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Mixed Bag 30th anniversary script
by George Graham
<Bonzo Dog Band: The Intro and the Outro>
That was the song with which we started this program, 30 years ago today, May 13, 1974. Good evening, welcome to Mixed Bag, this is George Graham, with a 30th anniversary edition of the program. This evening, we've got a few old reminiscences, some relics dredged from the archive, and some observations on how much we've change and not changed over 30 years of doing this program on a daily basis.
I say daily basis, because Mixed Bag actually started on WVIA as a 90-minute weekly program in June of 1973, just two months after WVIA-FM first signed on the air.
I was one of the founders of the station, and had the honor of throwing the switch which put WVIA-FM on the air for the first time on April 23, 1973. I had begun working for WVIA in August of 1972, having recently graduated from Duke University, returning to my home area, and ready to put my degree in electrical engineering to work in building a radio station. I had already been involved with radio throughout college at what was then a very creative college station at Duke in Durham, North Carolina. I was also fired with an enthusiasm for the creative progressive rock that was very much part of the Woodstock era, but which was completely absent from the commercial airwaves in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Though a few college stations were doing that kind of music, I was out to try to bring it to these parts. Our mission for Public Radio here at WVIA was rather wide-ranging, but it was also expected that Public Radio would provide classical music, most if not all the time. When we first signed the air, the station was indeed eclectic. We were programmed like the BBC, with a series of hour, or half-hour, or even 15-minute-long weekly programs we got from all kinds of sources, usually the ones that were free. We had programs from broadcasting agencies in Europe, and famously, Japanese language lessons.
During the day, we had a lot of so-called "magazine" programming with some classical music, and assorted short talk features. Because the station was set up with a minimal staff, most of our programming was automated. Our evening programming was arranged by nights, with for example Monday night being opera night, Tuesday including some folk music, and so on. Friday nights featured some jazz and I was producing a 90-minute weekly program using syndicated recordings from Canada. But that material soon ran out, and I figured that the open time-slot was my opportunity to try to get some kind of album rock programming onto the station.
The management went along with the idea, though I think somewhat reluctantly, and the first 90-minute weekly Mixed Bag program aired on June 1, 1973. I still have the playlist for that show, and it's interesting to consider how we really have not changed that much musically in 30 years. I started the show with a band called Dreams, a jazz-rock fusion group that contained the Brecker Brothers and Billy Cobham, then moved into blues by B.B. King, folk from John Hartford, John Prine and Joni Mitchell, world music from an African influenced band called Osibisa, English folk from the Pentangle, progressive rock from Jethro Tull and King Crimson and Celtic-influenced music from a band called Amazing Blondel. I ended that first show with acoustic guitar Leo Kottke. And that was all in one 90-minute show. I was determined to make the most of that hour-and-a-half per week.
I produced 49 of those weekly Mixed Bag programs, trying to cram as much music as I could into each one.
In the spring of 1974, the management decided to revamp the station's programming, moving toward daily instead of weekly programming. The station had bought a syndicated series of five hours of daily classical music programs, which were shipped in daily on large reels of tape. There was a one hour "Cameo Concert" which ran at 6:30 PM, following All Things Considered. At 10 PM, before sign-off, we were going to be running another daily syndicated classical program, Starlight Concert. That left a 2 and a half hour slot from 7:30 to 10 PM. The management was tending toward filling the rest of the schedule with classical music, but I made my best case for making Mixed Bag a daily program. I was aided by the fact that in those days -- and this is rather hard to believe in this day and age -- there was a commercial radio station with a powerful signal already broadcasting classical music at night. And, again, this shows how much the radio landscape has changed in 30 years -- there was no commercial radio station broadcasting album-oriented rock. And indeed, almost all the FM stations were broadcasting an easy-listening format usually called "beautiful music."
So it was decided that I could try Mixed Bag as a daily Monday through Friday program from 7:30 to 10 PM, and I started on May 13, 1974, beginning with that piece from the Bonzo Dog Band. Mixed Bag in its early days also included jazz, until All That Jazz became separate a daily program in 1976. So the first set we played on Mixed Bag 30 years ago today was a jazz set including Ahmad Jamal, Art Blakey and Joe Farrell.
Here's another piece that I played that first night, and one I have played many times since then. <Jessica -- Allman Brothers Band>
Jessica, from the Allman Brothers Band, one of the pieces we played on the first Mixed Bag daily program, 30 years ago today. <excerpt: Michael Jerling: In the Middle Ages>
It's interesting to put things in context. The music styles we played back then are basically the same as we play today, but think of how the world at large has changed. In 1974, you had to wind your wrist watch every day if you did not want it to stop. There were no such things as cell phones, VCRs, pagers, answering machines, bank ATM machines, voice mail, or the Internet. Nobody owned their own phone. You rented it from the phone company. About the only people with the large mechanical fax machines of the day were newspapers who used them to get wire service photos. If you wanted to send someone a written message quickly, you would go down to your nearest Western Union office and send a telegram. TV remote controls were very few and far between. On TV, there was just PBS and the three commercial networks, and most TV sets sold in this country were made in the USA. <excerpt: Jay Leonhart: Life in the Middle Ages> Microwave ovens only in the domain commercial kitchens. Computers were something that filled up special air-conditioned rooms on college campus research departments and in large corporations. You could go to your American Motors dealer and by a new Gremlin, which you could fill up with leaded gas at less than 50 cents per gallon. The Bi-Centennial was two years away. Richard Nixon was three months away from resigning in the wake of the Watergate scandal. We were still a year away from getting out of Vietnam. John Lennon and Elvis Presley were still around, making music. Disco had yet to happen. Millions of people played their music from 8-track tapes. And we were eight years away from the invention of compact discs. Everything we played on Mixed Bag was from vinyl or from the reel-to-reel tapes we produced here.
So it was against this backdrop that Mixed Bag started, with a goal of presenting new and interesting music in a wide variety of styles.
Folk music was one of styles, and in the week before Mixed Bag started, there was a significant folk festival that took place on the campus of Keystone College in LaPlume, PA. I took what portable recording equipment we had and recorded all of the music, probably about 12 hours worth. Among the performers there was the great Appalachian folk singer Jean Ritchie. Here she is from that festival in May of 1974, as broadcast in the first weeks of Mixed Bag. <<>>
Jean Ritchie at the Keystone Junior College Folk Festival in May of 1974 30 years ago, as we mark the 30th anniversary of Mixed Bag.
Also in 1974, there was a spate of concerts that took place in Scranton, and I had a chance to do interviews with some of the performers. I lugged along a big old Nagra reel-to-reel tape machine used for film sound work. Among the artists I had a chance to talk to was a then relatively unknown Fleetwood Mac, a group that formed as part of the 1960s British Blues movement. <<>>
John and Christine McVie. And sure enough the following year, Fleetwood Mac would release Rumors which would become a huge hit. Also in October of 1974, there was a concert by the Mahavishu Orchestra, with John McLaughlin. Opening was Janis Ian, a rather improbable pairing. I had a chance to talk to both. I asked John McLaughlin about how the first Mahavishnu Orchestra formed. McLaughlin had previously been with the Tony Williams Lifetime, one of the early pioneering jazz-rock fusion bands. <<>>
John McLaughlin and Janis Ian interviewed on the same day, October 12, 1974.
We're marking our 30th anniversary of Mixed Bag today here on WVIA-FM.
The letterhead I had made up for the program back at the beginning, and which I still use, says "a program of contemporary music and other entertainments," and when we first started, and had a full two and a half hours a day, I included a bunch of comedy material from the BBC and other sources, including my old college radio station at Duke University, where we had a bunch of very creative people there at the same time. We produced hundreds of short features, including many satirical commercials. Last year I undertook a project to restore and remaster the aging tapes, and was reminded of these wacky commercials, whole series of which was for the Wellington Raphelaytor, a device which would do something for your car. This was in the day when Andy Granatelli was hawking the oil additive STP to improve your car's performace. Of course, that was nothing like the Wellington Raphelaytor. <<>>
Some spots created at my old college radio station WDBS at Duke University in the early 1970s. Perhaps we'll revive more of them as we continue to mark 30 years of Mixed Bag.
In the first couple of months of the show, we such things as running an NPR documentary series on UFOs. I also produced a series called "So You Wanna Buy a Stereo System" explaining the various options for outfitting oneself for good sound, which evolved into "Sound Advice" a series of short features on hi-fi gear, covering such topics as the best way to maintain your vinyl LPs, and make sure that your turntable cartridge and stylus were in the best shape. <Excerpt: John Hartford: Don't Leave Your Records in the Sun>
Also in those early days, we had live newscasts as a part of Mixed Bag, reported by Liz Hibbard.
After a while, we had a regular slot on Wednesday nights at for half-hour long comedy and even a little science fiction. One of the series we presented was a BBC comedy show which included John Cleese as a member of its cast, called I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again. Here are a couple of sketches from that series. <<>>
In the late 1970s we presented the original radio production of Douglas Adams' "Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy." It was this radio production that led to the popular series of books. <<>>
And for several years in the 1980s, every day we got a chance to "Ask Dr. Science," courtesy of the Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre comedy troupe. <<>>
Unfortunately, series like that are no longer readily available to us. And we do have less time than we used to. In 1995, when All Things Considered expanded to two hours, the extra half hour came out of Mixed Bag.
Now on to things we are still doing, and have been doing for a long time. Some of our signature features are the Friday night request show, the weekly album review and of course Homegrown Music.
Looking back over my records, it seems that the first time we played requests on a Friday night on Mixed Bag was in our third week on the air, on May 31, 1974. So far as I can tell, the first request I played was for a John McLaughlin piece. We did requests occasionally, but at the end of September of that year, the Friday night requests became a fixture on the show. I have not counted up the number of requests we have played, but we have had more than 1550 Friday night request shows.
The weekly album reviews actually pre-date Mixed Bag. As part of the magazine programming we did during the daytime, back when WVIA-FM first came on the air, there were various reviews, and I took it upon myself to review albums, in a produced piece very similar to what we do today. They would run at various times during the day. The first album I reviewed, and indeed I had produced the review before the station actually first went on the air was of Joni Mitchell's "For the Roses." One of the earliest albums I took on was what turned out to be one of the best-selling and most durable LPs in rock history, Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon." My review was lukewarm at best. <<>>
And I must say, after all these years and albums sold, I still hold a similar opinion the about it. The album review became a regular part of the Wednesday edition of Mixed Bag also during the program's third week. And here's something else connected with John McLaughlin, the album I believe was the one I reviewed that week was the Mahavishnu Orchestra's "Visions of the Emerald Beyond." I had a much more favorable opinion of that.
Speaking of opinions, if you tune in on Wednesday night for the reviews or read them on my website, you probably notice that I have not given an outright pan in many years, whereas in the early days, I would sometimes be merciless. That was when the reviews would run by themselves in the magazine program. But after I started running the reviews on Mixed Bag, and then playing the full album, I avoided bad albums, since even if I excoriated the recording, I would still end up playing the album, why should listeners have to put up with that? So following the old maxim, if you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all, if I think an album stinks, I generally keep it to myself, and thus avoid any further publicity for a bad album. The most recent album we reviewed two weeks ago, Epigene's Popular Dissent was number 1365 in the series.
And that brings us to another of the signature features of Mixed Bag, Homegrown Music. WVIA's presentation of regional artists from our studios actually pre-dates the daily Mixed Bag by several months. I supposed that it could be traced to the before the station signed on. When we were planning the station's facilities, I thought that as a public radio station, it might be good to have the facilities to present area musicians. I had done that kind of thing in college radio, with cramped and improvised facilities. So I made a proposal that WVIA have a recording facility with a first-class recording console, and we were able to make it work in the budget we had for putting the station on the air.
When we first signed on, and we were doing weekly one-hour shows, with different kinds of programming on each night of the week, we had a night of folk music, and I produced one of those one-hour folk programs. Some are musicians heard the show and called up asking if we were interested in having them perform on the air. I said, why not, and so in September 1973, we arranged for a little one-hour concert, taped in our TV studio, using our portable mixer, since our big console had not yet arrived, performed before 4 or 5 friends of the musicians. Lex Romane, who is still active in the music business, and Ted Bird performed mostly cover songs. Here is something from that very first WVIA studio performance. <<>>
Lex Romane from September 1973.
While the weekly folk show was still going, we had a few other performances, though it took a few months for them to turn up on Mixed Bag, once we started the daily edition of the show. Digging through my archive, I think the first time on the daily Mixed Bag that we featured a segment with regional artist performances from the studio was on a Thursday night, February 20, 1975, with a compilation of some of the pieces recorded previously for the folk show. Eventually, by mid 1975, we were getting more regional musicians interested in performing, so we would have what I called "Music from the Studio" on Wednesday nights at 9, a couple of times a month.
By late 1976, I figured that we had enough material and interest among musicians to make it into a weekly series, and Homegrown Music became a Tuesday night fixture beginning in December of 1976, and it has been here ever since. We have had well over 500 different artists and bands on the series, some many times. I estimate that we have produced more than 1500 albums' worth of music in our studio in the course of over 27 years of Homegrown Music sessions. While we did some occasional live concerts in the early days, we began doing monthly live concerts in 1982, and have presented probably over 200 by now.
Here's what has become a classic performance from one of our first of the monthly concerts in back 1982: Phil Pilorz and "Ducks." <<>>
Phil Pilorz and "Ducks" recorded back in 1982, and released on the Homegrown Music CD, from the early days of our monthly live concerts.
Of course, Public Radio would not be Public Radio without fundraising, the very first live concert-broadcast we did in the studio was in connection with our first on-air fundraiser in May of 1975. Among the performers was Tim McGurl, who is still active on the regional music scene. For those who love our fundraisers, here's some tape from that first on-air membership drive, with the voices of some of my old colleagues at the time, Liz Hibbard and Al Tilley. <<>>
For the first few years we had what I called our weekly specials, with a topic which ran right through the week during the 9 o'clock hour, with for example, a specific artist or band being featured right through the week, or weeks of British comedy, and so on. In 1980, we revised the format to approximately what it is now, with the daily new releases segment, the album reviews Wednesday night at 9, the extended subject sets, and so on. It was in 1980 that I adopted the Pat Metheny Group piece called "The Epic" as our theme. <<>>
Mixed Bag started out as a program exploring new and interesting music of the day, and I like to think that it had remained true to the notion. My goal had been every day to bring you music you're never heard before, but which you'll want to hear again. The music we started out playing 30 years ago, is no longer contemporary, and a lot of it has been co-opted by the classic rock stations. But that's fine with me. There's always more new and fascinating music waiting to be discovered. While many in my generation are fond of saying that they just don't make music like they used to -- a sure sign of impending geezerdom -- I am constantly encouraged by the quantity and quality of music being made today by up and coming artists and veterans. We started out playing the music that was not heard on commercial radio, and that is what I continue to strive to do.
Somehow it amazes me that we've been able to get away with what we've been doing on this radio show for 30 years. But, the operative word here is "we." Because without our supporting members, I wouldn't be here doing this. Thanks you for making it all possible for 30 years, and we hope you'll continue to listen and support public radio.
Comments to George:
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