Tom Donahue is listening to rock & roll on LSD in 1967 San Francisco and says to himself, “This music has to be heard in stereo. AM radio is a rotting corpse stinking up the airwaves.” He starts calling FM stations listed in the phone book. When he finds one that’s disconnected, he says to his wife, Raechel, “Get my power tie and blow dry my hair. This is gonna be big.” He meets with the owner, Leon Cosby, who appears to be deep in debt and makes a deal to format the station. He, Raechel, and some friends take over the airwaves. KMPX is born as freeform radio. It’s joyous, creative, inclusive, exciting. Something entirely new on the airwaves. What’s not to like?
The problems quickly emerge that will haunt freeform radio persistently in the struggle between artistic freedom and management control. Tom’s time at the station doesn’t last long, but his timing is perfect and the example he sets unleashes a “spontaneous discovery” that resonates across the country. Pretty soon he’s running KSAN in San Francisco, KPPC in Pasadena, and KMET in Los Angeles. Freeform radio is happening not just all over California; suddenly it’s happening everywhere.
Charles Laquidara is an aspiring actor in Los Angeles. Aspiring but not inspiring. He has a part-time job playing classical music on KPPC in Pasadena, which is not exactly burning up the ratings. But it’s a gig. He does late night shifts when probably nobody is listening. He struggles with the names of some of these composers, but he enjoys the music. Thinks sometimes about whether you could play, say, Jimi Hendrix with a guy like Shostakovich, or maybe Bach and the Stones in a set. He tries it and it works pretty well. Sometimes people call and say, “Wow, that was cool” or “What was that crap?”
Charles decides to bag the acting, which is going nowhere, and heads home to Boston. He hears some tunes on WBCN-FM and they’re really good. Calls the station and gets the Program Director, tells him he really likes what they’re doing. The guy says, “Who are you.” Charles tells him and the guy says, “Oh, you’re that crazy guy who plays Borodin with The Who. Why don’t you come on down?” Offers Charles a gig replacing Peter Wolf who’s leaving to start the J. Geils Band. It’s the beginning of something big. Freeform radio in Boston, where about 15 colleges are within a stone’s throw of the station. It’s a great success. Thirty years later, Charles retires. “Really only 28,” he says. “I took two years off when the show was interfering with my cocaine habit.”
Ron Middag is playing middle of the road music on KDIG in La Jolla. In the middle of one fated night, he plays some Dylan and Vanilla Fudge. Next morning, the program director calls him in to the office. Ron says, “Let’s try some of this music late at night.” The PD says, “Do that again and you’re fired.” He does and is.
One night before he gets canned, he hears some tunes on KPRI in San Diego, a station a lot like his, except now at O Dark Thirty they’re playing the kind of music he wants to hear. So do a lot of other people. Rock ‘n’ roll, the good stuff, no jive deejays, none of those screaming commercials, just really good songs rolling out one after another with a very mellow guy named O.B. Jetty saying intelligent things about the music, about life. Late night only, right, but a place to start. Ron gets a gig there and soon enough they are freeform 24/7. At one point they ranked third in the ratings and the audience flat-out loved them. One of them is a young kid named Cameron Crowe. Soon enough nationally the station will be Almost Famous.
Jason Sherman flunks out of college and immediately gets drafted. Good morning, Vietnam! He’s assigned to an artillery battery but somehow slides his way into a gig on local radio station KLIK. Does the Bing, Sinatra, Glen Campbell, Chi-Lites playlist daytime, but gets a show Saturday nights from 10-2 where he can play whatever he wants. “An Intrusion On Your Mind,” he calls it. Armed with a bag of Vietnamese reefer, $5 a pound or $10 for the opiated version, he lets it rip. Jimi, Janis, the Stones, The Who, Procol fuckin’ Harum. The troops love it. Most of ‘em do. Country Joe gets a few calls saying, “You commie hippie creep” but mostly folks have a sense of humor. When his tour is up, he tells his boss he’s headed for Boulder, Colorado and would love another radio gig. The colonel says, “I want you to look up a guy named Bill Ashford.” He does.
Bill Ashford is doing Top 40 in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Grew up in radio, hanging around the local stations, trying anything he can to get a gig. He does, a couple of them now at different stations and this one’s the best so far. The audience is mostly young guys in the 82nd Airborne at Ft. Bragg, most of them scared shitless and getting ready to ship out to Vietnam. Music is the lifeline and Bill is playing it. He hangs out at The Other Side, a club where all the folk singers play. One of them just in from New York is Judy Roderick, Woman Blue, who wins his heart. He’s on the way to Denver, a Doubleday station KMYR-FM is going to go freeform. She’s heading there to play The Exodus, another club on the circuit. Kismet, you know.
Sandy Phelps plays The Other Side, too. Knows Bill and Judy both, him from being interviewed at the club and her from crossing paths as folksingers in New York. Sandy is tiring of the East Coast scene and itching to get back to Colorado, where she grew up. Everybody is heading West these days and Sandy is one of them. Soon enough she’ll become one of the first of very few women on air in freeform radio. And she will do it very well, thank you. Jason Sherman says, “We all had cute girls hanging around, but Sandy had the cutest.”
Brian Kreizenbeck wants a gig at KMYR, but they won’t hire him. His reputation for creativity precedes him. Got him into trouble more than once. He was Denver’s first freeform radio guy, midnight to 6 a.m. on KFML-AM & FM, a classical music station, middle of the road music station, everything and anything music station that was perpetually losing its ass. Brian said let me do my thing, I’ll sell the ads, we’ll split the profits. Owner said, okay. Brian soon enough is absolutely kicking ass.
The Super Warthog on a roll. Revenues in short order grow to nearly $5 grand a month. Everybody is listening to his show. It’s not easy to fill 6 hours of airtime seven nights a week. He does a lot of music and a lot of comedy, too. One night he pastes a Tiny Tim laugh track on top of a recruitment spot for the Denver Police Department. Fits perfectly, runs verbatim overlayed with hysterical laughter. One night, some insomniac in the mayor’s office hears it and is not amused. Brian is sent packing. He’ll be back.
Tommy T is doing top 40 radio at SuperSound Kay-Pix in Salt Lake City and the occasional television gig, weatherman with an attitude. Stands in front of the green screen, describing weather patterns, “a cool front” down here and “partly cloudy” up here, “easterly winds” and “altitudes,” this phenomenon and that, each of them penciled in with a single capital letter on the board, and when he finishes his rap, he points to the screen where it says in big puffy letters: “Peace is Cool.” Thom says, “That’s what’s happening,” and is promptly fired. His top 40 gig pretty much sucks, too, but he does amazing production, ads, station IDs, public service announcements, that sort of stuff with a deep voice and a measure of élan, and soon enough, Doubleday comes calling. KMYR in Denver wants him on staff. Freeform radio in the sorta big city. Thom Trunnell is there! Soon enough he’s program director. After a while, the staff is fired. Some go to WLS in Chicago. Some to KRNW in Boulder. All of them have a good time.
Late 1968, a hipster character in Boulder by the name of Steve Thoresen calls me up and says, “There’s this crazy guy named Bob Wilkinson who has a little FM station in town. Does a classical show 6 to 10 p.m. Only 5 watts but it could be cool. I talked him into letting us do 10 to 2 a.m. Wanna split the nights with me?” Headhunter and the Electric Cowboy we call ourselves and bring albums from home to play on the air. KRNW-FM in Boulder. There’s only one turntable in a funky two-room studio on the second floor downtown, but the signal reaches most of the town and up some of the canyons a way into the mountains. It isn’t long before we’re getting some attention. People calling, coming by, bringing presents, sometimes albums to play, beer and reefer, very cute friends, and we are having a great time.
Shortly, Bob agrees to go fulltime freeform, except for his 4-hour classical show. First hire is Brian Kreizenbeck, then Bill Ashford, Sandy Phelps, Buffalo Chip, and it grows from there. Butch Grayer, Marcello Cabus, Michael Muirhead, Bernard Heitman, Scotty Coen, Dan Fong, me, a few others do weekend shows and fill in here and there. The station makes a little money and gains a lot of attention. There comes a time very soon where you never miss a song that is playing no matter where you are or what you’re doing because KRNW is blasting from every hipster home and shop in town. There are lots of them.