock music in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s)

We had of course invented youth, rebellion, idealism, sex, recreational drug use and the music that went with all of it. Like pop consumers before us, we found songs that summed up our longings and our resentments. But we were sure that those songs weren't just entertainment: they were the foundation of a new culture, a counterculture. And we decided that the musicians we listened to were exalted creatures. They were no longer mere performers but artists, perhaps even shamans, leading a revolution in consciousness.

Along with seeing underground radio as promoting social revolution and a consciousness revolution, there were those who went as far as putting it in the role of purveyor of a vision of the “good society,” which was the shared vision of the counterculture. For instance, in his memoir, Radio Waves, underground deejay Jim Ladd posits the view that underground radio contributed significantly to what he refers to as the counterculture's “vision of the promised land.” This “edenic” vision (or, “got to get back to the garden”) was also the subject of two popular books by reputable academics: Theodore Roszak’s 1969 book, The Making of a Counter Culture, and Morris Dickstein’s 1977 book, Gates of Eden (which features a chapter entitled “The Age of Rock Revisited”). . . .

Given all this, I would therefore suggest that the following observation from a historian of underground radio makes more sense if we take into account that its deejays were practicing a soulful “underworld perspective” with the music they played: “There never had been a commercial radio format that gave its practitioners the opportunity to plumb their creative depths as did underground.” This was the golden age of counterculture radio, which was largely the result of freeform programming, a format that allowed deejays to create their own innovative shows. Again, this outside-the-box experimentation occurred mostly on the late-night (nocturnal) timeslots. One of the most innovative of freeform techniques these late-night deejays pioneered was musical eclecticism. In fact, “eclectic” was the word that best described the presentation of music on underground radio stations:

What I loved most about the programming was its eclecticism the fact that there were no dos and don’ts. . . . Integration was always important, put­ting together uninterrupted blocks of music in sets that connected and made a musical statement. The ideal being that at the end of fourteen minutes of music thou­sands of listeners would collectively say ‘Wow! (Roland Jacopetti, Production Director during underground heyday of KSAN-FM)

This eclecticism was inspired by Tom Donahue and Tom Gamache. Their novel programming approach influenced the people who implemented commercial underground FM around the country between 1967 and 1970. Music played on these stations was certainly freeform and diverse! It ran the gamut from old blue blues to rhythm and blues, jazz, folk, East Indian, as well as the emerging progressive rockers, like Cream, Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead. (Allen Shaw, underground deejay)

The music would be the first of the program ingredients that would make the underground format distinctive, and that music was from everywhere folk, jazz, blues, and rock and roll. Keep in mind that this was a time when music was undergoing o hell of a big change. Musicians and songwriters were finding their voice to speak about what was happening in the world. Lyrics were addressing more than teen angst, fast cars, and black leather jackets. That’s what gave it its edge. The songs spoke about an unjust world, freedom from oppression, and doing your own thing, whatever that might be. (Thom O’Hair, early 1970s program director at underground KSAN-FM)

This deejay, Buck Matthews, mixed all kinds of music together in a pretty unrestricted, freeform way, and instead of using familiar stilted announcer approach of the day, he spoke in a very conversational. laid-back style. He did this on his all-night show, which, I suppose, was considered by management to be the place to try a little something different. (Dave Dixon, deejay during underground era at WABX-FM in Detroit)

Perhaps one of the most popular early underground radio practitioners of this eclectic style of freeform was a young deejay named Bob Fass, who worked the overnight slot at WBAI in New York City, airing a program (beginning in 1963) called “Radio Unnameable.” [10]  It has been written of this pioneering all-night deejay:

Taking the concept of freeform (or birthing it himself?), he began with music, music that no other radio station played, but most important, all kinds of music. He set out to show that all music, be it rock, classical, folk, all music relates to each other and that none of it has to be categorized. . . . The show was completely free, and there you had freeform. Other stations, particularly college stations, began picking up on Bob’s show and trying to duplicate it, and then eventually, when it looked as if it might be profitable because of its popularity commercial radio entered the game.

Something dubbed the “music round” was an aspect of underground radio’s freeform eclecticism:

Again, we played music the way people did in their homes, In the beginning, we played sets of three songs by one artist or three songs that had a theme or some sort of connection. One of our favorite specialties was the “round,” in which you might segue Aretha’s “Respect,” Otis Redding’s “Respect,” Otis’ “Satisfaction,” the Stones’ “Satisfaction,” the Stones’ “Red Rooster,” and Willie Dixon’s “Red Rooster,” and so on, until you would work your way back to Aretha. If you were driven, this could take up your whole show. To do something like that took incredible musical knowledge, not to mention a somewhat twisted mind. (Raechel Donahue, creative cohort of underground radio pioneer Tom Donahue and deejay at KMPX-FM and KSAN-FM in San Francisco)

A twisted mind was a definite asset. At the top of the hour, when I came on, I’d have a couple of records in mind, but my entire set would evolve from those records. That, of course, is very different from today, and it was novel in radio back then, too. . . . We’d pour a lot of energy in devising mixes. In format radio, the air people are provided with lists put together by the program director. (Dusty Street, first female underground deejay at KSAN-FM)

Another of these major innovations that was the modus operandi on freeform, late-night radio was the music “collage:” [11]

While you probably had to be there, these freeform deejays were true artists of musical collage. . . . They did just that at KSAN, sampling from all the world’s music in sublime segues and sets of sounds that took listeners on soaring, imaginative musical flights. . . . Back in those days you would sometimes be moved to cry out loud to your radio, “Oh wow!” . . . I remember Edward Bear, one freeform night, KSAN, playing a Buffalo Springfield tune that segued into a Mozart sonata, which he then mixed in and out of a Balinese gamelon piece—the counterpoints cross-culturally counterpointing with each other—and then resolved the whole set with some blues from John Lee Hooker.  (Wes “Scoop” Nisker, legendary undergrounder at KSAN-FM in San Francisco)

These freeform experiments by primarily late-night deejays are now recognized as authentic art forms of underground radio. Here, the underground radio deejay is a kind of “artist” in his or her own right. Thus Julius Lester (author, college professor, folk-singer, and civil rights activist) has written: “Freeform radio is an art form. The airwaves are the empty canvas, the producer is the artist, and the sound is the paint.” And Ed Shane (program director of Atlanta’s pioneer underground station, WPLO-FM) makes a similar observation, distinguishing the underground, artistic deejay from the mainstream radio’s run-of-the-mill disk jockey: “ . . . but it was a staple of the underground format. There was a sense of accomplishing something mighty creative. Not just disc jockey work, but weaving songs together in progression to make a statement or a theme.” [My emphasis] . . . .

These, then, are some prominent examples of the open-ended creativity that freeform underground radio generated in its short but momentous life-span. . . .  

In summation (circling back to where I began this musical essay), I would suggest that the history of underground radio—its rise and fall—is more meaningful if seen from an “underworld perspective,” rather than from the dayworld perspective of hard facts and figures and of questionable demographic survey analyses. Indeed, in the nightworld of underground radio the “underworld perspective” of soul was the bread and butter of the revolutionary medium. [12]



[1] According to columnist Rex Weiner of the underground press (East Village Other, 1972), a principle closely adhered to at underground radio stations was always to “relate to the community” and “make lots of public service announcements.” Dusty Street (pioneer female deejay in underground radio at KSAN-FM) testifies to underground radio’s commitment to the community: “We were ultra community-oriented and very proactive. The entire radio station, all of its programming elements, reflected the community we were after. We weren’t targeting listeners like all the other stations. We were the legitimate voice of the community. What we were doing was reflecting a time and a culture that had no voice until we came along.”


[2] An example of the lessons to be learned. From its emergence in the mid-1960s to its deconstruction in the mid-1970s, underground radio (which was both commercial and non-commercial) went through a number of changes. Charles Laquidara, long-time FM deejay at pioneer underground station KPPC in Pasadena, California, recalls this span of time:


“Some noncoms were playing at mixing disparate music forms really early on in the 1960s. Then came the underground thing on the commercial side of the street in response to a host of influences in music and society. A little later on, some of these underground outlets were calling themselves alternative, and they were not as loose and unstructured as underground. When the money started being made, a lot of these stations became known as progressive, which had a corporate heart behind its cool exterior. Ultimately, underground and everything that it symbolized was relegated to the scrap heap by album oriented rock, and playlists and everything else were back. The old music radio principles rejected by the early undergrounders were restored. During this evolution there were other permutations or manifestations of underground that featured their own little spinoffs, like acid and psychedelic rock stations, for example.”


[3] What distinguishes “underground radio” from stations with mainstream rock formats (at least in this decade) is what’s known as a “freeform progressive rock format.” (Freeform type stations that played only or almost only rock music were known as “progressive rock stations.”) Although what exactly constitutes this format may vary from station to station, “freeform,” or “freeform radio,” is characteristically “experimental,” and is a radio station programming format in which the deejay is given total control over what music to play, regardless of music genre or commercial interests. Freeform radio stands in contrast to most commercial radio stations, in which deejays have little or no influence over programming structure or playlists. The freeform ethos is generally “eclectic,” which means that it tends to disdain playlists confined to a single music genre. Within this freeform format, deejays may opt to play selections according to an arbitrary theme of their own choosing. Tom Donahue from station KMPX in San Francisco (which is considered my many underground radio historians as the birthplace of America's freeform progressive rock format) described the station as a place where deejays played an eclectic mix of blues, folk, and progressive rock without any restrictions on the playlist. It was progressive rock without any restrictions on freedom of expression.


[4] AM radio was the home of the Top-40 charts, which dictated what the deejays could play. The standard broadcast band, as AM was officially called, was the initial home of rock music and Top-40. FM radios were barely available. Less than 5 percent of all radios in the United States were FM in the mid-1950s, as Top-40 and rock and roll were being launched. Nearly ten years later things had not changed a great deal in this regard, although rock music had entered another phase, principally heralded by the British invasion. These were, indeed, the happy days for AM radio. Little changed in the tone and tenor of AM Top-40 music playlists from the format’s early days to its twelfth birthday mark, despite the fact that considerable change had occurred in American society and culture since 1957, when AM radio caught on. Top-40 stations continued to rely on the tried and true two-and-a-half minute singles, even as rock music was evolving and maturing with albums that often featured lengthier cuts with more complex rhythms and messages. Considering what was happening in rock music and culture at the time, it’s no surprise that many of Top-40’s prominent practitioners were among the first to grow weary, as well as wary, of the standardized programming formula and longed something more substantive and meaningful. FM eventually became that alternative.


Until about 1966, FM was home mostly to classical music and muzak (easy-listening music); the kind of music played in doctor’s office waiting rooms. FM was nowhere as far as the kids were concerned. It was egghead radio, the place where squares would tune to hear classical music, jazz, sound effects, opera, and other artsy-fartsy stuff. Although FM radio was invented in 1933 and updated for stereo decades later, it didn't start to pick up speed until around 1965. That was when the FCC forbade station owners from broadcasting identical content on the AM and FM bands, declaring that "it is a waste of valuable spectrum space to use two frequencies to bring the same material to the same location." But before then, due to its negligible listenership, it provided little status and currency among the general public. FM wasn’t taken seriously. Combo station managers considered FM to be at best a joke and at worst an embarrassment. During the first two decades of its existence (1940s-1960s), FM’s audience never amounted to more than a fraction of that of its static-ridden, monophonic precursor, AM. A significant number of FM licenses were held by AM stations, which simulcast their standard broadcast band signals over their FM airwaves. This was done for the sole purpose of economics. Combo licensees (those possessing both an AM and an FM license) saw little reason to originate programming for those scant few who tuned their FM frequencies. It would not be cost efficient, thus they simply duplicated what was on their AM side. To the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), this ultimately constituted a lack of efficient use of the band—impeding and inhibiting the medium’s ability to grow and flourish. After lengthy urging by unhappy stand-alone FM operators, who felt that combo simulcasting was a primary deterrent to their success, the commission ruled that AM broadcasters in areas of 100,000 or more residents could not simulcast for more than half of their broadcast day. This sent shock waves through the combo operator community, which feared a drain on its profits and resources. However, this action proved a landmark ruling for FM, finally allowing it to break the shackles that forced it to be little more than an echo chamber for its AM sister. It could now legitimately set out on its own, unimpaired, on a path leading to long-awaited success.


Thus, FM progressive radio began in the mid-1960’s when the FCC ruled that companies that owned AM-FM combination stations had to program them separately. FM stereo was commercial underground radio’s technical blessing. It was where experimentation was allowed, because there was so little to lose. Thus, ironically enough, because FM wasn’t a money-maker in the big AM market many FM stations had the freedom to become laboratories for new progressive rock music, the antithesis of TOP-40. There were a few great advantages for FM radio. There was the superior sounding signal, static free and in stereo. The difference between AM and FM has to do with how the air is modulated into a signal. AM stands for amplitude modulation, FM for frequency modulation.  Since FM has a wider dynamic range than AM, there are better high ends and low ends, which accounts for how rock ‘n’ roll went to FM airwaves like a fish to water. Moreover, the consumer public was becoming increasingly eager to invest in home stereo equipment, which provided a necessary impetus for the marketing of two-channel sound, and the recording companies were producing more stereophonic records, and not just by classical music artists, as had principally been the case. When mass-market stereo receivers incorporated FM stereo as a feature, the perfect storm for a new kind of radio formed. Added to this, the increasing popularity of rock albums among youth also helped encourage some FMs to abandon their conventional fare and launched them on a quest for disenchanted and disenfranchised radio users—those who had rejected the 45 rpm-driven pop chart radio outlets.


Again, from the point of view of traditional FM stations only classical, easy-listening, or jazz were appropriate forms of music to be aired on radio. Nasty rock music on FM was clearly off limits. At that time in the mid-sixties, with the growing dissatisfaction with AM radio, there was an irresistible impulse to go beyond playing the records with the big holes (forty-fives) to the new frontier of playing the big records with the little holes (LPs). There was something going on in music, formats, and FM, something that was definitely going to change things as people had known them. The big advantage that FM had over AM was that while the latter stations preferred two-and-a-half minute songs (so they could fit more commercials in) the former could play long music cuts. Indeed, some FM underground radio deejays would play entire albums on their shows. (Also, FM underground stations would carry live broadcasts of concerts, as well as live performances from recording studios.) By the mid-sixties, albums, with their longer songs, more sophisticated musical stylings and challenging themes, had become the choice of the young rock audience that was most passionate about the music. Things were finally happening in the magic medium,” and this excited many young broadcasters who had begun to lose hope for a more creative and stimulating kind of radio.


[5] Commercial freeform FM radio stations were common in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, but are rare today. There are as many stations claiming to have debuted the commercial underground format as there are those claiming to have innovated the particular sound. (Between the late 60s and early 70s there were approximately 120 commercial underground stations. Some of those stations adopting freeform included WBCN in Boston, WHFS Baltimore, WXRT Chicago, WABX Detroit, KRAB Seattle, and KMET Los Angeles. Almost all of these stations made a rapid transition to heavily scripted Album Oriented Rock format.) Among them all, our stations are most frequently cited to be “the first,” and they are KMPX-FM (1967) and KSAN-FM (1967) in San Francisco and WOR-FM (1966) and WNEW-FM (1967) in New York. All four FM stations had a “freeform progressive rock format,” which meant “underground radio.” However, many radio historians point to short-lived WOR-FM in New York as the first commercial outlet to break with the primary or single-format approach to music programming and embrace the “progressive” (rock) or “free form” format. But this experiment didn’t last long, as management deemed it incompatible with the station’s corporate ethos. (Although these stations are traditionally accorded landmark status, the coming of the freeform, underground format was foreshadowed at other commercial stations as early as the 1950s. The most mentioned is WJR-AM out of Detroit.) That said, it should be noted that a number of early noncommercial stations presaged the arrival of commercial underground radio. Perhaps most significant among them are WBAI-FM (a listener-supported Pacifica station) in New York and WFMU-FM in New Jersey. (WFMU-FM, also a listener-supported, non-commercial radio station, is currently the longest running freeform radio station in the United States.)


Along with the controversy of which radio stations were first in pioneering “freeform,” or “underground radio,” many radio shows lay claim to be the first freeform radio program. Some underground radio historians claim the earliest by far was the late-night show “Nightsounds” on non-commercial KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, hosted by John Leonard, beginning in 1949. This freeform radio pioneer was producing collages of music, poetry and satire. (Leonard was also a literary, television, film, and cultural critic, writing on culture, politics, television, books and the media in many other venues. In 1949, he became the Drama and Literature Director for Pacifica Radio flagship KPFA in Berkeley.)


As for the earliest pioneers of the underground radio phenomenon, dozens of names are bandied about, most commonly Tom and Raechel Donahue, Larry Miller, Thom O’Hair, Wes Nisker, Scott Muni, Rosco, Dave Pierce, Allen Shaw, Mike Harrison, Charles Laquidara, Tom Gamache, Ed Bear, Stefan Ponek, Bob McClay, Vaco Cash, Tim Powell, Jim Ladd, and so on. Some cite early 1960s noncommercial broadcasters like Bob Fass and Larry Yurdin as the preeminent practitioners and innovators of the genre. However, the individuals most often placed at the top of the list are Tom Donahue (KMPX-FM and KSAN-FM) and Larry Miller (KMPX-FM and WABX-FM) in San Francisco. Opinions differ as to which of these men should wear the dubious crown father of underground radio, but Tom Donahue most often gets the nod, even though he was preceded by Larry Miller, who had a late-night show on KMPX. According to trade magazine publisher, radio historian, and former broadcaster Eric Rhoads, Tom Donahue began it all in San Francisco: He gave birth and nurtured underground into a viable form of radio programming. I don’t know anyone else who has as much claim to the title. And his long-time partner, Raechel Donahue is a little more generous: In my opinion, it was a simultaneous discovery. . . . It just happens. Tom was the first guy to put the thing together with a theory behind it. The aim was to make it as different from Top-40 as possible. And Larry Miller himself says: I’m not out to claim any crown. I know Tom Donahue heard my all-night show on KMPX and a few months later the station was doing full-time pretty much what I’d been doing a few hours a night. By then Tom was programming the station. 


[6] And it is perhaps just this loss of connection with the underground of radio—even knowledge of its existence and history—that is responsible for the phenomenon of today’s non-commercial radio stations losing their soul.


[7] The ontological difference between the “dayworld” and the “nightworld” can also be seen, for example, in the medieval period, when the witchcraft phenomenon was at its height, a legend arose about certain mysterious beings, called either “People of the Night,” or “Phantoms of the Night.” This “good society,” as they were oftentimes referred to, magically appeared during the night, usually in forests and high mountain valleys and fields, “accompanied by delightful music of unearthly beauty, which placed human beings under a spell and summoned forth nameless yearning.” In fact, their music was so beautiful that it was described by those that accidentally stumbled upon their merry company as “heavenly music,” or music that seemed “as if the angels were playing.” These “People/Phantoms of the Night” are roughly equivalent to the “faerie folk” of the Celtic underworld. Associated with the “Witchcraft” phenomenon, other magical elements accrued themselves onto this folklore complex of the “People/Phantoms of the Night,” such as (1) the story of the wild “night-riders,” who could be heard thundering through the countryside on horseback or even through the air; (2) the story of the pagan goddess of the Hunt, Diana-Artemis-Hecate, who lured women to “night flying,” or nocturnal travels of riding upon wild beats. This mythic theme reappears in the Renaissance under different guises. For instance, we witness Shakespeare’s use of it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the night-magic of the faerie world fades as daybreaks at the end of the play.


[8] A participant of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.


[9] David Caute, in his book, The Year of the Barricades: A Journey Through 1968, describes the “counterculture” in the following way: “A term that embraces a plethora of disparate notions: dropout hippies, obscene language, acid trips, underground newspapers and films, alternative theatre with attendant ‘happenings,’ anti-universities, surreal street politics, communal self-help, folk and rock music alien to ears attuned to Beethoven or the Palm Court Orchestra, mystical cults, aggressive sexuality, flamboyant clothing, ecological awareness, rejection of ambition and careerism.” Notably absent from this laundry list of the counterculture are rock concerts (like Woodstock), “back to nature” communal living, and interest in Eastern religions and philosophies.


[10] Bob Fass of WBAI (a Pacifica listener-supported station) was one early pioneer of freeform underground programming, in this case of noncommercial radio. It is said that music icons like Bob Dylan would occasionally drop by to converse with and even take phone calls. This was the station to listen to if you were active in counterculture politics.


[11] I have already mentioned that Pacifica’s noncommercial KPFA’s freeform radio pioneer, John Leonard, was producing collages of music, poetry and satire as far back as 1949.


[12] By the mid-1970s, the commercial consolidation and pressure overwhelmed free-form underground radio, and in spite of its appeal, the noncommercial nature disappeared almost completely by the late 1970s, except in pockets. The potential profits to be reaped from new rock music was too great to resist. Today, there are only a few FM radio stations that still have a freeform format, and these are mostly college stations.


Talking about “community” radio stations “losing their soul” (i.e., ignoring their community-radio “mission statement”), “Pataphysical” radio KUSP-FM in Santa Cruz, established in 1972, came out of this avant-garde, experimental milieu of underground radio. It was founded by a student of one of the visionary pioneers of alternative radio, Lorenzo Milam. (Some say that no one did more to lay the groundwork for freeform radio than Milam, a KPFA-FM staffer, and a disciple of Lew Hill who wanted to take Hill’s ideas a few steps further. Milam first founded KRAB, Seattle in 1962, heralding an approach he called "Free Forum.") What came to be known as a “community radio” station was built for just $700 by Milam protégé David Freedman in 1972. As the great Milam once said: “But the spectrum is as big as all outdoors—and there is a niche here, a crack there, for those who care to squeeze some of the art back into radio.” However, as of this writing, noncommercial and volunteer-based KUSP is in grave danger of losing its “independent” community-radio soul, because of a “restructuring” agenda that would replace much of the locally-produced programming with expensive NPR national programming. Apparently, KUSP’s “mission statement” has been forgotten, by management, along with its early brochures:


“There's a strange, wonderful sound that you make with your life, a certain pulse that flows through your daily activities; and every place has its own unique rhythms, energies generated by the contours of its land, the fluctuations of its skies and waters, and the interests of its people. And it's the sound of this life around us, in and around Santa Cruz, whatever is joyous, creative, dramatic—that we want to find with our microphone, and by means of RadioMagick, send back to you, amplified and intense”.  (From the first brochure published in 1972 by KUSP, the radio station down by the water, overlooking the Monterey Bay.)


 And the music on the radio, and the music on the radio / Has so much soul, has so much soul / And you listen, in the night time / While we're still and quiet / And you look out on the water / And the big ships, and the big boats / Came on sailing by, by, by ….”