Freeform Radio: The First Twenty Eight Years

A reprint of a 1968 article about WFMU's freeform roots

June 1968: as the nation's fifth graders were heading to their elementary school graduations decked out in Sears Nehru jackets, something new was brewing on the FM dial. It was in the summer of '68 that WFMU went freeform full time, and helped usher in a new kind of radio. Rather than look back at this period through the cracked lenses of post-Jim & Tammy cynicism, we offer a view of it here from its own idyllic perspective. This article originally appeared in EYE magazine in October, 1969, under the title "Turned-On Radio: The New Wave". EYE, a national "counterculture" magazine modeled after LIFE and published by Helen Gurley Brown, went under after less than a year. WFMU, in the incarnation described here, lasted a few months longer.

Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey, is a healthy place to go to school. The sun shines through colonial windows in the library onto stacks of dusty volumes and large color pictures of His Majesty Gustaf Adolph of Sweden at a trade fair, at an iron mine, reviewing the troops.

The Augustana Lutheran Church supports the school and the Scandinavian tradition is evident. There were eight Johnsons and a Johanson in the class of '68 and the student body of 1,476 is clean, good-looking, willing to go all out in building floats for homecoming weekends. Sweaters and tan raincoats, plaid skirts and Peter Pan collars, tortoise shell glasses and a Mustang in the parking lot are very big, and the ivy on the library wall comes from Princeton and Rutgers, "a gift from New Jersey's two colonial colleges."

In this unlikely setting, the most exciting, far-out thing in East Coast radio is happening.

WFMU, the campus FM radio station, was founded in 1957. For the next eleven years it remained a dull, ignored (which is to say, typical) college radio station that featured Bach, Beethoven, the Georgetown University Forum and taped soc.101 lectures that nobody had listened to the first time in class.

Suddenly, sounds of Big Pink from The Band, the Velvet Underground, the Steve Miller Blues Band, and bootleg Bob Dylan tapes are coming from the quiet East Orange campus twenty-four hours a day.

All kinds of raps are going out about how come Yoko Ono and Marianne Faithful both had miscarriages at the same time and aren't John Lennon and Mick Jagger really the same cat and aren't they both really Bob Dylan?

What goes on?

First of all, what goes on at FMU now is a variation of what is going on at KSAN-FM, in Los Angeles, at WHFS-FM in Bethesda, Md., and at WBCN-FM in Boston, and to varying degrees at college radio stations all over the country.

WFMU is a radical example, an archetype, of the new radio movement that has been gathering momentum in recent years and is now raising bumps in the linoleum. They call what they do at FMU "free-form radio"; others have called it progressive, underground and, at times, subversive. Whatever it's called, the result is an invigorating new ripple on the airwaves.

It started for East Orange in June of 1968. Rather than take the usual three-month summer holiday, some of the station's staff decided to try to keep FMU on the air during the vacation period. They ran a "marathon", broadcasting twenty-four hours a day asking for pledges and playing requests for money. At the end of the five days, the staff had received twenty-five hundred dollars in pledges. Free-form radio was born.

Initially, free-form radio was an operational necessity. Air time had to be filled and the best way to do it was to play album - length cuts and sometimes entire albums. The albums usually belonged to Vin Scelsa, an Upsala student who had an all-night Saturday show, The Closet, on the old FMU. His taste ran to Judy Collins and Dylan, heavy blues and quality rock.

As the summer began, FMU was programming this kind of music fifteen and twenty hours a day. The station holds an educational, noncommercial license which forbids the airing of commercials or sponsored programming, so the music was interrupted only for the necessary station identification, some light rapping and phone calls. A listener could request a song and hear it played ten minutes later.

East Orange is fifteen miles from New York City. Word started to get around that, "Wow, there's this freaky station from New Jersey playin' music all the time..."

Scelsa began doing The Closet six nights a week, instead of Saturdays only. The station was occupying all his time and he pulled F's and Incompletes in all his courses. He dropped out of school. Ransom Bullard, Station Manager, had done the same thing two years earlier.

George Black was taking some courses at Upsala, got hooked on FMU, and became the program manager with his own daily show, The Little Black Thing. Scelsa and Black are the only on-the-air people being paid by the station. They started being paid because they were there all the time, literally twenty-four hours a day, going without sleep for two or three days at a time, fighting a losing battle to keep something interesting going out over the air, losing because twenty hours had to be filled every day and there were only two men around to fill them.

Help began to arrive. Bob Rudnick and Dennis Frawley, columnists for the East Village Other, had wanted to get into a nonprint thing and they went out to East Orange to do a nightly show. Dave Myers, a computer programmer working nights for Time-Life, Inc., had no experience in radio, but he listened to FMU and liked it so much he visited the station. He quit his job for something more valuable to him, the six-to-nine slot every night.

The music attracted more people. Larry Yurdin came to the East from KMPX-FM in San Francisco, with about six hundred albums and a philosophy of radio. At KMPX he had been a part of a successful experiment to make a commercial rock station intelligent and listenable. "Big Daddy" Tom Donahue, the reigning West Coast music genius, programmed music at KMPX integrating commercials into whatever was being played. KMPX became the top station in the Bay area.

Many of the things Donahue and stations like WFMU are doing now were first done by WBAI-FM, a nonprofit, listener-sponsored station in New York City owned and partially supported by the Pacifica Foundation.

For nine years, WBAI was the freaky, underground station, playing monoloques by Lenny Bruce that no other station would touch, broadcasting partisan, "movement" newscasts, scheduling regular programs for homosexuals, playing music by Richie Havens and the Incredible String Band years before these artists had broken into mass consciousness.

Bob Fass, who still does the all night show five nights a week on BAI, is one of the true originators of on-the-air personal rapping. Along with Paul Krassner and Abbie Hoffman, Fass founded the Youth International Party, otherwise known as the YIPPIES.

Presently there is an uneasy entente between FMU and BAI. WBAI is deeply involved in the "Movement" and features hours of rapping about the politics and the ideas coming out of the lower East Side. WFMU plays more music, is considerably looser, more spontaneous, less professional.

They're also honest, spontaneous, weird and irresistible. You have to listen all the time. By mid-summer, '68, WFMU was a habit for thousands of people - all kinds of people.

One night Vin Scelsa was talking, on the air, to a young lady who phoned to say she had just had a spinal operation but that she dug the station very much and Scelsa in particular.

Leonard Bernstein called the station one day to tell them he liked what was going on. Another time, listeners were asked, just in case the administration wasn't sure that enough people really liked what was going on, to send telegrams to the college expressing support for WFMU. Two hundred wires were received in four hours.

When the administration returned to the campus in September, they found free-form radio in full bloom and their quiet college station under the care of assorted dropouts, misfits, and professionals.

"We left a typical college radio station," explains Charles Lundgren, director of the college placement service and the man in whose name WFMU is licensed. "We returned to find something else."

Then there were the questions of propriety. The station was programming albums by the Fugs. They played a song by Steppenwolf containing the line "Goddamn the pusher man." Scelsa played a cut he had never heard with the phrase "Up against the wall motherfuckers!" And an outraged lady from New Jersey wrote to the FCC.

As the leaves began to fall from the campus maples, the administration was content to let things go on as they were. Their station seemed to have aquired this powerful cabal of an audience in three months, and many people were conscious for the first time of the name Upsala and it's location. The desire to see itself put on the map is real enough on the East Orange campus, and the hope is that free-form radio will be and intermediate stage to be replaced when certain grants are received and a "big-time department of communications" can be established.

There are still some reservations. Upsala's president, Dr. Carl Fjellman, sits in his office in Kenbrook hall, a building that, like many others on the campus, was once someone's mansion.

He says, "We want to give WFMU the maximum degree of freedom. It is the only radio station in East Orange and it appeals to a varied audience. However," he continues, "free form must not become synonymous with unplanned, it must be varied, not exclusive, active without making undue noise. Our first reaction is to live with it, and if it's good, to keep it."

It is only fitting that the WFMU broadcast day should end with Vin Scelsa. In the wee small hours when the lights are off, the house is dark, and the television has gone to sleep for the night, the all-night disc jockey is the last great despot. He has absolute power. People's lives are in his hands every night.

"Hold on, hold on, hold on," Scelsa is saying as he punches the lighted buttons on his phone. "Hold on what? You won't hold on? You're depressed. What is it you're depressed about?"

Scelsa is to be trusted with people's lives. In his shaggy black sweater with the rolled collar, baggy blue jeans that are constantly slipping beneath his fat stomach, and sagging brown moustache, he looks like the still point of the universe.

Free-form radio is partially his invention. Even now, he has the best feel for music on the station and was the first to get into and play records by Salloom, Sinclair and the Mother Bear, The Pentangle, Duncan Browne. He also plays things you are not likely to hear anywhere else, like the theme from Spin and Marty from the Mickey Mouse Club (entitled "Yippie-a, Yippie-o"), folk singer Buzz Linhart singing his own songs on tapes made in someone's home in East Orange of Bob Dylan singing songs that haven't been recorded, including "Gypsy Davy", and "Pastures of Plenty."

Scelsa's phones go all night. It may be Abbie Hoffman telling a fairy tale for children about spiked Yo-Yo freaks or recruiting bodies for his latest demonstration. Or someone claiming to be a warlock, uttering incantations designed to turn Scelsa into a toad.

Scelsa has all the time in the world, six hours a night, and in between Son House and the Ramblin' Jack Elliott records, he lets his brain ramble. One night, out of desperation, and curiosity, he held a presidential election. Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Harry Von Zell (the gentleman who introduced the thirty-first President of the United States on radio as "Hoobert Heever") received votes. "The Kid" no other identification, was the front-runner until someone called to say that the leading candidate had been kidnapped by Heironymus Bosch. The election was won by Flick, the boyhood pal of radio personality Jean Shepherd.

One Sunday on his Hour of the Duck, Lou D'Antonio spent an hour playing with some tapes, mainly doctored public-service announcements: "The Cancer Crusade presents Lawrence Welk..." Mr. Welk played champagne music for a while, then a mellifluous voice challenged: "Name cancer's seven warning signals," and a familiar voice ticked them off: "Spiro T. Agnew, Spiro T. Agnew, Spiro..."

In between a song about garbage and another one about sex and violence, the Navy Recruiting Service Band played rousing Sousa marches while The Duck led the studio audience in body exercizes: "Bend and-a stretch..." A new listener from South Jersey phoned to see if he could be of any help. "I just wondered if you knew you were on the air," he said.

Free-form radio has made demands on the budget. Before, FMU existed on three to four thousand dollars a year, a neat expenditure in the college budget.

Now it costs a thousand dollars a month to run the station. Last November, FMU began a two-week desperation marathon. Twenty-two thousand dollars was pledged. If half of that comes in, the station will go on being free-form for another year. The money will be used to pay operating costs, make the studios livable, and boost the station's power from the present 1,500 watts to 5,000 watts. The signal is now persecuted by a Spanish-language station that overmodulates and Fordham University with 50,000 watts of power.

But every night it gets out, bounced back by some mid-Manhattan skyscrapers, to be sure, but managing to slip into basements and lofts on the lower East Side and filter into dark suburban bedrooms on Long Island and New Jersey. Out there, in the night, the sounds coming from WFMU are driving hip fifteen and sixteen-year-olds crazy, turning on bearded schoolteachers, educating straights and making all the stoned people in New York happy.

For them WFMU is the most beautiful thing in the world.

POSTSCRIPT: WFMU's first blast of freeform lasted only a year and a half. Upsala College shut the station down several months after this article appeared, and it did not begin broadcasting again for another ten months. Once back on the air, it was with a new manager, a mostly new staff, and a different outlook. Things had changed. Fortunately, the process didn't stop there.

Prior to the station's closing in 1969, the staff buried a time capsule near the house where the studios used to be. The capsule is still there, but a parking lot now covers the spot.

WBCN and KSAN both went the way of just about every other commercial free-form station, which is to say downhill, fast, but WHFS retained a degree of integrity until a few years ago. Bob Fass can still be heard Saturday nights on WBAI, and Steve Post is Chairman Of The Board there, besides doing the weekday morning shift of WNYC-FM. Vin Scelsa is on Sunday mornings at K-ROCK, and every Wednesday afternoon at 4PM, a crotchety Lou D'Antonio barrels his way to the FMU microphone for The Hour of Duck, our longest running program.

Although we did have the chance to increase our wattage at the time this article appeared, the opportunity has since faded. During the early and mid '70's, with the station busy rebuilding itself, several other licenses were granted on the same or nearby frequencies, making it unlikely that the F.C.C. would grant us a power increase. But always remember - 10 good watts is better than 100,000 lousy ones. And we still got 1,500.

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