If you don’t like the music I write about in this blog, there’s plenty of blame to go around. My tastes in rock and roll have been influenced by a lot of people and things: friends who shared music with me, the AM radio I listened to back in the ’60s, Rolling Stone magazine, etc.
But one major influence got its start 46 years ago this fall. Radio Free Madison began on Mad City’s WIBA-FM at a time when I was ripe for extending my musical horizons.
RFM made its debut on Halloween night, 1969. I don’t remember who turned me onto it, or when I started listening, but maybe I was influenced by the following item in the Capital Times, which newspaper I read at the time:
“Top 40, Rock
Radio Free Madison, a music program with a contemporary, progressive rock format, is now heard nightly on WIBA-FM, 101.5 on the dial, from 7 p.m. to midnight.
The program, which puts emphasis on the best of Top 40 and underground, has commercial time limited to less than half of the normal load of a contemporary music station.”
That story ran on Nov. 14, 1969. I’m pretty sure I was listening to WIBA two weeks later, to the coverage of the Selective Service lottery drawing; I remember lying on the floor, wondering when my number would come up (my birthday, June 10, was drawn 206th).
I thought I remembered RFM starting out as a weekend-only detour from WIBA’s regular programming, but that’s perhaps the fog of the years intervening. And I don’t recall Top 40 playing much of a part, unless it was the album cuts that had leaked over into the AM hit list.
Anyway, it was a breath of fresh air at the time. I didn’t have a huge recorded music collection, even counting the eight-track tapes I had gotten from one of those selection-of-the-month-club rip-offs, and here was a wealth of music, familiar and new.
What I wasn’t hearing was hi-fi. I had an amplifier, a turntable, the eight-track player and speakers at the time, but no receiver, so I ran an FM transistor radio through the amp. (I thought I was missing out on stereo, too, but a 55th-anniversary story about WIBA stated that the FM station didn’t switch from monaural until 1972.)
Not exactly audiophile quality, but I was getting the music. It was about more than the playlist, though — RFM had interesting disk jockeys, with names like Stryder and Riff; also, they played “extended journeys,” long songs and sets that you never heard on AM stations.
Some of the music I heard over Radio Free before long ended up in my record collection — among those albums was Led Zeppelin’s second, which was what I was listening to the night I first came under the sway of the Evil Herbal Supplements. Hearing an Incredible String Band cut on RFM likely influenced me to buy “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter,” and purchase of the Band’s second album and Van Morrison’s “Moondance” probably had the same inspiration.
Radio Free kept me company when I was driving taxi in the early ’70s, too. Another transistor radio, plugged into the cigarette lighter, was part of my cabbie kit (along with a book of science-fiction short stories to while away the slow periods).
I moved out of Madison for the last time in 1974, but still lived close enough that I could pick up the RFM signal. About that time, I had made one of my detours away from rock, listening more to jazz and serious music, but I do remember taping “The National Lampoon Radio Hour” off WIBA.
Newspaper stories I found implied that RFM continued on WIBA-FM until the late 1970s, but I moved out of Madison’s orbit in early 1977, and no longer could listen to it. When I returned to Mad City in later years, WIBA-FM sounded at times like your basic Adult Contemporary station, at other times like a Classic Rock outlet.
Other contemporaneous newspaper accounts reveal that RFM returned in the 1980s, on another Mad City station, WMAD. But the new version took “The Last DJ”-like flak from one Madison media columnist, Michael St. John, who wrote in December 1985:
“Although many fans probably did not know it at the time, one of the key elements of the Radio Free Madison concept was the broadcast of previously unplayed tracks at the minimum rate of four per hour. It wasn't an oldies show. It was seek-out-and-discover programming … If that's the kind of music that gets played during that time slot, it may well be an interesting three hours of flashback. But for this listener, it will not be Radio Free Madison. Frankly, I don't think any station ever will.”
That version of RFM was on WMAD into the late 1980s. Something more akin to the original show was revived by the man who originated the concept at WIBA-FM, Rick Murphy; his program eventually appeared on two different Mad City radio stations, both times as a one-night-a-week program, well into the 1990s. At one point, though, two stations were fighting over the name, and running competing versions.
St. John was probably right, that there would never be another Radio Free Madison, at least on broadcast FM. But Deep Tracks on SiriusXM fulfills much the same function for me now, turning me on to new music.
Of course, these days it’s old music, albeit new to me, nor is the satellite variety “radio free.” But even the guy who wrote “The Last DJ” is on pay-per-listen; rock legend Tom Petty’s “Buried Treasure” is one of the ways that Deep Tracks expands my musical horizons.