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Mavericks of the Airwaves

Thirty years ago, FM trailblazers fought back when corporate types tried to replace them.

March 05, 1998|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With all the radio station format and ownership changes in recent years, imagine if, with one of them imminent, the staff of the station--say the old KMET-FM before it became the Wave, or KSCA-FM (101.9) before it switched from adult alternative music to Mexican tunes--said, "Hell, no, we won't go," and staged a strike.

It's hard to conceive in this age of $100-million station deals and six-figure contracts for many deejays. For all the staff and fan outcry that accompanied each change, the transitions were ultimately made smoothly.

But 30 years ago this month, a change brought about a much more dramatic response. On March 18, 1968, the staffs of both Pasadena-based KPPC-FM and its San Francisco sister station, KMPX-FM--the two original "underground" FM stations under the guidance of Tom Donahue--took to the streets to protest their owner's plans to replace the "long-haired hippies" who pioneered the format with "professionals."

Fans and musicians alike joined the pickets, who branded themselves the Amalgamated American Federation of International FM Workers. The Jefferson Airplane, the Doors and Buffalo Springfield, among others, performed at benefit concerts in L.A. for the strikers, while the Grateful Dead performed in the street outside the San Francisco facility. The Beatles and Rolling Stones each sent letters of support.

"You felt like you were in the heart and soul of something, right in the center of something exciting that was happening," says Susan Carter, whose husband, Les, was one of KPPC's original deejays and later became its program director.

Carter, who now writes for TV drama series (she partnered with Les in that venture before his 1996 death), was just out of her teens in 1968, and recalls that, as with much of the social protest of the time, it felt like they were changing the world.

"I remember being backstage at the benefit, and because the Doors and people like that were giving support, it gave a sense that we were going to accomplish something," she says. "Or at least we were all going to continue to have jobs."

It didn't work out that way. Ownership never did give in to the strikers.

But it did prove to be a fulcrum in the evolution of FM radio. Before this, FM was the home largely of classical and specialty programming, or merely a second outlet through which AM owners could simulcast their broadcasts. But in 1965 the Federal Communications Commission brought an end to the latter practice, restricting AM/FM simulcasts. At the same time, pop music was outgrowing the confines of AM Top 40.

Bay Area radio veteran Donahue seized on the opportunity and in 1967 convinced Lee Crosby, owner of both KPPC and KMPX, to let him bring the new sounds to his FM outlets. Soon Donahue installed a staff of radio rebels in the Pasadena Presbyterian Church basement home of KPPC, with B. Mitchell Reed as program director. And despite a very poor signal, the outlet became the hip frequency in the region.

"The signal sucked, but word got out through the industry," says Ted Alvy, who served as Reed's producer and is now writing two books dealing with the region's underground radio. "People would string antennas and wires and things to try to figure out how to get it. And we'd have people like Derek Taylor [the Beatles' and Byrds' press representative], and if anyone was in town, a Beatle or one of the Dead, they'd come by."

That response and cultural presence was enough to convince the radio world that there might be something to this new style of radio. Soon it was taken up by--and co-opted by, to some perspectives--the corporate radio world. After the strike, KPPC veterans such as Reed eventually were hired by Metromedia for KMET in a largely successful attempt to bring the radical elements into the mainstream.

But Raechel Donahue, Tom's wife and a longtime L.A. radio presence on KMET, KROQ-FM (106.7) and several others, says that whatever magic existed with KPPC and KMPX couldn't translate to the more formalized situation.

"It wasn't long before Metromedia was buying us psychedelic wallpaper in the name of hipness," she recalls. "We had a neighborhood kid come in and paint over it."

The last gasp, arguably, came three years later, again at KPPC. Though having beat the strikers, the owners ultimately returned to some of them to run the station.Les Carter became program director in 1970, with his wife (under the name Miss Outrageous Nevada) among the deejays. Others, who cite this incarnation as a key part of their resume, include Dr. Demento, the Credibility Gap (a satire troupe that included Harry Shearer and Michael McKean) and the Firesign Theatre.

But once again, it was not to have a long tenure. In 1971, word got out that the entire staff was to be fired, and the deejays barricaded themselves in the studio (now at a different Pasadena location), only to have law enforcement personnel brought in to pull the plug and oust the rebels.

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