Authors: Richard Neer
Working Class Hero
As WNEW-FM was opening up the limits of what could be done on commercial radio, a small college FM station in New Jersey was shattering all the rules with impunity. Upsala College had been granted a license for a low-power FM educational station in 1958. WFMU was not concerned so much with educating students who wished to be broadcasters, but with educating the general public, who stayed away in droves. They replayed a lot of boring government-sponsored public service programming, and produced very little original work. Essentially, it was a waste of a frequency—but in those days, no one really seemed to care. But as WOR-FM and later WNEW-FM began to become favorites on campus, some students wanted to try their hand at free form, without the limits that commercial frequencies imposed.
Vin Scelsa was a student at Upsala and, like many, didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He edited the campus literary review and knew that his future lay somewhere in the creative arts, but wasn’t sure exactly where. Scelsa is a short, heavyset man with a pleasant, open face. His hair is usually clipped short, and a bald spot on the top gives him a monklike appearance. He’ll alternately be clean-shaven or sporting a dense beard, depending on his mood or the season. Vin favors small, wire-rimmed glasses and speaks in a soft rasp. Scelsa was a big fan of Bob Fass on WBAI, the Pacifica noncommercial station in New York. Fass would record demonstrations, and weave music and commentary amid the sounds of protest. But Scelsa wasn’t just a political animal; he loved music of all kinds and eventually convinced the student general manager of WFMU to let him try a free-form program late Saturday after the station’s usual sign-off.
He debuted in November of 1967 with a nod to radio tradition. From the thirties until the early fifties,
Fibber McGee and Molly
had been a popular radio sitcom. Often, the final punch line consisted of Fibber opening his overstuffed closet. Regular listeners knew that merely cracking the door would create a landslide of junk that McGee had compiled. Rather than throw anything out, it was tossed willy-nilly into the closet. So at the end of the program when he finally opened the door after many false starts, the sound effects of junk tumbling from its shelves would be heard for several seconds over uproarious laughter. Scelsa began his show by opening such a door, and when the noise of falling debris finally abated, he would calmly sort through the garbage. He’d find a new album by the Kinks—he’d have to play that later. An interview with a noted poet—he’d use that as well. A live guest, et cetera. So by using a variation of Fibber McGee, Scelsa launched
A modern programmer might point out how cleverly he began with a list promoting the show’s highlights designed to keep people listening. But he was able to accomplish this without employing a hyped manner that would turn off an audience sensitive to radio tricks. By the end of that school year, he’d assembled a group of like-minded students who wanted to host their own progressive programs.
Unfortunately, like many campus stations, WFMU signed off for the summer after final examinations in May. But Scelsa was undeterred, petitioning the general manager for the right to continue broadcasting throughout the summer. A bargain was struck: If he could raise the money to cover expenses, including a forty-five-dollar-a-week stipend for himself as program director, Scelsa could keep the station running on a limited basis. So he conducted a pledge drive that netted them three thousand dollars, enough to cover the bills until the fall semester began.
A wide assortment of programming was to follow, with outsiders joining students in a united effort to bring creative radio to the metropolitan area. Some shows were politically based, universally opposing the Vietnam War and championing assorted radical causes. Some were just devoted to music, others to books and theater. It was a wildly unpredictable place, but it garnered national attention when
magazine featured it. Scelsa and his cohorts never thought about ratings or revenue as his commercial brethren were forced to: They were students having the time of their lives. Some of them actually lived at the station, and sex and drugs on the property were routinely accepted. Although it had its share of internecine struggles for power and influence, it became a truly communal experience with no ambitions to be more than it was. It continued that way for another year and a half, becoming the darling of hip New Yorkers whose activist political outlooks were unsatisfied by the commercial outlets.
The one event that began the glory years for FM rock on commercial radio was seen as the
of an era for WFMU. The Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, which legitimized so many artists in the minds of mainstream youth, was seen by the radicals at Upsala as the ultimate sellout or commercialization of a hitherto pure form of music. The subsequent movie and soundtrack album brought the Woodstock experience to the nation, but Scelsa and company weren’t around to celebrate it. The administration at Upsala was becoming increasingly concerned with the direction WFMU was taking, receiving numerous complaints from alumni who were shocked at the political viewpoints their formerly harmless little station was espousing. Some of the jocks had no regard for radio standards involving obscene language, and frequently uttered words that even today are unacceptable on public airwaves. More safeguards and controls were put on the students, limiting their freedom until all the fun was sucked out of it. Many were dropouts who needed to find some kind of gainful employment. A few were near graduation and needed to do something else with their lives, including teaching to avoid the draft.
When Woodstock took place, they realized that their exclusive world was now invaded by corporate moneychangers looking for profit and not giving a tinker’s cuss about the music as anything but product. The dream was over for WFMU. The counterculture was fast becoming absorbed into the mainstream, and soon wouldn’t be worth their passion. Labor Day weekend of 1969 marked the end of the line, and Scelsa resigned along with most of the staff.
Vin wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after WFMU, and he temporaily took refuge in his new wife’s family jewelry business. Radio was part of his past, he was sure, knowing that he could never re-create the joyous times he’d had in college. Never again would he experience that exhilarating freedom, and he didn’t ever want to work for some suit who would dictate what he had to play and say. So he drifted along, hoping that someday he’d find a muse—doing something he could be passionately committed to that would also allow him to make a living.
In the nearby New York City market, WNEW-FM had hired its first young jock, Pete Fornatale, who had made a name for himself doing college radio at Fordam’s WFUV. He was installed as morning host, which at that time was a less important day part than any other with the possible exception of overnights. AM still ruled the airwaves in the early hours, so management felt safer hiding their latest experiment there than in a more highly visible time slot.
WABC-FM had become a recent convert to the new music after unsuccessfully filling their days with wall-to-wall original cast recordings of Broadway musicals. They attempted hipness by presenting music hosted by a syndicated personality called Brother John. It came off as insincere and phony—an obvious corporate attempt to cash in on the success that progressive music was enjoying.
But this failure led to an opportunity for Scelsa that came to him in a quite unexpected way. While at WFMU, he’d been contacted by a man named Larry Yurdin, who worked for the ABC-FM stations under Alan Shaw. Yurdin had sold Shaw on the concept that since most markets now had some kind of FM underground presence, be it commercial or college, ABC should find the best DJ in each town and hire them. Dave Herman, host of
The Marconi Experiment,
a popular Philadelphia underground show, was hired immediately, and Yurdin called Scelsa with an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Vin couldn’t believe his ears: WABC-FM would pay him the princely sum of three hundred dollars a week. Scelsa could play whatever he wanted and there would be absolutely no corporate interference. It sounded too good to be true, and although he had no illusions that it would last, he excitedly spoke to his wife, Freddie, about it. He knew that it was a chancy career choice, and there would doubtless be periods of unemployment and heartbreak, but she agreed to subsidize the family through the hard times so that Vin could pursue his dream. Eyes wide open, he signed on with Yurdin and WPLJ was born.
WPLJ was a suggestion of Dave Herman’s taken from a song by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention called “WPLJ (white port & lemon juice).” Many believe that the letters were a cryptic description of male ejaculate, in which case it would be a cruel joke on the staid ABC corporate culture. But WPLJ was undoubtedly the most radical commercial radio New York had ever heard. Other than Herman, the PLJ jocks did not have the deep professional radio voices one expected from syndication. Most sounded like the just barely above adolescents they were, and their musical taste was all over the map. Midday host Michael Cuscuna loved jazz and that was what he played on his show. Scelsa was more eclectic: You could hear anything from folk to standards to show tunes to progressive psychedelia. Herman was more conventional not only in his manner but in his selections. He held down the important 6 to 10 p.m. slot, opposite Rosko. Herman’s one eccentricity was his advocacy of underground comedy: He often played lengthy bits from the Firesign Theatre and later was an early devotee of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
“Cousin Brucie” Morrow at WABC couldn’t stand what was happening at his sister station. As its competitors fell by the wayside, fully a quarter of New York’s radios at any given time were tuned to 770. In terms of the music, the station was tighter than ever, playing fewer than fifteen songs in regular rotation. As a nod to the changing times, Sklar
relaxed his policy of banning oldies and records over three minutes. Breakthroughs like Richard Harris’s “MacArthur Park” and Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” convinced him that certain records were worth stretching out for. But he still maintained his research and refused to play anything that lacked a solid sales history. But Morrow believed that even more than the music, it was WABC’s sense of community that garnered its monster ratings. The jocks were out in the city’s neighborhoods, promoting the station at any event that drew a crowd. WABC was a palpable presence wherever you went in New York.
But although many AM personalities couldn’t see it, FM was fostering a different kind of community. Politics was at the heart of most of this. Conservatives were thought to like AM radio because it was the establishment. Solid, predictable—it stood for the status quo. FM appealed to the left, those who sought to uproot institutions. It wasn’t only opposition to the war, which was the litmus test, but an opposition to mindless capitalism. The values it espoused were more spiritual, not in the sense of traditional religion, but the ideals of peace and love. Before these virtues became marginalized by jokes about hopelessly naÏve hippies, there were substantial intellects who felt that the country had veered from its founding principles and was embarking on a dangerously imperialistic course, sacrificing young lives for business interests. It wasn’t all about free love and experimentation with drugs. Corporations like Metromedia and ABC were walking a bit of a tightrope—on the one hand, they were in it to make money; on the other, their stations were decrying avarice and greed and advocating a more spiritual existence.
Many middle-class kids watched from the sidelines. Although demonstrations rocked campuses across the nation including Adelphi’s, most of my peers never participated. They were momentarily excluded from military service with student deferments, and were more concerned with how they were going to make a living when they got out of school. Many minored in education (as I did), knowing that teachers were also deferred. The majority were against the war, and not just on principle. The most active opponents were upperclassmen who were about to be exposed to the draft and would have to make the hard decision of laying their lives on the line for a war that no one was enthused about fighting, or retreating to Canada and giving up any chance of seeing friends or family again. For those graduating in the late sixties, the war loomed as a palpable presence, like a paid assassin relentlessly stalking your consciousness, awaiting an unguarded moment to devour its prey.
The war was partly based on the “domino theory,” which held that if the United States allowed Vietnam to fall, the rest of Southeast Asia would topple like a row of dominoes, followed by the rest of the world in due course. The problem was that it was only a theory, not a hard fact. The younger generation couldn’t justify sacrificing their lives for a theory that might later prove incorrect. Some historians have also suggested that Communist insurgents were at work on American campuses, stirring up unrest and dissatisfaction with foreign policy. Whatever the cause, many sociological factors came together to espouse “Make Love, Not War” as a marching order throughout the country’s student population.
Science was also responsible for changing mores. With the invention of the birth control pill, sex became less feared as having the life-changing consequences of an unwanted pregnancy. The proliferation of television brought beautiful sexy people into the living room, and programs like
purported to unveil the sexual shenanigans of even conservative New England life. Books that had been banned decades earlier were becoming required reading in modern courses. Magazines like
that had once been considered pornographic were now seen as harmless fun and were available on regular newsstands. Sex to many became recreational. The only thing that stood in the way was religion, and millions of adolescents parted ways with their parents on the true meaning of morality. They maintained that the violence of war was the worst sin man could commit, and that sex was a manifestation of love, life’s most valued virtue. Perhaps led by the Beatles’ example, they sampled alternative religions where the prohibition of sex was not a central tenet. The institution of marriage was under siege: As more parents divorced, it signaled to their children that perhaps monogamy wasn’t the natural way people were intended to live. In a sense, this led to a very real crumbling of the dominoes: As one steadfast rule of behavior was rejected, others were called into question and eventually discarded.