WLAV radio icons Tony Gates, Ed Buchanan and Steve Aldrich regaled an audience with anecdotes at the Ford Museum in a program linked to the Rock Hall’s “Louder Than Words: Rock, Power and Politics” exhibit.
Artists have confronted politics and social issues through their music for decades, and often in challenging ways.
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For veteran WLAV-FM DJ Steve Aldrich, “when there are uncomfortable messages in songs, it kind of means we need to hear them.”
Aldrich, along with WLAV DJs Tony Gates and Ed “Uncle Buck” Buchanan, dove deep into the storied history of radio in the Grand Rapids area and its connection to culture in a panel discussion at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum Tuesday night.
It became clear by applause at the mere mention of a few legendary local DJs or, say, Buchanan’s long-running comedy show, that the museum auditorium was packed with longtime listeners of radio in Grand Rapids. The panelists reveled in that atmosphere, poking fun at each other throughout the evening.
The panel – moderated by Western Michigan University associate dean Dr. Ed Martini – coincided with the museum’s “Louder Than Words: Rock, Power and Politics” exhibit, which examines the impact of modern music and pop culture on political and social movements from the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s until now. Artists ranging from Bob Dylan and The Clash to NWA and Rage Against the Machine have guitars, clothing and lyric sheets featured in the exhibit.
And it seemed oddly appropriate that the exhibit and panel discussion take place at a museum dedicated to a president whose legacy was defined by a highly divisive political climate.
CUTTING-EDGE RADIO, PROTESTS AND THE VIETNAM WAR
Having worked in radio and the concert scene in Grand Rapids for decades, Aldrich, Gates and Buchanan had a lot to say about music’s relationship to politics, especially during the war in Vietnam.
“Particularly in the late 60s, it was expected [of artists] to be political,” Aldrich said. “The whole ‘Shut up and sing’ concept is something that I never found comfortable.”
For Buchanan, times like these redefined the relationship had with his audience in Grand Rapids. He recalled playing protest songs such as Country Joe and the Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag” in 1969 after reading Vietnam lottery draft numbers on the air.
“It was a special time when we were a part of people’s lives,” Buchanan said, reminiscing on the “connection” he formed with listeners and callers.
But even in the heyday of radio, there were years when DJs faced increased pressure from their stations to play certain types of music, according to Gates. In theory, rotating through a smaller selection of chart-topping hits would appeal to the broadest audience. By choosing to broadcast emerging and lesser-known socially conscious music, DJs “challenged authority.”
“We fought the establishment – which was part of the whole political thing – and we won,” Gates said of airing the likes of Tom Petty and U2 in Grand Rapids weeks or months before the artists got airplay in larger markets.
Buchanan was reminded of one such “under-the-radar” pick by an audience member, who – near the end of the event – presented the panel with a recording of Buchanan on-air in 1974, introducing a then-new song called “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, a band whose name he didn’t yet know how to pronounce.
The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum is also set to host a “British Invasion Night” with a performance by The Jetbeats at 7 p.m. Feb. 7.
“Louder Than Words: Rock, Power and Politics” is on display through Feb. 11.
Read more about the exhibit and an interview with a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame curator in this Local Spins feature: Louder Than Words: Rock ’n’ roll’s impact on American politics the focus of new Ford Museum exhibit
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