Wednesday, September 09, 2009

From Hometown to Hippie: Evolution of AM Radio

When I moved to Elkhart 20 years ago, the local AM radio station, WTRC, 1340, was strictly hometown. If you wanted to hear the big game between the Elkhart Memorial Crimson Chargers and the Elkhart Central Blue Blazers, you tuned to 1340. You could always get the local weather, news and sports. For a couple of hours a day, there was a program called "Sound Off," where people called in with their opinions. There were the usual fix-it shows. Every morning the announcer would read local birthdays. On February 29, 1992, they even gave ages--based on the number of leap year birthdays. WTRC even covered one of the last meetings of the Ambrose Bierce Cynics' Society meetings, with a special appearance of "Ambrosia," a local Bierce fan who exhorted us all to read "A Horseman in the Sky."

All that changed in the mid-1990s, when WTRC switched to an easy-listening format. My wife, Kathleen, called it "All Barry Manilow All the Time." The format lasted a few years. There was still some local content, though. I'm not sure what the target audience was, but WTRC managed to drive away just about everybody who didn't care for Barry Manilow. But compared to the next incarnation of WTRC, it was a joy to to listen to.

Like way too many stations, it went to a right-wing talk-show format. I don't believe it ever carried Rush Limbaugh, who was the star attraction of WSBT-AM over in South Bend, but it had a guy named Garrison who was almost as obnoxious. One day in the fall of 2002, I was forced to listen to Garrison when I was riding on the the city bus. The driver had the show on full-blast. Garrison was denouncing all Democrats, especially those who dared to question George W. Bush's plans to invade Iraq. One caller said Garrison should make an exception for Georgia Senator Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran and triple amputee. Garrison, as I recall, wasn't swayed. No exceptions for Democrats. The station had also carried G. Gordon Liddy's radio show, but dropped it--not because of Liddy's neo-fascist views, but because of his vulgar language.

So I was amazed to see an ad in the Elkhart Truth for "Hippie Radio 1340." Kathleen and I listened to it and were pleasantly surprised. It was an oldies station, but it played the likes of Judy Collins, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and The Mamas and the Papas. It had fewer advertisements than the FM oldies station, though that will probably change in time. The "Hippie Radio" format is nationally syndicated, but at least some of the programming is local.

The term "hippie," once carrying all sorts of associations with the drug culture, has long since been rendered harmless. I've been doing a lot of research about the 1968 Democratic Convention for the novel I'm working on, and "hippie" was the Chicago Tribune's term of choice for all of the demonstrators at the convention, from the nonviolent antiwar activists, to the Yippies, to the people who fought against the rampaging police. Nobody would dare start up a "hippie radio" station in Chicago, 1968.

During the 1960s, a lot of the people labeled "hippie" resented the term. In fact, closing event of the 1967 "Summer of Love" in San Francisco was a mock funeral called "Death of Hippie."

Hippie, of course, never died. It's now innocuous, a label for nostalgic baby-boomers, most of whom never adopted the countercultural lifestyle, much less went to San Francisco with flowers in their hair. I guess I'm one of them. I had the long hair, but never embraced Timothy Leary's "Turn on, tune in, drop out" philosophy. Instead, I sold "McCarthy's Million" buttons to my high-school classmates. I was "clean for Gene."

I still love the music on Hippie Radio. But please, people of WTRC--the next time you play "Light My Fire," play the whole song, not the Top 40 truncated version that cuts off Ray Manzarek's organ solo.


Charles Gramlich said...

Easy listening is just a curse, man. Just a curse.

Rick said...

Come to think of it, you're right. I learned about hippies from bad movies and worse television. Liked this posting a lot and good luck on your novel.

Rick said...

It is a novel, right?

Peter said...

Our one local radio station died this summer. The Washington Post article on the closure blamed the lack of local advertisers. All of the mom and pop stores have closed, and all the chain and big box stores advertise on chain radio stations now.

There's little sense of place on radio anymore, it seems to me, except on NPR affiliates to some degree.

steve on the slow train said...

Charles: Less of a curse than Rush Limbaugh, but a curse nonetheless.

Rick--Welcome. I thought about doing an essay on the history of "hippie." Maybe in a later post. Yes, it is a novel--a sort of fantasy-magical realism piece.

Peter--Until WTRC switched to the hippie format, we listened almost exclusively to public stations. I didn't think about the economics of the situation, but what you say makes sense.

twoblueday said...

Better yet, never play "Light My Fire" again.

Shauna Roberts said...

We listen primarily to public radio, too. Mostly WWOZ in New Orleans, which we get via their Web broadcast.

It's still hard to believe that the '60s have receded so far in memory that the station can use the word "hippy." I remember when that was a word evoking strong feelings, positive or negative, but never neutral.

Hippie Trish said...

What a great article. Thanks for listening and writing about us. Now that Hippie Radio 1340 is up and running we are working on making it even better. Check us out at

Hippie Trish said...

Hippie Radio 1340 is also on Facebook. Become a fan!