Champion of Free-Form Radio Dies at 83
’His dyspeptic morning show helped make WBAI-FM in New York a vibrant, eccentric, alternative radio haven. “I was the first angry man in morning radio,” he said.…’
— via The New York Times
WBAI was purchased by philanthropist Louis Schweitzer, who donated it to the Pacifica Foundation in 1960 The station, which had been a commercial enterprise, became non-commercial and listener-supported under Pacifica ownership.
The history of WBAI during this period is iconoclastic and contentious. Referred to in a New York Times Magazine piece as “an anarchist’s circus,” one station manager was jailed in protest. The staff, in protest at sweeping proposed changes of another station manager, seized the studio facilities, then located in a deconsecrated church, as well as the transmitter, located at the Empire State Building. During the 1960s, the station hosted innumerable anti-establishment causes, including anti-Vietnam war activists, feminists (and live coverage of purported bra-burning demonstrations), kids lib, early Firesign Theater comedy, and complete-album music overnight. It refused to stop playing Janis Ian’s song about interracial relationships “Society’s Child”. Extensive daily coverage of the Vietnam war included the ongoing body count and innumerable anti-war protests.
WBAI played a major role in the evolution and development of the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s. Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” was first broadcast on Radio Unnameable, Bob Fass’ freeform radio program on WBAI, a program which itself in many ways created, explored, and defined the possibilities of the form. The station covered the 1968 seizure of the Columbia University campus live and uninterrupted. With its signal reaching nearly 70 miles beyond New York City, its reach and influence, both direct and indirect, were significant. Among the station’s weekly commentators in the 1960s were author Ayn Rand, British politician/playwright Sir Stephen King-Hall, and author Dennis Wholey. The 1964 Political conventions were “covered” satirically on WBAI by Severn Darden, Elaine May, Burns and Schreiber, David Amram, Julie Harris, Taylor Mead, and members of The Second City improvisational group. The station, under Music Directors John Corigliano, Ann McMillan and, later Eric Salzman, aired an annual 23-hour nonstop presentation of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, as recorded at the Bayreuth Festival the year before, and produced live studio performances of emerging artists in its studios. Interviews with prominent figures in literature and the arts, as well as original dramatic productions and radio adaptations were also regular program offerings.
Listener-supported in a way that makes a mockery of NPR, WBAI ran relentless fund-raising “marathons” with wonderful premiums for those who donated. (I was a high school student, would that I had any money at all to give them!) On one occasion, one of the hosts (it may have been any of the three curmudgeons) started playing a recording of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” on repeat, insisting it would not be stopped until their fundraising goal had been met. Couldn’t listen, but couldn’t turn it off.
(Note: WBAI’s programming is streamed here.)