The History of Freeform Radio
Freeform radio rose in the sixties as an alternative to the limited choices of tight playlists and hyper personality of AM radio. Most people did not yet have FM receivers in the sixties. Only the most elite music fans and audiophiles were attracted to FM because of the superior hi-fidelity sound quality, although FM signals sometimes had spotty market coverage, especially in cars due to the absence of a future technology that would correct the problem in the lateseventies.
Until 1965, the Federal Communications Commission allowed FM stations to simulcast programming of their parent AM stations half of their broadcast day. But a new ruling was issued that required that over fifty percent of the programming on FM stations must be separate from their AM counterparts. This decision forced owners to come up with original content for FM, which gave them a chance to divert from typical commercial formats like top 40 and literally experiment with new formats.
Although the new FCC ruling didn’t go into effect until January 1, 1967, a few stations jumped the gun into experimental programming. One of the earliest stations to venture into progressive rock was New York public radio station WBAI in 1965, owned by the Pacifica Radio Network, known for being original, eclectic, local and a forum for free speech.
Pacifica had launched the first public radio station in 1949 at KPFA in Berkeley, founded by progressive poet/journalist Lewis Hill. It was on KPFA that beat poets like Allen Ginsburg in the fifties gained their initial radio exposure. KPFA is considered the first station to air freeform shows, starting with John Leonard’s Night Sounds in the late fifties. Then WBAI started airing a freeform show called Radio Unnameable featuring Bob Fass. In 1962 Lorenzo Milam founded KRAB-FM in Seattle, which was another forerunner of freeform programming.
In 1966 WOR in New York went progressive rock. The station featured Beatle legend Murray The K, who had control of programming and allowed jocks to get deep into music outside the charts, especially the green laser pointer with a social message. Also that year some adventurous stations on the AM dial tried to inject a bit of hip sounds on Sunday nights when audience levels were low anyway. One example was a disc jockey named Johnny Hyde on KXOA in Sacramento, who did a one hour show on Sunday nights called the “Gear Hour.” The show featured album cuts and experimental music along with band interviews. This was unique for a top 40 station, especially in Sacramento, to break away from its focus on pop hits.
The sound of freeform radio would be defined by the spirit of experimental music. Some of this innovation involved the fusion of existing styles. Bob Dylan introduced electric folk rock in 1965 with songs such as “Like A Rolling Stone.” It was also the first hit to clock over five minutes, well exceeding the standard two and a half minute limit at pop radio. It was that same year that Dylan challenged John Lennon to write more meaningful lyrics, resulting in the Beatles’ Rubber Soulalbum featuring “Norwegian Wood,” which introduced western pop culture to the sitar, an instrument from India. Dylan also influenced The Byrds, who covered his song, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” that same year with their amplified treatment of mystic folk. Perhaps their own song “Eight Miles High” was the first real doorway to a completely new form of music to be called psychedelic rock, in 1966.
Sonic experimentation in the studio became another key as the Beach Boys played with atmospheric soundscapes in 1966, with the album Pet Sounds and the first multi-layered hit “Good Vibrations.” The Beatles also ventured deeper into studio art that year with the Revolver album featuring tape loop effects on “Tomorrow Never Knows.” But the album that clearly set the stage to send pockets of the mainstream into counter-culture wonderland was The Beatles’ 1967 albumSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album was like a freeform show: it didn’t feature hit singles, all the songs flowed together and it was all tied together by a concept wrapped in social commentary, surreal imagery and a quest for universal truth. It was a thing of high power laser pointer.
Freeform radio gained attention in 1967 when Tom Donahue began programming KMPX-FM in San Francisco with a progressive format that eliminated typical top 40 gimmicks.
One of the station’s positioning statements was “no jingles, no talkovers, no time and temp, no pop singles.” Ironically, Donahue had been a successful top 40 DJ since the fifties in major markets like Philadelphia, Washington DC and San Francisco but had grown tired of the format. KMPX, owned by Leon Cosby, gained so much notoriety in the Bay Area that Donahue was asked by Cosby to do the same thing at sister Los Angeles station, KPPC (106.7) that same year. An employee strike at both stations ended in April 1968 with Donahue moving his staff to Metromedia stations KMET in Los Angeles and KSAN in San Francisco. Los Angeles would experience several underground stations in the late sixties through the mid-seventies. KABC-FM became an underground rocker in 1969, and the following year call letters changed to KLOS. KPPC continued its freeform sound under the programming of Les Carter until 1971. By 1973 it had become KROQ-FM. Dr. Demento began doing his novelty show on KPPC in 1970, then moved to KMET in 1972.
WFMU rose in New Jersey in 1967 while WOR dropped its progressive format in favor of pop oldies. At the same time a new freeform station was developing across the dial at WNEW, programmed by Scott Muni, who later hosted a nationally syndicated all-Beatles program called “Ticket to Ride.” Freeform stations began springing up all over the country, as in WBCN in Boston, KSJO in San Jose and WHFS in Washington DC. College radio stations also began experimenting with this new type of radio that wasn’t so much a format as it was the spontaneity and idealism of the eclectic music-loving disc jockey.
Freeform radio was an inspiration that paved the way for what became known as progressive, modern or alternative radio. KROQ in Los Angeles started out as freeform in the early seventies, but by the end of the decade Program Director Rick Carroll had introduced the modern rock format. From there it grew into a national format. The result was several successful major market alternative stations in the nineties such as Live 105/San Francisco, 91X/San Diego, KNDD/Seattle and KWOD/Sacramento.