New Signs of Creativity in Rock Radio Programming

(Pete Fornatale, 1945-2012)
March/April 2010
Reversing a long decline, a new flowering of soulful and creative rock programming has gained momentum on the radio. It is heard on commercial and public/community terrestrial stations, via satellite and on the Internet.

Inventive, imaginative, hip music programming is cropping up or becoming established on stations and websites, allowing listeners once starved for variety and “deep catalogue” to hear everything from Alice Cooper’s favorite 1960s-era garage-rock songs to funky, forgotten post-war blues gems from Cincinnati’s King Records.

With musicians-turned-deejays playing an important role, radio has revived the personality-driven, music-intensive shows that were a hallmark of both the early days of Top 40 and, in a different way, early FM rock. Among those who have (or recently have had) their own shows are: Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Alice Cooper, Henry Rollins, Ian Whitcomb, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, Little Steven, Steve Earle, Mike Watt, Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, Genya Ravan, Wreckless Eric and more.

The first great heyday of FM rock came after the 1966 Federal Communications Commission’s mandate that broadcast companies could not simulcast AM programming on their FM stations. Stations came up with original rock-music formats, often called “freeform,” not knowing what would work commercially and not caring.

“That really is the FM story,” said deejay Pete Fornatale, who has had a long and illustrious career on FM in New York City.

“FM stations were thrown to the wolves in a sense—AM was where the money was, so this band of revolutionaries got to infiltrate and create this new way of approaching radio and rock ‘n’ roll. It was ruined by its own success. Once corporations realized they really could make money from FM, they started putting in all these handcuffs and gloves that made it impossible for the person on the air to be an artist.” Today, the “revolutionaries” are back.

Rock radio, using the term “radio” broadly, is again becoming a haven for hip deejays playing stuff they like and using their personalities to complement their musical choices. Perhaps the time is again right; streaming and satellite radio are still new, terrestrial stations are struggling with advertising in the ongoing Great Recession, musically sophisticated college and community stations are drawing not only adventurous young people but also Boomers who grew up with freeform and miss it. Since public stations depend on listener support rather than advertising, they’re happy to meet that demand.

Fornatale has the weekly Mixed Bag Radio show on Fordham University’s WFUV-FM, where he also has an interview show that features musicians like Brian Wilson, Al Kooper and Damon Gough (Badly Drawn Boy). He was long associated with one of New York’s great progressive FM stations, WNEW-FM.

Fornatale actually started at Fordham’s station, where in 1964 he helped pioneer freeform. He pitched a new idea for a program that recognized the changes being brought to rock by the Beatles and others.

“In the academic environment, rock ‘n’ roll was frowned upon as three-chord, primitive music that didn’t fit amongst the classical shows, informational shows and operatic shows that predominated,” he said. “I made the case the music had matured—it wasn’t just the histrionic, sexualized rock ‘n’ roll of the Elvis Presley of the 1950s but had matured into an art form. On that basis, I sold the concept of my show.

“The idea was to play album cuts, not hit records, to interview artists who made the music, and instead of treating them as islands of music, putting them all together, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Fornatale explained. “To this day, as a programmer, I’m looking for ‘oh, wow’ moments that take the music away from being background—going for conscious active listening where you’re taking people on a trip with you.”

One of the surprises in the current resurgence of inventive, engaged programming is the activist role being taken by musicians. Some of these shows are informal. Wreckless Eric, who had one of British new wave’s greatest hits with “Whole Wide World” and lately has been recording and touring with wife Amy Rigby, makes half-hour shows of his favorite records for his website. He plays anything and everything from the James Last Orchestra’s instrumental version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” to Jimmy Reed blues classics. “It’s picking up a hell of a lot of plays,” Eric said last summer. “The first show has about 500 downloads so far; the second one 370 so far.”
Bob Beemon, a Cincinnati art teacher by day, takes on the persona of Mr. Rhythm Man on Saturday evenings for a college station based across the Ohio River in northern Kentucky. There, he spins old R&B, blues and soul platters and humorously and goodnaturedly clues his fans into roots music.

Beemon especially devotes time to records released in the 1950s and early 1960s by King Records, home to James Brown, Hank Ballard, Freddie King, Bull Moose Jackson and many others.

He makes on-air references to the mysterious (and non-existent) “Mr. Rhythm Man Dancers,” and programs with an improvisational sensibility. On one show, for instance, he played two Johnny Winter rave-ups, spotlighted Elvis Presley’s version of “Stranger in My Own Home Town,” spun Bob Dylan’s “Father of Night” and, in a short set devoted to the flute, showcased Roland Kirk’s groovy version of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” “Somehow in my ear it all makes sense, so I just have to trust my senses,” he said.

On the other hand, Little Steven (Steve Van Zandt), in addition to touring and recording with Bruce Springsteen, has turned his weekly homage to garage rock, Little Steven’s Underground Garage, into a syndicated powerhouse. It reaches one million listeners weekly on (mostly) commercial terrestrial stations. He produces a spinoff channel on Sirius Satellite Radio for which he employs music-business deejays such as Ravan, Andrew Loog Oldham, Kim Fowley and Handsome Dick Manitoba; the spinoff reaches another million listeners.

“These numbers are starting to become real, starting to become numbers that can actually affect things,” Van Zandt said.

What motivates a rock star to want to become a deejay? Leave it to the profanely hilarious Mojo Nixon, whose daily show The Loon in the Afternoon, on Sirius Satellite Radio’s hell-raisin’ Outlaw Country channel, to put it most bluntly: “We’re in the entertainment business,” he said.

“It’s a way to do what you do but different. You don’t have to get in a van and drive to fucking Toledo on a Tuesday night and play a show in front of Joe the Plumber and his angry kid who want to hear Skynyrd or some damn thing. It’s a way to keep your hand in it without having to be in it. Other people (may be) musicians cutting back and dabbling in radio, but I’m now a radio man.”
On his show, Nixon—whose satiric songs include “Don Henley Must Die” and “Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant With My Two-Headed Love Child”—is free to choose his own music, and his own salty language, as long as it loosely has a rebellious, rockabilly/ country-rock spirit. That includes Hank Williams, David Allan Coe, Billy Joe Shaver, Rock and Roll Trio, the Band, early Bob Seger and more. And he can advocate, as he does for the longtime alt-country artist Joe Ely, of the Flatlanders.

“To me, Joe Ely should be mentioned in the same breath as Springsteen or John Fogerty,” Nixon said. “His 20 best songs are as good as their best 20. Now he didn’t write them all, he probably only wrote half. But he’s the perfect combination of rock ‘n’ roll and hillbilly music.”

That kind of advocacy is another thing drawing musicians into radio. On his famous Theme Time Radio Hour, which offered new episodes on XM Radio from May 2006 to April 2009, Dylan used an innocuous weekly theme, like Hello or Weather or Walking, as a way to educate and entertain his fans about modern music’s ancients and elders: Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Hank Snow, the Carter Family, Bo Diddley, Louis Jordan.

He also played a lot of newer music, including alt and indie rock.

When Dylan declared, for example, Professor Longhair’s pre-rock era Mardi Gras in New Orleans to be “one of the best records that ever come out of New Orleans,” as he did on his Maps show, people listened.

His opinions on alt-rock can also turn heads. On his Radio episode, he introduced Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” by speculating, “If anyone is the Bertolt Brecht of America, that person is, to me, Jonathan Richman.” Theme Time Radio Hour was itself a possible tribute to Dylan’s beloved Guthrie, who from 1940-1941 hosted a three-times-weekly, 15-minute CBS Radio show called Back Where I Come From and featured Burl Ives and Leadbelly. In those days, radio, even coast-to-coast network radio, could be remarkably creative.

Other musician deejays use their influence to champion their own influences, which fans raised on corporate-FM rock might not know about. In a way, it is the same impulse that led rockers like Van Zandt, Petty and John Mellencamp to once produce “comeback” albums for their forgotten heroes, like Gary US Bonds, Del Shannon and Mitch Ryder.

“There’s a certain authority that comes from somebody in a competitive field saying, ‘This guy is great, I recognize his greatness, I’m not afraid of it,’” Van Zandt said, laughing. “If an egomaniac is suggesting someone else is great, you’re going to respect that; it has extra authority. He’s actually selling something other than himself.”

(Alice Cooper)
Hosting a show can also be a decent career move for a rock superstar. Alice Cooper, whose last big hit was 1989’s “Poison” and whose commercial peak was the 1970s, but who has remained an outsized and beloved rock celebrity, was approached by Dick Clark Productions six years ago to do a weekly show. At the time, Van Zandt’s program was underway, Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider was making waves with his syndicated metal show House of Hair, and satellite radio was revving up with two competing and now-merged corporations, Sirius and XM Radio, hungry for content that subscribers would pay for.

The thinking was Cooper could play the older, male-oriented, theatrical classic rock he was associated with—AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, Queen, Led Zeppelin—and tell listeners stories about his friendships with those musicians. But he had a little different idea—a chance to shake up dull classic-rock terrestrial radio.

“Everybody was going into space, and I said I’d rather stay in terrestrial radio, because everybody is going to have a one-hour show up in space somewhere,” Cooper said. “I don’t need to get away with bad language; I don’t use bad language. But I would like to get away with playing songs that deserve to be played on terrestrial.”

His Nights with Alice Cooper show now airs on 90 US stations, plus others in the UK, Ireland, Australia and Canada. He anchors 30 hours of weekly original programming, produced and distributed by the United Stations Radio Networks. His time slot reaches 1.1 million listeners each week, and his affiliates have a weekly reach of over 6 million listeners.

“There are not enough old Rolling Stones records from the England’s Newest Hitmakers era; the same with the Kinks and Who,” Cooper said. “And early Pink Floyd—Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd—is absolutely amazing music. And I could play a whole side of Procol Harum and people would go, ‘Wow, what was that?’ Who do you think Queen listened to?”

He plays plenty of familiar metal songs and musicians, by request or out of affection, but Cooper also delves into the deepcatalog of groups from the 1960s and 1970s that he loves and classic-rock radio ignores: Edgar Winter Group, Pretty Things, Humble Pie, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Slade, Lita Ford, Ramones, even the one-hit-wonder Beatles imitators the Knickerbockers. “Even I don’t go far enough to play Laura Nyro or people who are my personal favorites,” he said. “I can’t force them into that show because it just doesn’t fit.”
David Dye, host of NPR’s popular, influential World Cafe since 1991, was deeply influenced by his first job as an announcer in FM rock’s heyday (World Cafe’s flagship station is Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania-licensed WXPN). “Thirty years ago, I got lucky and my first experience in radio was a completely freeform FM station, all progressive rock,” Dye said. “I had a boss who encouraged me to play everything from big-band to classical music to anything that fit, and his idea was to make people understand what’s happening currently by showing the roots of things. My whole thing was making music sound great through the segue, getting from one thing to next.”
World Cafe isn’t freeform as such—it’s a planned-out daily show featuring artist interviews and live performances along with recordings. The show fearlessly gives time to both the most respected veterans—Richard Thompson and Mark Knopfler—and newcomers still struggling for an audience, like a young singer-songwriter from rural Illinois named Lissie Maurus.
It takes its programming seriously as art and seeks to inform and turn on its listeners to the best of what’s new and old. It’s on some 200 stations and has a weekly audience in excess of 500,000. Unique in 1991, any number of stations around the country now follow World Cafe’s model.

New creative deejays conduct fascinating scholarship to rediscover good rock and pop of the past. In fact, some styles of pop considered too square for FM in the 1960s are now being treated on some new, hip radio shows like high art.

Andrew Sandoval, a Los Angeles music researcher who compiled last year’s Where the Action Is!: Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968 boxed set for Rhino Records, has a weekly show that champions “sunshine pop” and its derivatives. His Come to the Sunshine is carried by the Internet-only, all-volunteer radio station Luxuria Music, which promotes itself on its site as promising “exotica, lounge, space-age bachelor pad, bossa, soft-psych, go-go, Latin jazz and more.”

Sandoval plays the kind of bright-sounding, optimistic and well-produced studiocrafted pop—often Beach Boy-influenced— in vogue in late-1960s Southern California before the Laurel Canyon-based singer/ songwriter era started in the early 1970s.

A recent program focused on Curt Boettcher, a deceased songwriter/producer/ arranger who worked with the Association, Tommy Roe, Gene Clark, the Millennium, the Plastic People, the Sunshine Company, the Hep Stars and many other acts. Sandoval devoted another show to Gary Lewis, of Gary Lewis & the Playboys, presenting his work, considered kitschy by many, as lost art.

“I’d only seen his records in dollar bins, and never thought much of Gary Lewis,” Sandoval said. As the son of Jerry Lewis, he wasn’t taken very seriously musically. “I started investigating his records and found he made a lot of great ones. So one Labor Day, when the Jerry Lewis telethon was on TV, I had a Gary Lewis telethon and played nothing but his records for two hours.” Sandoval raved about Lewis’ 1968 Sights and Sounds as a lost classic, “The record is amazing, on the level of other late-1960s pop masterworks like Pet Sounds.”

While many of the new creative announcers use freeform FM as their Holy Grail, there is a countervailing approach where announcers eschew rock as art and just want to have fun, the way Top-40 deejays did before rock ‘n’ roll became seen as an art form.

Van Zandt’s Little Steven’s Underground Garage is a leading proponent of fun. He loves the spirit of mid-1960s Top 40, when his heroes made radical-sounding but still conventional 45-rpm singles like the Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night,” the Young Rascals’ “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” or Paul Revere & the Raiders’ string of hits.

“My main thing is pre-artform rock, when it was still called rock ‘n’ roll, when guitar solos replaced sax solos but still were just 20 seconds,” Van Zandt said. “That was the high point for me, before 10-minute solos began and songs got longer. I’m concerned that when people stopped dancing to rock ‘n’ roll and started listening, that’s where our problems started.”

Other inventive rock programs attempt to have fun with the music. NPR distributes The Annoying Music Show, out of Chicago, which searches for “the most awful music ever recorded,” according to its website.

A pioneering precedent, the great Dr. Demento (Barry Hansen), began playing his “mad music and crazy comedy” 40 years ago on a Pasadena public station and is still at it. His weekly program is on just seven terrestrial radio stations now (including one in Middle Yukon/Lower Koyukuk, Alaska, which itself sounds pretty funny), but Hansen has developed a sizeable Internet listenership.

At its height of popularity, his program, which honored the tradition of Top 40 (and older) novelty-rock songs, was syndicated on terrestrial stations throughout the country. The influential Hansen turned a risqué song from the 1950s, Bennie Bell’s “Shaving Cream,” into a Top 40 hit in 1975, and played recordings sent in by listeners, including an accordion-playing teenager named (Weird) Al Yankovic.

Hansen has grown philosophical about why his show had the impact it had at the time it did. “Rock had taken a very serious turn, whereas rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and 1960s was fun and lighthearted, meant for dancing or simple little love songs and the occasional one about a lack of love,” he said. “I think Pink Floyd is magnificent, but it’s as serious as classical music. It strove to be profound and deep. And other bands tried to make their music serious in other ways. My thought was people were starting to miss the funny stuff.”

If there is one station trying to encapsulate everything about the new revival in creative programming, the seriousness and the wackiness, it would be Jersey City’s community-supported WFMU-FM. It proudly promotes itself as freeform—and lives up to its claim. Available way beyond the Big Apple and nearby communities through online streaming of its live and archived programming, its worldwide listenership has grown since starting an Internet presence in 1998. In 1996, its operating budget was $300,000 a year, now it is $1 million, thanks to contributions from Internet listeners.

WFMU’s programming can be as wild as Sam the Sham’s-“Wooly Bully,” or as artfully experimental as Philip Glass’ soundtrack to The Fog of War. Deejay Dave the Spazz likes to sprinkle chimp noises into his shows, and another show is cheekily called The Best Show on WFMU.

“We leave it all up to the deejays to come up with what they want to play,” said Brian Turner, music director. “We don’t subscribe to any format except we try to make connections within the frame of a set. And we encourage them to drop in a surprise.”

Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan—a connoisseur of all manner of rock—often guest hosts, and a morning show called This Is the Modern World With Trouble fearlessly wanders the globe from one unfamiliar but musically revelatory song to another, without worry of losing listeners. One recent morning, that show segued from “Good Luck in the New Year” by Linda Young and the Silvertones to “Sun Is Shining” by Lizzy Mercier Descloux to the Dynamites’ “Kingston Dub Town” to Molly Berg and Stephen Vitiello’s “Variation 2.”
“New music or old music—both spheres exist equally at WFMU,” Turner said. “The philosophy is to make a piece of art out of radio.”
Making a piece of art out of radio—building song sets, programs and even whole stations as innovative, creative, exciting, educational and fun as the music that gets played—seems to be important again. This could be the beginning of a new golden era for rock radio. If so, thanks is due to these new deejays—young and old, famous and not—who didn’t give up on the possibilities of the medium after years of dull corporate radio gave them every reason to do so.

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