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At an inaugural dinner for the newly established University of the District of Columbia in March 1978, Georgetown University President the Rev. Timothy Healy rose to toast the institution. With a clink of his champagne glass, the Jesuit priest informed the trustees of UDC that within one year, the Georgetown-owned broadcast license for FM frequency 90.1, radio station WGTB, would be theirs. The trustees were pleasantly surprised: None of them had ever asked for the license. Healy offered it as a gift.
Privately, Healy was breathing a sigh of deep relief. What had become a source of much misery among Georgetown’s Jesuit leadersóthe university’s out-of-control radio stationówould soon be off their hands. No more nasty alumni letters, no more investigations by the Federal Communications Commission, no more hippie interlopers on campus, and, most important, no more radical left-wing rhetoric pumping out of Georgetown’s pristine Copley Hall.
The “great animal that doesn’t belong in the zoo,” as Healy (now deceased) referred to WGTB at the time, was read its last rites, 18 years after the FCC handed the university one of the first FM licenses in the city.
When Georgetown first got its license for WGTB, in 1960, FM radio was still a relatively new mediumócomparable to the Internet today. Until the mid-’70s, most cars didn’t even include an FM receiver as standard equipment. The license gave the university a chance to experiment in virginal broadcast territory. WGTB-FM went on the air soon after receiving the license and operated as a sort of student sandbox through the decade, playing an array of harmless fare, from Tony Bennett (before he went retro-cool) to the king of schmaltz, Mantovani.
Campus Jesuits delighted in the station’s regular religious programming, and the student DJs enjoyed the occasional chance to spin the latest contemporary sounds. When Martha and the Vandellas or Rick Nelson made the Top 40, you’d hear it on the campus radio station.
But by the early ’70s, the station had become a much different beast. If you tuned into 90.1 25 years ago, chances were you’d hear Frank Zappa calling out for “the last mortal man,” to stop “the senseless destruction of America.” Maybe the news was on: If it was an update on the war in Vietnam, you’d probably find out what America’s “imperialist pigs” were up to in their battle against the Communist North Vietnamese “liberators.” WGTB-FM was pumping in high dudgeon at 6,700 wattsóa 60-mile radiusóand Washington was listening, as it would, aside from two bitter interruptions, until Jan. 29, 1979, when the administration pulled the plug for good.
Among U.S. college campuses in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Georgetown was an island of relative calm. While students at Columbia University waged battles against the school administration over plans to destroy part of Harlem for a gymnasium and those at Berkeley went on hunger strikes over free speech, Georgetown was still, by and large, a rather tame place. It was as if the ’60s had blown right by.
A flip through the university’s 1969 yearbook shows clean-cut kids preparing to be future leaders of America. The only marked difference between that yearbook and those from previous years is the massive addition of the faces of females, recently admitted to the college: Women on cars, women wandering through their restricted dormitories, women sitting in lecture halls. Paris had burnt, and Chicago had rioted; Georgetown was girl-crazy.
The 1970 yearbook, however, reveals a somewhat different environment. People who were on campus that year remember a radical student movement rearing up briefly. A few bold students hung the flag of the Viet Cong; students for a Democratic Society infiltrated the student body, and the 10-member operations board of WGTB-FM was taken over by a group of radicals. They changed the format overnight, making a hard left turn to the rock of Jefferson Airplane, progressive electronic music, and avant-garde jazz. Announcements for campus dances were replaced with dark, subversive political bulletins. If the “pigs” arrested a member of the Black Panthers or the “liberators” held off the “imperialist forces” in North Vietnam, listeners heard about it.
The sandbox became a foxhole, occupied by forces loyal to such radical thinkers as Herbert Marcuse and Franz Fanon. The students’ political impertinence was to be short-lived, but potent enough to spark a rebellious energy that would haunt the campus for the next decade.
The city surrounding Georgetown in the early ’70s was culturally schizophrenicómore so than in the past, because of the Vietnam War and, later, Watergate. The city’s ruling class lived well and believed in the virtue of government. Meanwhile, a culture of dissidents, mostly young and educated hippie stragglers, obsessed over government conspiracies and President Nixon’s Machiavellian impulses. They were also terrified of the government, particularly the FBI. A small clot of these angry, suspicious types found a home at WGTB, and the station began not only to operate outside of the dominant culture, but to rail against it.
In many ways, the early ’70s were an even more radical time than the late ’60s. In D.C., an “alternative community” set up housekeeping in the gentrifying neighborhoods in and around Dupont Circle and Adams Morganóa mix of Maoists, anti-establishmentarians, refugees from Allende’s Chile, collectivists, prog-rockers and dope heads crammed into group houses, exchanging political views, music, and weed.
“Between Vietnam, Watergate, nuclear proliferation, and the Weather Underground,” recalls Sunny Pietrafesa, a student and WGTB volunteer at the time, “we all thought we could die the next day.” The music at the station suited the mentality, veering toward experimental artists: Todd Rundgren, Peter Gabriel’s Genesis, Miles Davis, Manfred Mann, Roxy Music, Zappa, and Captain Beefheart. “You’d smoke what you could get and listen to what was playing,” recalls Marty Kurcias, another WGTB alum and Dupont resident at the time. “The radical political ethos was collectivism, Maoism, power-to-the-people shit.”
Many members of this tribe lived collectively, bought their food at the Stone Soup Cooperative (now the site of Lauriol Plaza), purchased their books at the not-for-profit P Street Bookstore, flipped through albums at Bread and Rosesóa “community-owned, worker-controlled anti-profit record store,” according to its flyeróand saw each other at neighborhood head shops such as Earthworks in Dupont Circle. They supplemented their meager lifestyle with unemployment checks, received health care at the Georgetown Free Clinic, and dropped into the Apple Pie and the Cellar Door to hear local bands.
The contemporary lexicon held that if you were “straight,” you were certainly heterosexual and subscribed to the middle-class suburban ethos. You had probably voted for Nixon. And unless you were monitoring the airwaves, waiting to pounce on WGTB’s next infraction of FCC rules, you didn’t listen to the station operating out of the basement of Copley Hall. After all, the station was, in the words of former WGTB News Director Jude Doherty (nÈe Franco), “the cultural focal point for the alternative community.”
It was also starting to attract the attention of the conservative university administration.
In early 1971, scientists in Georgetown’s physics department began to notice irregularities in their experiments. The transmission from WGTB, they concluded, was causing an interference. University administrators, despite sustained protest from WGTB listeners, decided to shut the station down to eliminate the purported problem. WGTB partisans, however, believed that the shutdown had little to do with the physics department and much to do with its left-wing programming.
The university had another fortuitous occurrence on its side. The station’s antenna, mounted on the roof of Copley Hall, “mysteriously” blew down one night, making it impossible for the station to transmit. Near the end of March of ’71, WGTB went silent. For eight months, the campus station transmitted no sound.
“In all my time in radio,” says Ken Sleeman, a listener who later became WGTB’s general manager, “I never heard of a tower accidentally blowing down.” Station staff suspected foul play but could never prove it.
Sleeman was a newlywed living a comfortable suburban life in Maryland and working at WETA-TV as an engineer, yet he was “bent” enough to be a WGTB listener. He saw the shutdown as an example of the Georgetown administration’s intransigence. “The silencing of a public radio station smacks of censorship and political repression,” he wrote in a protest letter to the university president, the Rev. Robert J. Henle (Healy’s predecessor, who now lives in a Jesuit nursing home in St. Louis).
With WGTB silenced, broadcast consultants brought in by Georgetown were enlightening Henle as to the station’s commodity value to the university. They also informed him that a licensed station that was nonoperational violated FCC regulations. FCC officials insisted that Henle either dump the license or take advantage of it. Hire a professional manager, the consultants suggestedówho will no doubt clean up the place. Henle set up a review board to seek out a professional.
Sleeman, 10 months after he fired off his letter to Henle, managed to persuade the review board to hire himóat least on a trial basisóas the station manager. On the cold winter day he stepped into the basement of Copley Hall, Sleeman dug out a few electrical odds and ends. He climbed on the roof of the building and started tinkering with the damaged tower. The station was back on the air within two-and-a-half hours. Transmission was restored, powerful enough to reach the loyal audience within a 5-mile radius.
“WGTB is now operational,” Sleeman wrote to the board. “I wish to reiterate that I will conscientiously adhere to the rulings of the trustees of WGTB.” With his engineering background and extensive radio experience, Sleeman began to carry out the university’s desire to remove “undesirable elements.”
“I made the station a lot more professional-sounding,” says Sleeman. “[Before my arrival] there was a very sloppy, amateurish sound….I got it legal with the FCC, and we started keeping logs and requiring announcers to get their FCC certification.”
“Ken was pretty straight when he arrived,” recalls Doherty, who is now an editor at WashingtonPost.com.
“He didn’t seem like he was part of the counterculture,” adds former WGTB volunteer Kurcias.
If the house band early on was Jefferson Airplane, then the house plant was cannabis. “People were openly smoking dope in the station,” Sleeman recalls. Upon his arrival, he immediately restricted pot smoking to the back room that housed the transmitter. “The transmitter room had the best ventilation,” says former Program Director Skip Pizzi. “If we wanted to smoke, ‘transmitter maintenance’ was the code word we’d use.” If someone was asked to help with “transmitter maintenance,” the usual response was “‘Your tools or mine?’” says Pizzi with a laugh.
Though Sleeman recognized WGTB’s value as an “alternative news source”óa clear contrast to the strait-laced commercial newsóhe cleaned up the newscasts. He eliminated rhetorical buzzwords and utterings of the “seven dirty words” that the FCC had officially banned from radio unless absolutely necessary in context. Still, he allowed the news collective to maintain its ultraleft perspective. “The idea was to make the news palatable, credible,” he says, though the station reserved only two hours for news in its 24-hour cycle.
There was enough resistance to Sleeman’s changes that, for a while, the station was filled with tension. “Ken was our enemy,” recalls Pietrafesa, a politically radical member of the news collective.
“Sunny and I fought like cats,” Sleeman adds. “She probably thought I was a fascist.”
Michael Cullen, a shy and somewhat awkward 17-year-old, was a commuter student from Bethesda. He landed at Georgetown in September 1973, eager to join the “student radio station,” hoping to use the experience as a springboard into the broadcasting industry. Cullen, who is now an audio engineer at National Public Radio, was interested in the technical side of broadcasting. During freshman orientation, he spotted a small sign advertising volunteer opportunities in WGTB’s news department.
“Here was my entree,” Cullen recalls. He walked down the steps of Copley, introduced himself, and was informed that before joining the “news collective,” he would have to submit to an interview.
“I was asked how many ‘demos’ I had been to,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what that meant. They asked me about the NLF [the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front]. I didn’t know what that was. I had no idea what a collective was!”
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The station, it appeared, was not run by students at all. It was dominated by a collection of “community people”óthe alternative community, that is. “I learned, right away, that the news department was being run as a Maoist collective,” he says. Cullen was rejected.
The timid freshman shuffled out the door and waited at the gates for his father to pick him up. (At that time, if you lived within 25 miles of the university, you were required to be a commuter student.) “My father asks, ‘So how was your thing at the radio station? When will you start working there?’” After a few minutes of shameful silence, Cullen told his father about the rejection. “I’m not paying all this money for nothing!” his father fumed. “Go back!”
The next day, Cullen returned to the station and introduced himself to an approachable, “straight-looking” fellow named Ken Sleeman. As general manager, Sleeman was thrilled to have Cullen on board. The station desperately needed to recruit Georgetown students because the university had stipulated that a majority of volunteers had to be enrolled at the university. “Stick with me,” Sleeman told Cullen; he promised to teach the freshman all about radio engineering.
Pietrafesa was also enrolled at Georgetown, aiming to become a foreign service officer. Politically, however, she existed dimensions away from the likes of Cullen. Before her freshman year, she recalls, she had already formed an idealistic political consciousness, and her time at WGTB only radicalized her further.
Today, Pietrafesa is fragile and slightly weatheredóin contrast with her energetic spirit at the time. She is still living, she says, according to the ideals of that time, inveighing against the “Establishment,” organized religion, and political repressionóthough she herself has become part of that Establishment, working as an attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. She interposes recollections of her time at WGTB with sweeping statements illustrating her contemporary political outlook: “I don’t care if there’s more than one kind of toilet paper out there,” she exclaims. “I’m just wiping my ass.”
Pietrafesa, by all accounts, operated at the far end of an already extreme left-wing news collective. “We were biased for the North Vietnamese,” she remembers. “In a war-torn zone, poor people will always go with those who provide food and clothing. We were with the poor.”
Each weekday afternoon, Pietrafesa, Doherty, and a handful of other volunteers would scan through reports from alternative wire services and periodicals. Kurcias, who like Cullen is now an audio engineer at National Public Radio, would take the P Street bus to Georgetown, hopping off a few stops before the campus so he could steal a newspaper off the porch of one of Georgetown’s stately homes. The floor of the station was typically littered with Black Panther newsletters, Native American magazines, and clips from the radical wire services Unicorn News and Liberation News Service, among others.
The news collective would decideócollectivelyówhich stories to pursue for the evening’s newscast. “We did a lot of stuff on Vietnam and Watergate, of course,” says Pietrafesa. They covered more obscure controversies as wellóthe conflict in East Timor, the plight of Native Americans living on reservationsóand stories with a somewhat conspiratorial slant, such as an allegation that the CIA printed its own money to cover expenses for covert operations, and also Nixon’s alleged impotence.
As early as 1972, WGTB received national press attention for a promotional contest asking listeners to guess the date and time of Nixon’s impeachment. The pitch opened with sound of Adolf Hitler addressing the Reichstag and segued into the presidential march “Ruffles and Feathers.” “To those few responsible people left in Washington…” a voice boomed, asking listeners to send in replies. Members of the Grateful Dead, among others, sent in a postcard. The winner, who came pretty darn close to the actual date of the president’s resignation, won a Gerald Ford dart board.
With Nixon running the show in the White House, rare were the days devoid of outrage among the WGTB news collective. In at least one instance, a news staffer simply made the news up: On an afternoon in the fall of 1973, a prominent and outspoken newscaster, John Walsh, announced that the U.S. had bombed Libya. Nixon, he read, had ordered the attack. But the attack had never happened. Walsh, whose nom de guerre was “Abalone,” had completely fabricated the news flash. Sleeman was furious, but Walsh replied: “If Nixon could have his way, he would have done it.”
Walsh, who died several years ago of cancer, is remembered by his brothers- and sisters-in-arms at WGTB as the news collective’s dominant voice. He was deeply passionate about Native American affairs and made sure they were featured regularly in newscasts. It was he, as Abalone, who managed to exploit contacts inside the Oglala Sioux compound at Wounded Knee, S.D., and broadcast some of the earliest and most insightful accounts of the 1973 standoff between the Sioux and federal marshals. At the time, members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) claimed the small town for the “Independent Oglala Sioux Nation.” The Sioux tribesmen refused to cooperate with the mainstream press, and although the compound was sealed, some recordings of the siege were smuggled out, ending up on the airwaves of WGTB.
“We actually scooped the mainstream press,” says Sleeman gleefully. There was no question among the news collective about who was in the right; the tone of the newscasts was decidedly pro-Sioux.
Abalone’s dogmatic political philosophy, however, made him a stubborn radio presenter. “He would not tone down the rhetoric,” remembers Sleeman. If the news collective represented the peripheral left of the station staff, Abalone and Pietrafesa were off the radar screen. They were influenced heavily by the writings of Mao and Lenin. Because they viewed the mainstream press as an organ of the Establishment, they saw it as their mission to disseminate missives for the extreme left.
One Friday evening in early 1974, as the newscast began, Abalone leaned into the microphone and announced, “This is the alternative news for Friday. Fuck Friday.” He stood up and walked out of the studio. Sleeman, as the man charged with “cleaning up the place,” saw it as his duty to remove Abalone from the air.
Several months later, the news came that the kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst now identified with her captors, the Symbionese Liberation Army. Hearst, furthermore, had begun calling herself “Tania” and her wealthy father a “pig.” At the end of one broadcast, most of which dealt with the Hearst story, Pietrafesa, who was hosting the newscast, exclaimed: “Right on, Tania!”
Rogue on-air incidents happened at a greater frequency than Sleeman could tolerate. They infuriated him, although not, paradoxically, because of their philosophical roots. Sleeman was doing a bit of a Patty Hearst himself: He was beginning to identify with his captors. The Establishment, in his case, was the Jesuits of Georgetown University, the symbolic equivalent of the powerful “pigs” his more radical comrades saw themselves as fighting. Still, to make left-wing news more credible, he believed it had to be accurate.
For the conservative Georgetown administration, ruled by the iron-fisted Father Henle, WGTB appeared to be nothing more than a coterie of unsavory long-haired radicals, remnants from an earlier decadeóone that was better forgotten. Sleeman, as the legitimate face of the station, had to walk the line between appeasing these hostile university officials and maintaining his “street credibility” with the station staffers. The irony of WGTB’s survival through the ’70s was the implicit support of the university, because, in reality, the upper brass of Georgetown weren’t listening.
“Nobody had been paying attention to the station,” recalls Mary Parish, then a junior administrator at Georgetown, who eventually was assigned to purge the station of its radical content.
For her part, Parish, who had come to Georgetown from Michigan State University, viewed the WGTB staffers as bratty children. “They didn’t look like other Georgetown students,” she says. “They didn’t have the same politics.” She believed that the staff did not respect the university’s proprietary responsibility to the license. “I would say to Sleeman, ‘Here’s the decision’óhe really didn’t believe in my instructions. He had this little organ to run pretty much on its own.”
Sleeman is a case study in contradiction. At 55, he heads up the audio engineering department at United Press International. He is mild-mannered to the point of appearing timid, and he wears his hair short enough to be mistaken for a Reagan revolutionary. If you listen to his words, though, instantly it becomes clear that Sleeman is no mainstream American.
“Our generation failed to change the distribution of wealth and power,” he says. “I think this country is run by a group of powerful white men.” Although he is more concerned with the ordinary domestic details typical of a man his age (his retirement fund, health, and membership in the American Association of Retired Persons), Sleeman calls himself a socialist. And to this day, he remains bound to his belief in community-based alternative radio as a purely democratic medium.
He even operates a low-power AM station from the basement of his modest home in a middle-class neighborhood in Rockville. His broadcast, at 1080 AM, can be heard within three blocks. “I turn it on when I feel like it,” he says. Several weeks ago, he played an epic track off the Aphrodite’s Child album 666. For over 10 minutes, a woman is heard wailing in euphoria as she climaxes (twice) during sex. “I come, I come, I come,” she says over and over. “This is the stuff we’d play at 3 in the afternoon [at WGTB],” Sleeman says with a chuckle.
During his time at WGTB, he became increasingly radical. But, besides having to straddle the line between station staffers and university administrators, he differed from his station comrades in that he believed the radical phalanx needed to slowly legitimize its outlook if it were ever to draw a receptive audience. He was well aware of the popular perceptions of leftists that dominated the American cultural outlook. If the station advanced its political goals solely outside the boundaries of the mainstream cultural milieu, it would never be a legitimate voice.
According to WGTB alumni, the Sleeman era was the station’s golden age. Under Sleeman, WGTB introduced a gay and lesbian program called Friends, which became the longest-running gay-oriented radio program in the country. (The show went off WGTB in 1976 and moved to Pacifica Radio, where it ran until 1982.) Friends was a groundbreaking program, giving voice to what was then a largely closeted gay community (by current standards) and, as host Bruce Pennington recalls, “provid[ing] an identity for people who were still trying to find one.”
Friends provided information about venereal disease and community support groups, and it challenged mainstream values, premiering, as it did, less than five years after the watershed Stonewall riot in New York, which marked the beginning of the gay liberation movement. “I talked about giving a blowjob on the air,” recalls Ken Rothschild, another host. “It got to the point where I would ask guests if they swallowed.” The show attracted an impressive list of regular guests, from dancer Peter Allen to filmmaker John Waters to drag-queen actors Holly Woodlawn and Divine. Allen Ginsberg and Cheech and Chong paid visits, engaging, with the staff, in their trademark forms of herbal misbehavior. The show provided analysis of songs (“Just exactly what were Paul Simon and Julio doing down by the schoolyard?” asked Pennington on one show), produced radio dramas dealing with gay issues, and fielded on-air calls from listeners. “Every show had to be pertinent and say something, because we knew we could be shut down by Georgetown any day,” says Pennington.
The station’s feminist contingent produced Sophie’s Parlor (still heard, with different hosts, on WPFW), which played music produced and performed by women. “Our mission was to play women’s music on the radio in a ‘macho-rock atmosphere,’” says Doherty.
But WGTB’s most significant asset was its regular music programming. While local for-profit station WHFSóand only that stationócame close to playing similar music, WGTB operated under a totally free-form philosophy, with no commercial supportówhich meant no limitations, no playlists, and no industry pressure to broadcast any particular kind of music. “Nobody ever came into the studio saying, ‘You can’t do that,’” says former DJ David Selvin. “I could play Edith Piaf next to Jimmy Cliff. I would play Judy Collins singing ‘Pirate Jenny’ next to the Doors.”
The station was responsible, in part, for introducing Britain’s Canterbury Movement to American audiences, recalls DJ Steven Lorber. Bands like Gentle Giant, Caravan, Gong, and Soft Machine were almost entirely unknown to American radio listeners. “Musically, WGTB was light-years ahead of other stations. I played the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ the week it came outóthey were an unknown band at that time.”
“We played an eclectic mix of music with an urban focus,” says DJ Mark Gorbulew, who also made his mark on the D.C. music scene. Gorbulew left WHFS in 1971 after a political dispute (“I publicized a rally for the Black Panthers,” he says) and landed at WGTB, agreeing to bring his wildly popular radio program, Spiritus Cheese, to the station on a volunteer basis. Spiritus Cheese broadcast nightly out of Copley basement, focusing on black soul, blues, and jazzóbut also on the influence of black artists on white rock. “We would feature an artistósay, Elvis Presley,” recalls Gorbulew. “Then we’d play all the original versions of Elvis songs sung by black people like Muddy Waters or Chuck Berry.” Gorbulew, so goes an urban legend, was also the inspiration for Marvelous Mark of Doonesbury (a legend that Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau denies).
WGTB’s music programming was influential enough that some contemporary observers believe the station was indirectly responsible for the rise of Richard Branson’s Virgin Records. “We were playing the hell out of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells,” remembers former Music Director John Paige. During the filming of 1973’s The Exorcist on the Georgetown campus the movie’s producers liked what they heard coming out of Copley. The eerie sounds on Tubular Bells, they decided, would suit the film perfectly. After The Exorcist proved a success at the box office, Tubular Bells sold 10 million copies. It was one of Virgin’s first major releases, the album that catapulted the small company into the big leagues.
DJs like Lorber, Paige, and Selvin focused on the music. “Some guys were more interested in fucking girls,” says Lorber. “I was interested in the music.” Nor was the station’s political mission part of their agenda. “The political people weren’t really interested in the music,” says Lorber. “They were interested in making political statements.” Lorber sees the station’s eventual demise as a result of self-righteous attitudes among the more politically inclined volunteers. “I hated what Sleeman was doing,” he says. “The [news people] were flaunting political stuff.”
Big trouble between the station and the university began to brew slightly over a year after Sleeman’s arrival. Georgetown University’s Brahmins may have been tuning in to frequencies elsewhere, but Nixon’s Washington was not. In the spring of 1973, Sleeman received the first of six complaints from the FCC about the station’s content.
Democratic West Virginia Congressman Harley Staggers, while driving in his car one day, caught an earful of John Lennon’s anthem “Working Class Hero”: “Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV/And you think you’re so clever and classless and free/ But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see/A working class hero is something to be.”
Staggers sent an angry letter to the FCC, demanding action. Sleeman, under threat of a $10,000 fine and a year in prison, replied: “The people of Washington are sophisticated enough to accept the occasional four-letter word in context and not become sexually aroused, offended, or upset.”
The station, for the time being, was off the hook. But now, having the Feds on his back worried Sleeman. It was only the beginning of what would become a series of official and unofficial complaints, and Sleeman knew that Georgetown would no longer act as an oblivious patron.
Sleeman realized his dream of wide-reaching community-based radio early in 1974, when he managed to hire out space on American University’s radio tower and increase WGTB’s power output to 6,000 watts. Overnight, the station went from having a small but loyal following in the District (“The joke used to be that the coverage pattern was designed to reach ZIP code 20009óAdams Morgan,” says Cullen) to a massive one, with coverage reaching parts of Delaware, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. And just as the audience grewóat its height, WGTB is estimated to have had more than 100,000 listenersóso did the complaints. “It was a fucking trip,” recalls Kurcias. “We had a 50-mile radius!”
WGTB received thousands of supportive letters, and Georgetown University received a flood of complaints. “These kinds of people are the last ones we want working for a progressive music station,” wrote one alumnus to Father Henle in 1974. Another letter to the FCC griped, “They played a dirty song. It contained words like shit, ass, son-of-a-bitch and fuck….My wife and family were offended and I can’t imagine why Father Henle allows such nincompoops to play such filth over a Church-financed radio station….This programming is definitely anti-Christian.”
Sleeman, though, was unrelenting. He encouraged station staffers to test the limits of taboo-worthy material. There was a segment of society, Sleeman believed, whose particular cultural consciousness WGTB was serving. No other station in the District was broadcasting the music of Frank Zappa and the social satire of Firesign Theater. Only WHFS came closeóbut even so, it still aired commercials for U.S. military recruitment during the Vietnam War.
Before university officials cracked the whip, Sleeman had one final showdown with the FCC. In the summer of 1974, the FCC had received a complaint about WGTB’s broadcast of the Zappa song “Billy the Mountain.” The political allegory follows a man who is dragged through a sensationalist investigation into his subversive activities. Toward the end of the song, Billy finds himself on the run. He enters a phone booth to make a call after purchasing maple syrup and foil-covered wings for human flight:
And then he shut the fucking door! And he pulled down his blue denim policeman-type trouser pants, and he spread even amounts of Aunt Jemima maple syrup all over the inside of his legs! Soon the booth was filling with flies….He held open the legs of his boxer shorts so they could all get in, and when each and every one of those cocksucking flies had gone into his pants and they were lapping up all that maple syrup…
In context, Sleeman saw the broadcast as a legitimate form of art. Georgetown University did not. It tried to strangle the station by slashing fundsóto the point where the station was operating on less than $12,000 a year. The budget cut simply prompted the station to solicit funds from listeners. WGTB sponsored open-air concerts on campus and promoted benefit gigs. The pledge drive, in the days before such events became a common fixture of public radio, was so successful that WETA-FM solicited advice from WGTB on how to run its own fundraiser.
“I have received many complaints about the programming and the operation of WGTB-FM,” Henle wrote to Sleeman in the summer of 1975. “It is important that the station project an image of Georgetown University that is consonant with its basic principles. To promote, for example, centers of Gay Liberation is not consonant with the purpose of a Catholic university.”
Henle was also concerned about the station’s reluctance to broadcast Hoya basketball games. The staff believed that basketball was both sexist and gladiatorial. Two years after John Thompson arrived at Georgetown to head the school’s basketball team, the Hoyas were far from achieving national glory. The team’s performance was so lackluster that the university couldn’t persuade commercial stations to air the games. (Today, those same stations would put up millions for the rights to such broadcasts.)
Sleeman, under increasing pressure, capitulated to Henle’s demands to air Hoya basketball. On the night of the first broadcast game, the station produced its own introduction. It opened with cheering crowds and heart-pumping beats, then: “Tonight, Georgetown University has forced WGTB to bring you Hoya basketball.” At halftime, the station featured a thematic call-in show. The topic was sexism in sports.
Henle, in response to the station’s polemic, informed Sleeman of his intention to create a new review panel “with full authority to monitor its programming and personnel.” The six-member panel would be headed by Parish.
“They had programs that were quite liberal,” Parish recalls. “They were really in the mode of trying to push the envelope….By the time I started paying attention, it was out of control.”
Parish got a frosty, if not outright hostile, reception at the station. WGTB staffers viewed her as the personification of the Establishment. “I agreed with the university’s stanceóthe license belonged to [the administration]!” she says today.
Under orders from the university administration, Parish began to outline a series of rules for the station: Remove music with objectionable lyrics, tone down left-wing and pro-gay rhetoric. Sleeman, however, had his own objections. By this time, he had come to believe intensely in the democratization of radioóthat the airwaves, no matter who owns the license, belong to the public. The dispute, thereafter, turned largely philosophical. The debate moved well beyond the campus in the fall of 1975, when, in a lengthy interview in the New York Times Magazine, former Vice President Spiro Agnew mentioned the station by name in an across-the-board condemnation of radical leftism. “There is little will to oppose Communism in America anymore,” Agnew lamented. “The voice of third-world communism is pervasive in academia. WGTB…in Washington, broadcasts what seems to be propaganda for the third world and all but rejoiced over the fall of South Vietnam.”
The staff celebrated the mention, while Sleeman, silently, was terrified. The immediate post-Watergate era still cast a shadow of fear over the leftist community. Conspiracy theories continued to loom large. “Like I gave a fuck about Spiro Agnew,” recalls Pietrafesa. “I rejoiced in the article.”
University officials, though, were shocked. “We felt as if we were sitting on a powder keg,” says Parish. “There was no telling what the station might do next.”
Shortly after the Agnew article, Sleeman notified the university, in accordance with the rules set forth by the review board, that the station would air public service announcements for the Georgetown Free Clinicówhich provided, along with free services such as physical exams, an abortion referral service. The station was already running PSAs for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, farm-worker collectives, and anti-war groups. But the Free Clinic spot badly rankled the review board.
Sleeman received a letter from a university administrator advising that the station not run the advertisements. The clinic’s activities, the letter stated, “run contrary to the stated goals and purposes of the university…given the fact that Georgetown is a Jesuit and Catholic University.”
Parish remembers the incident well: “The university saw the running of that PSA as open subordination. It was an intolerable act.”
Sleeman took his case to the press, demanding the right to broadcast the PSAs in the name of free speech. Within days, he received notice from Parish that he was fired. Sleeman ran the letter into the studio, where it was read aloud. The staff was stunned. It was only the beginning of what would become a nasty and protracted public dispute for Sleeman and some of his staffersópolitical, generational, and philosophical.
For four years, the station had been Sleeman’s lifeblood. But now he faced the reality of giving up the job that made his existence fulfilling.
Station staffers protested the firing loudly, both over WGTB’s airwaves and on the local news. They invited university officials to appear on the call-in program Open Forum to discuss their side of the situation. Parish became a regular guest. “It was a very hostile environment,” she says. “The listeners were on the other side of this philosophical issue.”
Parish also became the subject of angry letters and the target of anonymous threats. “There were days when Security was outside my office,” she says.
After firing Sleeman, Parish assumed interim control of the station, eliminating the student directors and enforcing the heretofore ignored policy on objectionable content. No more “Working Class Hero,” no more “Billy the Mountain.” Gone too, were Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers” and Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane.”
The university feared fines and embarrassment as a result of the more risquÈ material WGTB was broadcasting. If Georgetown was to retain its broadcast license, Parish argued, there must be a radical reorganization, perhaps even a shutdown. Her man inside the station was a young, right-wing engineer called Frank Tolan (now deceased). “‘Don’t let my ponytail fool you,’” she recalls his telling her during their first meeting.
“I was getting information from Frank that things were escalating,” Parish recalls. For five weeks, Parish’s review board planned a shutdownóone that would happen swiftly and efficiently, before any radio staffer could respond. The impetus for the shutdown occurred in early March of 1976, when DJ Selvin aired a portion of a recent public reading by author William Burroughs. The passages contained many of the banned four-letter words.
On the morning of March 16, 1976, Parish walked into the station with two other university officials, ostensibly to appear on Open Forum, with Doherty and station administrator Geri Pizzi (nÈe Calkins) as hosts. Just as the show began, one of the university officials asked to read a statement on the air. He first outlined the recent problems at the stationóthe political disputes, the objectionable content, and the FCC complaints. He next announced the shutdown of the station, effective immediately. A more “professional” station would re-open, he said, within a few months. WGTB’s transmission, in a matter of seconds, transformed into a static buzz.
Black-uniformed campus security stormed the station, quickly escorted the students out, and safely returned the administrators to their offices. Pizzi and Doherty were stunned. “Jude and I started writing a response frantically. The phones were ringing off the hooks, but there was nothing we could do,” says Pizzi (who met husband Skip at the station). “It was a commando raid.”
“It was tragic and dramatic, and we were trying to pick up phones as they lit up the switchboard,” recalls Doherty.
Sleeman heard the broadcast from his home, only a few blocks from the university. He rushed over to the station and found staffers outside, in tears. The station was boarded up within hours.
The exiled staff immediately formed an organization to fight the shutdown. The Committee to Save Alternative Radio (CSAR) opened an office on O Street NW and began to solicit the advice of civil liberties organizations. By the end of the month, CSAR had organized a mass rally at Georgetown, demanding that the university reinstate the WGTB staff or be stripped of its FM license.
Sleeman and othersódressed as priests wearing pig masksóled a procession toward the center of campus. They held a mock excommunication, with one former staffer in a pig mask, wearing black-rimmed glasses similar to those of Father Henle, presiding. A toilet bowl was used as an altar. One by one, station staffers were brought up on a platform, gagged, and ceremoniously thrown offstage. It was a stunt that only hardened the resolve of the university. Georgetown, after all, had the upper hand.
wGTB came back on the air in the summer of ’76, under new management: Robert Uttenweiler had been recruited from a station in Philadelphia that had experienced similar problems. He invited most of the ex-staffers back, but many stayed away. Friends, Sophie’s Parlor, and Alternative News were off WGTB’s air.
“Some of the controversial material will have to be studied further,” Uttenweiler told the Washington Star at the time. “The gay material, for instance. The question is whether WGTB should be supporting homosexuality or the gay lifestyle. Well, we won’t….The news will be changed, too…with no political slant.”
The music programming was also regulated closely. WGTB started to broadcast Mass for Shut-Insóa simulcast of the campus mass that allowed listeners who were bedridden an opportunity to tune in to worship services. Under Sleeman, the station had fiercely resisted the idea of broadcasting Mass.
Among those who returned, Music Director Paige was viewed as a sellout. “I was trying to encourage the old crowd back,” he says. “Uttenweiler knew nothing about music. He was terrible, totally inappropriate.” The music programmers, therefore, had to become more creative. Zappa was banned, but John Coltraneóequally subversive, equally radicalówas acceptable.
“Before long, we were doing the same thing as before,” says engineer Cullen. Leo del Aguila, another staffer who returned, still went by his old on-air persona, Professor MotaóSpanish slang for marijuana. And he still continued his on-air antics, often telling listeners about the “party in my pants.”
And just as the late-’70s punk movement got under way, WGTB caught on, early enough to out-innovate any other station. Cerph Colwell, then a DJ at WHFS and now a host on WARW, concedes that his station didn’t catch on to the rise of punk: “HFS completely missed the boat.”
“From ’76 to ’79, the music really happened,” says DJ Lorber. “It was really a DIY operation.”
“GTB was one of the first stations in the country to play XTC, Pere Ubu, and glam rock,” says Paige. So while the station was stripped of its politically radical edge, the music remained adventurous. And slowly, the political stuff crept back.
This time, Georgetown wasn’t having any of it. The time had come to rid the university of what had become a serious nuisance. The simplest solution was to transfer the license over to UDC. Members of the staff formed the Alliance to Preserve Radio at Georgetown, but their attempts to block the transfer failed. On Jan. 29, 1979, WGTB slipped into oblivion.
Several days after the station went silent, the Cramps headlined a benefit show for WGTB at the Hall of Nations in Georgetown. Nearly 1,000 people showed up. “There was still some optimism that the [license] transfer wouldn’t go through,” recalls David Howcroft, the event’s organizer.
Neither Howcroft nor the throng of fellow listeners who attended the benefit recognized at the time that the show would, years later, be remembered as a watershed in the harDCore music scene that was about to explode in the District.
The Cramps’ lead singer, Lux Interior, stepped onstage and announced: “Some people wonder if this is a concert or a dance. Let me tell you, the concert just ended.” With that, the crowd surged and lost control. “It was a sort of culmination,” says Howcroft. “The last death throes of GTB. It was also the end of disco and the beginning of a whole new kind of music.” WGTB’s death coincided with the birth of Washington’s art-house revolutionóseeing through the rise of the Atlantis Club (later the 9:30 Club), d.c. space, and the Washington Project for the Arts.
Last November, Adrian Kohn, a well-groomed junior at Georgetown and the present manager of Georgetown’s closed-circuit station WGTB, announced his intention to seek a low-power FM license. Kohn’s WGTB is a wholly different incarnation. It only returned to the airwaves in 1996 and is, currently, inaudible outside of Georgetown University.
After Healy gave away Georgetown’s license to UDC, 90.1 became the all-jazz WDCU. UDC sold it to C-SPAN radio in 1997 to close a budget gap. Georgetown asked UDC for $1 in 1979. UDC got $13 million from C-SPAN. The frequency that once broadcast the sounds of Frank Zappa now saturates the nation’s capital with the president’s impeachment trial.
Kohn understands the bureaucracy he faces in trying to obtain an FM license, even a low-power license: It is a long, sticky process.
The irony is not lost on the WGTB alumni. The death of WGTB affirmed that free-form radio was not commercially sustainable. Grass-roots radio was on the way out, giving way to boardroom playlists and the influence of MTV.
Kohn says the university seems pretty supportive of the plan to obtain low-power FM. He proudly adds that the station enjoys a good relationship with the university today. WGTB has a pristine studio in the university’s student center and plays largely ska and hiphop.
“We’re trying to get back to the roots of the station,” Kohn says optimistically. “Not through politics but through music.”
It was politics, however, that defined the heyday of WGTB in the ’70s. That period, say most former staffers, had a singular impact on their current political views and outlooks on life. “It was one of the most outstanding events of my life,” says Friends host Rothschild. “Here was a young group of people with a vision of a better way of life, world, and community. That vision was central to the GTB community. We went down continuing to promote that vision.”
News Director Doherty, to the contrary, insists that her time at WGTB in no way shaped the way she sees things today. “To me, it was just a joyride,” she says. “I don’t think the politics at GTB were very well developed. I see it as a folly of youth.”
For Ken Sleeman, the golden age of GTB lives on through his humble attempt to bring the same kind of music to the folks who live within a few blocks of his home. Evenings, when he’s in the mood, he fires up 1080 AM, where an audience he can probably count on one hand can tune in to a few minutes of Aphrodite’s Child. The music still sounds thrilling, but remote and nostalgic, less urgent than it did back in its day.