John Hochheimer on WBUR 1968 to 1971

Progressive Programming Terminated by John Silber

By: - Mar 25, 2019

Now retired, professor John Hochheimer of Southern Illinois University, recalls undergraduate years at Boston University’s then progressive station WBUR. He started as a high school volunteer in New York at WBAI. During sophomore year at BU, in 1968, he started at WBUR. He was influenced by the free form programming of Tom Gamache, AKA Uncle T. Rock archivist, David Bieber, was a friend and flat mate.  He once spent five hours on air with David Bowie and became friends with B.B. King and Elton John. The programming staff was fired not long after John Silber took over at BU in 1971.

Charles Giuliano Let’s discuss your time at WBUR.

John Hochheimer I started in August, 1967 on a work study grant. The format was classical music during the day and news and public affairs in the evening. There was late night programming as well. When I got there Tom Gamache, known as Uncle T, was doing his program “The Freedom Machine” from eleven until two in the morning, Monday to Friday. On Saturday there was a program called “The Jazz Grotto” that Oscar Jackson hosted. That was midnight until six Sunday morning.

It was anything goes during Uncle T’s program. There were album cuts and interviews with musicians coming through town. Because it was a non commercial station things could go on for as long as you wanted. Because of the format musicians could come and hang out during both those shows. There was a piano in the studio so we had performances. We could do whatever we wanted with no commercial breaks or interference. Tom was very popular and a lot of musicians came.

We had a program “The Drum” which was rare programming for the African American community. The soul station was WILD which was a day timer and shut down at sundown. “The Drum” was coordinated with the Mayor’s office in Boston and something called Action for Boston Community Development. The mandate was to recruit young African American men and women and teach them how to do broadcasting, sales, marketing, news, DJ work. That was part of the alternative programming. At night we were playing music of interest to the black community.

After a year of internship the plan was that they would be hired by commercial stations. They got a leg up into the broadcasting industry. That was in the middle between news and public affairs. That program attracted musicians visiting town. A lot of black athletes from the Celtics and Red Sox visited the studio. Politicians came and there was discussion of education, housing and social services.

CG In what way was Tom Gamache different from mainstream radio?

JH When I met him he looked like the Elliot Gould character in MASH. He had the moustache, hair and bearing. He knew a lot about the roots of rock, doo wop, blues. He had produced a documentary called “The Evolution of the Big Beat.” For the mid 1960s his knowledge of black music was astounding. He had eclectic taste that spanned the gamut of all kinds of music. I had heard some of that earlier at WBAI in New York but he was able to put sets together with amazing mixes. He was a pioneer and master of that technique. He was also introducing the British Invasion and not just the Stones and Beatles. He was into Long John Baldry, John Mayall and other blues based players.

 WBCN and WBUR were classical music stations before Tom Gamache showed up. There was still classical programming during the day while experimentation occured after 10 PM and on weekends.

When I started at the station I was 18. They helped me to get a license so I could do board shifts. It was fifteen hours a week and they started me at 6 AM. It was just a block away from my dorm. One Saturday night I fell by to see what was happening. There were these guys hanging out and drinking wine. I came back the next week and it was jazz all night. I went to the program director and asked if part of my responsibilities might be board operator for the Saturday night show? That’s how I got more and more involved.

Since BU is a Methodist school a mandate was to record Sunday services from Marsh Chapel. It they did the service and rebroadcasted it Sunday evening it was pretty much up to the station manager, Will I. Lewis, to program as he saw fit. This was before NPR. I was the engineer when we did our first national program. It was into that environment that I came as a student.

In May of 1969 they organized their first fund raising drive. As a volunteer in high school I had worked on a couple of WBAI fundraising marathons. So I was put in charge and it was a huge success. As a reward for that I was given a folk music show on Sunday nights.

CG David Bieber said that he was influenced by your programming. Can you describe working with him?

JH In addition to working at the station my roommate and I volunteered to help incoming freshman adapt to campus life. The dorm prior to fall semester was open but largely unoccupied. This guy David Bieber from Ohio showed up. His sister Lorna and I had been together in classes during freshman year. He asked if he could stay with us while he looked for an apartment. Based on mutual interests in music and radio we became friends. That was August of 1968. A year later we rented an apartment on Beacon Hill. That’s when I witnessed the foundation of the Bieber archives. (Now one million objects are housed in a warehouse in Norwood, Mass.)

Once a week David and I visited record companies to get new releases. They were generous and often gave them to David as well as me. Things would come to the station like posters and promotional items. When we were done with them he would take them. I asked him “What are you going to do with this stuff?”  He said “I don’t know.”

When I was doing a folk music show he was interested in meeting some of the musicians. There was a coffee house on Charles Street called Sword in the Stone. On Tuesday nights they would have hootenannies. I spoke with Lewis and pitched the idea of a live show from the club. There were conflicts but we fed it live to the station and recorded on reel- to-reel tapes for later broadcast.  By then Gamache had moved to WBCN. His slot was available so I went from one to two nights a week hosting the show live. For a year artists regularly appeared on the show which promoted them as well as the club.

Bill Staines ended up being the host at the club. During breaks I would conduct interviews. Performers included Spider John Koerner, Townes Van Zandt, and Bonnie Raitt. When she first came to town she was the opening act for Cat Stevens at Sanders Theatre.

CG I covered that gig.

JH Bill Madison was very popular in Boston and he was on the show. Chris Smithers became well known. A guy who came and hung out, usually with a bottle of Jack Daniels, was Don McLean pre “American Pie.” 

CG What about David Bowie?

JH He wasn’t on the folk music show. David Bieber was hired by assistant general manager, Clark Smidt, to do promotion. Another guy involved at the time was Ken Shelton (later a WBCN DJ). I was a junior and took a course in TV production. Ken was the TA in the School of Public Communications at BU. He started hanging at the station. So there was a nucleus of people. Of the four of us I was the one on the radio when Bieber said “We have this guy named David Bowie coming in from Chicago.” I had seen a couple of his records on Mercury but didn’t think much of it.

He came around at midnight. My show was on from eleven to six in the morning five nights a week. It was 35 hours of live programming with no commercials or restrictions on what I could play. When Bowie came we just hung out and talked. We played music and sat in the control room for five hours. We smoked, talked, and played records all night long.

Heading back to England his career had tanked. He was trying to revive his career. Not only was he knowledgeable of music but also the cultures from which it emerged. He had unique vision for concert performances. Until that time, musicians came on stage and sang their songs. That was it. He had this idea for lights, smoke, and people in costumes. The idea was to make the whole thing a performance event. That’s where Ziggy Stardust came from. He discussed it extensively and talked about heading back to England to get support for that kind of a concert.

At that time there was a UK folk rock band called The Incredible String Band. They put out a double album rock opera “U” on Elektra. They told a whole story with lights and smoke, jugglers, acrobats with a vast array of instrumentation. When I played it for Bowie he said “Yeah, like that.”

CG Describe the Bowie persona. How did he strike you?

JH He was an interesting guy. He was young, unknown, and one of many musicians I met. He remarked on the mix of music I put together for him. He knew most of what I played but my approach was always to try to educate. If you like this then let me turn you on to that. He was a musician I could talk to and who understood what I was trying to do.

CG What did he look like?

JH None of the makeup. He was just a regular guy with shoulder length hair. That was hardly unusual at the time. He was wearing jeans and maybe a black turtleneck. We later knew him in many guises but that was not the David Bowie I met.

CG David Bieber told me that after he earned a Master’s degree at BU in August, 1970, that September he was hired as music director for WBUR. Can you describe how you interacted?

JH My former roommate was hired as music director. It was great. He was going to promote our shows and raise money for the station. He was our liaison with Steve Mindich and The Phoenix as well as with the record companies. His pitch was that when they were taking artists around town don’t just visit WBCN. They may interview someone for fifteen minutes while we had a looser format and could do much longer interviews.

One night I was doing a long Lightning Hopkins set and I got a call from B.B. King. It was quarter of four in the morning. He came by the next afternoon and we talked for two hours. I announced he was coming on the show. About 15 minutes later I got a call from a listener in Roxbury. She said “I resent you bringing B.B. King on your radio station. The blues is all about pain and suffering. Black people don’t want to hear that stuff anymore. We want to hear James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone.”

In the middle of my interview I told him about the call and asked him to comment. He said “Let me think about that.” Some twenty minutes later he said “Now I want to answer that question. The blues are about pain, suffering and loss. Everybody has had those experiences. We think nobody in the world can understand what I feel right now. When you hear the blues you think somebody else feels my pain. It’s not a black issue or a white issue. White people have sung the blues forever and they call it country music. The chords are different but the emotions are exactly the same.”

He invited me to have dinner with him the next night. When he came to town his valet called and we would get together. I saw him in Vegas and he did an Ed Sullivan thing by introducing people in the audience. The spot was on me as I stood and waved.

CG When you did the five hour Bowie session David commented that there was no tape to record it. The station was that poor.

That’s correct. Also there’s no photograph.

On October 25th, 1970 two guys came to the station inviting me to see Elton John at the Tea Party for three nights. ‘Here’s the album and if you play it please tell listeners about the gig.’ That kind of thing happened quite frequently particularly when David came on board.

CG I was there that night and had interviewed Elton that morning at the Midtown Motor Inn. The review ran in the Herald Traveler and his publicist Norm Winter later invited me to LA to hang with Elton. I always went back stage when Elton came to Boston.

JH I was backstage with him and there are six images of us in the Jeff Albertson, U. Mass archive. He introduced himself to me as Reg and thanked me for playing the album.

(Born Reginald Kenneth Dwight, 25 March 1947. He took the name Elton John from two musicians,  saxophonist Elton Dean, and vocalist Long John Baldry. His name was legally changed to Elton Hercules John on 7 January 1972.)

Ever since I’ve been a huge fan and take pride in being of assistance at the beginning of his career.

CG When John Silber came to BU there were changes at WBUR.

(In January 1971 John Silber began his first year as president of Boston University. New faculty members he was authorized to recruit were brought in with minimal consultation of the departmental chairpersons. Generally, faculty regarded Silber as an autocrat. In early 1972 police broke up a demonstration opposing the restoration of armed forces recruitment. Later that year his residence was destroyed by fire and Silber's family lost all their personal belongings. Among Silber's recruits were Saul Bellow and Elie Wiesel. During the 1970s he accused the faculty of mediocrity and the students of fostering anarchy. Today he is credited as the architect of a distinguished university. He raised the bar for faculty and students.)

JH Just before he became president of BU in May, 1970 there was a student strike. It shut down the campus and final exams were cancelled. He came with a very different vision. Until then BU had never been prestigious compared to other colleges and universities in Boston/ Cambridge. He was determined to make BU a first rate university.

On August 24, 1971 one of his vice presidents assembled the entire WBUR staff and announced that “We’re making some format changes.” Will Lewis, the general manager, had been fired and Clark Smidt was gone with him.

The VP said “Effective immediately here is the staff.” He read seven names and the rest of us we were no longer to come to the station. We were stunned. They cut not just progressive music but the program "The Drum" which was a central media presence for the African American community in Greater Boston. There was also a Spanish language program produced by WFCR at U. Mass Amherst. It was outreach to a community of Spanish language farm workers particularly for tobacco farms in the Connecticut River Valley. That was immediately cut as well.

The African American and Latino communities were incensed. Their only outlets for news and information were terminated by John Silber as a part of his taking control of the station. I was let go along with everyone responsible for programming.

CG Was there resistance?

JH Yeah, but what could you do? They changed the locks. We were told that if we came to the station the campus police would be called and we would be arrested. We never heard Silber’s statement but it was implied that they didn’t want any talk of resistance and revolution. He didn’t want to hear loud rock and roll music. WBUR went back to a very staid program service which it had been before Lewis. He became general manager of KPFK a Pacifica station in LA. I joined the station in June, 1974.

When I left WBUR I went to WBCN and became their overnight guy from September/October of 1971 to March of 1972. I left the station and went to work for ABC-Dunhill Records which had an office in Woburn. Augie Blume had come by WBUR to promote Jefferson Starship and other bands. We got to be friends and he invited me to join him in San Francisco and put out a news letter for acts he was promoting. We started that in 1974 but didn’t have the funds to sustain it. I moved to LA and worked for my former boss at KPFK. I was doing interesting things at the station but not earning enough to live in LA. I stayed as a volunteer but through a friend went to work in transportation for Mary Tyler Moore. I worked for her production company and then became a pool driver and worked for all the studios in town for four years.

Everything that moves on a movie lot needs a driver; car, truck, bus, fork lift. A driver in the movie industry is the only position that gets to interact with everyone else. I got an amazing education about how the movie and TV industry works.

It was interesting but not a career path. I went back to get my degrees. Teamsters Local 399 in Los Angeles were so proud that one of their members was seeking higher education that they worked out a deal for me to work a couple of days and spend the rest of the week in school. After finishing a BA, I applied and got accepted to graduate school at Stanford where I got my masters’ and PhD degrees. My degree was in communications.

Immediately, I was told that I would always find work because I could teach production. I stared teaching night school at San Francisco State. Then I was hired at University of Iowa for five years then Ithaca College (1988-2006) to start their journalism program in 1992. I was at Ithaca for 18 years. I left for an opportunity to be chair of the radio and television department of Southern Illinois University. I moved out here in 2006. That’s how I ended up in Southern Illinois.