top of page

Words and Music: Rock and Roll DJs and Freeform Radio

Alison Steele

Jenny said, when she was just five years old

You know there's nothin' happening at all

Every time she put on the radio

There was nothin' goin' down at all

Not at all

One fine mornin', she puts on a New York station

And she couldn't believe what she heard at all

I. Sound and Music

Sound is ambient. The world is the soundscape we are immersed in, and it affects how we feel and how we perceive our environments sometimes more than we know. It is an ocean of instinctive primeval emotion that we absorb often unconsciously without applying our critical faculties to understanding how what we are hearing affects what we are feeling and thinking. According to Marshall McLuhan, "In an acoustic universe one senses essence, whereas in a visual universe one sees categories and hierarchies." In other words, we feel sound more than we analyze it. David Byrne reminds us of something we all know intuitively, that our musical histories and our emotional responses to what we have heard help shape us as people:

David Byrne

"A slew of musical associations bounce around in our heads, linking to recurring memories and feelings which, after a while, facilitate the creation and reinforcement of specific neural pathways. These pathways help us make sense of those experiences. They make us who we are."

Because music evokes emotion, it has meaning. It is one of the reasons why we remember songs, and why people associate particular songs or types of music with events like break ups or periods of their lives like their college years. Because these songs often have similar emotional resonances for our friends or social groups who shared these experiences with us, they serve as a way for people to bond. Byrne writes,

We can use music (or, for better or worse, others can use it) to regulate our emotions. We can pump ourselves (or others) up, or calm others (or ourselves) down. We can use music to help integrate ourselves with a team, to act in concord with a group. Music is social glue—it holds families, nations, cultures, and communities together.

Because it is so pervasive and brings people together in so many different ways in societies and communities everywhere, he concludes, "Without music, the social fabric itself would be rent, and the links between us would crumble." Perhaps that is an exaggeration on the part of someone for whom music is a central part of life. Are deaf people unable to bond or integrate into society? I don't think so. But it is true that sound is the ether most of us move through everyday and it affects us greatly.

II. Voice

According to Michel Chion, in the ocean of sound all around us, human beings are conditioned to distinguish the human voice and the words being spoken above all else. Because words communicate ideas and information we might need, they are prioritized. David Byrne reminds us that we have the ability to select what we want to hear and listen to it even when we are in a noisy background in which there is plenty competing for our attention, and that often what we listen for is a voice talking to us or conveying information of interest. We are so attuned to voices that we can sometimes identify the voice of a friend from hearing them speak only a single word. We remember the lyrics of songs and sing them with feeling, often empathizing with a singer we assume is confessing intimate details and emotions associated with their own experiences even when they may have been singing a song written by someone else. We respond to the vocal qualities of singers we love and the emotions they convey, and often imitate them. Byrne writes,

Part of what makes words work in a song is how they sound to the ear and feel on the tongue. If they feel right physiologically, if the tongue of the singer and the mirror neurons of the listener resonate with the delicious appropriateness of the words coming out, then that will inevitably trump literal sense, although literal sense doesn’t hurt. If recent neurological hypotheses regarding mirror neurons are correct, then one could say that we empathetically “sing”—with both our minds and the neurons that trigger our vocal and diaphragm muscles—when we hear and see someone else singing. In this sense, watching a performance and listening to music is always a participatory activity. The act of putting words down on paper is certainly part of songwriting, but the proof is in seeing how it feels when it’s sung. If the sound is untrue, the listener can tell.

III. Freeform Radio: Rock and Roll and the Voice of the DJ

In the freeform radio that began to take shape in the 1960s and 70s, the voice of the DJs that played rock and roll and spoke constantly about what they were playing became intertwined with the music and the emotional soundscape of listeners. Often these DJs thought of what they did as taking listeners on a trip which involved sharing the music they loved with them, and creating a particular kind of soundscape complemented by their own philosophical musings. One of the first to do this was Alison Steele who, starting in 1968, hosted a radio show that ran all night on WNEW in New York. Taking advantage of the intimacy of these late night hours, she created a mystical environment for what seemed like solitary listeners alone in their rooms, like points of light scattered across the night landscape. Steele started each show with the sound of an Andean flute that set the mood, and a poetic introduction like this:

The flutter of wings, the shadow across the moon, the sounds of the night, as the Nightbird spreads her wings and soars, above the earth, into another level of comprehension, where we exist only to feel. Come, fly with me, Alison Steele, the Nightbird, at WNEW-FM, until dawn.

Vin Scelsa's show on WNEW acquired the name Idiot's Delight, perhaps as a self-derogatory way of asserting his right to play anything or talk about anything that came into his head. Scelsa had started on the rock station WPLJ, the first New York station to seriously dedicate itself to playing rock and roll rather than just top 40. When WPLJ started to restrict their playlist and what DJs could choose to play in 1973, Scelsa moved to WNEW. When WNEW did the same in 1982, he moved to K-Rock until 1996 when he moved back to WNEW. There he hosted a show on Sunday nights that was supposed to run from 8 until 2 AM, but actually finished whenever Scelsa decided to end it. The listeners of his show were so loyal that he started arranging meet ups of the fans. Scelsa moved on to various other radio stations and finally retired in 2015, long after most of the other freeform DJs.

Freeform radio always seemed at its best in the early morning hours when it seemed like DJs were most free to do whatever they wanted. Each had their own particular personality and taste and played the music they themselves liked. Jonathan Schwartz for example liked crooners like Frank Sinatra and played them even on a show that was supposed to be about rock and roll. He later left to work at a jazz station. The best DJs were often the biggest fans of the artists they played. Sometimes artists would visit the studios, and these visits felt, not like the kinds of preplanned stops on a publicity tour organized by a record company that became common later, but like an unprogrammed encounter between similar minds in which the conversation and the music played could go in any direction. If a radio program could last all night, a musician could show up when they wanted to and stay until they felt like leaving.

I lost track of these DJs when I left New York. Much later, when it became possible to listen to radio stations online, I started to listen to BBC6 regularly, especially Jarvis Cocker's Sunday Service, and then Cerys Matthews. They were both musicians who

Jarvis Cocker

would do weekly shows on Sunday. The English punk performance poet John Cooper Clarke would sometimes sit in for Cocker. I've also heard Iggy Pop and Lou Reed spinning records on BBC6. The Lou Reed session was vintage, and Lou and the friend he was hanging out with sounded completely wasted and played great rock and roll.

Eventually Jarvis Cocker left BBC6 to go back to playing music. For the last couple years, post-Cocker, BB6 has hosted an Artist in Residence series. They invite musicians to be

John Cooper Clarke

guest DJs for a limited series of shows. In each, the artist plays music that has been important in shaping them. Each has a theme. Artists have included St. Vincent, Phoebe Bridgers, Arlo Parks, Wolf Alice, black queer artist Mykki Blanco, and others. Some are very young. Others have been around longer but are independent artists, never superstars known by everyone everywhere. They often help me get to know artists I may know not at all or not well, and understand the different kinds of music they have absorbed which have shaped their musical styles. The wide variety of themes of the shows curated by Mykki Blanco, for example, was very interesting in this respect, and made me appreciate artists, some of whom I might not have be inclined to listen to

Mykki Blanco

or who I did not know at all, from Mykki's perspective. These shows had titles like Honey Baby Toffee which featured "sassy, sweet jams for feel good nights by artists like Miley Cyrus, Daft Punk and Lady Gaga, Art Dad which featured art rock classics; A Touch of Paisly, which featured hippie and psychedelic music; and Theydies & Gentlemen, which featured non-binary, trans and gender non-conforming artists. When the guest DJ was the Irish actor Cillian Murphy, I learned that he had started out as a musician and, like Johnny Depp, only became an actor when his music career didn't pan out. I also learned alot about Irish music.

Clearly, it is not about having a day job for these guest DJs. It is about the chance to program a show according to their own idiosyncratic tastes. Actual musicians are always the first to get into music the rest of us may or may not get into sometime later, and they love to talk about it. Every show is a river of sound in which music is intertwined with the voice of the DJ. Every song you hear is framed and put into context. I don't remember exactly how I got into Zamrock, the short-lived rock and roll scene in Zambia in the 1970s, and Zambian bands like WITCH, or Soviet bands of the 1980s like Kino, but I'm pretty sure it came from listening to shows like these on BBC6.

Lately, I have been listening to episodes of Deidre O'Donohue's late night show Snap on the Los Angeles station KCRW. O'Donohue was a freeform DJ during the 1980s and, in

Deirdre O'Donoghue

addition to just playing music, interviewed artists like Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Sonic Youth, Tom Verlaine, and plenty of others. Like other freeform DJs, Vin Scelsa for example, she had to fight to keep on doing the kind of radio she loved. She was fired twice for not conforming to station policies. O'Donoghue's shows are a passionate stream of words and music. She never stopped talking about why she loved the songs she was playing or musicians she was interviewing. And they loved her back. On one episode, Michael Stipe of REM called her long distance on air from Georgia, at a time when long distance calls were expensive, to support her show during a fundraising drive, and said outright, "I love you, Deirdre."

In Cincinnati, I like to listen to WAIF, a community radio station that has programs created by real people who live in the Cincinnati area, and so reflects a wide variety of tastes and interests. There is German language programming with traditional German music, Gospel, Reggae, a Bible Studies program, the program of the Nation of Islam, Heavy Metal, Big Band, R & B, Blues, and more. I like DJ Julie. She plays good rock and roll. A while back, I tuned in at random to another show and heard a conversation about the rock and roll scene in Leeds, which is not as well known as the Manchester scene, between the DJ and a friend of his visiting from Leeds.

Robin James is a Cincinnati-born philosopher who writes about music. Her new book is called Bam! The Future of Rock & Roll: 97X WOXY and the Fight for True Independence. Here is the description of the book:

Robin James

In 1983, an Ohio radio station called WOXY launched a sonic disruption to both corporate rock and to its conservative home region, programming an omnivorous range of genres and artists while being staunchly committed to local independent art and media. In the 1990s, as alternative rock went mainstream and radio grew increasingly homogeneous, WOXY gained

international renown as one of Rolling Stone’s “Last Great Independent Radio” stations. The station projected a philosophy that prioritized such independence—the idea that truly progressive, transgressive, futuristic disruptions of the status quo were possible only when practiced with and for other people.

The book will be presented at the Mercantile Library in Cincinnati on Thursday, May 11. James will be there together with two of WOXY's DJs, Dave Tellmann and Damian Dotterweich. I'm planning on going.

Everywhere, the tendency has been to take over the programming of radio stations, standardize it and centralize operations. On iHeart radio stations, the largest broadcaster in the U.S., you will hear many of the same shows no matter where you are in the U.S. and they will be produced and recorded far from where you live.

I'm not that interested in radio stations with recycled programming or streaming services with algorithms that cater to what my taste is now and play me songs I've heard a million times. Tell me something I don't know. Play me something I haven't heard, and tell me why you like it. Be your own weird self. I want to hear the voice of the DJ.

24 views0 comments


bottom of page