Thursday, November 15, 2012

John Leonard's Nightsounds

Many radio shows lay claim to be the first free-form radio program. By my measure, the first, truly free-form show was "Nightsounds" on KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California.  It's host was John Leonard. His official title at Pacifica was Drama and Literature Director. He gave 15 minute book reviews on air and gave cultural commentary and organized readings to be recorded and aired. It was 10 years after Henry Jacobs had aired his tape loop experiments. (Audio here

While at KPFA his Nightsounds program was syndicated on WBAI via tapes sent by fourth-class mail. At WBAI these were aired by a then very young Bob Fass who later hosted Radio Unnamable.The program ran at 11:30 PM. It's hard to say when it started. The WFMU bio says he started just after KPFA signed on in 1949, but Lenard would have been 10 years old then. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Checklist puts his run at 1963-1964, which is later than some first-hand accounts. It is more likely that he started around 1961, while he was a student, and stayed on through 1964 before leaving to teach English in Massachusetts.

The reason I credit Leonard rather than Jacobs as the father of Free-Form FM is a bit petty. Jacobs cast himself as more of a composer. Leonard was still a DJ. Sure he cut between songs and sampled, but he played songs, recognizable songs. At his worst it was still just audio collage and those works were recorded in advance. Jacobs programs were more eccentric and original but they also were frequently just live un-listenable layers of analog noise. Free-form FM later became genuinely popular. It was not popular because they played records backwards, or over-top one another while reel-to-reel decks cranked out bird calls. Free-form FM played deep cuts, whole albums, new artists, and full length versions of popular radio edits and engaged in zany audio effects and audio collage. If there is a root to that tree it's Leonard, more than Jacobs.

Leonard went on to become the New York Times Book Review 's most distinguished editor.  He had previously worked for the National Review after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley. He joined the New York Times in 1967, first becoming an editor in 1969. He hosted WGBH's First Edition, and reviewed books, TV and movies on CBS Sunday Morning for 16 years. He also taught creative writing at Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania. His contributions are many and manifest. He died in 2008 after election day.