Friday , April 12 2024
Original Underground Radio wasn't just entertainment. No sir. This was a freaking education on which a generation cut it's teeth.

Whatever Happened to Underground Radio?

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.

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.

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