A journalist friend of mine, whom I've known for many years, was working on a segment for his radio program, and he wanted my recollections about a certain classic rock song from June 1970: "Ohio," by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It brought back a lot of memories for me: I was in college radio at the time it came out, a deejay and the music director at WNEU, Northeastern University in Boston. We played the song immediately, but many AM Top-40 stations did not; they saw it as too controversial, and avoided it. Back in 1970, there were a growing number of college and FM "underground" stations, and we were all playing album tracks; increasingly, those songs were about current events.
If you remember the late 1960s and early 1970s, you know that the music reflected the turbulent times we were in, when the Vietnam War was still dominating the headlines and polarizing the nation. On many college campuses, students were participating in anti-war protests, and there were numerous artists who recorded anti-war songs-- some, like Jefferson Airplane's "Volunteers" album, mainly got played on FM; but a few protest songs managed to get some AM airplay, like "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Protest songs in general were a problem for top-40 program directors: their goal was to play songs that were short, fun to listen to, and not offensive to anyone.
Fortunately, there were still plenty of great pop songs that sounded good on a car radio. A look at the Billboard charts for the first week in May saw the Jackson Five's "ABC" at number one, with the Beatles' "Let it Be" at number two, and Norman Greenbaum's catchy hit "Spirit in the Sky" at number three. Of course, there were some "message" songs on the charts-- the Guess Who's "American Woman" was at number four, and John Lennon's "Instant Karma" rounded out the top five. (My personal favorite song from that week was a ballad by the Scottish band Marmalade, "Reflections of My Life." It was number thirteen and moving up. The song's lyrics really spoke to me. But that's a story for another day.)
"Ohio" was especially problematic for AM top-40, because it was critical of President Nixon, and it spoke out, eloquently and emotionally, about the tragic incident that occurred on May 4th at Kent State University, when National Guard troops opened fire on student anti-war protesters, killing four of them. (You have undoubtedly seen the iconic photo taken at the scene, showing a young woman screaming and crying out, as she kneels by the body of one of the dead students. Neil Young has said that when he saw the photo in a magazine, it influenced him to write the lyrics to "Ohio.") On college campuses, and at FM album rock stations, the song received heavy airplay: it reinforced for many of us the anger we felt about the war, as the number of American troops who were dying in Vietnam continued to increase.
Looking back, it seems strange to think that "Ohio," along with the events that inspired it, happened fifty years ago. So much has changed in society since then, and while some of the changes have been positive, the one change that affected me was what happened to radio. Broadcasting gradually became more corporate, on both AM and FM; and the freedom we had back then to break news songs and give artists we believed in a chance was replaced by chain owners who tightly controlled the playlists. Eventually, many of the live and local deejays were replaced by voice-tracking or satellite or syndication. Many college radio stations have gone dark, and while radio still has many fans, it is no longer the cultural force it used to be.
But in May and June of 1970, the country was in turmoil, and radio reflected those divisions. People turned to top-40 music for comfort, and there were plenty of songs about peace and love-- by the end of May, the number one song was "Everything Is Beautiful" by Ray Stevens. Of course, everything wasn't beautiful. Over on FM radio, the songs reflected a very different world, where President Nixon was a polarizing figure, anti-war protests were intensifying, and the future looked very uncertain to many of us. I had graduated, and despite being one of the better-known college music directors and a popular deejay, I was about to confront a radio industry that still didn't hire women. Compared to male friends of mine who were getting shipped off to Vietnam, I supposed not being able to find a job wasn't nearly as bad. But it was another frustration, in a difficult time, when music (and radio) were what helped me get through it, in the days of the war, fifty years ago this week.