Underground Roots of American Routes

The roots of American Routes were partly in “underground radio”…

In the late 1960s, “underground radio” grew nationwide to bring the new rock and pop of the era in FM stereo to a generation of listeners. Also called “free form” and “progressive rock,” the stations were viewed as an alternative to Top 40 AM radio in both content and audio quality. Many of them started on FM stations, some at colleges like the University of Pennsylvania’s WXPN in Philadelphia. Others were commercial stations—before the advent of NPR—that had been classical, jazz or easy listening formats.

Metromedia had a series of stations: WNEW in New York, KRLA in Los Angeles, KSAN in San Francisco and WMMR in Philadelphia. After serving as program director at WXPN FM, I got a job at WMMR, which had gone on the air as a rock station. Our mostly benevolent Svengali at WMMR was Jerry Stevens who had come out of Philly’s 1950s-60s Top 40 scene and was now entrusted with a new generation of would be hip college kids to transform the airwaves.

This weekend I’m in Philadelphia for the 50th anniversary WMMR. The notes below were written for the event website, addressing my old comrades and a later generation of rock radio hosts.

-Nick Spitzer

So many memories from the era. All I can say regarding “free form” programming is that PD Jerry Stevens used to remind us that “We are a f**kin’ fine arts radio station.” That still makes me laugh. But he also used to chide me about playing too much “junk band music” (Memphis jug bands I loved then and now), “steel pedal guitar” (hard country and country rock) and “nostalgia music” (Bessie Smith and others). While I admired Jerry—and learned how to hold audiences in many ways from him—I didn’t always agree with him, and after being reassigned to the all-night shift in favor of a more mainstream approach to the music mix (for which I can’t blame him), I decided to bag my life in progressive rock radio to travel across America, thinking romantically that I was on a Jack Kerouac meets Woody Guthrie quest, with friends David Dye (WMMR 6-10 PM, long before his big successes with World Cafe) and David Watts (classical and jazz host from WXPN and Penn, long before his role as the gorilla-wrangler for Sigourney Weaver and Gorillas in the Mist—really… we both majored in anthropology).

Later, after years at KOKE FM—Goat Roper Radio—in Austin “with Willie, Waylon and the boys” working my way through grad school, I kind of dropped out of pop music and radio. I followed and made cowboy, blues, Cajun/zydeco field recordings and listened only to deep vernacular music for a decade—missing the 1980s. I did not regret this.

Only when I left working in French Louisiana and moved to Washington in 1985 did I go back to radio. First it was Radio Smithsonian, doing longish cultural docs, then NPR’s All Things Considered cultural features, and then Carnegie Hall Folk Masters shows for APR. I finally returned to Louisiana/New Orleans to do radio that was based on what I learned during my various endeavors in radio—and so created American Routes.

I learned a lot at MMR about sonic and semantic segues as “journeys,” being “uptempo and familiar out of commercial ‘stop-sets’” (thanks Jerry), segueing to the Moody Blues from classical music, putting the Beatles with the Everly Brothers or Carl Perkins, going from the Byrds to Coltrane to Ray Charles to Randy Newman. When the commercials morphed from lovable local head shops, waterbed sales, book and camera stores, to canned network spots for beer, nylons and acne cream, I knew my time at Metromedia’s WMMR was not long. But lo, all these decades later and after 20 years of American Routes on public radio from New Orleans, I can easily wax nostalgic about the funny times and learning experiences at MMR with friends like newsman Bill Vitka, Jonathan Takiff, David Dye, Michel Tearson, Johnny Kraft, Gene Shay and Carol Miller. I also loved the sales guys Rick “Bolt” Feinblatt, Chuck Fee, and receptionists, exec secs and traffic folks like Ruby, Jackie and many other great MMR peeps my memory has come up short on.

Nick Spitzer aka Nick Spencer 2-6 PM 1972-1974

High points were interviews with Ray Davies, Bob Marley, Bob Weir, Bette Midler, Gram Parsons, Linda Ronstadt, Leon Redbone, Wayne Shorter, Commander Cody, and Sid Caesar (aka Progresso Hornsby in Mad Magazine), and shaking hands with a departing Linda Lovelace, who the late Ed Sciacky had interviewed on his show in 10-2 shift.

For those who want more detail from the high hippie era, here’s an interview for Phawker from a few years ago. The transcript had some big errors, but it’s kind of funny, and I especially laugh at Carol Miller’s “Stairway to Heaven” photo of me on the marshland back home on the rural Connecticut River marshes.

With the passage of time, all the memories grow fonder.

Cheers to “WMMR: the Radio Station”—as our great Paul Messing IDs voiced by Jerry used to say—on 50 years. That’s a long time for anything!

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