Return to A Page for Allison Steele
Posted by Robert Goldberg on August 20, 1999 at 21:27:33:
Here is a reprint of an article by Kathleen Warnock, called "The Nightbirds Final Flight"
"The flutter of wings, the sounds of the night, the shadow across the moon, as the Nightbird lifts her wings and soars above the earth into another level of comprehension, where we exist only to feel. Come fly with me, Alison Steele, the Nightbird..."
With this opening, The Nightbird flew over airwaves of New York City for more than two decades. When Steele died on September 27, 1995, after a long illness, she left behind a rich legacy in the form she pioneered - all night radio. Jimi Hendrix even titled his song "Nightbird Flying" for her.
In an interview conducted early last summer, she responded to an observation that there's a higher percentage of women working overnight shifts than during the day.
"You know why, don't you?" she responded
"Because the pay is lower?"
"You got it," she said, with a laugh. "They hide you overnight. They don't trust that women can do what men can do."
But they just couldn't hide Steele. She got her break in radio on WNEW-FM back in 1966. "This was the time AM & FM split," she explained. "I was on WNEW-AM, one of the leading independent stations in the country. They could never duplicate that kind of talent (when they split), especially when AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists Association) set a scale of $125/week for FM jocks."
So WNEW-FM made its debut as "Sexpot Radio," with an all-female on-air staff. Steele, who had been working in radio and television since the late '50s, was one of the few women hired with any broadcasting experience.
"The original format was Sinatra, Steve & Eydie - that sort of music," she explained. And it didn't last long. By September of 1966, WNEW switched its format to progressive rock. All the jocks were fired except me. They found that 90% of the people knew my name and liked me (so) they asked me to do overnight, and I said, 'Sure. What do I do?' They said 'Do your thing'.
"I was thinking about my thing. I am a night person. I hate to get up in the morning. There are the larks and the owls and I have been an owl all my life, so I decided to be the Nightbird, because of the duality of a nocturnal bird, and being a girl.
"I knew nothing about rock and roll. They had a library of about 500 albums, so I'd take them home, listen, study them. (Eventually) they made me the music director."
The first night she was on, Steele opened with some poetry she had written, some Incan temple music, and The Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin." "The switchboard lit up," she recalled. "I knew how to do a program that was more conceptual than anyone else. I always started with poetry - something inspirational (to demonstrate) we all have tremendous potential. Things will always get better. I used Shakespeare, the Bible, Longfellow, Camus, and the music related to that."
Steele kept careful track of the quotes and poems she used, marking each with the date it was read, and going back to favorite pieces over the years. The format she created proved to be a popular and durable one. Her audience was large and loyal. Steele became the first woman to win Billboard's "FM Personality of the Year" award in 1978.
Steele had complete control of the music she programmed on WNEW and did about two-thirds of her own programming on K-ROCK. She did the first and last hours of her shift according to the station's playlist, and in the middle of her show she played what she felt like, trying to include all the listener requests she received.
She was at WNEW from 1966-79, played jazz from 1981-86 on an AM radio station, then in 1986 went to WPIX, leaving that station when ownership changed. She opened a store, "Just Cats" in 1988, which she continued to operate, even after her return to all-night radio at K-Rock in 1991.
"The (late night) audience has changed only in one respect," she said. "The hippies stayed up all night, got high and went to work or classes. Now they're working people - hospital people, cops, firefighters, computer people, printers or the owls, who just don't sleep. They stay up 'til 2 o'clock. They are writers, artists, potters, people with an artistic temperament."
In the early days, the morning man had no rating. " Now the morning man at K-Rock is Howard Stern."
On the night Alison Steele died, Vin Scelsa and Maria Melito (who started as Steele's engineer before being given her own shift on K-Rock) went on the air at 10 PM and stayed on until 4 am to pay tribute, playing songs for their friend, reading faxes, relaying phone calls from friends and fans, and retelling their own stories. They read some of her inspirational quotes and original writing.
Scelsa also played a promo tape he'd made with Steele and Pete Fornatale when all three came to K-Rock, and the station was promoting the return of the three famous voices to their airwaves.
"I'm Vin Scelsa...I'm Pete Fornatale..." and then an intimate, throaty purr: "I'm Alison Steele...and I taught them everything they know."
Kathleen Warnock is a playwright and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in New York Press, Literary Cavalcade, New Directions for Women, and The Joan Jett Fanclub Newsletter. Write to her at email@example.com.
To learn more about Steele, read Gillian G. Gaar's comprehensive She's A Rebel, The History of Women in Rock & Roll.[Seal Press, 1992].
Posted by kevin on August 20, 1999 at 21:59:38:
In Reply to: Re: The night bird posted by Robert Goldberg on August 20, 1999 at 21:27:33:
There isn't much I can add to this article as far as facts go. It's too bad that there aren't more sites dedicated to the Nightbird on the net. I guess her family is very protective of her image, which is probably a good thing in the long run.
I was too young to hear her in her glory days on 'NEW, but I was fortunate enough to catch her on K-Rock, back in the days when they actually PLAYED rock. (Ah, yes...I remember it well) I, too, was brought under her sultry spell, despite her being 40 years my senior. It just didn't matter at 3:00 am when she would whip out some obscure Yes tune that would run for twelve minutes, followed by a lengthy anecdote about the time she had lunch with Bill Graham and Jon Anderson at the Carnegie Deli or some such thing. The subject didn't matter, it was her DELIVERY, as though she was speaking only to you. Not only will there never be another Allison Steele, I just don't see anyone, of either gender, possessing that much class and talent and making it on FM in New York again. Meg Griffin comes close, but of course she had to go to non-commercial radio to do what she does best.
Oh, and that flute music she began every show with was pre-Columbian religious music from South America, recorded by Elizabeth Waldo. She heard it at a friend's house in California and brought it back to NY. Good luck finding another copy, I haven't.
Long live the nightbird.
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