I was not the sort of perky teenager who walked in the door ready to chit chat with other family members. If I was home, and wasn’t hungry at the time, I was behind closed doors. And the place where I shut myself in was a room my family called the den. It was our electronics center. It had a TV, a big reel-to-reel tape recorder, a stereo with powerful speakers mounted to the wall, but most important to me, it had a radio.
I was a teenager in the late 1960’s. It was a time of anti-war, anti-establishment counterculture. It was a time of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” though not so much in my high school. The radio was my connection to a whole new world that wasn’t apparent in my home, in my town or in my school.
The radio changed my life in two ways: music and world view. It opened up a whole new world of music that would shape my tastes and musical preferences to this day. And it opened up a whole new world of public affairs and social movements that I wasn’t hearing about on TV or in the local newspaper. It led me past the conservative views of my parents which were shaped by their experience of war and the socially stifling 50’s.
When I was hiding out in that den I likely had the radio tuned in to one of two New York FM stations: WBAI and WNEW. Up until that point the radio to me was just a source of perpetual jingles and repetitive play of a few songs that either came from cutesy pop bands like Herman’s Hermits or were assembly line Phil Spector ditties.
WNEW-FM and it’s short-lived predecessor WOR-FM opened up a whole new world of music for me. We called it underground rock, although bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane didn’t stay underground for long. There were also local New York favorites like the Chambers Brothers and Butterfield Blues Band. I listened to folk music for the first time and heard the old blues players like Leadbelly and Bessie Smith. I was making liberal use of that old reel-to-reel tape recorder. And on Wednesday nights, instead of hanging out in a car with my friends trying to figure out who would buy us beer, I was on the bus to New York to Thompkins Square Park where performers like Richie Havens and the Blues Project were playing for free. Instead of sneaking in the back entrance to the drive-in on weekends, I was headed to the Village Theater where I discovered the likes of Traffic, the Who and Big Brother and the Holding Company.
But it wasn’t all music. I was also listening to talk radio; a whole different kind of talk radio than angry white man demogogues who polute the AM dial now. I remember 1960’s WBAI for three deejays: Bob Fass, Steve Post and Larry Josephson. They rambled about current events and pet peeves. They brought some of the counterculture superstars like Abbie Hoffman and Timothy Leary onto the air. They chatted with listeners who were unlike anyone I was going to find in my all-white conservative home town.
But WBAI was also about the news. I specifically remember their live coverage of events like the student takeover of Columbia University buildings, the prison uprising at Attica in New York state and the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I heard voices from the inside and voices with empathy for the protesters and rebels. Would I have found myself at anti-war demonstrations, in unbearably long and boring SDS meetings or protesting at Nixon’s inauguration if I hadn’t been a WBAI listener? Maybe, but it was the radio that got me started.
There was no clear distinction between music and politics on these airways. If you were listening to WNEW you heard Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t a-Marching Anymore” and the “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” the anti-war anthem by Country Joe and the Fish. And if you listened to Rosko at night you would hear him recite Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s anti-war verse.
WBAI had some music too…when the guys weren’t talking. I heard Alice’s Restaurant and American Pie for the first time on WBAI. Both stations relished the fact that they would play a 15-minute song while on commercial ratio 15 minutes brought you a couple 2-3 minute songs slipped in between ads.
When I think back to ‘coming of age’ influences in my life, yes I think of parents and teachers, but I also think of radio guys like Bob Fass and Rosko. In addition to being somewhat anti-social, I wasn’t the savviest of teenagers. Looking back on it I can’t help but conclude that in many ways I was an idiot. But the radio made my smarter, more open to different things, more empathetic and at least a little more worldly.