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Rockin’ in the Days of Confusion

It was the early 1970s, and things were changing. The Beatles had split up. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison were dead and gone. The issues that had united a generation of young Americans had evolved. Civil Rights, once a black and white issue, had expanded to include Latinos, Native Americans, and other ethnic groups. New movements like Feminism and Gay Rights were beginning to become part of the zeitgeist and would continue to gain ground over the years. The Vietnam War was finally over (along with a military draft that had disproportionately affected the economically disadvantaged), leaving the antiwar movement without an obvious target. In short, the early 70s were days of confusion for the generation that had grown up in tumultuous, yet oddly enough focused 1960s.

The music of that generation was evolving as well, with new genres such as heavy metal and electronic rock taking their place alongside the folk-rock and psychedelic rock that had characterized the final years of the previous decade. Many rock musicians were looking to other disciplines such as jazz, classical and R&B for inspiration, giving rise to hybrid genres like fusion and art-rock. In short, the early 70s were days of confusion musically as well as socially.

Encompassing, and even embracing, all this was something called progressive rock radio (not to be confused with the genre known as progressive rock, which was considerably more limited in scope, if not creativity). Progressive rock stations were almost exclusively found on the FM radio band. Most were owned by already profitable AM radio stations (or in a few cases, TV stations) that used their FM outlets as a tax write off with a potential for future profits. By the end of the decade, those profits would start to become a reality, but in the early 70s, they were still a distant goal. Additionally, a change in FCC policy that had taken effect in 1967 mandated that stations owning both AM and FM outlets in the same market provide a certain number of hours of programming per week on the FM station that was not a duplicate of their AM programming.

This unique set of conditions allowed progressive rock radio to flourish. Disc Jockeys on FM stations, as opposed to their highly paid AM counterparts, were motivated by a love of the music itself. As a result, commercial considerations often took a backseat to artistic ones on FM outlets.

The announcing style on progressive rock radio took its cue from the so-called underground rock stations of the late 1960s, with a mellow, laid back approach taking the place of the endless hyperbole heard on Top 40 AM radio. Even the advertising (what little of it there was) heard on progressive rock stations tended to be low key ads from highly specialized businesses targeting a very specific kind of customer. Many, if not most, of these ads, were actually presented live by the DJs themselves, with professionally produced pre-recorded spots kept to a bare minimum. Jingles, stingers and other audio effects were nowhere to be found on progressive rock stations, as it was felt that such bells and whistles would only detract from the music itself.

As the decade progressed, FM receivers became more commonplace, especially in automobiles, making the FM band more attractive to commercial interests due to its superior audio quality. A more relaxed stance on the part of the FCC concerning transmitter/studio location, allowing some stations to relocate their studios to larger cities, also contributed to the mass marketing of the FM band. This, in turn, led to the music itself becoming more commercial, with the album-oriented rock (AOR) format (the basis of today’s classic rock format) supplanting progressive rock radio by the end of the decade.

College radio, on the other hand, had been moving in the opposite direction, becoming more eclectic as album rock became more commercialized. By the time the 1980s arrived, many college stations had cut back on local music programming in favor of syndicated programs from National Public Radio and other well-funded sources. Much of the remaining music on college stations came from jazz, classical, salsa, blues, and other non-rock sources. This trend has only gotten more pronounced in the 21st century.

Nonetheless, there was a lot of quality music being played on progressive rock radio during the format’s golden age from about 1968-76.

Rockin’ in the Days of Confusion intends to put that music back in the spotlight, where it belongs.