WNEW-FM and the Golden Age of Streaming

Back when I was a kid, music streaming was awesome. The music of that era—I'm talking about the late 1960s to the mid '70s—was so good, it would eventually become known as classic rock. The streams were in high-quality analog sound, spun from actual LPs. And there were no monthly fees—all streaming was free!

Except we didn't call it streaming. We called it radio.

This is to a slight extent a technology story. Invented in 1933 and updated for stereo decades later, FM radio didn't start to pick up speed until 1965. That was when the FCC forbade station owners from broadcasting identical content on the AM and FM bands, declaring that "it is a waste of valuable spectrum space to use two frequencies to bring the same material to the same location." When mass market stereo receivers incorporated FM stereo as a feature, the perfect storm for a new kind of radio formed.

Now FM stations had their own alternative personalities and listeners were free to blast countercultural content through speakers or, while sitting in the same room with our parents, tune in with headphones and quietly blow our minds. At that point, the technology story became a cultural story. All the rich veins of music deemed too non-mainstream for hit-single-oriented AM thrived on album-centric FM, prompting George Carlin to devote a monologue to the generational divide (and debut album) he called AM/FM.

I was definitely a shaggy-haired FM listener. The kind of streaming (excuse me, radio) I liked was variously called progressive, underground, or freeform rock radio. Today the closest equivalent is probably college radio, yet the DJs who were my gurus were not college kids, but far more persuasive grownups, youngish to middle-aged ones, with impeccably hip taste. There were no playlists then. For a precious and all too brief time, station owners and program directors would hire good DJs and let them play whatever they wanted. They were free to transcend the three-minute pop songs that ruled AM with longer album cuts. We were frolicking with unicorns in a musical utopia.

Though San Francisco's KSAN-FM is often credited as the first freeform rock radio station, the one to which I was happily addicted was New York's WNEW-FM. The signal was strong enough to reach central Jersey, where I grew up. Every day after school I would tune in to 102.7 on the FM dial. It would be no exaggeration to say that what I heard shaped who I am today—a guy with a magnificent record collection, who loves music as much as life itself, and chose a profession that would let me meditate on it at length.

The first voice I heard when I got home from school was that of Donald Allen Muñoz, better known as Scott Muni. His air of authority stemmed partly from what the New York Times called his "deep, leisurely, fogbound voice," partly from his status as program director during the critical decade of the 1970s, and partly from his encyclopedic knowledge of music, which earned him the nickname The Professor. Older than the other DJs, Muni started his career in 1950 at Radio Guam while serving in the Marines. He moved to New York's WMCA in 1955 and worked for WABC-AM during its Top 40 glory days, when the station introduced New York area listeners to the Beatles. But the most influential part of his career didn't begin till he joined WNEW-FM in the heady year of 1967.

Muni's afternoon show, which ran from 2 to 6 p.m., is now the stuff of legend. His obit in the Times tells the story of how "Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin collapsed in mid-sentence; Mr. Muni played an album, revived the guitarist and finished the interview with Mr. Page lying on the floor." He put a new band with a name like a law firm, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, on the air and let them play DJ. Once he took a call-in from someone who had just robbed a bank.

But Muni's enduring achievement was to turn budding Beatlemaniacs into confirmed Anglophiles with his weekly "Things from England" segment on Friday afternoons. He played the music American record companies didn't think we were hip enough to like. It was because of Muni that buying LPs at the department stores along Route 22, like Two Guys and Korvette's, wasn't enough. I had to seek out British imports at Century Sound in the Woodbridge Mall. He was a fixture on various New York stations for nearly 50 years until his death in 2004.

I spent more hours listening to Jonathan Schwartz's 6 to 10 p.m. show than anyone's because it didn't conflict with school or bedtime. It was Schwartz who introduced me to Jade Warrior, and to Gentle Giant's progressive rock masterpiece In a Glass House, which inexplicably did not receive a U.S. LP release. Thanks to freeform rock radio, it went on to become one of the bestselling import LPs of the era. With his warm, affable, conversational style, Schwartz could get you to listen to anything.

Schwartz loved the Stones and played both the now-classic-rock of the era as well as beloved obscurities like Thunderclap Newman. But he kept a lot of the music he loved under his hat. The son of Broadway and movie composer Arthur Schwartz, Jonathan loved the American Songbook, which he calls "America's classical music." But playing the music of his father's generation was taboo at a rock station, even a freeform rock station—until Schwartz broke the taboo. I still remember when he played Frank Sinatra on the air for the first time. He now spins American Songbook on WNYC-FM.

The 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift belonged to Ceil Loman, better known as Alison Steele, "The Night Bird." The sole holdover from a short-lived all-female DJ lineup, Steele began every program with atmospheric Andean flute music and a poetry reading. She ended with more spoken word over the Beatles' "Flying." Years after her death, I saw a picture of her for the first time and found that it precisely matched my long-held mental image of the woman with that calm, sexy, husky voice and that gentle, intimate, hypnotic manner.

Like the other DJs, Steele devoted some airtime to mainstream rock acts but seemed more attuned to progressive bands like the Moody Blues. The only time I've ever heard King Crimson's "Fracture" on the air was on her program. But she is also remembered for giving exposure to new age artists like Tangerine Dream and unclassifiables like the classical synthesist Tomita. Her questing taste and epic-length sets were probably ideal for tokers of the era (though I wouldn't know, I didn't partake then). Steele also served as the station's program director before moving on to other radio and TV gigs including CNN.

In an era when rock concerts were rare on TV, WNEW-FM delivered live music regularly. I'll never forget a leisurely night at Madison Square Garden with the New Riders of the Purple Sage opening for the Grateful Dead. I listened to it in bed, on a transistor radio, with the volume low so my parents wouldn't know. A broadcast with the Climax Blues Band went on to become a live double LP with the gatefold art prominently featuring a radio tuned to 102.7. The station also used syndicated content such as the King Biscuit Flour Hour. Later it would broadcast a series from the Bottom Line, a legendary club that was just small enough to be intimate and just big enough to attract serious acts.

WNEW-FM was still in its prime in 1975, when I made the transition from high school to college. There I was busy all day and half the night, too busy for long hours of radio listening, so I missed the station's support for the emerging punk and new wave movements in the late '70s and early '80s. Perhaps the beginning of the station's end came when it adopted the defensive-sounding slogan Where Rock Lives, though many listeners have happy memories of that era. But the formal end of WNEW-FM as a rock station came in 1999 when it switched to "hot talk" radio. The final set included "Thank You" by Led Zeppelin, "Better Things" by the Kinks, and both "The End" and the final chord of "A Day in the Life" by the Beatles.

Thereupon shock jocks Opie & Anthony took over the station and told listeners "it died years ago" and had "the longest funeral ever." Through various ownership and format changes, it was subsequently rechristened Blink 102.7, Mix 102.7, and Fresh 102.7 before finally relinquishing the WNEW call letters in favor of WWFS. The WNEW call letters were later used in Florida and the District of Columbia and for various digital HD Radio stations before returning to the main 102.7 channel in New York just last year.

So there is once again a New York radio station called WNEW-FM at 102.7. But those are just letters and numbers to me now. The golden days of freeform rock radio are gone. Traces remain on the internet and on Facebook, where the WNEW-FM Fan Page is the nicest virtual gathering of people I've encountered online. I'm not the only one who remembers.

Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems, available in both print and Kindle editions.

garysi's picture

Sitting in my friend's bedroom with the stereo on, cruisin in the car with friends and 'NEW blasting. A floodgate of memories. Hearing the announcement of tickets for shows like The Stones, The WHo, Tull and Zep going on sale the next day at 9AM at MSG meant hopping in the car, driving into the city and waiting in a line, on the sidewalk, in front of the Garden all night to get the best seats in the house(before Ticketmaster). I bought In A Glass House after hearing it on NEW. So many memories,

thehun's picture

when someone else chose what I was gonna listen to... glad I'm not that old.

Mark Fleischmann's picture
That's fine and good if you know what you want to listen to. At my age, I finally do, and I have an LP/CD collection to back it up (plus access to Spotify, et al). But when I was 11 years old, adult DJs who had heard all the stuff I hadn't heard brought daily revelations. I imagine some folks today feel the same about Pandora.
Markoz's picture

I agree, Mark F. My taste ranges from metal to classical. Most of the classical I know and love I heard on CBC (Canada) during its "golden age". That includes some pretty obscure stuff.

Now radio is formulaic and plastered with ads. I love to sit in front of my sound system with friends. I fire up Tidal and each one of us picks music in turns. I've come across lots of great new sounds that way too.

Michaela's picture

My "classic rock" musical tastes were similarly formed while listening to WNEW-FM in the 70s. I'd add the contributions of Vin Scelsa and Pete Fornatel, two of the station's free-form DJs who were later heard on WFUV-FM well into this century. (Pete died in 2012; Vin retired two years ago.)

quah's picture

Nice piece. Brings back great memories. I was similarly affected by WNEW-FM in the 70s. Yes, Vin Scelsa and Pete Fornatale were also terrific. So were Dennis Elsas and Meg Griffin. It was a big part of my teen years.

Michaela's picture

And, of course, Dennis Elsas continues as WFUV's afternoon weekday host and if you can't pick up the FM broadcast, the station can be streamed at http://wfuv.org/on-air

efgaug's picture

I grew up in Bergen County NJ so WNEW was certainly the premier Rock station in the area. Quality programming and personalities never to be duplicated. I cherish my WNEW "Rock Box" 4 CD collection that WNEW issued. It was printed on the outside to resemble, a common at the time, portable CD player. Thanks for the well written article and memories.

John_Werner's picture

In North Alabama we had WJLN which was, in the late sixties and early 70's a R&B/Soul station during the day and evening hours. At the stroke of midnight it became an entirely different affair. Birmingham Alabama's first freeform station later to be branded, correctly as in the article, progressive rock. It was dead-air time to the station's owners so whatever arrangement was made was obviously loose. Few ads of any kind and whole album sides. The station rode the wave of the burgeoning FM Rock movement and in a couple of years, likely by '73, the station was 24-hours progressive rock. It was a bit different in that album sides were shelved, except on Sunday nights in which a new release was played in it's entirety, to "deep tracks" which were the polar opposite of the Top 40 AM radio. I say all this because though I never got to listen to the great WNEW I was made aware of it by WJLN who played The King Biscuit Flour Hour every Saturday evening and broke The Climax Blues Band's "FM Live" which both featured intros by Scott Munni of WNEW. As a 14-year old budding audiophile I was already reading Stereo Review and I vividly remember borrowing FM Live and making a reel to reel dub on my Wollensak 4-track reel to reel with Team AN-60 outboard Dolby B NR unit. I think this says a lot about how radio, Stereo Review, and music shaped this kid. I want to say this article brought back memories of all of that in a very positive way. It makes me long for the return of great musical programming with iconic DJ's on FM. It could one of several reasons for FM to once more re-invent itself.