Editor’s Notebook: Growing up with radio

ed sullivanThis week commemorates the 50th anniversary of The Beatles‘ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Ed Sullivan brought mainstream exposure to many bands over the years, including The Beatles, The Doors, and The Rolling Stones.

But as a kid in those years, my radio was more influential than the TV. Radio in the New York City listening area was where the pop/rock revolution unfolded in real time, where adolescence was soundtracked, where potent media personalities held court, and where coolness was bestowed upon those who listened to them.

The Nightbird

Alison Steele, the late-night DJ on WNEW-FM, was a bright star of the radio galaxy. Her dusky voice, exotic mood, and progressive musical taste made a killer combination, and her late-night show probably turned me into the insomniac that I became.

She called herself “the Nightbird,” and she conveyed a shamanic presence, like a sacred guide to the deep mysteries of hippie rock. Alison Steele was psychedelic in her programming, but more than that, she seemed to be the very source of psychedelia, a kind of cosmic earth-mother who could navigate us through the arcane messaging of songs like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

She opened each show with a spacey soundtrack over which she intoned the neon physics of her radio reality:

We’re deep into the night. And from this point on, all sense of time will cease to exist. Only space, and the sensory. That which we feel and experience becomes the manifestation of all the cosmic waves of the universe. The sound pours into the brain, and pushes all barriers to the outer limits of perception, and we are in space. We are above and beyond. Come. Fly with me, Alison Steele, the Nightbird, until dawn.

To a 13-year-old kid, this sort of thing was like a siren call to fantastic realities barely glimpsed.

In retrospect, Alison Steele seems like a smart programmer hooked into trends of the time. Perhaps she took some inspiration from television; it’s impossible to disregard the sci-fi similarity between Alison Steele’s prologues and The Outer Limits (“There is nothing wrong with your television set. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear.”) and The Twilight Zone – Alison Steele was like a sultry, gender-switched Rod Serling.

Her particular taste in music was heavy, metallic, atmospheric – King Crimson, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Procol Harum, Grand Funk Railroad, The Moody Blues, Jefferson Airplane, Iron Butterfly. She’d start off with that lulling intro, then slam straight into an obscure and violent bootleg recording of Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire.

She seemed to construct her show by whim, and sometimes indulged in poetry-reading jags. My friends and I vied to reach Alison Steele on the phone, and bragged for a week if she mentioned our name on the air. And we weren’t getting much sleep through all this; the Nightbird flew overnight.

FM and AM: Cultural outposts on equal footing

Like many cultural waves, progressive radio in the 1960s was lifted by technology – in this case FM radio. The relationship between new music and new technology was synergistic; the British invasion fed FM radio, which in turn opened a huge cross-pond market for 1960s rockers.

FM was the counterpoint to AM radio as Jack Kerouac countered Opie. FM was cool, dramatic, mystical, shaded, and more thematic than AM’s bright, transient, gum-snapping top-40 hits. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and some other acts straddled the boundary between two realms, but for the most part Alison Steele’s repertoire stayed on the FM side of the fence.

In the New York City listening area during my youth, two cultures reigned: WNEW-FM (the Nightbird’s cage), and the one-two AM punch of WABC (“Musicradio 77”) and WMCA (the “Good Guys”). The AM side refined the top-40 format, where the selection seemed even smaller because the top two or three hits were hammered into the brains of kids and their suffering parents every hour or so. The year I learned to drive, “Honky Tonk Woman” by the Stones held the top spot on WABC’s weekly Power Survey for five straight weeks, and a reasonably with-it teenager probably heard the track 150 times in the car and through a transistor radio during that time.

AM DJs raced through song credits and a staggering load of commercial announcements at a blistering pace. Even young fans of the genre could not withstand the manic barrage for long without retreat; an industry measurement of time spent listening per person reached record lows for WABC during its 1960s heyday. The average kid bailed after 10 minutes. But there were a lot of kids, and overall ratings were high.

The Ingram Mess

The AM hits were relentlessly delivered by an on-air cast that included Harry Harrison, Dan Ingram, Ron Lundy, and Bruce Morrow (“Cousin Brucie”). One DJ who hopped over the fence was Scott Muni, who rode the first wave of 1960s AM success before settling in as WNEW-FM’s program director and gravel-voiced guru.

Although the sound of Cousin Brucie’s voice is permanently imprinted on my neurons, it was Dan Ingram whose personality and presentation made the most lasting impression. Ingram was funny, irreverent, deconstructive, quick-witted, daring, and generally stole the show from the music. WABC program director Rick Sklar once said that Ingram’s ad-libs stayed “one step ahead of the lawyers.”

The tightly-edited air check below conveys how Dan Ingram careened through the “Ingram mess” with quick-thinking improvisational flair. His mastery of talking up to the song lyric is demonstrated here, and his willingness to insert some mockery into commercials. He seemed to keep the mic open more than any other DJ.

FM snobs listened to Musicradio 77 and WMCA some of the time, if only because most cars in those days didn’t have FM radios. For me, AM and FM were complementary. We listened to AM at the beach and FM at night, like having two best friends who didn’t know each other. Two-minute AM hits and eight-minute FM psychedelia were the A and B sides of a single cultural record that shaped a generation

Brad Hill


  1. Great article, well written. I enjoyed the read. Thanks for helping us remember why it is we love radio so much.

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