Share this article

print logo


Once upon a time there was a radio format called "progressive radio." It gave us the broadcast version of the rock revolution of the '70s -- everyone from Eric Clapton and Joni Mitchell to Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and beyond -- and a lot of free-form talk to go with it. A lot of the music eventually turned into what we now know as classic rock. A lot of the talk was by listeners, and that became a staple of today's radio.

One of its godfathers in Buffalo is writer Jim Santella, who played music on stations and in clubs all over Western New York for 30 years. Few people in Buffalo have manned a mike at more stations. He said his farewells to commercial rock radio early this month. While he still broadcasts four hours of blues every Saturday on WBFO-FM, he's played his final rock disc on "radio row."

His story on rock radio -- a kind of musical and broadcasting history in microcosm -- follows.

Being called the "Father of Progressive Radio" in Buffalo has always embarrassed me. Like most of the hype that comes out of your radio speakers, it promises more than it delivers. Don't get me wrong. I absolutely adore radio.

If it weren't for FM radio, I'd probably be following my mother's advice to "get a real job." My only touch with the reality of gainful employment was stacking books at UB's Lockwood Library during my undergraduate days.. I found reality to be largely over-rated.

Luck and radio have been my constant companions for nearly a third of a century. I feel more like a child of FM radio than a paternal figure.

My first radio memory dates from July 3rd, 1955. I was just a kid when Guy King (Tom Clay) sprung his famous Billboard stunt in Shelton Square on WWOL-AM. He locked himself in the studio and broadcast from the ledge outside. It was outrageous. It was out of control. It was spontaneous. I was hooked!

Flash forward fourteen years. It's 7:00 p.m., January 9th, 1969 on the 18th floor of the Hotel Statler. I am playing the first progressive record on the first progressive radio station in Buffalo, WYSL-FM. I go to flip on the switch to my microphone to announce this auspicious feat. My historic words are lost to posterity. In my excitement, I forget to turn on the microphone. Spontaneity rears its fanciful head.

Oh, by the way, that first album I played was "Fresh Cream." I understand the guitarist went on to make quite a name for himself.

Over the course of the next three decades, I found myself working at every progressive station in the city, from WPHD-FM to WZIR-FM to WUWU-FM. I had the rare opportunity to see, up close, the face of the music industry change from singles played on dominant AM radio stations to albums played on dominant FM radio stations.

Everything changed but nothing changed.

Through it all, the radio consultants -- the deregulation, the monopolistic radio groups -- I dodged silver bullets, stayed on the air and was fortunate enough to add thousands of pages of radio and music memories to my rock and roll diary. Sure, it was only rock and roll but I loved it!

Talk about memories. I remember spending three hours backstage with David Bowie over a bottle of Cognac talking about theatre, acting and his movie, "The Man Who Fell To Earth." I was fascinated by the Thin White Duke's elegance, lucidity and the fact that he had one blue eye and one brown eye.

Talk about compelling eyes, Judy Collins' sweet Judy Blue Eyes were so hugely luminescent that I stuttered over an interview with her during a Summerfest concert at Rich Stadium in 1976. Fortunately, morning jock John Rivers poked me in the side and got me back on track with the songstress.

Garcia, Collins, Townshend, bJagger, Page, Beck, Ozzy, Bruce, Janis and Dylan were just a few of the rock stars that, for better or worse, I met. Phil Collins was, perhaps, the most down-to-earth, James Taylor the most self-effacing and Jagger the most kinetic. He also smelled the most of teen-age spirit.

I'm still trying to figure out how a long-haired leaping gnome, like myself, was blessed with the good fortune to meet so many rock icons, go to historic concert events like Woodstock and better yet get to sneak a backstage peek at the star-making machinery grind away.

Why me? Whatever happened to Harold Turner, Cal Brady, Clyde Collins, H.R. Stone, Sir Walter Raleigh, Jeff Lubeck and Carl Walters? They were just a few of the early progressive radio pioneers.

The largely college-age staff of WYSL occupied a tiny broom-closet of a studio on the uppermost floor of the Hotel Statler. We picked music from 5,000 albums lined up on a four-tiered shelf that stretched across the room.

I remember one night opening the tiny studio window, sitting on the ledge and thinking about Guy King. I was so young and green you could have grown corn in my eyes.

Oddly enough, from my earliest days in FM radio, I found myself saddled with the reputation of being a rebel, a renegade, a guy too radical to be trusted with the airwaves.

Me dangerous? I don't think so. I usually consider myself somewhere right of Jello. I may have been the attending physician at the birth of progressive radio in Buffalo but that didn't make me Karl Marx. Personally, I identified more with Groucho Marx's "I wouldn't belong to any organization that would have me as a member" philosophy.

Oh, sure! There was that little incident on April 24, 1972 when I walked off the air on my birthday. But it was nothing. WPHD merely reduced its music library from 5,000 albums to 500. It seemed like the right thing for me to do. After all, it was my birthday. You know, synchronicity and all that.

By the way, two days later, Jeff Kaye, program director for Buffalo's WKBW, one of the most powerful AM stations in the country, pulled along side my car on Delaware Avenue and called me a "jerk" for walking off the air. I flipped him the finger and proceeded to WBFO-FM, UB's student station where I had a four-hour free-form music show from midnight to 4:00 A.M. called "Extensions." Me dangerous, how absurd!

Then there was Lee Zimmerman, the production director for WBLK-FM who took me out to lunch only to tell me I would never work in commercial radio again.Z

By the way, Sunday, January 9th, 2000 I concluded 31 years in commercial radio with my final broadcast of "Radiation Theatre," a free-form music show on 97 Rock. I didn't get fired or walk off the air. It was just time to go. Yes, Jerry, "What a long strange trip it's been."

I wonder what ever became of Lee Zimmerman?

Now, where was I? Oh, yes, reminiscing like some old coot in a Roy Rogers' western. They tell me that I'm one of the last of a dying breed of radio people who picked their own music. Well, back in the late 1960's and early 1970's everyone in FM radio picked their own music. So much for uniqueness.

I can't remember a time when I didn't have some choice in the music I played. What's more of a mystery to me is how I lasted so long in radio picking my own music.

I 'd be the first to admit I'm no format jock. Early on, when I worked at WYSL-FM, I marveled at fellow DJ's like Kevin O'Connell (yes, the weather-man) and WGR's Jim Pastrick. They never stumbled, stuttered or hesitated executing format radio on our sister station WYSL-AM. I, on the other hand, was known to mis-pronounce my own name.

Non-stop nattering has always been one of my radio weaknesses. Pastrick used to chide my Chatty Cathy style by proclaiming that if "You ask Santella what time it is, he'll start telling you how to build a clock." Yep, I love talking...about music that is.

If I do have any claim to fame, I'd like to think that's it's been my efforts to keep alive the spirit of those early FM radio days when we dared to dream that music was important and made a difference in people's lives.

I remember an FM programmer's conference at Bard college in 1970 arguing with radio rebels like Charles Laquidara of Boston's progressive giant WBCN-FM and Scott Muni of WNEW-FM over the role music on FM radio. We thought music was important. We were wrong, inevitably music is just sponsored entertainment.

Billy Altman, one of my best friends at the University of Buffalo, knew the score, perfectly. He would go on to be a writer for national music magazines, Cream, Rolling Stoneand Crawdaddy and publish a biography of Robert Benchley. In the seventies, we both wrote music reviews for the Spectrum, UB's school newspaper. It was at that time, Billy taught me the distinction between "good music" and "important music."

"Good music" entertains, "great music" has the capacity to change one's life. Dylan's "Blowing In The Wind" and CSNY's "Ohio" are important songs. Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Lovin" and any song on Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" are good music.

Enough of the philosophy, let's get down to the sex, drugs and rock and roll stories. How about debunking a few myths?

In 1970, at WPHD-FM, we had these damn wind chimes that sounded every time we turned on the mike. Listeners tried to figure out how we got them to jangle, on cue. They didn't. They were taped on an endless loop. In radio, it's always a good idea to ignore the man behind the curtain.

Nowadays, Harvey Weinstein may be known as one of the co-presidents of Miramax Films but back in the seventies "Harvey & Corky" brought rock and roll to the stage of the Century theatre, a former vaudeville and movie house they owned.

Like Bill Graham's Filmore East and West, the Century was responsible for introducing rock fans to practically every name group from Jeff Beck to The Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Harvey got his promoting experience working as music chairman for UB's student council. Never known for his sweet disposition, he was one of the early maverick promoters who took chances, cut corners and made Buffalo an important stop on the rock and roll circuit.

I got along with Harvey as well as anyone, meaning just barely. When he first acquired the Century Theatre, he wrote a three-page letter of welcome to the audience promising them the moon. I was the MC and he expected me to read it. Rock and roll audiences never suffer fools or disc jockeys easily. I condensed Harvey's expansive speech and brought the band out to a huge yell of approval.

Harvey followed me from the stage to the mezzanine accusing me of sabotaging his opening. The air was filled with four letter words and the threat of never introducing another of his rock concerts, again.

It took only three-years before I introduced another band at a Harvey & Corky sponsored event. He later hired me as house DJ at his rock club, Stage One. See what I mean about luck?

But, I'm getting ahead of myself. In 1974, WPHD-FM was a killer station. John McGhan was the program director and the staff consisted of jocks like Tom Teuber, Steve Lapa, Hank Ball, Donna Dubie, Skip Edmunds and myself.

I saw practically every rock concert that came to town, heard every local group that performed on the club circuit and even managed to get four hours sleep a night while flunking out of school.

1974 was the year WPHD co-sponsored Summerfest concerts at Rich Stadium. There was so much different music in the air at the clubs and venues around town that it was like being in New York City.

With two dollars worth of gas in the car and three dollars in your pocket, you could party until the bars closed at 4:00 a.m.

There was Stan and The Ravens playing rocking blues at The Rendezvous on Delevan, Rodan churning out progressive rock at a hole-in-the-wall bar on Niagara Street called McVans, and the decibel shattering sound of Talas at Stage One. Live music thrived in the Nickel City.

Regional bands like John Kay's Steppenwolf, Bob Seger and Ted Nugent performed regularly in local bars before they ever hit the national charts. The Winter brothers were in town so much, Edgar married a local girl.

The bars were full, the music was plentiful and WPHD-FM was like Cinderella at the ball. And, just like Cinderella, the clock struck midnight and the chariot turned into a pumpkin pulled by rats.

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, radio station owners are never content unless their commercial log is jam-packed. They constantly dream of higher ratings, increased spot revenues and selling their facility for huge profits. Bob Howard was a dreamer who came into Buffalo, bought WPHD-FM and WYSL-AM and proceeded to simulcast the two stations with the same Top-40 music. For almost six months between September of 1974 and February of 1975 Buffalo was without an album-oriented station.

Enter consultant Lee Abrams and his Super Stars format. On February 10, 1975, WGRQ-FM, known as Q-FM 97 was born

There are no comments - be the first to comment