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From progressive to corporate, Santella traces evolution of rock radio

Classic Rock Classic Jock

By Jim Santella

Buffalo Heritage Press

190 pages, ($19.95)

By Tim O’Shei

And here we thought video killed the radio star.

Ask Jim Santella and he’ll tell you something different. The message of The Buggles’ 1979 hit song notwithstanding, it’s not technology that drove a stake into radio. It’s not television, it’s not any form of multimedia that choked the freeform playlists Santella improvised on Buffalo’s rock radio airwaves.

It’s corporations and their highly paid consultants, whose earliest death knell was delivered in the form of 3x5 index cards.

Santella’s new book, “Classic Rock Classic Jock,” dubs him the “Father of Progressive Radio in Buffalo.” It’s a fair label, one backed up by his inductions to both the Buffalo Broadcasters Hall of Fame and Buffalo Music Hall of Fame. Through a 45-year radio career that ended with his retirement in 2012, Santella worked for lengthy list of radio stations. Most of those stations’ call letters have since been retired, the victim of corporate restructuring or format takeovers. Example: Santella’s breakthrough as a pro came in 1968, when he joined the progressive rock station WYSL. He was soon fired and later rehired – the story of the biz, especially in those high-altitude days of radio – and stuck around long enough to see it become WPHD-FM. But Santella was long gone by the time WPHD became WUFX, “The Fox,” in 1989. (Today, we know that station as WEDG, “The Edge.”)

Santella’s media career is as varied as those call letters. As a radio man, he spun rock, country, jazz and, at the end of his career, blues on a popular show for WBFO-FM. (Amid this talk of radio-industry rockiness, let’s pause to celebrate the stalwart WBFO: Santella began his on-air career with the then-University at Buffalo station as a college student in the mid-1960s. He ended it there too, when the station – still called WBFO – was a public broadcasting entity conjoined with the television station WNED.)

Santella also worked on the production side in television, including a stint with the political satirist Mark Russell, and for several years was a freelance reviewer for The Buffalo News. But radio defined his career, and Santella’s tales from the airwaves shape his memoir.

After a brief biographical dip into his early years on Buffalo’s East Side (where he inhaled blues music and samples of barbecued ribs from his neighbors) and West Side (where he soaked up free concerts through the acoustically porous back walls of Kleinhans Music Hall), he digs in: Santella writes about backstage interviews with rock luminaries. Some, like Joan Baez, were charming. Others, like David Bowie, were daunting until Santella loosened up and just chatted. (This provided a helpful note for would-be interviews: A good one is a simply a conversation, not a performance.)

And then there was Jerry Garcia, who deadened an interview request by grabbing Santella’s microphone, passing gas into it, and in what must have been the early-day version of a mic drop, throwing it to the floor.

Garcia’s exhibition wasn’t because he disliked Santella personally. He was blowing air into a bigger landscape, one he didn’t like. Santella’s station – WYSL at the time – had been purchased by the McLendon Corporation, a pioneer in Top 40 radio programming. But Garcia was unimpressed. His Grateful Dead was a jam band; by definition, their music flowed. It wasn’t planned. He apparently, preferred radio to be that way, too.

So did Santella, who in the earliest years of his career built a following by mixing Jimi Hendrix with the Lovin’ Spoonful with Santana. Today that would be called mismatching; back then, the playlists and on-air chatter were a reflection of the jock’s personality, social views and musical tastes.

So, too, were the on-air stunts. Santella had plenty of those through his career, but none more dramatic than the one he pulled three years after his Garcia interview fell to flatulence.

It was April 24, 1972, and Santella had learned that McLendon cut his station’s music library from 5,000 records to 500. Also cut: A deejay’s ability to chat at will, and at length, about what was happening in the world. (Which at the time was a post-Woodstock, Nixon-domineered, ’Nam-dominated political climate.) So Santella made a bold choice: That night, he began his show by saying, “Management has the right to do what they want because it is their station, but I also have the right to express myself.”

Santella had one album with him – a Jefferson Airplane record. He laid it down and played a single song, “Lather,” and walked out.

The protest didn’t end well for Santella, but that firing (nor any of other axes that dropped during his career) neither ended his radio days nor softened his resolve. His decades as a broadcaster served as the antithesis to what Santella calls “corporate rock”: a programming approach begun in 1975 where jocks play music from a relatively short list of choices (if there’s a choice at all). In the earlier days, those choices were contained in boxes of 3x5 index cards. Later, and still today, they’re on computer.

But in a highly programmed digital world, Santella remained an analog man. Because to him, the choices and the talk are where you connect with listeners.

Santella’s book captures a slice of a decades-long radio struggle at a time when the medium is in a match for survival. Forget, for a moment, how radio is programmed. Today, radio is in a fight with streaming for its very existence. (Existence as we know it, at least.) Today, as a listener, you’re your own programmer. You can connect with music when you want, how you want. You can mix Mariah and Madonna with Miley and Rihanna.

Which, ironically, is exactly the vibe Santella wanted all along.

Except you’re your own jock. You’re your own Jim Santella.

Tim O’Shei is a staff reporter for The Buffalo News.