Memories of WBRU
in the 1960s
Dear WBRU folk,
There’s no reason why you should remember me other than the fact that I was let on as some sort of an anomaly in 1969, for I was 16. Adam ‘Little Brother’ Blistein was also too young for university but he was indeed quite popular. I was in awe of the quality of Brown students, who got good course grades and still had time to repair transmitters, research and read the news, and cover elections. Brown medical students have been known to play jazz concerts from complex arrangement charts and I guess the university attracts the gifted and motivated. But despite having been snapped, unaware, through double-glass for a Brown Yearbook, I never submitted an application to the Registrar.
I only got through the Station door because I went to introduce myself to the PD of the day, inching some idealized playlists across the desk toward him. I was angrily shown the stairs and, while crawling down, a Mr Don Berns, ever on the ascent, pulled my ear back up again and placed me in the AM studio, where he showed me how the board worked. He was then a Brown graduate working on the echo-laden Top 40 WICE, but kindly instructed me: “It’s Easter Break, you’re off school and no one’s using this room so I want you to come in again through the week and practice.” Because young students have other callings during Spring Break, I did 19 hours in 1969 and was presented with The Broken Mike Award.
Eventually FM beckoned, when I wasn’t bunking school in the Providence Public Library, because a young lady rushed off from the main studio a bit unwell. So there was my chance. Ashamed to be heard by my mates, I used the name Cap’n Crunch. My only contribution to WBRU was initiating my mate John ‘Mad’ Peck’s Giant Jukebox, a real public-service-of-an-oldies-show, which ran for some years under various presenters. He’s perhaps most famous for his classic Providence poster but his warehouse still bulges with wit and his book of pioneering, critical music cartoons, Mad Peck Studios: A Twenty-Year Retrospective, is easily available on Amazon.
The penthouse portion of The House of Faunce was indeed a student atmosphere. At any moment some young man would press his bum against the glass just to throw someone like me off my copybook. And a clever engineer injected my headphones with the concurrent live Quad entertainment of Gordon MacRae’s microphone. At least it wasn’t Robert Goulet or, even worse to me, The Band.
Live copy spots were at one time the norm for us at WBRU, although some got out of hand. Once the copybook had a page advert for a boutique that stated: “the full line of Mary Quant cosmetics [that’s KWANT, do not say c*nt].” Needless to say, a few of us learned a lesson to pre-read our copy every time.
One aspect of the pre-consultant days of commercial WBRU was respectful mediation of the station’s sound with the needs of advertisers. As I recall in the early-and-mid 1970s, there was a limit on the number of adverts per hour, regardless of their duration, be they 15, 30, or 60-second spots. This prevented what commercial Top 40 scientist Bill Drake called, a decade earlier, ‘clutter’. That helped the listeners’ and WBRU’s aesthetic sensibilities. Beyond this, the spots themselves were scheduled with quarter-hour ‘protection’ barriers against any similar commercial enticement. I can remember breaking the news to a pair of hi-fi shop owners that their Woofer and Tweeter characters and dreadful script wouldn’t really work on progressive radio.
I sold WBRU advertising for one year, selling to landed gangsters’ offspring who paid, and nice, liberal young businessmen who never intended to. One huge new liquor supermarket, an innovation back then, wanted to go on air but there was a snag. Rhode Island laws prohibited the ‘enticing of the public’ toward the daemonic drink. You couldn’t lure people in any obvious way and certainly not by hawking low prices.
WBRU staff attempted very clever if low-keyed spots for some national brands, which unfortunately weren’t accepted. One was “Presenting The Wrangler Zipper Band,” during which five zips of various sizes and pitches syncopated to an open mic. Another was “The Dancing Bear, for Schlitz,” during which the bear did a :22 soft shoe, followed by the announcer again, twisting the beer company’s slogan of the day. It normally was “when your out of beer, you’re out of Schlitz,” but this time it became “when you’re out of beer, your full of Schlitz.”
Ladies at WBRU had it worse I do believe, as their public facilities were elsewhere, but the Gents was in the basement. I loathed playing long tracks because a variety of numbers could be spun in the same gap, but I could start a four-minute track and go for a pee, and be back for the next one. So far still spry, but today in the same situation I’d have to go for the extended mix.
Back when long album non-classical/jazz cuts were novel, popular ditties would come and go. I remember Bruce Briar declaiming on-mic that if one more person rang up to request, yet again, the Iron Butterfly’s In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida, he’d play it backwards. Of course he’d prepared it on reel-to-reel tape earlier and, sure enough… As I recall, reel tape and the splicing block gave WBRU the opportunity to play otherwise unbroadcastable music. John Lennon’s Working Class Hero (not!) had the sung line, “you’re all f*cking peasants as far as I can see.” And one clever dick re-recorded it with the word’s syllables reversed, from ‘f*cking’ to ‘ing-f*ck’, which still conveyed the meaning and tone of the great artist’s delivery without resorting to that dreadful bleep.
Some of you might recall the early 1970s programme in service to Rhode Island’s only prison, the Adult Correctional Institution (who says Americans have no sense of irony?). On a given weeknight the ACI Hour would spin requests for inmates in the joint, and of course their dedications too, mailed in because it was way before the era of mobile telecommunication. The state’s top legal and venal brute saw an easy target, and claimed that the dedications were coded messages to cause disruption behind bars. A perhaps apocryphal tale of the era had it that his same prison’s guards tried to get BB King or possibly Bo Diddley to go back to ‘his cell’ after a charity performance for the prisoners. To the station’s credit, the programme remained.
I recall a groovy programme with a breathy host, Jo’s World, that was unfortunately sponsored by the famous Providence Mafia, reportedly the original American version, with a state-full of race track slaves building them mansions. I remember talk that Jo wanted to stop doing the show but was not allowed to. Perhaps, after all this time (after all, Morris Levy died years ago) someone will submit a theory.
Music censorship played a part in the underground/progressive milieu everywhere and WBRU was no exception. The Last Poets’ first LP was quite a nose-opener, with tracks such as Niggers are Scared of Revolution and the equally truthful Black Thighs. This was strong stuff, aimed, not at white students but at African-American youth. And the jock spinning it regularly was the soft-spoken Roger Norton, a black brother who used the air name of J. Garrick the Flash. Providence’s African-American community wasn’t large enough to support a community newspaper for very long and never a radio outlet when there weren’t as many frequencies as there are now in that market. So WBRU was a bit of a miracle. Still, one day the station’s Washington DC lawyer pulled the station’s sleeve to the word that the FCC got a complaint about the Poets from…a white Rabbi, who thought it was offensive to black people. Double irony, the Nixon-appointed Ben Hooks of the NAACP was an FCC commissioner then. I later arranged his personal papers held at the Amistad Research Center, but although there was some rather racially pointed correspondence from adults of his generation complaining about the state of youth-oriented radio, with all that soul music, oh dear, there was no letter about the Last Poets.
Generally, the progressive stations I think had a problem with new black records, reinforcing the cliché that whites like black music only if it’s old and respectable. The lengthy 1969 manifesto by Ed Shane in Voices in the Purple Haze: Underground Radio and the Sixties, by Michael C. Keith (Praeger Press, 1997), is a glaring example of how white folks didn’t realise their judgement on black music really was warped and unfair. Imagine thinking the Watts 103rd St Rhythm Band wasn’t relevant enough! Imagine telling progressive presenters of the day not to play much James Brown, when he usually had something radical to say in his music. I remember in 1970 when about six black ten-year-olds, in varying degrees of Jacksonesque dress, entered the studio and immediately started perusing the record library. Being amused, I asked what they'd like to hear. One boy said, "Can you play some James Brown? You know who he is? He's a coloured chap."
The stitching together of sets was my favourite aspect of progressive radio. I would always leave the thematic or multi-version bits for other hosts. To me, the best thing to do was to link songs musically with a corresponding key or by way of an odd instrument as the mutual ingredient: organ, flute, 12-string acoustic guitar, congas/bongos, etc.
It was my intention to break Maria Muldaur’s Midnight at the Oasis, as I played it every morning for a whole summer. This was an exercise to counteract FM progressive radio’s standard practice of playing up to one-half of a new album’s tracks and thus diluting the effect of any single one. Also, I had thrilled to the Kweskin Jug Band a few years earlier and was pleased to be able to assist in her career. I like to believe that it had some influence regionally and broke out from there. My claim isn’t provable of course, but WBRU definitely broke some hits, perhaps most notably Jim Henson’s Rubber Duckie, thanks to the afore-mentioned Little Brother’s ear for a campy classic.
In 1973 I was doing Christmas Eve when an intended suicide rang up. I proceeded to ‘ignore’ this and gave him an half-hour lesson in how to run the studio board, what the programme log was, placing the phone near the cue speaker for that ‘you are there’ closeness, reading a sample of the record library, loudly turning the pages to get to the right advert, etc. If he topped himself in the end at least he didn’t ring back to let the station know. I took the point of that special night being emotionally problematic for some listeners and went out of my way to do late night on the 24th for another ten years, playing the astute Paul Payton’s non-ND material to keep things as pleasant as possible
In the end, Providence’s frequency licensees learned that the FM broadcast band was the one where dollars grew and so other rock stations emerged. Despite the low overhead of student and ex-student programmers, WBRU had debt, I suppose due to their 1972 upgrading to 50kw. I recall that Brown student radio had to climb down back to 20kw due to some rival and more moneyed technical challenge, even though the monkeys-in-the-copper-lined-laboratory story is believed by many, but the debt was not easy to recover against the backdrop of competition from several rock FMs. So I gather that in the early 1980s they were compelled to get a Godfather, Lee Abrams. Consultants are hired guns; they line their pockets no matter whether the fortunes of the hirers rise or fall, and they just step over the dead bodies on their way out of town. And they always live well and out of town, attend fund-raising dinners for pretend-Lefty Democrat candidates, and their cousins manufacture armaments.
After WBRU, I carried on with jazz-related programming on stations below 92FM. I presented jazz and vintage swing music, my particular niche, on either community beams or university FMs in Amherst, Chicago and New Orleans. Although I never had what it took for commercial radio, or the likes of WGBH, on typical non-coms I was a star due to lack of competition. Thanks to advice from my own quasi-uncle, the Providence jazz presenter Carl Henry, I set up a formula of vocals alternating with instrumentals; within this schematic the vocals would alternate male, female, group, and the non-vocal tracks would vacillate between big bands and small combos. This all went into the cupboard of memory in 1994 when I relocated to London. And although I’ve been on various BBC stations from time to time representing my employer, The British Library, I don’t miss what was, in the end, hardly my true calling.
Andy Simons, email@example.com