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Whatever Happened to Underground Radio?

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As someone who spends about ninety minutes (and 75 miles) a day commuting to and from work, the first thing I’ve noticed in these early days of 2006 is just how much I miss my old friends Howard Stern and Tom Leykis.

Both Stern and Leykis disappeared from Seattle’s airwaves toward the end of last year: Stern to the greener, less-censored pastures of Sirius Satellite radio;
Leykis to — just what Seattle needs — another station with a country format (“The Wolf”, which replaced Seattle’s “Radio for Guys” station “The Buzz”).

My commute hasn’t been the same since.

Because no matter what happened during the often chaotic and stressed out eight hours I spent punching the clock each day, it was always bookended by these two radio mavericks. Who I could count on to make me laugh out loud during the part of my day spent in Seattle’s infamous I-5 gridlock. No road rage behind this wheel with Howard or Leykis on the box, Jack!

These days, flipping the dial between the snoozy “Dave Matthews Radio” of 103.7 “The Mountain,” or the largely tuneless shrieking aggro crap found on KISW (or even our “alternative” station 107.7, The End), I’ve come to one inescapable conclusion: the state of Seattle radio sucks.

In fact, the state of radio in general sucks.

But as creative and unpredictable as Stern and Leykis could be, the bottom line is that these were, and are, two very smart men. The “Shock Jock” antics of each were (and are) as calculated and motivated by boosting both ratings and advertising revenues as those of the most sterile narrowcasting you can find on commercial radio.

But I’ll tell you what I miss. What I really miss is underground radio. Real underground radio.

Underground radio is most often identified with the psychedelic sixties, when FM stations previously associated with classical or high brow formats began to be taken over by counter-culture types (“hippies”) broadcasting a “free form” mix of radical politics and the acid rock of the day.

My first exposure to this, as a thirteen year old boy on one such station — Honolulu’s KPOI FM, Sunshine — was a revelation. Living in Hawaii, I actually would sleep in my backyard and listen to this station ’til the wee hours of the morning.

It was there I first discovered the long, psychedelic improvising of bands like Jefferson Airplane, played in sets uninterrupted by commercials or blathering DJs. These “sets” could last up to an hour. The amazing thing is that just as often as the laid back hippies would play the Airplane or Hendrix or whoever. You might just as likely get something from Miles Davis or John Lee Hooker.

The first time I heard Issac Hayes for instance? It wasn’t “Shaft” on Top 40 in the seventies like everybody else. It was eighteen freaking minutes of the most incredible, emotive, version of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” — a hit for Glen Campbell, of all people — on a late summer night in 1969 at about 3 a.m. on FM Sunshine. It’s from a brilliant, largely unnoticed album called Hot Buttered Soul. And it’s a cornerstone of my music collection to this day. For this thirteen year old, this wasn’t just entertainment. No sir. This was a freaking education. One where I, and many others of my generation, would cut our musical teeth.

It is, of course, a matter of both history and record that the free-form underground radio of the sixties eventually sold itself out to commercial interests, and morphed into the bloated (and restrictive) album rock format of today.

However, as anyone who has ever listened to true underground radio knows, it has never been simply about format. Underground radio is, and has always been, about an outlaw mentality.

Listening to true underground radio should give you a sense of something forbidden. That you have somehow accidentally stumbled across something a little off the beaten path that you weren’t supposed to find at all. Something that could be dangerous. Something that, at the very least, is probably really pissing off somebody somewhere in a position of authority.

Those strange religious stations, crackling with static, that you might happen across travelling a dusty back road in the Deep South? You know the ones I’m talking about. Where you might hear a preacher performing a live exorcism or something? I would actually classify that as true underground radio.

I took a vacation back in the late eighties with a buddy of mine to Florida where we drove all the way up to the tip of the Keys at the outermost edge of the state. It felt like we we’re driving out towards the edge of the world itself. And on the radio? A bizarre mix of Cuban communist propaganda, the aforementioned religious snake handlers, and some great dance, house, and hip-hop nonstop mix shows.

Underground heaven.

Heavy metal and hip-hop fans back in the late eighties, frustrated at what was then a lack of airplay for both genres, found refuge on both pirate stations run out of garages by fans, and at college radio. Since then, both rap and metal have become successful commercial radio formats. Not coincidentally, each musical genre has lost much of its original edge and originality in the process.

Probably the last great example of true underground radio was the original talk radio show, Dreamland, hosted by Art Bell on Sunday nights during the early nineties. Although the show was syndicated nationwide to hundreds of commercial stations during its peak, its weird timeslot and often oddball subject matter gave it a classic, dangerous underground feel.

Opening each Sunday night to the mysterious, otherworldly bumper music of obscure new age band Cusco, for three hours Art Bell explored the fringes of weirdness. Art Bell delved head first into topics ranging from UFOs to government conspiracies to apocalyptic Earth changes.

This was, of course, not without risk. Bell’s show was widely rumored to be routinely surveilled by various shadowy government spooks. Never mind that Bell himself did much of the rumor-circulating.

It has also been suggested that the mass suicide of the early nineties Heavens Gate UFO cult was inspired, at least in part, by Art Bell’s broadcasts about a UFO said to be shadowing the comet Hale-Bopp at the time.

Art Bell’s show eventually developed a massive nationwide audience and Bell himself became something of a cult celebrity, appearing on several paranormal TV shows. Then he suddenly quit. Now how underground is that?

Today, the show goes on as AM Coast To Coast with current host George Noory covering much the same topics for a nationally syndicated audience, but lacking the dangerous, classic “underground” feel of the original.
Art Bell himself still hosts the occasional show.

Most recently, on the Sci-Fi Channel’s fictional mini-series Taken, about four generations of families abducted by UFO aliens, a character clearly inspired by Bell, leads a caravan of radio listeners to stand against an army of the usual government and military types out to stop a first contact with an alien species.

Now that’s underground.

Underground radio is today, for the most part, dead and buried. Still, there are some signs of life out there. Stern, newly free of both the constraints of corporate advertisers and the reach of an ever vigilant FCC (thanks to Janet Jackson’s boob), has taken his act to commercial-free Sirius Satellite Radio.

Meanwhile for those of us without satelite radio, there’s always the ever-present narrowcasting of commercial radio.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • Jeff

    Underground radio? Howard Stern?

    The real history of underground radio was the early days of FM. Low watt college stations like WGTB (Georgetown U.) who could call up a protest in an hour, play “cutting edge” music in many genre’s it was wonderful stuff.

    Howard Stern in a come-along, shock jock. Either your definitions are skewed, or you are way to young to know what underground radio really was until commercialization and NPR blather filled its shoes.

  • Of course, I realize that guys like Stern and Leykis are not representative of true “underground radio”…and i think I made a very clear point of that.

    What they do represent is the closest thing there is to the spirit of underground in this era of fragmentation and narrowcasting.

    Guys who make the kind of money Stern and Leykis make could never be called truly underground. But if we have to settle for “illusion” nowadays, they do a pretty good job of passing themselves off as outlaws.

    I’ll take what I can get.

    And just for the record…I’ll be fifty in May.

  • Jeff

    Why settle for illusion?

    The closest we can expect in this day and age (to underground) radio is the internet. Except that it is not local, you are not tuned into what is happening locally, nor can you react at a local level.

    To have experienced underground radio and it’s impact on the protest of the Vietnam war, counterculture, non main-stream arts and music, was really something to behold. It was a passion, not an enterprise. It was borne out of love, not commodity or profit. It was totally different than what can be imagined if the likes of Stern is being used as the standard. He doesn’t even come close.

    Where was Stern during those halcyon days of protest? I think he was on the air somewhere, he’s certainly old enough. That would be an interesting report. Was he an underground radio jock at a college somewhere?

  • Ozzy

    Isaac Hayes Hot Buttered Soul was some greasy chicken. Whew, that took me back. But you’re right. I can remember, late at night tuned into to the local underground station. We lived 8 miles away from a college. 10 miles out and you couldn’t pick it up. There was some really good music coming out back then. The old J.J. Cale stuff was innovative, Some Dead, Miles Davis, an ecclectic mix. And I too, have a rather off-the-wall music collection because of it.

    Wow. Jeff made a couple of good points, he’s hung up on the Stern lead in, which does not typify the rest of the piece. I see where he’s coming from.

    For those who can’t picture the era. Let me set the tone. We still had a Black and White T.V., we had an AM radio in the kitchen. We cooked oatmeal for breakfast, not minute oats or packages of instant oatmeal. Coffee was perked, not dripped. White bread (Wonder Bread) was standard fare. Levi’s came in one style, flannel shirts were bought at Montgomery Wards in a 3-pack. And late nights were either Johnny Carson on the tube or underground radio back in the bed room, listening to obscure ethnic blends of percussion, alto sax and standup bass… maybe a Flora Purim cut or two….

    That was life in the late ’60s… Vietnam, the Space Race, the Cultural Revolution scaring the hell out of everyone… Divorce was a hushed secret… abortion wasn’t even considered a topic of discussion…. that era was like a walk down a dark alley in a heavy ‘hood.

    Nice piece, jumpstarted my memory. Thanks.


    Radio was once a wonderful place to be, alas, no more.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    All the guys in underground radio discovered respectability and bills and sold out. You can only last so long on coffee, hash and pizza.

  • Hot Buttered Soul was some greasy chicken indeed…I wish I’d thought of that line while I was writing this piece. :>D

  • Wait, wait, wait. You’re in Seattle? So you’ve got KEXP, one of the best radio stations in America. That’s not underground radio?

  • I agree, KEXP is a very good station. Hell, I was a DJ there back when it was still KCMU. But it’s still not quite there in terms of the spirit of original underground radio…at least in my opinion. Too much of a generally “politically correct” overtone…which in my mind is just another way of playing it safe (albeit a somewhat more adventurous way).

  • Plug Alert

    always underground always interface

    End PLug Alert

  • Glen, this is very good stuff.

    I suggest the new underground radio is podcasting. Some podcasting is shit but then so was some of the underground radio.

  • Thanx DJ.

    In terms of content, I’d be the first to agree about Internet radio. I’ve checked out a fair ammount of Internet broadcasts, and have come across some pretty interesting stuff. Being a fan (as I noted in the piece) of the old Art Bell show…I particularly like some of the wilder frimge talk on Internet radio (the oddball political extremists, apocalyptic evangelists,conspiracy theorists and the like).

    I guess my only major complaint there would be the lack of mobility. Handheld devices and the like aside…you can’t really take a 60 gig hard drive with a broadband connection with you on a camping trip to some remote outpost. Which can be the best backdrop for hearing a broadcast with a truly “underground” feel.

    By the way, I haven’t checked out BC radio yet, but definitely plan to. When I get the interview with Neil Young I’m currently working on…let me know if you guys can use any of what I get on tape too. Happy to oblige there if need be.

  • JimV in Toronto

    Interesting post and comments… I too have been lamenting the sorry state of radio for oh, going on 25 years now (lol).. the danger and the adventure is gone and has been for a long, long time.
    Why” Because radio is programmed by people who are separated from their audience; they have no feel for the vibe. AND.. radio is hosted by people who don;t know or love music: they are simple tlaking heads: no opinions and zero imagination… it’s a job.

    I tearn for the days of in the early 70’s (lol) listening to Montreal’s legendary CHOM-FM, where people like Doug Pringle and Earl Jive and Reiner Schwartz explored music that they loved, and spoke of it in English AND in French and it truly was the “spirit of Montreal/l’esprit de Montreal”… damn, damn , damn…
    I have solved it partially to my satisfaction with internet radio, listening to a select few stations and occasionally LOVING it so much, but as noted baove, tied to my desk..
    I thought of satellite radio, tried it (blah), and ultimately settled on a 60GB iPod and loaded that sucker with about 2,000 CD’s worth of music. Hardwired to my car radio or plugged into my home audio system on random, it’s fantastic, altho, damn.. I miss the intelligent talk of music, of exploration, of considered opinions and people with respect for the intelligence of their audience… oh I miss it so…

  • Yeah, in the seventies we had the fantastic Radio Caroline, broadcasting in glorious AM from a boat in the North Sea. Great radio, loaded with album cuts by artists that I discovered as an early teenager thanks to them. This was, like, 1972-1974. Of course, what made it even more interesting was that they were a real pirate station. Unfortunately, those days are gone. It’s all about the bucks now.

    I work in music research for radio and have to say that a lot of stations play it safe because: a) they only test a certain number of songs and therefore don’t dig deep enough to find more interesting songs, b) they want to target a narrow audience – one that advertisers want – but forget that there are more roads leading to Rome than they imagine, c) the Jack or Bob FM format is about as far as commercial stations are willing to go because station owners believe that the Jack format is broad. Of course it isn’t. It’s still pretty narrow and focuses mainly on 35-44 year olds.

    I’m convinced, with the proper research, gut feeling and creativity, that there are possibilities for a successful format that reaches beyond the Jack format, that is more underground than anything heard on the radio in the past twenty or so years, and will blow the so-called Modern Rock and Alternative stations away.

    BTW, I’m not writing this to promote my business. Just wanted to express my feelings… Chao!

  • Ron Bay

    I, too, wonder what happened to “Underground Radio”….I’m talking WAAAAAYYY back to such things as the “Night Creature Feature” on “Your’s truly KOMA …Mighty pretty in Okalahoma City” (abt 1958}…but more improtantly, as you said, KPOI=FM..specifically the Summer of 1967, in Honolulu….Now that was some good sounds..minimal/no commercials, Country Joe, Jimi, The Airplane, Doors, all comin’ at ya in then-innovative FM-stereo , down in the “Jungle” (Waikiki, Ohua & Paokalani areas), late nite/all nite…then “Harvey’s Corner” later on… Ahhhh, for the good ole days!!!!!

  • kristina

    KEXP is good radio, but it’s not underground.