The History of CFR Concert Free Radio
from Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, NY
It was Jack’s idea to operate a pirate radio station from the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen in New York, an event scheduled for July, 1973 and billed, unofficially at least, as “another Woodstock” although with far fewer bands (only three in fact, The Grateful Dead, The Band and The Allman Brothers Band). A
I happened to have a 40 watt FM transmitter which I had been using for a successful pirate station in the
Running a pirate station was a risky endeavor back in those days because after all it was illegal. We put our heads together and decided that our cover story would be that we were a Canadian station doing a remote broadcast from the concert site. Since Canadian call letters start with the letter “C” someone came up with “CFR” as our call letters, with the hidden meaning being Concert Free Radio!
Between Jack and I we were able to assemble all of the studio equipment we would need: turntables, tape decks, mics and the all important control board which was custom built for the purpose. The other members of the pirate team donated their labor and we all brought along a bunch of LPs since we figured that much of the programming would be done by our DJs.
Reading this far you may think that we had everything figured out, everything covered. Well, not really. We made several major mistakes:
Part of our cover story of being a Canadian station doing a remote broadcast was based on our mistaken belief that since Watkins Glen was in “upstate NY” it must be near the Canadian border. Wrong! Luckily we looked at a map before we started our journey because otherwise we would have ended up near one of the great lakes instead of by one of the
We also nearly forgot about the need to provide food and drink for the half-dozen people in our crew. At the last minute we pooled our financial resources and came up with $110. We promptly dispatched one of the guys out to the nearest grocery store to stock up on supplies for six people for “at least a week”. He returned an hour later with a number of large boxes and bags stuffed with stuff. It wasn’t until we got to the event that we realized that he had purchased 24 cases of Spaghetti-O’s and 12 cases of Budweiser (or perhaps it was the other way around)! Ignoring the questionable nutritional value in attempting to sustain oneself on such a diet for a week no consideration was given to the fact that we had neither the ability to heat the food or cool the beer since we had removed the stove and refrigerator from the camper to make room for the studio equipment.
We also forgot that the six of us would need to sleep at some point which was a problem since we planned on removing the bunks from the camper to make room for the equipment. More on this later.
Remembering horror stories of people who were trying to attend
When Jack went to the rental place to pick up the camper he had reserved the guy looked at Jack’s long hair and said “You ain’t planning on taking my new trailer to that hippie-fest in
As soon as Jack pulled into his driveway with the camper we went to work converting it into a suitable studio. We thought nothing of removing the stove and the gas powered refrigerator and although we were careful we somehow managed to drill a hole into the built-in 100 gallon water tank which was going to be our fall back beverage of choice when we got tired of warm Bud. Unfortunately we didn’t realize that the tank had a leak until we got to the show and discovered that all of the water we had put in the tank was gone. Warm Bud anyone?
Testing of the studio equipment and of the AM and FM transmitter continued overnight Monday into Tuesday so we didn’t get started until late Tuesday evening.
The rented camper was converted into a fully equipped broadcast studio complete with custom build stereo console, two turntables, two tape machines, microphones and AM and FM transmitters.
In order to have a sleeping area for the crew, at the last minute we hooked up with a friend of a friend who had a large Winnebago that could sleep 6 comfortably. In return for offering him free access to the concert’s press area he agreed to allow us to bunk in his motel on wheels which was about the size of a school bus. However, once we got him in he reneged on the deal and we all ended up just sleeping wherever we could.
So our caravan was a Jeep pulling the studio/trailer, a Blazer and the Winnebago.
By midnight we had gotten to within ten miles of the concert site when all of a sudden we came to a standstill. We could see cars stopped for miles ahead on the state highway leading to the racetrack. Looking at the accumulation of vehicles, which included run down VW Microbuses, old caddy’s, at least one hearse painted in day glow colors along with many converted “electric kool aid type” school buses, we realized that there were thousands of people who had, like us, decided to get a head start. Jack and I were convinced that this is how it would end . . . stuck in traffic for days with us never getting anywhere near the concert site. But then Mike and Jack decided to walk up ahead to see what they could find. The line of cars kind of reminded me of a scene from some Armageddon movie (you know, where everyone was trying to get out of town before the disaster struck), and at that point I was resigned to the fact that we would never get there. The hours passed and then just after dawn Jack and Mike returned with smiles on their faces. Shortly thereafter two NY state police officers on motorcycles appeared. Instead of busting us they were there to escort us to the show! Between Mike’s persuasive powers and Jack’s network TV credentials they had convinced the cops that our merry band of pirates were legitimate “press”!
The police escorted us through a series of back roads, road blocks and checkpoints and by late morning we came upon a huge empty field on top of a hill. Confused at first as to where we were, I soon saw three things that tipped me off that we were in the right place:
A. Two rows of porta-potties that extended off into the distance like some bizarre example of perspective (picture railroad tracks going off into the distance).
B. The largest stage and sound system I had ever seen at one end of the field.
C. At the other end of the field a huge, chain link fence with what must have been 100,000 people camped out on the other side of it.
The view through the fence that seperated the press area, where CFR's three vehicles and studio were set up, and the public area. This photo was taken right after they opened the gates, perhaps on Thursday.
It was surreal. Here we were, six people standing in the middle of what felt like a thousand acres of empty space, separated by a single fence from literally tens of thousands of fans who had been camping practically on top of each other for days for the privilege of being the first in.
We quickly found the press area and started setting up shop. We were the first press there so we parked the trailer right next to a large telephone pole which had about a dozen electrical outlets on it. It wasn’t long before we had utilized all of the outlets. We also used the pole to mount our AM and FM antennas.
At first we were dismayed to find that a large detachment of NY mounted police were right across the driveway from us, but this turned out to be a godsend as you will read in a minute.
The press area was about 400’ from the stage and was separated from the spectator area by a high chain link fence. Just down the road from us in the direction away from the stage was a large cleared area that served as a heliport. Since the promoters expected the roads to be jammed they had very smartly arranged for the bands to be brought in by helicopter. This was ideal for us because all of the artists and VIPs had to drive right by our studio in their golf carts to get to the stage. Legendary rock promoter Billy Graham saw the call letters on the side of our trailer and stopped by on the first day. I can still remember the smile on his face when we told him we were a Canadian station which prompted a wink and an “oh yea, sure” comment from him. In any case he was thrilled that there was a radio station on site.
CFR's studio set up in the press area immediately adjacent to the NY State Police mounted division. The only access for musicians to the stage from the helipad was right there in front of the sign so we had access to all of the musicians and promoters.
It turned out that the mounted police were also happy to have us there because we approached them with the offer to broadcast, on their behalf, traffic and “health and welfare” announcements. So among several other “firsts” and “only’s” we were probably the only pirate station in history to have its own traffic copter! I can claim this because a pilot from the state police copter would stop by about every two hours throughout the week to read traffic updates on teh air which we found out later from concert goers who stopped by the station were much appreciated.
Having the state police as neighbors had another very positive aspect. Food! Instead of being stuck with eating cold Spaghetti-Os with our fingers out of a can (we remembered a can opener but not utensils) we were invited to eat at the state police commissary which was about 50 feet outside our front door. Perhaps it was the remote location, perhaps it was the excitement of the event, or perhaps it was because it wasn’t Spaghetti-Os, but the food they provided was some of the best food I’d ever had. They also had plenty of fresh water.
As the week went on other members of the press started to arrive. They all saw us (having "CFR AM/FM" in big black letters on the side of the white trailer helped). Some ignored us. Many, especially the TV stations and networks who had sent reporters to cover the event, had the same smile as Billy Graham when they heard our tale about being Canadians. Our operation was filmed by a number of film crews but I don’t know if any of it ever made it to air.
By Friday morning we had heard from the state police that the roads were jammed for 40 miles in all directions, that the NY state thruway was closed and that there were probably a half a million people already on site with perhaps an equal number trying to get to the show! By mid-day the word came down from the promoter that it was a free show, people would be let in regardless of whether or not they had tickets.
Our broadcast schedule had been 24/7 with each of us following an informal schedule of on-air shifts of between four and six hours. Of course we played a lot of The Band, Allman Brothers and the Dead, but we also played other rock music, and a lot of underground rock as well. I remember playing Gentile Giant, Matching Mole, Kraftwerk, King Krimzon and the like. Interspersed with the music were the traffic reports and police health and welfare announcements and interviews. We interviewed anyone who was willing to go on the air. We interviewed the various private helicopter pilots, the other reporters, a guy who cleaned the toilets and of course we interviewed members of the crowd. We even interviewed ourselves. It wasn’t long before we started interviewing the likes of legendary promoter Billy Graham and Bob Weir of the Dead.
Author "JR" pulling a shift on the air on Concert Free Radio.
The Bob Weir interview started off a bit awkward. After getting over the shock of having a member of the Dead sitting right across from him in the studio in front of live mics, one of our crew, who shall remain nameless to save them a bit of embarrassment, when at a loss for words (and not having slept in several days) held up a copy of “Workingman’s Dead”, at that point perhaps the quintessential Dead album, and said to Bob on the air “is there anything good on this that we should play”. What he probably meant to say was “what’s your favorite song” or “what song would you like me to play from this album” but that’s not the way it came out. Luckily Bob took it in stride and the interview continued for well over an hour.
Security was tight around the stage area and even our TV press credentials wouldn’t get us anywhere near the back stage area. Initially this prevented us from making contact with anyone who could hand off a PA feed to us, something that we really wanted to do and which would have allowed us to broadcast the actual sound from the stage live on the air. We felt it was important because with over 800,000 people in attendance, many people in the audience could barely hear the music from the stage! Despite three, huge sound systems, the Dead’s Alembic system on stage, The Bands system on scaffolding 500 feet out from the stage and the Allman Brothers system 500 feet beyond that, the crowd extended back a full half mile or more.
Mike on the air.
Mike K. was determined to get the concert to the people that were still trying to get to the Glen and to the people who were on site but too far away to hear the state sound.. He recounts this story:
“I was backstage, watching Bill Graham slicing watermelons. I asked Bill, “What are you doing with those watermelons?” He said: “The Allman Brothers wanted three watermelons; I’m givin’ em three watermelons!” I told him about my idea of broadcasting the last few hours of the show live, using the stage scaffolding to support our antenna, with our FM transmitter. He looked at me, and said, “Do it!” I also recall sitting in a trailer with Shelly Finkel discussing this arrangement.”
Thanks to Mike, Bill Graham got word to the Grateful Dead and the band sent their sound man into the press area to talk to us. His name was Ron Wickersham and we learned later that not only was the founder and owner of Alembic, but he was a legendary multi-track recording engineer who had worked at Ampex Corporation refining the state of the art of tape recorders.
Ron was thrilled when I told him the truth about our operation, and supported wholeheartedly the idea of “brining the (live) music to the people”. I thought we were all set until he said “Sure, we’ll give you a feed, just run your cables over to the stage . . . “. The problem was that we only had about 100’ of cable, not the 400’ plus required to reach the stage. I asked Ron if he had any extra cable and he said that they had used something like 20,000 feet of cable between the three PA systems but that they had completely run out.
View of the stage from the front of the CFR studio trailer. We didn't have enough cable to bring the PA feed from the stage to the station so we decided to take the station to the stage!
Determined to go live, I suggested that if they couldn’t bring the sound to us we would bring the transmitter to them. He agreed and shortly thereafter I was issued a special tie-dye Summer Jam T shirt that served as the back stage pass. We signed the FM off the air promising our listeners that we would be back on shortly from the stage and I disconnected the cables to the transmitter and took down the FM antenna from the pole. I had to carry the “man portable” transmitter to the stage. It was a 70+ pound military surplus transmitter left over from the Korean War and I pitied the soldier who had to carry this thing around the battlefield. With the tie dye T shirt and Ron at my side we went through two security checkpoints before entering the back stage area which was surrounded by a high fence.
In stark contrast to the near pandemonium and third world-like living conditions in front of the stage, the back stage area was very organized. There were several catering areas, tables set up under umbrellas with tiki torches, two extremely large above ground pools and bundles of wires everywhere. There were also four giant searchlight trucks that were part of the light show.
The Grateful Dead had started playing by the time I got onto the side of the stage to set the transmitter up. I climbed up the five stories of scaffolding and used gaffers tape to attach the antenna to the highest part of the stage. When I got back down Ron handed me a cable and said that it was a feed from the sound board. Realizing the historical nature of the performance I had left instruction back at the studio for them to record the show.
Once I had everything set up and CFR back on the air I had a chance to look around. Right next to me were sixty McIntosh MC-2300 audio power amps. These were the largest and most powerful audio amps available at the time, weighing 120 lbs each and rated for more than 300 watts per channel and all 60 of the amps had their meters going into the red showing that they were putting out full power! So there was over 36,000 watts of power coming out of the stage sound system, an incredible amount of power at a time when the average home stereo boasted 40 watts per channel! And this 36 kilowatts of power represented just one of the three PA systems in use at the event!
With everything up and running Ron gave me a tour of the back stage area. We spent some time in the Wally Hyder remote 16 track recording truck and then I got a chance to go into one of the Dead’s 40’ long “roadie trailers” which was full of the biggest and most stoned out looking guys I had every seen. Back outside I noticed that the spotlights were now putting out colored beams since they had added huge color “gels” on top of the arc lamps. About every five minutes one of the gels would burst into flame from the heat from the lamp and the operators, who were probably union electricians because they didn’t seem to fit in at all appearance-wise, would take a huge pair of tongs and flip the flaming gels into a dumpster next to each truck and then install another one in its place. The lights were so bright the operators were wearing welding goggles and I could feel the heat 50’ away!
It was around this time that I noticed a flaming object descending from the sky into the crowd about 500 feet from the stage. It was multicolored and seemed to be spinning. I later found out much to my horror that it was reportedly a parachutist who had caught himself on fire by the flares he was carrying! I believe his death was the only fatality!
Being a radio-guy I wanted to hear what the transmitter sounded like just to be sure I had set it up OK so I asked Ron whether anyone had a radio. We hopped into the cab of one of the tractor trailer rigs and tuned into 92.1, CFR’s FM frequency. The signal was very strong but in listening closely I noticed that the vocals were much louder than the music. When I pointed this out to Ron he said “yea, I forgot to mention that I could only get a vocal mix feed for you.” He want on to explain that the intercom circuit between the stage and the sound booth in the audience had gone out the previous day and that he had been sending people out there with specific sound instructions on an hourly basis for close to a day but that they had never come back and the instructions had apparently never gotten through so there was unfortunately no chance of having them patch in a more balanced mix.
I helped myself to some of the catered food and socialized for a while back stage but I ended up back up on the left side of the stage to monitor the transmitter and watch the performers from up close. By this time all three bands were on stage jamming and a light rain had started to fall. Wearing just a t-shirt and shorts since earlier in the day it had been eighty degrees I soon got pretty cold but I was determined to stay by the transmitter . . . I feared that once I left I would never be able to get back in to claim it.
It was pretty exciting to see three of the most popular bands performing together just 10 feel from where I was standing. And it was an incredible site to look out from the stage, which was perhaps 20’ above the ground, and see people for what appeared to be miles in all directions. Occasionally someone would get through the security guards on front of the stage and try to climb up on the stage. Those unfortunate souls who were unlucky enough to get onto the stage proper were promptly grabbed by security and unceremoniously thrown back into the crowd!
As Dead concerts tend to do the jam session stretched out to close to six hours. When the performance ended (after many encores since this was the last night of the concert), I shut down the transmitter and climbed the scaffolding again to retrieve the antenna. Heights had never bothered me but since it had been drizzling the scaffolding was wet and I had to be extremely careful not to slip and fall.
Around 3 am I carried the transmitter back to the studio/trailer and prepared to put the station back on the air. For some reason Jack and I decided to tune around on the FM dial before we went back on and in doing so we heard the strangest thing. As I recount the story I find it hard to believe but I heard it myself. There weren’t many stations on the air at that time of night but we tuned to one just as the announcer was saying “We usually stay on all night as our regular listeners know but we’ll be signing off early tonight because everyone else is listening to that ‘other’ station’. Good night”. How they would know that, and why they would sign off I don’t know. In hindsight I assume it was a college station.
With CFR back on the air our free-form studio programming resumed along with helicopter traffic reports, health and welfare announcements from the promoters and the state police and the Red Cross and missing persons announcements.
When the sun came up the next day it was clear that we wouldn’t be going anywhere soon. Most of the people were still there because the helicopter pilots told us that all of the roads were blocked by people trying to leave. We had planned on staying at least a week so the programming continued. By this time the press area had been overrun by members of the audience but everyone was cool.
As the audience thinned out the amount of mud and trash left behind was simply amazing. Apparently many people had decided to just abandon their camping gear as there were tents, sleeping bags and coolers for as far as I could see.
It wasn’t until Tuesday, one week after we had arrived and two days after the end of the concert that the roads were clear enough for us to leave. Looking back as our caravan started to drive out I saw a sea of mud, the huge stage and more porta-potties than I ever care to see again in my life. As it was the trip took about twice as long as it should have due to the heavy traffic.
Unofficially close to a million people attended the show. The official count was 600,000 and even at that number the event made the record books as the largest gathering of humanity at one place in the history of mankind, a record that stood for more than a decade until a religious gathering of some kind, I think in India, surpassed it.
Perhaps with the exception of European stations such as Radio Caroline and Radio London, two
Looking back I can’t believe that we pulled it off, especially on such short notice. I have only one regret: Ron Winkersham, the Dead’s sound man, had told me during the week that the band had always wanted to run a pirate station at each of their concerts but they had never found anyone interested in doing it. He asked if I wanted to be that person and I told him I would think about it. I regret that I never got back to him about it, at least to thank him for the offer and for his help with CFR. While some might have considered it a chance of a lifetime (and it was and I did consider it briefly) I had family and professional commitments in
What became of our tapes of the jam session? I still have them. While the jam was incredibly exciting to watch and hear live, some of the performers had obviously been drinking too much and the vocals came out terrible. While touring the 16 track recording truck Ron told me that their intent was to release the Concert as a multi-disc LP but I don’t believe that never happened (The Band did release a Watkins Live album but from all reports is consists of studio tracks).
So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I’d like to thank Jack for coming up with such an amazing idea and for inviting me to be a part of it. I’d also like to thank the hard work put in my Doug, Ed, Mike and Gerry without whom it wouldn’t have been possible.
Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir performing on stage.