A few blog posts ago, I wrote about where I mostly heard The Music in the early ’60s, WLS out of Chicago, Ill. (Got more response to that post than pretty much anything I’ve written here — lots of Facebook friends/CGIOMH readers were tuned into 890 on the AM dial back then, too.)
But LS wasn’t the only radio station I listened to back in that day. We often tuned over to WCFL when 890’s five minutes of news kept the hits from keepin’ on comin’, and also occasionally to WOKY out of Milwaukee.
More often, at least later in the ’60s, it was KAAY, from Little Rock, Ark., that was our WLS alternative. The Friendly Giant, as it was known, like LS was a clear-channel station — it had enough power (50,000 watts) that the Federal Communications Commission allowed it exclusive use of its frequency.
The AM signal travels further at night, and the non-clear-channel stations had to cut back their power after sunset, so as not to interfere with other stations with the same frequency, or close to it. WLS, KAAY and the other big boys could just let it rip at after dark.
KAAY went Top 40 two years after WLS switched its format in 1960. Don’t remember if I listened to the Mighty 1090 as early as that, but I would imagine that I was tuning up the dial from 890 by the mid-60s; I distinctly recall hearing it while we cruised the Circuit in the hometown, Janesville, Wis., which I started doing in ’65 or so, with my older brother.
Coming from the Deep South, KAAY was a bit exotic in some ways for young, Upper Midwestern years, even if it was playing essentially the same music as the Chicago stations. For one thing, there were the University of Arkansas Razorback football games; we thought the “Sooey, pig, pig, pig” cheer was redneck funny.
I probably listened to KAAY more as the ’60s waned, though, because the station later in the decade debuted “Beaker Street,” an 11 p.m. program that presaged the FM “underground” rock radio revolution. Until I did some research online, I wasn’t aware — or didn’t remember — that the “beaker” in the program’s name was an allusion to chemistry, as in the kind that produced psychedelic drugs.
The program did indeed play the “acid rock” that was becoming more popular in the late ’60s, but also blues and other non-Top 40 stuff. The show was hosted by Clyde Clifford, whose name is one of the few I remember from the KAAY staff. (According to an online article, the KAAY DJs used as on-air monikers the names of members of the station’s board of directors — which may have appealed to the Suits’ egos, but also occasionally mortified them.)
(One of the things “Beaker Street” listeners will remember is its eerie, spacey theme music. That sound track was used to mask the noise the KAAY transmitter made; Clifford broadcast the show from the station’s transmitter facility, because management could save money by not having to pay a DJ and an engineer. The music was originally from a Henry Mancini movie soundtrack, later by a band named Head.)
Another interesting tidbit that turned up in my research was the influence “Beaker Street” had on musicians in Cuba, who listened to it because it was one of the few American rock stations with the power to reach the island. The Communist government restricted how much music sung in English could be broadcast on Cuban stations; the young people were listening to this forbidden fruit, ironically, on Soviet Union-made radios.
KAAY also ran something called “Beaker Theatre,” which attempted to recreate the radio theater of the pre-television days. The Wikipedia entry says that the show sometimes aired the recordings of, and live appearances by, one of my favorite “comedy” acts, the Firesign Theatre, whom I would stumble upon in 1969.
I don’t remember hearing the Four or Five Krazy Guys on the show. But they may have become part of “Beaker Theatre” after I moved to Madison in the summer of ’69, and began listening to Radio Free Madison — where I probably first heard Firesign Theatre — a few months later.
“Beaker Street” continued on the Mighty 1090 until 1977, when a program director terminated the program, resulting in the resignation of the host at the time, KAAY was later sold and its format converted to Christian broadcasting in 1985, which type of programming continues to this day.
After the format change, Clifford resurrected “Beaker Street” on a series of FM stations, and also live-streamed the show over the Internet; wish I’d have known that, because I would have probably given it a listen. The program came to its second end in early 2011, with Clifford — who was invited back to DJ the final hours of the station’s rock format — playing the same song he had cued up at the end in 1985, Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game.”
Former KAAY staffers and fans marked the 30th anniversary of that change — what they called “The Day the Music Died” — last year. At that time, a former KAAY employee was working on digitizing the hundreds, if not thousands, of reel-to-reel tapes of the station’s broadcasts that had been archived at its transmitter facility.
So there eventually may be “Beaker Street” shows and other KAAY programing available online or by other means. There is also a blog, the Mighty 1090 KAAY, available on the Internet. Either would help us remember the days when an Arkansas AM station influenced what Midwestern ears listened to.