Radio Free NY, A Novelty Launched in Forest Hills

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Making A Mark on Radio in the Early Nineties

By Michael Perlman

Ken Franklin, 2nd from left, Epic Records singer & songwriter Peter Himmelman in middle wearing cap, Curt Chaplin on far right, Jimmy Buff kneeling in front 

Radio Free NY was a cultural phenomenon on 105.9 WNWK-FM, born in a Forest Hills house. Music industry experts and close friends Curt Chaplin, Jimmy Buff, and the now NYC music and media agent Kenjamin Franklin of RadioActive Talent Inc. combined forces. At 6 AM on Columbus Day, October 12, 1992, pre-internet NYC audiences discovered a groundbreaking achievement on the radio, which has not been duplicated since.

Radio Free NY sales cut-sheet, 1992 

For a nine-month period, renegade broadcasters fulfilled their unique vision, consisting of refreshing unpredictable music programming from a basic Chinatown studio in a landmarked building at 449 Broadway. “Taking chances and creating change became a reality,” said Franklin.  

Peter Himmelman & band live on-air in RFNY studio

Born in 1962, Jimmy Buff and his parents lived in an apartment near Yellowstone Boulevard and Alderton Street. Then their “great suburban migration” to Suffolk County followed in 1964. His paternal grandma resided on Fleet Street. He would always visit his maternal grandparents as well, and remained friends with impactful people in church basements. When he was twenty, he returned to his Forest Hills roots, living with and taking care of his elderly grandpa, William Lawson, Sr. in a charming Tudor rowhouse at 67-117 Dartmouth Street.

 

67-117 Dartmouth Street Tudor row house, Birthplace of Radio Free NY, Photo by S Morrison 

Experimental Radio Format Shaped Careers

Buff reminisced, “Some of my best ideas for radio happened when I was living there, such as when I approached the host of the show on WNEW-FM in the late 1980s and said ‘Let’s go to Russia,’ and we worked it out. The collaborative idea for Radio Free New York was born in that house on Dartmouth Street, and it was certainly the launching pad to where I am now.”

Buff is grateful for an amazing nearly one-year run of Radio Free New York, and considers it a broadcasting career highlight based on what he and his colleagues were willing to pursue. He explained, “A most notable highlight was bands that we played before anyone else, and sometimes no one else gave them an opportunity. We played a stunning amount of great new music that was being ignored, and it felt good to be able to support it. The 1993 records that are popping up for their 30th anniversary is bringing me back in time.” Still active in radio, he visits “This day in music history” websites daily to prepare for his current shows, and the records that were new then, blow his mind.

 

Barenaked Ladies’ original members reading the history of RFNY, Courtesy of Ken Franklin

The team was huge fans of an eclectic mix of music. Some standouts are what he references as the hip (now multi-platinum Toronto-based band) Barenaked Ladies, who performed live from the audience-filled (Live Drive) soundstage twice, as well as Bob Dylan’s son Jakob Dylan and his band The Wallflowers, which debuted their record and held their first NYC radio concert. Additionally, Bob Dylan’s son-in-law, Peter Himmelman performed twice on air and at a Sony/HMV in-store performance. Radio Free NY also played Blind Melon prior to other stations. Other artists who performed live included Graham Parker, Blue Rodeo, Brenda Kahn, Dada (twice), Devonsquare, Willie Nile, Elliott Murphy, The Judybats, Richard Barone.   

Another example of Radio Free NY introducing cutting-edge music transpired when Max Weinberg, Bruce Springsteen’s longtime drummer, was an avid listener who called Franklin. He asked if airplay could be given to one of the bands signed to his boutique label, Hard Ticket. “The group was the extremely fun BOP (Harvey) that we did not hesitate to play. I had the pleasure to introduce them on stage at the now-defunct Wetlands Club on Hudson Street,” said Franklin.

“It doesn’t take much to be a tastemaker in radio, but all it takes is the opportunity to put it on the air,” said Buff.   

Live candid interviews included Soul Asylum, Guy Clark, Zachary Richard, and Thelonius Monster. Unsigned bands’ demos were first to be played on Radio Free NY, and were later signed. Some standouts were Dave Matthews Band (RCA/BMG), Joan Osborne (Blue Gorilla/Mercury), Tripmaster Monkey (See how!/WEA), and Splender (C2/Columbia).

 

Poster signed by several performers at Live Drive in RFNY’s Chinatown studios, including Bob Dylan’s son Jakob Dylan & his band, The Wallflowers

Buff was raised in a home where music was integral. He reminisced, “My dad played music, and being from Forest Hills, some early music that we were exposed to was Simon & Garfunkel. The Clancy Brothers were on my dad’s turntable. I started getting albums for Christmas and my birthday, such as The Mamas & The Papas album. The first 45 (vinyl single) I ever purchased was ‘Maggie May’ by Rod Stewart, and my first album was Neil Young’s ‘Harvest.’”

In his late teens, Buff encountered WNEW-FM. “I discovered legendary DJs and their great music. In my early twenties, I wondered what to do with my life. I picked up a matchbook with an ad for the Center for Media Arts in Midtown, which taught you how to be a broadcaster. That introduced me to people in the radio business, which resulted in a WNEW internship, and it turned out that I had an aptitude for radio.”

Buff holds 38 years of radio success stories, and today is the executive director of Radio Kingston (WKNY). He offered tips to younger radio career enthusiasts. “The deregulation of radio that took place in the late nineties enabled big radio companies to buy up most radio stations, and the opportunity for someone to get their foot in the door is now more challenging. Live and local radio still matters. Find a small-town radio station to start at and find your way through, with hopes for larger opportunities, and then check the reason you want to be in broadcasting. There’s something really special, connecting to your audience one-on-one as a radio show host.”

“Forest Hills always felt like where I’m from. The extraordinary Tudor architecture of Station Square felt so present in my life,” said Buff. He recalls Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, where his parents got married, and also retains fond memories of King George and Hamburger Express on Austin Street, and Mike’s Pizza on Yellowstone Boulevard. 

As a WNEW-FM sports personality and sidekick, Chaplin was known as “Uncle Curtie.” At that time, he also worked on The Dave Herman Rock and Roll Morning Show. After parting from WNEW, he became an on-air host of Radio Free NY, known as “Curt Chaplin.”

“We evolved from our elementary school days,” said Franklin, referencing how he became lifelong friends with Chaplin. Franklin would later be contacted by Chaplin, who was determined to move on from WNEW and co-create Radio Free NY. “I came in from the ground floor and built something from day one,” he continued. Franklin became their music and marketing director, and drew from his radio start-up experience as the initial music director and on-air personality. It was formerly a free-form rock station (now iHeart) KNCN-FM C101 in Texas, where he interviewed Fleetwood Mac among other music sensations. In 1985, Chaplin met Buff, who was an engineer on WNEW’s Dave Herman Rock and Roll Morning Show.   

 

Capitol Records radio promotions executive Frank Murray, Ken Franklin, Graham Parker, Buff, Curt, Courtesy of Ken Franklin 

Franklin explained how much magic was on Radio Free NY airwaves. “It was music intensive and not about any Morning Zoo. The music was unpredictable.” Chaplin added, “We didn’t say our names over and over, such as on mainstream radio. We were more about the audience than on-air personalities. A grassroots format serves the audience. A station like WNEW was legendary, but frozen like a dinosaur. We were never afraid to experiment every single day. We knew there was an audience, hungry to be part of an experiment.”

Chaplin and Franklin discussed how some stations focused on a more elaborate lobby, but Radio Free NY’s lobby did not extend beyond functional, as their focus was purely on a dynamite show, making New Yorkers feel great. It was also a labor of love.

Franklin reminisced, “We were instrumental in selling out Barenaked Ladies’ first four NYC engagements at The Bottom Line at 15 West 4th Street, where Curt, Buff, and I emceed their shows. We were also the first U.S. commercial radio station to not only play songs from their debut album, but they also performed on air in our studio twice.” Chaplin continued, “I remember the drummer playing on a suitcase at one of our in-studio concerts. They didn’t need anything fancy. We left the Bottom Line shows late at night, and there we were, up at 5 AM in the studio. We had to do everything ourselves.” Other out-of-studio RFNY concerts included Sun 60 at the Upper West Side HMV.

 

At the RFNY old-school console, creating new rock radio: Al “Tross” Gattullo, Jim Buff, Curt Chaplin 

The team is determined to preserve the memory of their in-studio ambiance. Chaplin explained, “KF (Kenjamin) was essential in giving us all of that fantastic music to put on the air. He gave so many breaking bands a chance to be heard.” Franklin responded, “I even gave Curt and Buff a bunch of unsigned musicians. We had no music meetings. If it was good, it got on the air.” The “Radio Free NY Unsigned” segment was quite an attraction.

Chaplin recalled, “Ken gave me a wrapped-up cassette or CD, and I would say on the air, ‘I don’t know if this is any good. I got it from KF. Let’s unwrap it, and all of us will find out. Alright Buff, give it a rip.’ We thought, ‘Is this something we want to play again tomorrow?’ The audience felt like a program director, and they loved being treated as if they were intelligent.” The audience would call in or write a letter voicing their opinion, and to this day, Franklin retains their fan mail. Additionally, Chaplin and Buff each had 50 CDs to listen to on average daily, and they could take notes at 5 AM and play the CDs by 6:30 AM.

The unique concept revolved around grassroots marketing by displaying posters at construction sites, distributing bumper stickers which read “Radio Free N.Y. 6 – 9 AM, 105.9 FM, I’m With The Program,” as well as offering “Liberated Rock” – “Ask Me About Radio Free New York” t-shirts and whimsical black, red, and gold Radio Free NY jackets, with a radio signal emerging from the A. “We told our audience that we didn’t have money to spend on advertising, but tell five friends, and tell them to tell five friends,” recalled Chaplin. When Tower Records was in full swing, they were a sponsor, best known as “The Tower Hour.”   

 

Unique Radio Free NY t-shirt, front & back

“Since it was pre-internet, you didn’t hear a podcast. If you didn’t hear our show that day, you were out of luck. That’s why we had unsigned concerts at the Lonestar Roadhouse (240 West 52nd Street) among other venues. You don’t hear a live concert on NYC radio today, like we did,” said Franklin. At times, nearly 50 fans gathered in the studio for an ultimate experience, which was unheard of. At Lonestar Roadhouse was a Radio Free NY lunchtime concert starring Freedy Johnston, a couple of years prior to landing a major label album. “Since this was prior to the internet, Curt’s mom and I actually walked into office buildings, handing out flyers for one of our LunchTime concerts,” continued Franklin.

 

RFNY unsigned flyer, 1993 

With Radio Free NY, there was no record library. “You had to dig deep in the trenches to get every bit of music. I couldn’t email, but called up every single label around to say what we were doing,” said Franklin. In turn, the labels mailed their back catalog of releases.

The team was brave. Chaplin compared the existence of Radio Free NY to “hanging off a cliff by a thread.” “We were leasing airtime on 105.9, and we didn’t have money,” said Chaplin. Family and friends came to the rescue. He recently located a contract for $10,000 weekly, and they only had an approximate $50,000 in the bank.

At the time, Howard Stern was with K-Rock and number one by a mile. Franklin courageously distributed hundreds of Radio Free NY’s first flyer at Stern’s K-Rock concert in Central Park. Chaplin recalled an intriguing experience. “We actually programmed music and spoke directly to his audience on the air. He would go to commercials for 12 minutes, and they had nothing to listen to, so we would play four songs that you never heard before. I learned it from him. We went right after Stern and began borrowing his audience, and he was powerless. He’s lucky we didn’t have corporate money behind us.” Stern would mention Radio Free NY on-air, falling into their game plan.

 

Curt Chaplin, Jim Buff, Frank Murray of Capitol Records in the front row & Ken Franklin with Brian ‘with the 6-foot hair’ Mecseri in the back row 

Despite selling all of their time-buys and appearing in the Arbitron ratings, Radio Free NY ended their experiment. Their studio closed in nine months, since the station reportedly requested payments every two weeks. A few years after Radio Free NY ended, Chaplin was hired as the court reporter on “The People’s Court” with Mayor Ed Koch as the judge.  

Over 30 years after Radio Free NY, the audience-driven experimental style and beat is forever etched in the team, musicians, and spirit of New Yorkers. Visit www.RadioTV.com in early 2024 to discover rare Radio Free NY video and Academy and Grammy Award winners, among other talent represented by Ken Franklin.


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