Did Alan Freed invent rock ‘n’ roll? If he was still alive he might tell you so. For some the birth of rock ‘n’ took place at the Cleveland Arena one night in March of 1952 when Freed, a DJ on WJW, hosted his “Moondog Coronation Ball.” 25,000 people showed up at the 10,000 capacity arena. The cops shut it down.
One thing that Freed did was irrefutable. He took black rhythm and blues and played it on mainstream radio, thus introducing it to white audiences. That not only changed radio and music, it changed teen culture for at least a decade to come. In her book Listening In, Susan J. Douglas quotes Freed on his views on teenagers. “Teenagers, I’ve been dealing with them for thirteen years, and they’re the greatest, most wonderful age group in America. Since when has it become a crime to be a teenager?”
Freed was part of a new wave of DJ’s that took over the airways in the 50’s. With the drama and comedy of earlier era radio moving to TV, Freed and his colleagues brought a different approach to radio programming and cultivated a new audience, a large part of which were young people in their cars and with their transistors. In the beginning they controlled the music they played, and what they played was rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll. Freed moved from Cleveland to WINS in New York and his show was later syndicated nationally. He continued to put on live shows in addition to his radio programming, one of which was a week-long event in New York that drew 95,000 people. WINS fired him after one of his shows ended in a riot, but he was quickly picked up by WABC, one of the most powerful stations on the AM dial.
But the influence Fried had also contributed to his downfall. Rock ‘n’ roll was still considered something of an outlaw culture in a conservative and conformist 50’s America. The government got involved partly through the urgings of ASCAP, the performance rights organization which was losing ground to rival BMI which had the majority of black and young artists. What they attacked was payola, something that was no secret in radio, but most believe their real target was rock ‘n’ roll. Freed like many, if not most other DJ’s, was in fact guilty. One of the ways he was rewarded for playing a record was by giving him writing credit and thus royalties. He is, for example, listed as co-author of Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline.” That was news to Berry.
Freed unabashedly admitted to this, declaring that “What they call payola in the disc jockey business they call lobbying in Washington.” He was fined $500 and given a suspended sentence. The authors of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life surmise “the real reason the U.S. government spent so much time pursuing him seems to have more to do with his success in promoting ‘degenerate’ black music to their impressionable white sons and daughters.” After his payola conviction, WABC fired Freed and the feds then turned the IRS on him.
His career went downhill from there, as did his health. He died in 1965 at the age of 43 due to complications related to alcoholism.
Freeform radio was born in 1963 after midnight on an obscure non-commercial radio station in New York. That’s when an unemployed actor named Bob Fass who had been hired by WBAI as an announcer, convinced the station to give him a show during a time when the station was usually signed off the air. That was 54 years ago and this lifelong New Yorker is still on the air. There may be others who claim to have invented freeform radio, but Fass is surely the most influential of the pioneers.
Jesse Walker, author of Rebels on the Air, describes Fass’ show, Radio Unnameable, like this: “He played all kinds of records, he interviewed all kinds of people, he allowed musicians to jam, live, in the studio, he did news reports, took listener calls, and sometimes, his colleague Steve Post recalls, simply rambled.”
Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Ravi Shankar all showed up on Radio Unnameable. So did Alan Ginsburg, Abbie Hoffman, Wavy Gravy and Timothy Leary. He went to the 1968 Democratic Convention demonstrations and brought back recordings. His show was often used as a community forum to organize demonstrations. Fass cared about war, not just Vietnam in the 60’s, but also what he called ‘Bush’s war for oil.’ He cared about homelessness and about capital punishment. Once, upon getting a call from a listener who said he was going to commit suicide, Fass kept him on the air for two hours while the WBAI staff tried to trace the call and notify the police. When the police arrived the caller was unconscious (with the phone off the hook and WBAI on the radio) but alive.
He also brought several innovations to radio. He was one of the first to use sound collages and to program music in sets. He also had a call-in setup that allowed up to 10 callers to be on the line at the same time.
Once in the 70’s Fass was banned from the air for five years after being involved in an attempt to unionize the station. He’s back but he hasn’t been paid anything by WBAI since 1977. At one time listeners sent donations for his retirement fund. By 2006 he was down to one day a week and lately health issues have made his schedule sporadic. But the 84-year old Fass is still on the air, now on Friday afternoon from noon to 3, broadcasting from his home in Staten Island.
In 2013 a documentary called Radio Unnameable was released. I was fortunate enough to attend a screening that Fass himself attended, driving from Staten Island to northern New Jersey. Below is the theatrical trailer for this excellent movie.
My favorite DJ. I can still here that rich, husky voice that at the same time was soothing and reassuring. I know Rosko, whose real name was William Mercer, from WOR-FM and WNEW-FM in the late 60’s. People who were my age at the time (late teens) were rejecting the narrow commercial AM stations and tuning to FM for what at the time was called progressive rock. Rosko called it “the mind excursion, the true diversion, the hippest of all trips” It wasn’t about one kind of music, you might be just as likely to hear a choral recording as the Beatles, and he also read poetry, with favorites including Kahlil Gibran and Yvegeny Yevteshenko. In her book, Douglas notes that Rosko didn’t put a record on the second turntable until he could listen to the one that was playing and decide what would be best to follow. How many on air DJ’s have had the confidence to do that?
Rosko’s started his career as a jazz DJ in Chester, Pa. Along the way he broke some racial barriers being the first black announcer at WINS in New York and the first black DJ at KBLA in Los Angeles. He was at WOR-FM in New York in 1966. He resigned when the station chose to go to a fixed format playlist. He made the reason for his resignation very clear to listeners on air. He was then at WNEW-FM from 1967-1970 in the prime time slot.
Rosko was a man of strong principles and he stood by them. Once, early in his career, he was blacklisted for six months after refusing to cross a picket line. He was a committed opponent of the Vietnam War and used his platform to campaign against it.
After some time in France with Voice of America, he left his last full-time radio gig with WKTU New York in 1985. Again it was a matter of principle for Rosko who accused management of racial discrimination. After that he did some occasional broadcasting but also wrote poetry. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1991 and passed away in 2006.
You’ve probably never heard of Mbanna Kantako. I never did either until I was introduced through Jesse Walker’s book Rebels on the Air. Like the other big voices in this post, Kantako, who original name was DeWayne Readus, inspired a whole new trend in radio: low power microbroadcasting.
Readus was partially blind from a childhood bout with glaucoma. Early in his career he worked as a DJ and he was DJing at a party that was raided by police. He was beaten in the raid and completely lost his site. So when he was approached by colleagues in the Tenant Rights Assocation of the John Jay housing projects in Springfield, Ill., about starting a newspaper for the tenants, he suggested that he was “not much into print” and opted for a radio station instead.
With little chance of getting an FCC license, Kantako struck out on his own, mail ordering a one-watt transmitter kit and launching WTRA out of his home. WTRA broadcast some rap and some reggae but it also focused on local issues, in particular police brutality. Victims of over-aggressive policing were invited onto the air to tell their story. Kantako believes his station helped reduce police brutality.
But making an enemy of the police has its consequences and eventually the FCC came after Kantako. Sort of. They ordered him off the air. He did but came right back on. They fined him $750. He failed to show up in court and never paid the fine. When he virtually invited them to come and arrest him, the FCC was a no show.
Eventually the John Jay projects were torn down. Kantako picked up his stuff, moved elsewhere and continued broadcasting as well as continuing the cat and mouse game with the FCC. The station went through several name changes eventually settling on Human Rights Radio. He broadcast under that name for 25+ years. Here’s a sample of what the program schedule looked like:
- 1:30a.m. — listen to the series we call ‘brothers and sisters at the real table’ where researchers from diff. parts of this country and others share notes
- 2:40a.m. — time for the series we call ‘america the criminal’ where notes on the struggle of America’s Afrikan captives are shared by researchers from all-around
The Springfield story was fairly widely told in the media and it inspired quite a number of similar micro-broadcasting operations. It’s pirate radio for landlubbers.
Interesting unknown history of Rock n Roll.
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Great story, Ken. You brought back a lot of memories for me.
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Interesting stories about radio pioneers. I’ve heard of Alan Freed but didn’t know much about his story. I’ve not heard of the other voices before. Are there still voices like this in radio or is the Internet the new medium?
I think they are few and far between now. On most commercial radio the DJ is told what to play and what to say.