Friday, February 25, 2011

Grateful Dead Live FM Broadcasts 1968-1969 (FM Broadcasts I)

(the poster for the Grateful Dead/Country Joe And The Fish concert at the Carousel Ballroom on February 14, 1968, the first live remote FM broadcast of a Grateful Dead show)

An intriguing tangent on a recent Comment thread brought up the subject of FM broadcasts of live Grateful Dead concerts. While Deadhead scholars have identified FM sources with their usual thoroughness, I realized that there has been little discussion anywhere about the practice of broadcasting rock concerts on FM radio, whether taped or live. Like many other aspects of Late 20th Century rock music, this practice started in San Francisco and the Grateful Dead were the leading practitioners. Nonetheless, even the most musically connected scholars take this practice for granted, and the Dead get no credit for having helped create and define the idea.

Another researcher has published an exceptional list of known Grateful Dead FM broadcasts. Rather than duplicate this excellent work, I am beginning a series of posts not on the actual FM tapes of live Grateful Dead, but of the history of live FM broadcasts as I know them, and the business background to each of the broadcasts as best as I can discern them.

KMPX-fm And The Rise Of Rock Radio
Former Autumn Records producer and KYA-am dj Tom Donahue took over programming for KMPX fm in San Francisco in February, 1967. DJ Larry Miller had the midnight-to-six am shift to start with, and by April 7, Donahue was playing rock music 24/7, featuring himself in the primetime evening shift. The FM dial up until then was hardly used, much less listened to, but the superior fidelity of the medium was ideal for stereo 60s rock music. Local rock fans had been stuck listening to the local Top 40 stations (KFRC-610 and KYA-1260 in San Francisco, and KLIV-1590 in San Jose).

AM  radio formats were more liberal than they would become later, and the local stations often played singles by the likes of The Grateful Dead or Country Joe and The Fish. KLIV in San Jose was particularly invested in making hits out of records by South Bay bands like The Syndicate Of Sound or The Chocolate Watch Band. However, occasionally playing "Cream Puff War" still gave rock fans little idea of what the Grateful Dead or a Fillmore concert was really like.

KMPX changed rock radio for the better, and it did it within two months. Suddenly a radio station was playing album cuts of whatever he happened to find cool or interesting, and there was a lot of cool and interesting music coming from America and England in 1967. If a band had a demo tape, KMPX djs would broadcast it, and if the band wanted to come by and hang out, even better. A tape circulates from late April 67, featuring Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia sitting in the dj booth with Tom Donahue, playing records they liked. This was in the first month that KMPX was on the air all day, and having one of Haight Ashbury's hippest bands playing records was a clear indicator of what was to come.

Its easy now to make fun of the mellow, stoned sounding late night fm rock dj, but he talked like his listeners, and he was a welcome relief from the frantic patter of the typical AM dj. KMPX-fm was the soundtrack to the Summer Of Love for many people, because if you found yourself staring at the ceiling for several hours (for some reason or another) you could just turn on the radio and it would play all the cool stuff you would want to hear, some of which you didn't even know about yet. KMPX had suddenly made the FM radio dial a viable option.

Make no mistake: KMPX was a commercial proposition, and a very successful one at that. The station had ad salesmen, but they mostly had long hair and wore jeans. The market for KMPX ads wasn't car dealers and banks, but head shops, clothing stores and record companies. Lots of kids in and near San Francisco who weren't able or allowed to go the Fillmore could still listen to the station and absorb the coolness, and they all bought jeans, records and posters. KMPX rapidly became very profitable, and the rest of the industry took notice. The national spread of rock music can be directly correlated to the spread of FM rock radio. When you are looking for when a city "got hip" in the 1960s, it almost always conforms to when the first FM rock station started broadcasting.

May 30, 1967-HALO Concert
Tom Donahue and KMPX were making up the rules of FM rock radio as they went along, since no one had ever done it before. To my knowledge, the first major rock concert broadcast on FM radio was the HALO Concert at Winterland on May 30, 1967. It was a benefit for the Haight Ashbury Legal Organization, lawyers who focused on representing hippies who were busted by the cops for pot and other things. The show featured many of the biggest San Francisco bands, and the poster advertised Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Big Brother and The Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service and The Charlatans.

FM radio had been conceived of as a medium for audiophiles, and much of what was broadcast came from college campuses. Most of the music broadcast was classical or jazz. The technology of live remote FM broadcasts was known, but it was oriented towards providing a clear signal from microphones in an acoustically exceptional room. There was no history of FM broadcasts of electrically amplified instruments in an environment where "distortion," forbidden in other contexts, was an essential part of the musical soundscape. I believe that the HALO Concert at Winterland was planned as the first FM remote live rock concert broadcast, but I do not know if it was ever in fact put on the air.

A board tape of the Quicksilver Messenger Service performance circulates. Tom Donahue is the announcer and he emcees the show in a manner that suggests that the concert was being broadcast. He also talks as if the concert is being broadcast live, since he encourages listeners to "come on down." Was this the first live concert broadcast? Was it actually broadcast? No one seems to know. One issue that compounds these questions is the fact that home tape recorders were not widely available, and even fewer (if any) had the capacity to record "line in" like we all have done with a cassette or digital deck. Thus, even if the entire concert was broadcast in real time, no one may have recorded it. I don't know the lineage of the Quicksilver tape, but I suspect it is actually a preserved copy of the "pre-FM" tape.

I have discussed at length in another post my theory that the Grateful Dead may not have actually played at the HALO Concert, so I won't recap it all again. We may never know if the concert was actually broadcast, or if all of the concert was actually broadcast. However, Tom Donahue's introduction suggests that it was intended for a live remote broadcast, and may have been, so the idea of live remote FM broadcasts was at least under consideration in May 1967.

February 14, 1968 Carousel Ballroom
On Valentine's Day, 1968, the Grateful Dead and Country Joe and The Fish played the Carousel Ballroom. This was the second show at the Carousel after the various San Francisco bands had agreed to run the Carousel as a sort of collective (the first was January 17 with the Dead and Quicksilver). The late sets of Country Joe and The Fish and the Grateful Dead were broadcast on KMPX and have circulated widely over the years. Conventional practice at the time for San Francisco concerts was that the bill went around twice, so the order of sets would have been CJF/Dead/CJF/Dead, and only the last two sets were broadcast. The Feb 14 '68 broadcast is the first confirmed live broadcast of a major rock show (there may have been a few trivial experiments on college campuses), and may be the first one ever (depending on the HALO Concert and whatever may or may not have happened in obscurity).

I feel confident in saying that Warner Brothers and Vanguard (the bands' labels) had never considered the idea that their groups could be broadcast live on the radio in real time, so they wouldn't have had a "policy" about it. On the other hand, from the point of view of a record label, if their band could receive airplay for 45 minutes straight on the top-rated station in the demographic, they would be very much in favor of it. I also don't know if The Fish and The Dead asked "permission" from their labels--probably not. Nonetheless, while the labels would have been in favor of it, they would have liked to have known in advance so that they could try and make a promotional splash about it. No one has ever asked Joe Smith about this topic, however, nor anything else about Warners attitude towards Dead FM broadcasts, so we will have to wait on that for now, but subsequent events suggest that Smith and Warners were very much in favor of live remote broadcasts.

What remains lost in history is the relationship of KMPX to the broadcast. Although both the Dead and CJF tapes have widely circulated, I have only of the dj comments after the performances, but nothing from before or between sets. Was there a sponsor for the broadcasts? It's important to remember that radio stations sell ads by the minute, and giving up a couple of hours (total) broadcast time equals a significant amount of lost ad revenue. In the 1960s, it was uncool for events to be "sponsored" (even NASCAR was cautious about it), but the subsidizing entity would have been thanked on air. The most likely candidate for a subsidy would have been the record companies, but that remains a mystery as of this writing.

Its also possible that KMPX simply broadcast the bands in order to be cool, foregoing the ad revenue. For one thing, the late sets by CJF and The Dead would have been 11:00 o'clock or later, and late night revenue would have been lighter. For another, in 1968 San Francisco being cool was coin of the realm. If Donahaue agreed to broadcast the show for nothing, however, that would explain why the experiment was rarely repeated for some years. Commercial stations will rarely give up commercial revenue just to be "cool," and they weren't inclined to let hours and hours of music play while there were no ads. Also, whatever technical issues may have been involved, I suspect the electronics of it were still fairly new, and there may not have been a lot of available expertise for other live broadcasts, which is why I do not know of another live remote FM concert broadcast until 1969.

April 6, 1969-Avalon Ballroom
The next live remote FM broadcast of a rock concert that I am aware of was at the Avalon Ballroom on April 6, 1969. All three bands on the bill, The Grateful Dead, The Flying Burrito Brothers and AUM, were broadcast over KPFA-fm radio in Berkeley. KPFA was part of the Pacifica Network, and was a publicly funded station (mostly by donations-it is also the home of the annual KFPA Grateful Dead Marathon). Tapes of all three bands circulate, and from the dj cut-ins, it is clear that the bands are being broadcast live.

I do not know the circumstances of the KPFA broadcast, so I don't know why it wasn't repeated. While KPFA would not have been foregoing ad revenue in order to broadcast the show--it didn't have ads--since the station was run on a shoestring, even the minimal financing required for the broadcast would have been beyond the means of the station. I have always assumed that the Grateful Dead provided a lot of the technical know how for the broadcast (with one Owsley Stanley acting as chief engineer), but I do not know how remote equipment was financed. Its worth noting that if this were solely a Grateful Dead project, neither the Flying Burrito Brothers nor AUM would have been broadcast, so there must have been an organized effort by somebody. Although the tapes circulate widely, I have never heard any pre-, post- or between-set commentary by KPFA djs on any copy, so I don't know if there was anything to be learned.

At various times in 1968 and '68, KPFA had a Sunday night broadcast of rock concerts recorded live at the Fillmore and Avalon. These were usually broadcast within days or weeks of recordings, and were often listed in various underground papers (like Scenedrome in the Berkeley Barb). These mono board tapes were the basis of a lot of San Francisco rock that has circulated over the years, particularly for groups like The Sons Of Champlin or AB Skhy, who didn't have the popularity of the Dead or the Airplane. I know nothing about how the tapes were recorded and/or obtained, and who was responsible for the broadcast. I do not think any of the tapes are "lost," but I don't have any more than random bits of information about these broadcasts. While the KPFA broadcasts were not commercial per se, I think they played an important role in getting Bay Area rock fans acclimated to the idea live rock music was worthy of listening to as it was made, separate from studio recordings.

The Avalon closed after April 6, 1969, so whatever arrangements may have been under consideration for the KPFA broadcast would likely have been voided anyway. In March, 1968, the KMPX staff had gone on strike, a seminal event in rock history (I have discussed Jerry Garcia's historic appearance with Traffic at the strike here and here), and they all moved to KSAN-fm, "The Jive 95," which would dominate San Francisco rock music until the mid-1970s. Tom Donahue and KSAN were pivotal in developing the art form of the live rock concert broadcast, but in 1969 the station was still putting its house in order, even though it was almost instantly the most popular rock station as soon as it began broadcasting in April 1968.

June 13, 1969-Family Dog On The Great Highway
When Chet Helms re-opened his Family Dog out on the Great Highway, at Playland-At-The-Beach, he debuted the room with the Jefferson Airplane on June 13, 1969. It is my understanding that this concert was broadcast on FM radio. I have always assumed that this was a KSAN broadcast. I don't know that for a fact, and I have never actually heard the tape, but KSAN seems the most likely candidate. Jefferson Airplane broadcasts were considerably rarer than Grateful Dead broadcasts, and this may be the first one (notwithstanding HALO).

I would love more information on the FDGH Airplane broadcast, but I don't have any. As to who financed the broadcast--the question of most interest to me--it very well may have been Chet Helms and his backers (whoever they may have been). It is worth noting that other San Francisco bands seem to have had a similar nascent involvement to live concert broadcasts, but only the Dead took it up in a serious way.

By the end of 1969, the Grateful Dead had participated in the first confirmed live remote FM broadcast of a rock concert, and probably the second one as well. KSAN was one of, if not the, most important outlets for rock radio in the country, and they would shortly expand the tool of live FM rock concert broadcasts beyond what had ever been seen before (or, I'm sad to say, what would be seen again). The Grateful Dead were far and away the principal exponents and beneficiaries of KSAN's pioneering efforts. In 1970, live FM broadcasts with the Grateful Dead started to happen with regularity, but not in the form we subsequently came to know them, which is the subject of my next post.


  1. Well-done! And a tantalizing teaser for the next post...

    Craig Fenton's Take Me To A Circus Tent book confirms that the Airplane's 6/13/69 show was broadcast on KSAN.

    As for trying to learn about early broadcasts from DJ patter, that can be a tricky business as usually on later copies, DJ interludes were edited out by thoughtful tapers, leaving just the music...

  2. here's their set from this night.

    JUNE 13,1969


  3. Gert Chiarito in 1964 to perform on The Midnight Special, her Saturday night radio program on KPFA, Berkeley. - is that radio show available anywhere? thanks...

  4. I know that Phil Lesh engineered a Gert Charito radio show on KPFA featuring Jerry Garcia, around 1963 or so. It's most likely, however, that the actual piece of tape was reused for another show shortly afterwards. I know of no copy that exists.

  5. It appears that the Grateful Dead performance at the Aztec Bowl at San Diego State on May 11, 1969 was broadcast on KPRI-fm (106.5) in San Diego. Certainly a tape circulates, with dj cross-talk. Whether it was broadcast live or delayed is uncertain.

  6. Listen to 1310AM. Your Central Florida gospel talk and music station.