The True Story - 1969
It was about this time of year in 1968 that the seed was planted. Gripweed had skipped school and sat in the drive-in at Burger King drinking bad coffee and studying for the FCC Third Class test he was to take later that morning in hopes of becoming a deejay somewhere. The radio blared the final Cook County vote tally as there proved to be 100,000 too few voters (cemetery absentees and otherwise) to keep Nixon out of the White House. Downhearted by the news, Gripweed called Sterling Seat at about 1:00 am the next morning to commiserate. In a fit of revolutionary zeal and sleep deprivation they formed Frog Broadcasting, Ltd. and decided to free the world through radio.********************
In our group of cohorts there was Judy, Judy, Judy, a seventeen year old part time deejay at a legit local Top 40 AM station; Sgt. Zero, the son of a Bible College teacher; Capt. Tripps, a catatonic walking pharmacy with a basement suitable for a smallish broadcast studio; Gracious Bird, a brilliant ham radio freak turned assistant engineer at a major regional AM station; Sterling Seat, an electronics buff whose air name seemed to have something to do with the silver commode seat hanging on the studio wall; and Gripweed, who had taken his name from the character played by John Lennon in the film How I Won the War.********************
A little 100 milliwatt "Part 15" transmitter along with the preamp from an old RCA phonograph, a crystal mike, and a four port Bogen Mixer became the first WRFN, "Radio Free Nashville" facility located in Gripweed's room at home. Situated on the second floor of a high spot in the neighborhood, it covered about half a mile in all directions and was great fun until the preamp burned out. Sgt. Zero boasted an old Navy aircraft transmitter of World War II vintage acquired from Fair Radio Sales, and when Sterling Seat found out it tuned through the medium wave broadcast band, he jumped on it. Capt. Tripps entered the group at about that time; he had a likely host site for the endeavors. His parents hoped a little harmless (we lied to them) conspiracy would get Tripps unhooked from a pseudo-tragic love affair that kept him slopped out on downs in despair. They gave us the basement for the duration. That was about Thanksgiving 1968.********************
A lot of spare change, scrounged parts, and hard work went into getting WRFN on the air during the next several months. The first test broadcasts were made in the Spring of 1969; actual broadcasts began during the last week of school in 1969. The only "progressive" programming in Nashville at the time was the work of a renegade deejay named Johnny Walker (later top morning drive man in Baltimore, we think) for an hour every Sunday night on a Top 40 AM station. WRFN reached most of the western and southern suburbs of Nashville through its 35 watt navy surplus transmitter, an end fed 100 foot "long wire" antenna, and an impressive amount of buried ground wire. Now Nashville had "progressive" radio.
Capt. Tripps' parents never said a word when we dug up their yard to install over 500 feet of buried ground plane wire complete with salt in the trenches to improve conductivity. Equipment modifications and adjustments were an almost nightly interruption of the broadcast schedule at first, but college and high school students in South and West Nashville would search at about 7:00 pm any given night to see if WRFN was on the air or not. The original 1560 khz frequency was tuned with the transmitter's internal VFO which drifted badly. Critical frequency adjustments were made by "zero beating" the heterodyne using a distant receiver monitored by telephone. Eventually a custom made crystal controlled oscillator was constructed for the new 1580 khz frequency, and transmitter alterations increased power to the 75-100 watt range. A real problem was the 600-800 cycle ac power requirement of the old Navy GP-7 transmitter; the transformers would not take normal 60 cycle line current for long without overheating. The solution involved an old aircraft generator, belt driven by an electric motor "borrowed" from Gripweed's dad with belated permission, sitting outside the studio window. The constant whine must have been most irritating to the neighbors (it could be heard over any kind of receiver in the immediate area). By this time WRFN was reaching some pretty far off locations and drawing the attention of legal broadcasters who began complaining to the FCC.
Several of us leafleted the free rock concert in Centennial Park at the beginning of summer announcing our new underground station. We conspirators were a non-political lot at the time, but by mid-summer some "lefties" found out about us and made contact with donations and the offer to introduce us to dope smoking. The programs of each individual conspirator were unique to their own interests. Sgt. Zero even wanted to do remotes of local school ball games, but that was nixed as being too dangerous. Almost nothing else was censored by the group. Zero contented himself with playing a lot of singles that never got on the local Top 40 stations (Sterling Seat often snuck the worst of the lot out of the studio). Gripweed and Sterling Seat began playing what would become the early 1970's FM rock album acts, adding Frank Zappa, Country Joe and the Fish, Apple Tree Theater, Murray Roman's "Blind Man Movie", an arcane concept album on the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968 by one St. Steven, The Fuggs, The Velvet Underground, and others. We found a bag of large campaign buttons that said "SAL" on them. No one knew what it meant, but we gave out numbers of area phone booths and offered "Suck a Lizard" buttons to anyone calling or writing, just to gauge how many people were listening. Sterling Seat even devised an extension telephone apparatus that connected to pay phone terminal blocks and allowed answering and relaying the calls from the comfort of an automobile. This scheme required a location with two nearby pay phones, and the connections were with clips that allowed a speedy retreat if necessary. A phone patch at the studio made it possible to air the relayed calls.********************
Gracious Bird had a sarcastic fascination with religious programs and would do his best imitation of his favorite radio preacher saying things like, "This is Gracious Bird with the Weirden Word and I'm gonna lay it on ya children." Capt. Tripps (taking his name from Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead) often played morose classical music like Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor, and addressed all his patter between cuts to his girlfriend who could be found in the driveway with the car radio blaring, listening to him. Given the odd and irregular hours of broadcast, she might have comprised a large portion of the audience some nights. On especially slow nights, Sterling Seat sometimes started a tape and went out driving around town to gauge signal strength, listening to prerecorded shows of himself or Gripweed. Those expeditions usually wound up at Yannie's restaurant in Green Hills with an order of Yannie's incredible onion rings (until the tape broke one night ending the practice).
Two radio buffs who had been trying to find our location all summer narrowed the area down enough to obtain the numbers for every phone booth in the vicinity. One pay phone call-in night, they followed Gripweed back to the station. It was raining and they crawled on their bellies over 100 yards through neighbors' lawns thinking we were so underground that we would have armed guards posted. They sure looked funny walking into the basement covered with mud, and finding many extra friends milling around in the party-like atmosphere that shows became by July.
The FCC came walking into the backyard one night in the form of an employee, on vacation from the Atlanta FCC office. He wanted to warn us how easy we were to find if anybody really wanted us, which they would if we kept WRFN going much longer. We signed-off early that night, first assuring Tripps' parents that it really meant nothing, then huddling scared to death in Tripps' attic bedroom while Tripps took his medicine in gargantuan doses and passed out. Judy and Zero quit the station after that episode, but the rest of us plowed on.
The parties in the control room / studio got bigger and bigger, as fans and friends piled in to do guest shots and insult each other over the airwaves. WRFN was nothing if not a "people's station". With the advent of the crystal frequency control and the beefed-up transmitter, we were reaching virtually all of Nashville, and could even be heard weakly in outlying towns like Franklin, Tennessee. We blazed the trail for WKDA-FM which went on the air legally a few months after we shut down, and called themselves Radio Free Nashville for a while with a similar free form format (until they built up ratings and could sell advertising time).
One night in September, Gripweed was on the air doing his famous takeoff on Top 40 in which he brayed like a hyped deejay, "The Gripweed Power Hour, where every other song is the same song." A panicky call from Sterling Seat warned Gripweed to sign-off and shut-down. Sterling's father had been warned by a friend in the domestic spy agency even spookier than the FBI, the National Security Agency, that WRFN was about to be busted. The NSA and the FCC had known about us all summer and not cared because they assumed we would not last long and we were not political. We had unknowingly crossed that line when we began mentioning the names of local "radical agitators" on the air and thanking them for their contributions.********************
Gripweed stayed on for about thirty more minutes, announcing "the end" like a Conelrad Alert, thanking everyone and playing the last few "underground" hits our melodramatic teenaged hearts thought would never be heard on Nashville radio again. To his chagrin, WSM-TV newsmen called on the private studio phone wanting to know why the station was closing with no notice. They had been listening all summer and wanted to know if they could do anything to help us stay on the air, or otherwise come out that night to do a story on WRFN for the next day's news. Faced with the fear of going to jail for liberating the airwaves without a license, we declined.
The station was dismantled and secreted all over town that very night, some parts never to be seen again. The crystal was destroyed.
Sterling Seat, and later Gripweed, would go on to work on "underground newspapers" until the decline of that media by the mid 70's; both were founders of the National Committee to Goose the President prior to Nixon's resignation. Judy, Judy, Judy became a TV news show producer, Sgt. Zero a foot-washing Baptist preacher (he tragically passed in 2001). Capt. Tripps married the girlfriend in the driveway and reduced his dosage significantly. The Gracious Bird is still brilliant and continued working in the broadcast industry, later becoming a pioneer in cell phone technology.********************
The Radio Free Nashville logo arose again in an unrelated development in the mid 70's when the historic black college, Fisk University, went on the air with a short range FM student station, programming funk and jazz. WFRN, Radio Free Nashville, later changed call letters to WFSK. And in 1998 the Radio Free Nashville logo was resurrected yet one more time; their Radio Free Nashville site tells this newest story.