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New Orleans '61 (The journey begins)

1961 was a productive year for me. In January and September, I made two trips out of New York for Riverside Records, both of which remain remarkably fresh in my memory as I look back on my career. My aim was to capture before it was too late, performances by veteran jazz and blues artists who were still active. In this, the first of two posts, I reminisce about New Orleans, where Audio engineer Dave Jones and I made 12 albums in one week.

The recording trek was not something I had proposed, but it was right in line with my own goals—I had already produced sessions by Lonnie Johnson and Elmer Snowden, so this was a perfect continuation. I think Bill Grauer came up with the idea when Herb Friedwald, an attorney with a jazz passion and father-to-be of Will, offered to sell Riverside recent tapes by Kid Thomas and Peter Bocage. A hopeless romantic, Bill saw his label carrying on the field recording practices of old. Of course, Orrin Keepnews was less enthused and I don't think he was happy about me doing the a&r, but Bill called the shots. Besides, Orrin's studio schedule for that week included sessions by Cannonball and others whose names surely attracted more attention than an obscure bunch of New Orleans old-timers. Perhaps I'm being unfair to Orrin, but he always gave me the impression that I was stepping on his turf, and I think he proved me right a couple of months after New Orleans, when he intruded on my Ida Cox sessions.

So, on a wintry Friday night in January, as thousands of celebrants flocked to John F. Kennedy’s inaugural and even more were left snowbound and with unusable tickets, Dave Jones and I boarded his old van and headed into a New York snowstorm, going south. Given the weather conditions, this was not something reasonable people would do and I must confess to having been a somewhat reluctant passenger. However, about a month earlier, two large passenger planes, a United Airlines jet and a TWA Constellation, had a mid-air collision, strewing wreckage and bodies upon Brooklyn and Staten Island. That crash was still generating headlines when, on the eve of our departure, a Mexican DC-8 crashed into Rockaway Beach Boulevard and burst into flames. Flying was not an attractive option.

I haven’t seen Dave Jones in many years, but I hope he is still around and doing well. No stranger to the music that brought us together for this trip, Dave had recorded Gene Mayl’s Dixieland Rhythm Kings and a George Lewis group in Ohio during the mid-Fifties, and sold or leased the tapes to Riverside. When it turned out that we could not do studio sessions in New Orleans, Bill Grauer thought Dave would be just the right man for the project, and he was so right.

There were no seat belts back then, but we sure could have used them as Dave raced down the icy roads, afraid to slow down lest that might send us into a skid. We did not skid, nor did we stop for more than a quick cup of coffee, refueling, and to take two steps into Florida on Sunday morning, when we found ourselves within walking distance of its northern border. We had by then left the snowstorm behind, but even the “Sunshine State” had frost on the ground that winter.

We arrived in New Orleans that afternoon and headed straight for a rented apartment that awaited us in the French Quarter. It had the look of a Tennessee Williams set, complete with a courtyard from which well-worn wooden steps led to a well-worn balcony and a very lived-in residence. Stella wasn’t there for us to yell at, but, all the same, we saw her standing at the top of the steps. Herb Friedwald was our New Orleans contact, the man who found the picturesque apartment and the perfect recording location, a hall owned by the Societé des Jeunes Amis. He also alerted the jazz community to the project and set up the most remarkable audition on the day of our arrival. Although he really did a great job of laying the groundwork for the project, I vaguely recall his attitude towards me growing a bit frosty, if not hostile, after I returned to the New York office. I think he believed that Bill should have hired him for the project rather than assign it to me. If so, I can understand how he felt and admire even more the graciousness with which he veiled his disappointment. As I recall, Herb did not attend any of the sessions, which I thought was odd, at the time, but I later surmised a reason.
Kid Thomas posing for my camera 1/61

When we arrived in New Orleans, I had not yet decided how many sessions we would do and I carried in my pocket only a tentative list of the artists I wanted to record. Bill Grauer, who all but slept with Paramount 78s under his pillow, was very excited about this project but, typically, stayed out of it and generously left it up to me to decide its scope. It didn’t take me long to see that traditional jazz—although slightly bruised by time—still thrived in the old city. It soon became clear to me that I wouldn’t have to scrounge to find active veterans. I knew that some of them were no longer playing on any regularly basis, and that had thus let their union membership run out, so I had the good sense to call the American Federation of Musicians before leaving New York and request special dispensation to record anybody, regardless of membership status. Henry Zaccardi, the Federation's second in command understood my concern and the importance of preserving this music, so the rules were suspended. As it turned out, the recordings generated sufficient interest in some of the artists to warrant their catching up on their dues.

Having checked out that incredible apartment, we headed for North Robertson Street and dropped Dave's equipment off at the Jeunes Amis hall. Then we followed Herb to a former furniture store on Royal Street, where the powerhouse sound of Kid Thomas’ Algiers Stompers greeted us, full blast.
I immediately added Thomas to my to-do list of artists and, as one group after another gave me goosebumps, that list grew and it became clear that we would be doing several albums. Technical imperfections? Sure, but if the music is honest and from the heart, I'll take the occasional missed note any day over the unemotional stuff Wynton dishes out with flawless technique. No clinker can mar a sound so spirited—I was blown away by everything I heard that afternoon and evening, ready to equate New Orleans with that mythical cul-de-sac some call “heaven.”

Societé Des Jeunes Amis hall entrance
I spent Monday morning making calls and creating a recording schedule while Dave headed for the hall to set up the equipment. The original plan had been to do this the conventional way and rent a studio, but we learned that New Orleans, for all its delights, was still cursed by racism and segregation laws, so—not yet knowing who we would be recording, it behooved us to find a suitable location. Herb steered us right when he suggested renting the Societé des Jeunes Amis hall. It was a wood-framed 19th century black Creole fraternal headquarter and it proved to have every advantage over a studio; apart from its live sound, it gave the performers familiar surroundings, a place where all had played over the years. Back then,they had no problem climbing to the balcony band area, but in 1961, the ground floor was the right spot.

The hall's acoustical sound was exactly what I wanted to recapture: the same kind of ambience that lent such character to Bill Russell’s 1940’s American Music recordings from San Jacinto Hall. This was also the sound I had sought to emulate in a suburban Copenhagen ballroom seven years earlier, when Ken Colyer, Chris Barber and Lonnie Donegan played into my B&O tape machine.

I scheduled the first two New Orlean sessions for Tuesday, January 24, so Dave spent a good part of the previous day in the hall, wiring up the equipment.
Engineer Dave Jones setting up his equipment.
I took a couple of pictures as he placed a group of chairs in a semi-circle around an electronic jumble that, frankly, did not inspire confidence: two Ampex tape decks, spring-mounted on steel supports and surrounded by a confusion of unenclosed instrument panels, tangled cables, and electrical tape. As Dave began hooking it all up, I wondered how good the sound would be, but I need not have had any concern, for he was a master at location recording. He offered even further proof of that five months later, when he used the same equipment to make the highly acclaimed Vanguard recordings with the Bill Evans Trio.

Dave Jones' "control room." and floor model
Ampex decks. He used the same equipment
to record Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard.
Dick Allen of the Tulane Jazz Archive.
Our initial session featured trombonist Jim Robinson’s band, with trumpeter Ernest Cagnolatti and clarinetist Louis Cottrell completing the front line. Cottrell, a student of the truly legendary Lorenzo Tio, was also the head of the black musician's union. Yes, in 1961 New Orleans still had race-based unions! So did Philadelphia, but for a different reason. As a union official, Louis Cottrell cooperated in every way, but it was his playing that impressed me most—so much that I put him down for two trio albums. Our initial Robinson session was Cottrell's first recording since 1936, when he cut some Vocalion sides with Don Albert's big band. Robinson was well known for his post-war work with Bunk Johnson and George Lewis. Bill Grauer had heard him in 1945, with Bunk at New York's Stuyvesant Casino, and most truly moldy Collector types were aware of the 1927 Sam Morgan Jazz Band sides he participated on. Did he recall those sides? Yes, he remembered the sessions, but not the music. I was disappointed, because I had wanted the band to record at least one tune from the Morgan date. Noting that, Dick Allen (pictured here), then Associate Curator of the Tulane Jazz Archives, brought a tape of Morgan recordings to our final session, which again featured Robinson's band.

Having the old recordings gave Dave Jones a great idea. With the band in position and the microphones live, Dave played Morgan's Bogalusa Strut from speakers he had placed behind them. Instruments in hand, Jim and the band listened as the thin, dated sound of the 33 year old recording echoed in the old hall. George Guesnon picked up some chords on his banjo, Jim's had déjà vu written all over his face when that glimmer of recognition lit up his eyes and he raised the trombone to his lips. Slowly, he brought those slides of old into the present and, one by one, the pieces of a puzzle were assembled. I won't even try to describe in words the feeling that came over me when the entire band suddenly burst into full bloom and drowned out the old recording. It was a one-time-only experience, but Dave had captured it all in stereo.

Robinson, Cagnolatti, Cottrell and Guesnon enjoy a playback.
When we heard the playback, we agreed that this wonderful transition had to be included on the album. Sad to say, it wasn't. Columbia Records would not grant us permission to reproduce even that snippet of their Morgan recording, and my close association with that label was a few years in the future. I bet that tape is collecting dust in the Concord vault.

I will eventually get to some of the other wonderful musicians who gave this series life, the Humphrey brothers, Willie and Percy, Billie and Dede Pierce, Kid Thomas, Peter Bocage, who was not very complimentary in his recollections of Buddy Bolden, Sweet Emma Barrett, who jingled her bells and ended up in Glamour magazine. I will also be posting about Bill Russell, the man who really brought us the New Orleans revival of the 1940s, a truly eccentric and interesting man. In 1961, Bill had a little record shop in New Orleans, where he also repaired violins and filed down bumpy LPs. He deserves his own post, so expect that.

One of the bass players, McNeal Breaux, a cousin of Wellman Braud, Duke's bassist, owned a restaurant and invited Dave and me to have dinner there, but we had to enter through the back door, because of our color—by law, we were not allowed to be there at all. One night, I offered to give Homer Eugene a ride home, but when he saw that I was calling a cab, he told me that riding with me would be against the law—a black woman could take a cab with a white baby, but that's as far as that went. Incredible. On a phone call to the office, I told Bill Grauer how cooperative Louis Cottrell and the union people had been. "Take them out to dinner," Bill said. He was as naïve as I had been a couple of days before. I ended up having food and drinks brought in by a caterer, which was much better, anyway.

I could go on about this trip, but let me just say that it was a short but extraordinary chapter of my life. Dave and I didn't have time to enjoy the city, except for a couple of breakfast trips to the docks and a visit with Sidney Bechet's brother.

When I returned to New York, I immediately got busy compiling the albums and editing the tapes. I was doing that when Nesuhi Ertegun gave me a call and asked if I would allow him to hear some of the music. I was delighted, but not surprised that he showed that much interest in traditional New Orleans jazz. He came over and stayed for a few hours, totally immersed in the sounds. Not long thereafter, Neshui sent someone to New Orleans to record more of it, but, of course, for his Atlantic label. That delighted me, too, and I was especially glad that Atlantic included marching bands, which was something I should have done. Apropos parades, the great Alphonse Picou passed away four days after I left the city, so I missed one of the grandest of all funeral parades. Picou was a powerful influence on jazz inits early stages, a man who played with the greatest and was himself on that level. He is probably best known for having created what long since has become the standard High Society clarinet solo. Cottrell told me that Picou had a horse and buggy that transported him to his gigs. He often had too much to drink, but it was not a problem, because they just had to lift him into his buggy—the horse knew the way home.

As for my own ride home, I decided to fly.

I will soon be posting my account of the follow-up trip that yielded the Chicago: The Living Legends series. It was a very different experience, I had left the label so I was doing this project freelance and more for love than money. Riverside was beginning to feel the pinch that soon brought this great label down. Sometime it doesn't pay to do things on the cheap and this was one of those times, as—I am sorry to say—the resulting albums painfully prove. Once again, I met wonderful people and heard great music, but—as far as the recordings are concerned—the New Orleans experience was heaven to Chicago's hell. I'll tell you all about it.

Finally, I have at last figured out how to get some sound into this blog, other than borrowed ones (like the excerpts from my Bill Evans show, which others had posted on YouTube). I wanted to include a sample of the New Orleans recordings, so here is Jim Robinson's Jeunes Amis Blues. I had to throw together a video and upload it to YouTube in order to embed it here. There must be an easier way to post audio. However, this seems to work well so expect to hear (and see) more here, as it were.

Remember, clicking on the images above will enlarge them. Clicking once on the image below will start the show, but clicking again will bring you to YouTube—and then you're on your own.


The Armstrong file (Contract changes)

Here is more from the Armstrong file folder. George Avakian sees Louis's career getting ready to bloom again and wants Columbia to get a piece of the action. With talk of a film based on Louis's life (Hollywood actually never got around to it—which is probably a good thing), he wants to secure him contractually and quickly, thus prevent his working with Bing Crosby in another movie, High Society. The second memo is about contract changes. Notice that item 2 refers to "78 rpm sides"—and this is 1956. Click on the letters to make them readable.

Next comes a letter from Joe Glaser, who returns a note Avakian sent him, It is from a German fan and one wonders what was so special about it; Louis received a lot of fan mail from all over the world, but George thought this one worthy to be forwarded. Am I missing something? Was Ingie Dagmar Fuelle someone whose name I should recognize? No Google results. The February 6, 1956 memo from Avakian shows ongoing concern over Decca's rights.

Finally, there is a hand-written note on economic feasability and the Decca situation, addressed to Avakian from Jim Conkling, the President of Columbia Records. Must not have had a typewriter—and what is that "L" signature?

As we move on, you will probably find this correspondence more interesting.


The Armstrong file (How about them Yankees)

Here is a continuation of the Armstrong file correspondence, which is mainly between his producer, George Avakian, and his manager, Joe Glaser. In subsequent posts, Goddard Lieberson will also figure. He was the head of CBS Records. Click on the letters to make them readable.

I will let the letters speak for themselves...

In retrospect, we have to wonder if the good Reverend was given the answers beforehand.
From the October 26, 1955 edition of the NY Times.


The Armstrong File: Correspondence - Part I

This is another in a series of posts in which we dip into the remarkable Armstrong file folder that popped up in my mail forty years ago. You will find details of that postal miracle at the other end of this link.

Letters and interoffice memos make up the bulk of the file folder’s contents. They offer an interesting peek into behind-the-scenes activity in the mid-Fifties, a time when new audiences were discovering Armstrong and his playing could still be quite extraordinary. The letters show how fragile the relationship between Columbia and Joe Glaser was, and give an occasional glimpse of flavor of the times. They also reflect business diplomacy, which become especially apparent when we get to the inter-office memos.

There are too many letters and memos to post them all, so I have decided to select the more interesting ones and group them in a way that makes sense, while maintaining the chronology.

Here we get a good idea of why so many musicians were not able to retire to a house with swimming pool and room for a pony.

This was at the time when the Columbia Record Club was launched. The 98¢ record mentioned may have been a part of that.

I should point out that Ed Sullivan's weekly offering of music, juggling and standup was a CBS show, so it was all in the family. The This Is Jazz show George refers to in the second letter was a late-Forties jam session kind of thing conducted by Rudi Blesh. Does anybody recall what the "celebrated wisecrack" George Brunies made was? UPDATE: Jeff Crompton posted the answer here. Thank you, Jeff

Finally, there is this from Glaser. I wonder if he ever learned how to spell Ahmet Ertegun's name, and why his offer was turned down. The NY Times clippings are just fillers, a couple of 1947 photos from Rudi's aforementioned This Is Jazz show, and a sad dog story.

The chronology continues here.


WBAI: What the hell happened to it?

In 1960, when I moved to New York from Philadelphia, I remembered the station André Westendorp had spoken of, tuned in, and was quickly won over as a regular listener. Soon thereafter, I went a step further and became a WBAI volunteer. Organizations like Pacifica rely heavily on volunteers and WBAI served as a great square one for anyone wanting to get into broadcasting. Of course, I had already been there, done that, so the attraction for me was Lew Hill’s open microphone concept. It was, indeed, working and offering a great intellectual alternative to the pap that commercial stations filled the air with.

I was still a WBAI volunteer in 1963, when my day job was at WNEW. One day I arrived home to find a letter from the NYC unemployment office, informing me of a job opening. I had registered there during a between-jobs period and it surprised me to find that my file was still active. When I called and told the man that I was employed at WNEW, he said, “Great, you probably would not have been interested in this position, anyway.” I asked him why not and he said it was a low-paying announcer’s job at “a small leftist station.”

“WBAI?,” I asked.

“Yes, so you know about it, I’m sure you wouldn’t want to work there, but we have to ask.”

I told the man that I was already working there as a volunteer, and that ended our conversation. I guess he branded me a Communist, for that was still the temper of the times. Senator McCarthy had died three years earlier and been publicly disgraced some three years before that, but America was still moving in the wake of his hateful witch hunt, and Pacifica was high on HUAC’s list of “subversive” organizations. HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) had been established by Congress in 1934, to monitor “unpatriotic” German-Americans. Twenty years later, it focused mainly on Communists and while it today no longer exists as such, its spirit is kept alive by GOP members who aim their venom at anyone who dares to lift the Norman Rockwell veneer behind which they cower.

Click on any of the images to enlarge all of them.

To get back on track, I left WNEW and took a serious salary cut in order to join WBAI’s staff as an announcer. Klavan and Finch, the hosts of WNEW's popular morning show, had an ongoing routine in which Gene Klavan portrayed a cartoonish version of various staff members. The character he created for me had a Swedish rather than a Danish accent, as you can hear in the following aircheck fragment from December 28, 1963. It is probably the only time WBAI was mentioned on WNEW.

What a wonderful place WBAI was in the mid-Sixties. Yes, it could become a bit stuffy and there was the occasional tinge of elitism, but even those aspects were a tad above the norm. It was thought-provoking and super expressive, just as Lew Hill had envisioned it. Did it lean to the left? Sure, but that was mainly due to two factors, one being its designated role as an alternative outlet. That, by default, gave WBAI a political imbalance which, in turn, scared off the right and made it difficult to convince people of that persuasion that the microphone also was open to their points of view. You might say that we had a catch 22.

I wanted to create at least a semblance of balance, which I believed could be done without sacrificing the station's role as an alternative outlet. To that end, I tried hard to win William Buckley over, but he politely and firmly declined the invitation. Interestingly enough, he was a regular listener, as opposed to a monitor. Monitors listened, but only to look for excuses to make complaints to the FCC. Among their number was a vigilante group of outraged Catholic clergymen who did their damnedest to have us closed down and went berserk when Leroi Jones read his poetry without beeps. These chronic complainers could have served as role models for the GOP’s tea party ignoramuses (including those on the Hill). Buckley, however, was not of that low order—his intellect and good sense of humor would have appealed to many of our listeners. He told me that WBAI offered much that was to his liking, but I knew that he referred to the cultural rather than political aspect of our programming.

The old WBAI was an amazing place. We occupied three floors of a brownstone on East 39th Street, courtesy of Lou Schweitzer, the teletype machines were in the second floor bathroom and walking sideways became second nature. When artistic and political differences clash in the narrow corridors of such cramped quarters, the result can drive nerves to the edge, but at BAI we somehow always managed to pull back and work things out. Well, there was that one time, but that’s for later.

One could step out of one’s office at BAI and find Ayn Rand dicussing Objectivism with the cleaning man, or bump into James Mason carrying a pile of ethnic recordings that he was about to share with the listeners. Celeste Holm might be climbing the stairs for a studio reading of children’s stories; Gunther Schuller might be there on one of his regular visits, delivering the latest update to Contemporary Music in Evolution, an exhaustive series that underwent an evolution of its own; Bob Dylan might be dashing in to deliver a station break, and if you took a peek at the music department, you might well see Yoko Ono at the file cabinet while her boss, John Corigliano grooved to Cage or Couperin. Upstairs, Charlotte Moorman, an adventuresome musician of eclectic talent could be in the studio stripping for a program of music for cello and balloons. That this was radio never deterred Charlotte from going visual.

In short, WBAI was a tiny speck on the dial, but it attracted many of the very people who shaped the era of the Civil Rights Movement and—as Lew Hill would have—deplored that far away, frivolous war. The government did not care for us and most New Yorkers never heard of us, but our little station was the station that could and—against enormous odds—did.

I left WBAI to work for the BBC, commuting between London and New York, but I still listened whenever I had the opportunity. My replacement had been hired under very mysterious circumstances. He had, as it turned out, past ties with the CIA and there were soon subtle signs of change that Lew Hill would not have approved of. I became aware of those changes when I returned from a London trip to find in my mailbox rather desperate letters from three WBAI public affairs program producers: Tana de Gamez, Bob Bison, and Barbara Dane. All were deeply concerned over a new direction that they saw the station take and, because I knew all its members, they asked me to set up a meeting with the local New York board. In spite of the fact that they had made individual approaches and their complaints had a serious common denominator, the board chairman, Harold Taylor, did not see a rather large red flag, so he chose to ignore three startling reports of politically based censorship. Something was happening to Lew Hill’s open microphone.

A local board meeting was coming up and Harold reluctantly agreed to let me attend and present these grievances, but the actual complainants were barred. Suspecting that I might pull a fast one, the location of the meeting was changed three times before finally locking in at a board member's Central Park West apartment. The Board guessed right, but we were prepared, so, about ten minutes into the meeting, the doorbell rang and there, standing in the hallway, was a group demanding an explanation. I have seen faces drop, but never as fast and low as on that occasion.

This was a small, orderly group that included the three censored producers, a delegation from SDS at Columbia University, and members of the newly formed Friends of WBAI listeners group. Among the latter was Alex Munsell, an extraordinary man in his seventies whose financial contribution to the station was only exceeded by his devotion. Alex was a Christian Marxist and while I realize—yes, I know that's a contradictory label, but Alex made it work. One of the perks of working at WBAI was that it inevitably put you in touch with truly exceptional people. Alex Munsell was one such individual, as was Louis Schweitzer, and I will share more memories of them in future posts.

Fast-forwarding again, the censorship situation was never resolved, instead, it took nasty turns and when—while still commuting to the BBC in London—I received a death threat from WBAI's Program Director, I decided that it was time to let go. I also stopped listening to WBAI, taking a very long hiatus that ended last month when my dial ran across 99.5 just long enough for me to catch a late night commentator voicing his disgust with the station's management. Well, I thought, so it hasn’t changed that much. I stayed tuned as the man, obviously aware of and devoted to the station’s original principles, expressed his displeasure with current management and its “snake oil” obsession. What was he talking about? I began tuning in often and, sure enough, there was a preponderance of airtime devoted to chatty morning-TV-type programs with people whose main purpose in life seemed to be hawking alternative medicine. They were selling a book and DVDs that could cure just about anything, and they were doing so in true infomercial fashion. I wondered how far beyond China Lew Hill had spun.

I should mention that they were selling these products as “premiums” for donations to WBAI, but someone other than the station had to be making money on this. It is normal for people to offer goods and services as incentives, but not in unlimited quantities—that takes it into a different realm. I know about these fund-raising marathon broadcasts and have, in fact, been told that I invented them in 1965 (more about that to come, in due time).

I also heard a post-midnight broadcast that seemed designed to put the listener to sleep. It was a man rambling on and on, slowly and with many long pauses, sometimes mumbling to himself and never uttering a useful word. The purpose of the broadcast appears to have been to recite the names of every soldier who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. I don't know for what purpose, but it really struck me as a pointless waste of precious air time, for it was neither informative nor, of course, entertaining. The program was called "Weaponry" and conducted by someone who seemed to be facing a microphone for the first time, and was intimidated by it. I could not believe that this was WBAI, but it was. Perhaps the time had come for a revision of Hill's open microphone concept—it was clearly being abused.

I should mention that I had flashes of déjà vu as I listened to Ron Daniels’ program, Night Talk. His political observations and interviews reflect experience and foresight, but he is only on late at night, once a week. On the plus side, there is also David Rothenberg, a true renaissance man who has been an asset to WBAI for close to fifty years and today has brought his vast knowledge of theater into his social consciousness mix. David founded the Fortune Society and brought to the station its first regular examination of prison conditions and the need for after care. Then there is Earl Caldwell, the veteran columnist, who is heard regularly on WBAI and still has meaningful things to say. And let us not forget Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, which is never to be missed if one wants to keep up with what is really happening out there. If the station offered other programs of this caliber, or even close to it, I did not happen upon them, but it is clear that not all is lost, for there obviously are people on WBAI's air who see what has happened and do their best to stem the tide of mindless blather. Finally, let me mention Bob Fass, who has been on WBAI longer than anybody. I re-hired Bob about 45 years ago—after my predecessor, Joe Binns, had taken him off the air—and now he comes on Thursday nights, but he is stuck in a timewarp. His show was as enlightening as it was unique back in the Sixties, a hub to which young rebellious thinkers of the day flocked, the place where Arlo Guthrie introduced Alice’s Restaurant and Paul Krassner made outrageous, stinging observations. Flower children often shed their petals and showed their thorns on Bob’s show, and that envelope was steadily being pushed in the faces of our vigilante regulars. But that was then and what once was fresh and provocative has now been reduced to nostalgia. Listening to Bob's current show served me as a reminder that, cherished as many of the memories are, I do not long for the old days as they were, but rather to hear the spirit of those days applied to the broader horizon of the present.

Adding to its unfortunate assimilation, WBAI also has the annoying practice of playing—back to back and over and over—Madison Avenue-inspired promos for some of their most brainless shows. On more than one occasion, I heard them urge attendance to an event that had already taken place. These spots are mostly aimed at increasing subscribership, which is good, but they are as ad-world corny as anything AARP or the coal pushers have come up with. In the distant past, John Corigliano would compose classy little promotional songs in every musical style imaginable, and subscription encouragements were inevitably accompanied by a product description—listeners were reminded of WBAI's unique offerings. The programs were the incentives, not snake oils, cure-all booklets or self-serving DVDs.

In short, what I heard during a couple of weeks of listening was alarmingly similar to what the rest of the FM dial has had to offer over the years, the very mixture of hucksterism and hokum that made Lew Hill see the need for alternative ear fare. Commercial stations have, with regularity, traditionally aired obligatory "public service" announcements to show that they are "community minded". As I listened to the station's watered-down programming, it struck me that the occasional program of substance is WBAI's current equivalent of such announcements. I don't know if the station still sends out monthly program guides, but I seriously doubt that it does—there is precious little to list, mainly chatter shows with mindless hosts taking mindless calls from the same people, over and over again.

Granted, I have reintroduced my ears to WBAI randomly and for a relatively short time, but long enough to conclude that the station has lost its status as alternative radio. As I noted previously, there are exceptions, moments when the old spirit returned and I did not long to move to another frequency. For example, I heard a good, well presented rap mix one night, but I might have heard that elsewhere. A couple of nights ago, my attention was caught by an absorbing bio-documentary about The Wailers, narrated by Bunny Wailer, but I don’t know if it originated at WBAI or Pacifica. That brings to mind another major change: original programming used to be Pacifica's strength. Considering the perpetually low budget, Pacifica stations produced an amazing number of important documentaries over the years, but that practice has all but ceased as precious airtime is filled by mundane call-in shows and pop music, with few exceptions. To be fair, it was easier in its early years for WBAI to separate itself from sponsor-driven broadcasters and speak with a truly distinct voice. It was, after all, listener sponsored, beholden only to its subscribers and Pacifica's raison d'etre. Well, WBAI is still listener sponsored and the audience that gave it life and maintained it for so many years has not gone away entirely. It has, perhaps, tuned out, but it is still there, listening to the BBC, WNYC, WFUV, and even WKCR. The dumbing down of WBAI and, perhaps, Pacifica itself, could easily lead to it becoming once again a commercial station, not like the one Lou Schweitzer so lovingly ran, more like the ones he so generously sought to balance against. I do not for a minute think that, were he able to hear WBAI today, Lou would not deeply regret having made a gift of it to Pacifica.

To reiterate, many stations—even commercial ones—are today broadcasting the kinds of programs that used to give Pacifica its identity, a sane voice in a media wilderness. That these stations have caught up speaks well for a broadcasting industry that remained silent when WBAI was the subject of a Senate investigation and the issue was free speech. It also speaks well for the pioneering nature of Pacifica—obviously, the industry was tuned in when we thought they weren't, but WBAI should not regressively go bland just because others have caught up.

So, what happened? Why has the station succumbed to innocuous programming, with only token reminders of its important past? What has happened to the Pacifica and local boards, how did they lose control? how did they lose sight of Pacifica's raison d'etre? It is a fact that these boards have always carried dead-weight members, many of whom never listened to the stations, but, in the long run, detrimental suggestions were always overruled and Pacifica maintained its course. In the mid Sixties, a couple of West Coast board members suggested that WBAI be sold and the money spent to better the rest of the network, i.e. KPFA and KPFK, the two West Coast stations. There was a Pacifica Board meeting the following week, so I left for the Coast early to spend some time lobbying the individual board members. Someone had made an offer of a million dollars, but, even in 1965, that was a bargain price for a commercial frequency located in the middle of the dial in the country's largest market. Even if the price had reflected market value, selling WBAI would have been a big mistake—it was the newest Pacifica station, but its location alone made it the most important one. Fortunately, I found sufficient agreement among the Board's members to kill the notion. WBAI was worth fighting for back then and that hasn't changed. I don't know what is going on there, internally, but I hear references to "gag orders" and hostile take-overs, none of which sounds promising. Perhaps the answer lies in getting rid of the current local board. From what I glimpse, it is just the latest in a succession of boards that either somehow failed to "get it" or have an agenda that does not include opholding Lew Hill's founding principles. It does not take much insight to detect that the current WBAI is without direction, but I hear talk of local board elections, albeit they seem to be going by the Karzai rule book. In my days with Pacifica, the board was self-perpetuating, which was not good and would have been disastrous were it not for term limits.

Term limits went out the window when Frank Millspaugh, who had been an outrageously ineffective WBAI manager, became a board member and somehow succeeded in staying beyond them. Millspaugh was hired by Pacifica President Hallock Hoffman under very mysterious circumstances and the station's deterioration can be traced back to that point. His failure to grasp the principles of Pacifica became abundantly clear early on, but he was not ousted until many years later, when infighting reached a boiling point.

There have been serious upheavals on both coasts in recent years and it would appear that things are still in a mess, at least in New York. Ironically, WBAI is now advertising itself as “community radio”, a tag that becomes increasingly inappropriate. The fact is that the station should be serving the community, but not by feeding it pap with the occasional nutritional morsel. New York is a rainbow community, the old melting pot nomenclature still applies and it is appropriate for WBAI to program with ethnic diversity in mind, what I do not regard as appropriate is the level of that outreach. Does management somehow see the city's black and hispanic population as being on a lower intellectual level? That's what the current programming indicates to me—what is the point of giving Andrea Clark a couple of hours to play Mancini and make small talk? She calls herself "sister from another planet" and makes one wish she would go back there. I listened Friday and it was embarrassing, she never completed most of her sentences and said absolutely nothing of substance. Then there is a Kathy Davis, who does psychic readings! If that sort of thing does not insult the average WBAI listener's intelligence, the station has indeed found a new, far less demanding audience. There was a time when many of WBAI's voices could not have found an outlet on other frequencies, because their message was too off-script. Today's BAI offerings—with noted exceptions—would also be rejected by most other stations, but for sadly different reasons: they would insult the intelligence of their listeners.

When WBAI's management was handed to me, the station was far from perfect. That can also be said of the WBAI I left behind, but I hope I left some improvements in my wake. For one thing—contrary to what Steve Post wrote in a book of fiction—the station's signal was increased just before I left, and the antenna moved from a relatively low rooftop location to the Empire State Building. Also, I inherited a WBAI that was as white as a GOP lobbying group. I quickly changed that, starting with the news director, Joanne Grant, a black woman. It's not that the mid-Sixties WBAI management and board was overtly racist, I think it simply did not occur to them that they were discriminating, and that was a catch-22, because qualified black people often did not apply for jobs that they didn't think they could obtain. I am reminded of a call I received shortly after becoming manager. It was from New York's PBS station, Channel 13.

"We need to borrow one of your Negroes," the voice said.

That, at least, has changed for the better.

WBAI could keep abreast of changing times without sacrificing Hill’s vision, because the basic principles are not outdated. What Lewis Hill, Eleanor McKinney and others envisioned in Berkeley in the late Forties meets today’s intellectual needs. It is not necessary to talk down to people—nourish the mind and everybody will get it.

There are, obviously, holes in my knowledge of the current WBAI—or, for that matter, Pacifica—so I welcome corrections as well as opinions. I am also curious to hear if the deterioration I detect applies to Pacifica's other stations, there are now five in all. If you have a comment, you can either post it below or go to the guest book located in the column on the right. I would really like to hear from you.

Finally, I apologize for my repetitive rambling, but WBAI is simply too special for me not to be concerned.

Afterthoughts - Posted Christmas Eve, 2009.
Since posting this little rant in the first week of November, I have been listening to WBAI regularly. They have now had their local board election and, from what I gather, the outcome promises positive change. The misplaced "Weaponry" guy (Wisker) is still there, half asleep, and there is a silly couple (their names escape me) who have nothing of importance to say, but love to tell us about their little health problems. Also on the down side is a program by one Shelton Walden, a self-proclaimed Conservative with a nice voice but little of substance use it for. He is impatient and exceedingly rude to callers who don't agree with his often shallow viewpoints. I find it amazing that some of the hosts who really have nothing to offer the intellect or our natural need to be entertained, have been wasting the station's precious airtime for many years. There has clearly been a managerial vacuum. The other night, a lady from the West Coast, who appears to be a commuting interim manager, dropped in on Bob Fass' show and unwittingly demonstrated how sorely WBAI needs qualified, forward-thinking people at the helm. When a caller suggested that hosts not be allowed to grow stale on WBAI's air, this woman either did not understand the validity of the caller's point or she chose to ignore it. Bob's Radio Unnameable is now little more than a relic of the station's rebellious past, but I think of it as a cornerstone of sorts, and if anyone deserves tenure at WBAI, it is Bob Fass.

On the positive side, the station currently offers terrific Hispanic music, played by knowledgeable people, and a jazz program by a lady who nicely combines music and interviews, but she seems to be on trial. Bear in mind that WBAI's jazz hosts were at one time the most knowledgeable on any air, ranging from such writer/historians as Nat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern, Martin Williams and Ira Gitler to an impressive list of performers that included Coltrane, Jimmy Rushing, Donald Byrd, Eddie Condon and Blue Mitchell, to name but a few, and weekly shows by Dave Lambert and Marian McPartland (the beginning of a new career, one might say).

I have heard many good things in the past month and a half, including the morning program, Wakeup Call, which precedes Democracy Now, and Talkback, an afternoon call-in show with Hugh Hamilton, who is well informed and an excellent host. He is heard at 3 PM Monday through Thursday and his professionalism and authoritativeness is maintained by Caldwell in that spot on Fridays.

Good News, as it were...
There is commendable use of telephone reporting and, in general, the news coverage is better and more professional than it was in my day, although we did manage to send Dale Minor to Vietnam, from where he sent us stories that you could not hear on any other station. By the way, so shoestring was our budget that Dale's tapes were sent to us unedited (with his handwritten directions) via a PanAm stewardess!

Please note that I did some updating and tweaking on 11/13/09, 12/24/09 and 12/27/09.

UPDATE: March 5, 2015: My impression of WBAI's "progress" has changed radically since I added the above afterthoughts. Mismanaged by incompetent opportunists, it's air dominated by rank amateurs whose only objective appears to be that of holding on to the time slot granted them years, sometimes decades, ago, this is a station that no longer meets the standard and directions upon which Pacifica was founded. Most listeners have abandoned WBAI as it flounders cluelessly through a miasma of mediocrity and a small faction of misguided self-servers attempts to turn it into a third-class black station. 

If you want to read more about the slow death of this once-so-proud radio station, go to my dedicated blog

This link will take you to Part I of this post.
If you have a serious interest in the past and present goings-on at the stationI, you might want to check out my WBAI-dedicated blog.