Authors: Richard Neer
In addition to being main actors in creating the phenomenon of progressive radio, the following people were vital contributors in telling this story, submitting to hours of questions, reliving good times, and having the courage to recount the tough ones:
From WNEW-FM—Scott Muni, Bill “Rosko” Mercer, Dave Herman, Jonathan Schwartz, John Zacherle, Dennis Elsas, Tony Pigg, Marty Martinez, Vicky Callahan, Peter Larkin, Vin Scelsa, Ken Dashow, Jim Monaghan, and Dan Neer.
Terry Malia from Mel Karmazin’s office. Charles Laquidara and Marc Parenteau, once of WBCN. Charlie Kendall of Click Radio. Ted Utz of SFX. Jo Maeder of many stations. Mark Chernoff at WFAN. Bonnie Simmons, once of KSAN. Michael Harrison of Talkers magazine. Bruce Morrow, a radio legend who gave freely of his time and advice. Lee Abrams and Dave Logan of XM. The Museum of Television and Radio. Kid Leo and Jim DelBalzo of Sony Records. Steve Friedman of CBS. Steven “Silvio” Van Zandt for constant inspiration.
To my father for introducing me to radio and my mother for her many sacrifices along the way.
I’m greatly indebted to my editor, Bruce Tracy, and all the folks at Villard—Katie Zug, Janet Wygal, and Diane Frost—who guided me through the process.
Special thanks to David Black, who convinced me that there was a story to be told and had faith in my ability to tell it.
All I remember is waking up one morning in 1967 and the whole world had changed.
I’d love to paint you a sky-opening Voice from the Heavens melodramatic picture of it, but the truth is, I can’t remember it. And put that smirk away because I wouldn’t start smokin’ dope until the cops busted me for being the only long-haired freak in town and planted marijuana in my cigarette pack and that was still a year away.
Let’s back up a bit.
Things were going along alright. In 1964, AM radio was the only radio and there was nothing wrong with that. With the cold dread of high school ahead of me and puberty kickin’ my ass from behind, radio was the only thing making any sense to me.
What helped a lot was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones having a new hit single every three months and the Kinks, Animals, Byrds, and Dave Clark Five keeping up with them. Throw in seven or eight classic Motown acts and a few legendary James Browns, Curtis Mayfields, Arethas, and a Sam and Dave or two and, well you get the idea. It was the beginning of nine or so glorious years when the best music being made was also the most commercial. We had stumbled into a renaissance and I, a pimply, horny thirteen-year-old struggling to press the strings down on my grandfather’s old acoustic guitar, had turned the magic dial on my little transistor radio and found God.
So things weren’t bad.
And then it happened.
Was it a friend who suggested it? An advertisement somewhere? A predestined, primordial, physical compunction? I wish I could remember it for you. Anyway, for whatever reason, and I swear it seemed like it happened all across the country at the same moment, a whole generation of American kids noticed a never-used switch on our radios and flicked it from AM to FM.
And the world changed in a Paulie Walnuts snap of the fingers.
Alright maybe it wasn’t as dramatic back then as it obviously is now. I mean the new art form of rock had quietly arrived in 1965 with Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones all influencing each other and forever changing pop music into a means of personal expression. Nobody noticed until Sgt. Pepper, but it was there. So maybe it was a smooth transition rather than the cultural explosion we can so clearly see in retrospect.
What that crazy kid Dylan would introduce to the Beatles and Stones was consciousness. When the reality-based personal and cultural themes of folk and blues music (Dylan) got mixed together with the accessibility of pop melody, pop structure, and rampant pubescent sexuality (Beatles) and shaken not stirred by streetwise cynical attitude and the dirty long-haired rebellion of rock guitars (Stones) you got consciousness flowing into mainstream media for the first time ever.
And FM would quickly become that mainstream media.
The difference between AM and FM was dramatic, obvious from day one.
FM was quieter, even though the music was often louder. Peaceful, while it spoke of revolution. Slower, while we evolved at an inconceivably rapid pace.
It was important. Just as the new rock music had transcended the pop music of the past’s sole purpose to entertain and had become important and culturally essential and influential.
The DJs on AM radio were great. They represented the exuberance and exultation of the times. It was a 1950s sensibility that celebrated a then-brand-new form of pop music called rock and roll and a historically new paradigm where teenagers were separated from their parents and given a social distinction of their own for the first time in history.
The FM DJs were very different and would represent the sixties birth of consciousness. There were textures and tones to their voices that we’d never heard on radio before. They had distinct personalities, they seemed younger—certainly hipper, they were relaxed and took their time, and they communicated a sensibility that was both intimate and intellectual without condescension.
Rock music had become my religion. Radio my church. And these DJs my priests, rabbis, and gurus. They would preach from the gospel of Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, the Book of Townshend, the Song of the Byrds, and the Acts of Davies. The New Testament would include Procol Harum, Them, Traffic, Cream, the Jeff Beck Group, Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin. After Sgt. Pepper it was the Exodus of singles and the Revelations of albums. And we listened and listened and listened and learned.
102.7 WNEW was our local Temple of Solomon and somehow radio stations just like it were popping up in every major city simultaneously like a planned invasion from outer space. And with them a new generation of DJs, our generation, speaking to us. Personally. Understanding as only we understood. Inspiring us, motivating us, conjuring up images and stimulating the senses as only radio can do when it is in the hands of the righteous.
And then it was over.
The Renaissance would end with either the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in 1971 or the Stones’ Exile on Main Street in 1972, take your pick. Righteous Rock Radio would continue on a bit longer, struggling valiantly into the eighties, and die quietly in the nineties like a spent stick of in-cense.
In its place, anybody twenty-one years old or younger inherited a wasteland of corporate conservatism tightly controlling lifeless depersonalized deregionalized homogenized DJs spewing out depersonalized deregionalized homogenized playlists or adolescent talk reflecting the toxic digital apolitical robotic culture they think we’ve become.
Do I seem upset?
Oh, there’s a few small candles in the stygian darkness. A Bill Kelly on FMU, an Arnie Pritchett on NYU, a Vin Scelsa on FUV. But they are kept far away from the mainstream where their disease that is called passion won’t infect the masses.
How could this happen? you might reasonably ask. You mean like “acceptable” levels of pollution or arsenic in our water? Good question.
Video killed the radio star. Did it also kill radio?
Well . . . yeah, but it had a lot of help. I’m as curious as you are.
As luck would have it, I happened to have a good friend who was there.
Let’s read his book.
4:30 a.m., April 2, 2001
I lay awake for a sunrise that never broke through the clouds. I hadn’t slept much the night before. Most of the weekend I had been awake, preparing for today—the most important day of my life—all twenty-one years of it.
Not every day you think is going to be pivotal toward your future turns out that way. How often do life-changing days happen with no warning, no chance to prepare? An anonymous driver swerves into your lane. An unknown IRS agent decides that you are the one to be audited. The results of a PSA test come in. Or on the plus side—the lottery calls your number. A major headhunter hears from an old college chum that you are the perfect candidate to head a large corporation. The dot-com stock you buy early is unexpectedly acquired by Microsoft.
But this Monday morning in March of 1971, I was sure that in a few hours the course of my life and that of my best friend would be changed. Michael Harrison and I lived in a small apartment above a bakery in Oceanside, Long Island, and had shared many adventures together. For the past two years, he and I had put in sixteen-hour days at WLIR-FM, a small suburban radio station. We’d slept at the station more nights than we cared to remember, sometimes because we were working late, sometimes because we had no place to live. We’d missed meals, desperately trying to make it until the next paycheck with only change in our pockets. We’d often devote hours to meticulous strategy planning, designed to convince our boss at WLIR that we merited an extra twenty-five cents per hour.
We made these sacrifices for one ultimate goal: to get a job at WNEW-FM—real
radio, with studios in Manhattan, where the stars of every type of showbiz lived and played. And now
day could be the payoff for those months of deprivation, or it could sentence us to a longer term of penance before we could deserve another shot at nirvana.
In 1971, the absolute coolest place to work in radio was WNEW-FM. The disc jockeys had total freedom to play whatever records they chose. They could say what they wanted, whenever they wanted. They didn’t need to put on ballsy radio voices; they spoke like real people, with regional accents or immature timbres. Some were intelligent, others sexy or funny. They brought themselves to the airwaves unvarnished—what you heard was what they were.
They made comfortable salaries, although not the megabucks of AM radio superstars. They came from different places, different experiences. Some were veterans of the Top Forty wars who’d tired of the battle, some were freshly out of college and idealistically striving to reinvent a medium that had grown old and irrelevant. A couple were entertainers from other fields who had sought to be actors or poets, but found a haven in a darkened studio behind a microphone. Some were handsome, some had been cursed with faces made for radio. But collectively, they formed a dream team that the cognoscenti acknowledged as the industry’s pinnacle. And due to a unique set of circumstances, Harrison and I had talked ourselves into believing that we were ready to join their ranks.
We’d had two opportunities over the past year, but they’d proven ephemeral. There was our unsuccessful attempt to get to WNEW-FM through a side entrance by beseeching Metromedia Group president George Duncan for a job at one of the company’s out-of-town outlets. Duncan presided over several stations, in places like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, as well as New York. We figured if we could impress the company at one of its far outposts, we might earn a ticket back to WNEW-FM within a reasonable period of time. But we’d blown the interview with Duncan.
At the time, John Lennon had released a song called “Working Class Hero.” It was a bitter, self-deprecating view of his life and the whole idea of being known as an ex-Beatle. It contains the line, “You’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see.” Many underground stations were playing it. Some bleeped out the offending lyric, some reversed the word, and a few played it uncensored.
The FCC was not happy with progressive radio: Richard Nixon was constantly vilified and its strident antiwar political bent chafed the administration. As we now know, the president didn’t hesitate to punish his enemies with whatever means were at his disposal. The FCC issued warnings that licenses could be at stake if lyric content was deemed objectionable—either obscene or condoning illicit activity, mainly drug use. In fear of governmental discipline, George Duncan had banned innocuous songs like Brewer and Shipley’s “One Toke over the Line,” or the Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band” (containing the phrase “Goddamn, well I declare”). Though he could be profane himself, he didn’t want anything to endanger the Metromedia broadcast empire.
But we weren’t aware of this conservative approach and when Duncan casually brought up “Working Class Hero,” asking how we were handling it at WLIR-FM, I blurted out, “We’re playing it uncut. Our audience deserves to hear an artist like John Lennon as he intends to be heard. And the song’s message is far from obscene.”
The interview continued for a few minutes thereafter, but my impulsive answer troubled me the rest of the way. Duncan graciously said that changes were always happening at Metromedia, so that even though nothing was available now, he’d consider us in the future. Several months had passed and we hadn’t heard anything, so we assumed we were out of the running.
We’d also interviewed at CBS, another company that controlled radio stations, although none so desirable as Metromedia’s stable of progressive stations. CBS held on to vestiges of conventional AM radio: a more upbeat, insincere style with music that was programmed by one director; the individual jocks holding no sway over what they played. Our strategy was to take over one of their less profitable stations and build it up to the point that Metromedia would have to take notice and hire us away.
Those attempts had proven fruitless; we were seen as too independent to work within the buttoned-down CBS corporate structure. Harrison and I were beginning to lose faith, feeling condemned to work in radio’s hinterlands forever, never tasting the sweet freedom that WNEW-FM offered. But the preceding Friday night, we heard Rosko, the station’s star attraction, resign on the air. Bill “Rosko” Mercer was a fixture on nighttime radio in New York, a spiritual black man who read poetry and spoke eloquently against the war with words and music. At that moment, however, we put the cultural significance of his resignation aside and concentrated on what it meant to us: There was an opening at WNEW-FM! As we listened to subsequent shifts, it became apparent to us that no successor was imminent.
So Michael and I spent the entire weekend at the WLIR studios in Hempstead, Long Island, honing audition tapes and crafting résumés for an all-out assault on New York. We planned to camp out on program director Scott Muni’s doorstep at 230 Park Avenue in Manhattan by seven that Monday morning. From there, we’d improvise our way in to plead our case. Muni is another broadcasting legend, who had worked at both WMCA and WABC, New York radio’s Top Forty giants, before alighting at WNEW-FM. He had a deep gravelly voice, and knew the Beatles personally (as well as every other top musician of the day). We feared that he’d laugh at our hubris and throw us out on our ears, but we were naÏvely determined to try.
Since our interview with George Duncan, we realized that if we were to err, it had to be on the side of conservatism. To that end, we dressed in business suits (the only ones we had, accepted in payment for an in-store appearance). Any question about “Working Class Hero” would be answered noncommittally, if at all.
By that morning, Michael and I were fully prepared to be told that Mr. Muni had a full day scheduled: a morning meeting with Robert Plant, lunch with Eric Clapton, and dinner with Joe Cocker. But we hoped that if we were there when he first arrived, he might take pity and squeeze us in during his morning coffee. So we drove in early through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, parked at a ridiculously expensive garage near Grand Central Station, and walked two blocks to the New York General Building, which housed WNEW-FM’s studios. There was no problem with building security: We simply walked past the guard as if we belonged and casually pressed the elevator button. But when we reached a door on the thirteenth floor that was embossed with the familiar green logo “WNEW-FM, 102.7, The New Groove,” it was firmly bolted and there appeared to be no doorbell. We knocked, but no one answered. I searched around the corridors for another entrance but found none, so we sat on the terrazzo floor and waited, nervously rehearsing our rap, trying to anticipate any eventuality.
Two hours later, at around nine, an extremely attractive young woman passed us and inserted a key into the lock. “Excuse us, miss, I’m Richard Neer, this is Mike Harrison. We’re from WLIR and we’re here to see Scott Muni.”
The expected response came. “Did you have an appointment?”
“Not exactly but—”
“No problem. Why don’t you wait in here instead of in the hall. He’ll probably be in within the hour.”
Our jaws dropped as we followed her into the offices. We had rehearsed a response to the appointment question, but she had made it unnecessary. In fact, all our carefully planned material proved useless that day. As it turned out, she was one of two secretary/receptionists that the station employed. One worked solely for the general manager, Varner Paulsen, and our new best friend worked for program director Muni, answered the phones, and greeted visitors. In addition to being exceptionally attractive, she had an effervescent personality and spent the next hour chatting with us, interrupted only by the occasional phone call. She was younger than we were, and she gave us lots of unsolicited tidbits about the staff, to our shock and delight.
We hadn’t planned on this briefing, but we didn’t mind listening to her stories, thinking they might come in useful during our interview with Muni. She told us of her boyfriend, with whom she was having trouble at the time. He was a musician and traveled a lot. He lived in Los Angeles and only could see her once a year when his band came to town, but they talked on the phone. And oh yes, he was married—didn’t love his wife but they had a child and he didn’t want to leave her.
The oldest line in the book.
I wondered why this gorgeous, intelligent woman would waste her time on a married man three thousand miles away who was obviously using her whenever his band came to New York. It seemed pretty clear to us that he probably had someone like her in several other cities, but that was something she needed to realize for herself. She swore her love for him and pledged to remain faithful. What a waste! And what a cad he was if my suspicions were true. After hearing her story, I never could listen to a Beach Boys song with Mike Love on vocals the same way.
By the time Muni arrived, we’d swapped enough stories with her to feel like old friends, and I’m sure she lobbied for us to be granted an audience with her boss. He came in wearing a brown corduroy jacket over a short-sleeve madras shirt with the requisite faded blue jeans and cowboy boots. A saddlebag briefcase stuffed with albums and unopened mail was slung casually over his shoulder. “Scottso,” as he was known in his AM radio days, was a ruggedly handsome man, an ex-Marine with military swagger and confidence. His hero and role model was John Wayne, not exactly a popular choice given the antiwar sentiment of 1971. Muni’s bearing was similar to Wayne’s, even if his five-foot-ten stature did not quite reach that of the film legend. His hair was short and black, with long sideburns just beginning to gray—his only concession to hipness.
“Come in, dudes,” he beckoned, after a whispered exchange with his secretary. We spent the next two hours in his office enduring the strangest job interview ever conducted. It felt as if we were interviewing him: He regaled us with tales as if we’d known him for years. We had told him that we’d caught Rosko’s last show and that we had heard some college kid from New Jersey on the overnight show, filling in. That was the plan, he told us. Jonathan Schwartz, a talented writer and raconteur, was starting as Rosko’s permanent replacement that evening, and Alison Steele, a sexy former television performer, would temporarily be doing Schwartz’s old 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift. There were no openings until they decided on whether the Nightbird (as Steele called herself) would fly during the day.
We were intimidated by Muni’s reputation, but he was very kind and spoke gently with us. His disjointed phrasing was interrupted by long pauses, as if he were taking a private journey in his mind before returning to Earth. At one point, he seemed distracted while intently scanning his mail. Then he yelled excitedly for the secretary to come in.
“I’ve found a goodie. Check this out.” He pointed to an envelope and she smiled knowingly.
“I think you’re right, Scott. Let me get you some boiling water. I think we can save that one.”
Harrison and I were dumbfounded when we realized that Muni was perusing the mail for uncancelled stamps, steaming them off for reuse. To us, that was like discovering that Warren Buffet clipped coupons. We laughed as he proudly displayed a container holding dozens of stamps, all neatly extracted from fan letters and junk mail.
We were able to glean that the recently departed Rosko had not been very well liked at the station. Everyone thought him to be unnecessarily confrontational and more than a trifle rude, a man who created arguments for the sheer pleasure of embarrassing his colleagues. That appraisal seemed at odds with the sensitive poet we knew from the airwaves.
Muni often would talk about someone, only referencing them by nickname, as if we knew everyone he did. So we got juicy gossip but couldn’t tell if the subject was a rock star or someone in the mail room. There would be lulls in the conversation during which we’d be tempted to interject something about ourselves, because we weren’t sure that Muni knew who
were either. After an hour, we sensed that extending the interview further would be counterproductive, but Scottso always had another story and we couldn’t break off without appearing rude.
Our biggest surprise came when a rotund black man wearing large glasses and an orange leisure suit walked into the room. Was this Rosko?