Voices in the Purple Haze

Underground radio wasn't all that radical, but it transformed the medium, says Keith in new book

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

American underground radio had a brief yet colorful life in the national spotlight, says Senior Lect. Michael Keith (Communication), marked by paradox and controversy. But it also had an important influence on the industry's development, he adds, and contributed greatly to American popular culture.

Keith offers a glimpse at the era and its legacy in his forthcoming book Voices in the Purple Haze: Underground Radio and the Sixties . The book describes the rise of underground radio as an alternative to the dominant Top-40 style, and the people who were part of its success, more than 30 of whom Keith interviewed. Among the subjects are Boston area radio personality Charles Laquidara and Larry Miller, now a part-time faculty member in the Communication Department.

Combining their anecdotes and insights with a more formal narrative, Keith has fashioned a distinctive oral history of an unusual, groundbreaking period which saw an uneasy meshing of radical lifestyles and corporate philosophies.

"The way radio is now, with such a wide array of programming, it's hard to appreciate just how innovative underground radio was," Keith said. "It had a completely different approach: You didn't have the screaming DJs, the silly jingles and, most of all, you had more sophisticated, even provocative music which went beyond the strict two-minutes-and-out formula. Underground radio provided a venue for artists like Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and the Doors, who were getting short shrift on the Top-40 stations, and brought them to a far wider audience.

Senior Lect. Michael Keith (Communication)-"The way radio is now, with such a wide array of programming, it's hard to appreciate just how innovative underground radio was." (Photo by Gary Gilbert)

"When you look at the 1960s and what they meant to society and culture," he continued, "the media looms as both an influence on and a participant in the events. The time was simply right for underground radio. It reflected a national mood and gave impetus to it at the same time. That there could be a popular radio format so different than the established one was a revelation and this set the stage for the diversity we have today."

The story of underground radio's peak period, which Keith identifies as 1967-72, is rife with irony. Although the term "underground" suggests a surreptitious, unauthorized operation, Keith points out that these mostly FM stations were largely owned and operated by larger AM stations, which often were themselves the property of major corporations. Once the success and popularity of the underground format became evident, he says, the industry sought to assimilate it and eventually the FM stations became part of the mainstream they had once eschewed.

"No one takes credit for inventing the phrase 'underground radio,' and people I talked to really didn't like it," Keith said. "The whole thing was a contradiction in terms and that's part of what fascinated me. How can you say you're 'underground' when anyone with a radio can pick you up? How can you stand for the counter-culture, yet have your hand out to major advertisers? If this is all free-form radio with no structure, how do you figure out what to play and when?"

It was an unusual way of doing business, Keith says, and often reflected the tenor of the times. An announcer who broadcast his support for a radical political group was arrested by federal authorities on the spot, for instance, and when a San Francisco bank that had been the target of demonstrations and attacks sought to bolster its image by advertising on underground radio, a station representative suggested the campaign slogan be "There's a Bank of America a stone's throw from where you live."

But the underground radio era stood for far more than iconoclasm and eccentricity, Keith says. Stations enjoyed a true kinship with their audiences, as well as with the performers they featured, he points out. Through its eagerness to go beyond the mainstream, underground radio introduced many fresh voices, some of whom would later be embraced by popular culture.

In the book, for example, former ABC-FM executive Allan Shaw describes his search for talent to produce creative promotional spots for the station. Shaw auditioned many candidates, but in the end he was most impressed with an obscure English song-writing duo seeking to gain a foothold in America: Elton John and Bernie Taupin.

"The people who were part of underground radio had a desire to make a statement, to give the medium a fresh outlook," Keith said. "They got away with it for a few years, before everyone else realized there was a market for what they were doing and co-opted it. The era of underground radio serves as a reminder, perhaps, that in the commercial marketplace free expression can be a very precious commodity."

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