Sunday 23 Oct 2016

Alison Steele
JR Hafer


Summer nights are always sticky, in New York City. Sounds of the city, honking horns, the yell of a midnight reveler, waft through open hotel windows, eleven stories up. The cacophony is spooky and screechy, but a heavenly odyssey.

In the 1960s and 1970s, music and a voice broke the darkness, fading the midtown traffic deep into the background. A mystically beautiful, smooth, sultry voice, wrapped around a new music, "Space Rock," carried listeners to another place. "First star to the right and straight on to morning," they'd think. Her voice, in the darkness, in the night, was addicting.

"We are deep into the night," she'd say to start every show. "From this point on all sense of time doth cease to exist. Only space and the sensory, that which we feel and experience becomes the manifestation of all the cosmic waves of the universe. The sound poisons the brain, and pushes all barriers to the outer limits of perception, and we are in space. We are above and beyond. Come fly with me, Alison Steele, the night bird." (Click on photo, left, for larger image.)

Alison Steel, the Nightbird, was original, memorial, moving. For 14 years, on WNEW-FM, she gave her philosophy, her spirit , to the music, the interviews and the New York nights. A soothing soul, a healing essence, she readied you to face another day.

Space Rock pioneered experimental sounds from "King Crimson," "Tangerine Dream," "Moody Blues," "Yes," "Ramases" and "Curved Air." Sonny Fox worked the Drake format, at KHJ-AM, in Los Angeles, as if it were his own. The Nightbird, Alison Steele, worked the progressive-rock format, which Scott Muni was building, at WNEW-FM, as if it were her own.

In 1967, WNEW-FM decided to feature only women announcers. More than 800 women applied, for a slot on the "Standards" format. Alison Steele was one, of four, chosen.

The all-women shtick failed to catch many ears. After less than year, not given much chance to catch ears, WNEW-FM dropped the shtick. Most women djs left, but Steele stayed, moving to over nights on 1 January 1968.

WNEW-FM inched toward a progressive-rock format. Rosko joined to do evenings. He was "To play meaningful music," George Duncan, the station manager, told Claude Hall, of Billboard, on 28 October 1967, "and [build] for the future." Once the core was in place - Scott Muni, Alison Steele and Rosko - new success for WNEW-FM sat at the horizon.

An early version, of AOR, called, progressive rock format, debuted on 31 October 1967. Muni, Steele, Rosko and Jonathan Schwartz, who joined the on-air staff 16 November 1967, took radio into a new era. A bit later, joined to do mornings; he, too, a radio spirit, was a natural choice to open the day after Steele closed the night. Eventually, the format morphed into Album Oriented Rock (AOR). Shadoe Stevens crafted an alternative version of AOR, first, at KRLA-AM and, eventually, at KROQ-FM. Muni created a format for a modern Williams B Williams: clean, comfortable and calm. Stevens built an in-your-face, always creative format, for weaning listeners off Drake; giving listeners a radio station to help them mature, ungracefully, on a diet of rock and roll.

Though mostly unheard, today, AOR was the format of the 1970s. It was a cash cow. AOR flourished, but the necessary freedom, for djs, gave management sleepless nights. Diluted versions, of AOR, popped up everywhere. No salespeople needed, only order takers, as advertisers lined up to buy spots on AOR.

Undiluted, AOR was a natural maturing of mindless bubble-gum rock formats, popular in the 1960s. If the music fit, you heard it, on AOR. If talk fit, you heard it, on AOR. Neither radio nor rock got much past AOR.

Steele grasped the flavour of the new format, quickly and thoroughly. She weaved the format around new corners, down old streets. She guided it through radio minefields, without a wince. Her instinct and the format were hand and glove. Only Muni and Rosko fit the WNEW-FM version, of AOR, as neatly as did the Nightbird.

Billboard Magazine confirmed the fit, of Steele with the WNEW-FM format, naming her FM radio Personality, of the Year, for 1976. She was first woman to earn this recognition. In his column, Billboard Radio editor, Claude Hall, called Steele "the first [woman] of rock and roll radio."

The moniker stuck, and the company was good. Stephanie Nicks is the first woman of pop. Ann and Nancy Wilson are the first women of rock. Steele is still the first women rock and roll radio.

Steele used an alternate opening to her show. "The flutter of wings," she'd begin. "The shadow across the moon," she'd say. "The sound of the night as the night bird spreads her wings and soars above the earth into another level of comprehension: where we exist only to feel. Come fly with me, Alison Steele, the Nightbird, on WNEW-FM, until dawn." It was as if she'd moved right up to you. There were quivers up and down your backbone. She had you shaking all over.

Studio telephones rang off the hook, when Steele was on air. She took 25-to-30 phone calls a show. Many callers asked her to play this or that song. She complied, if the song fit.

Most callers, it seems, sought advice on personal and spiritual issues. She was a lovelorn, a mother confessor for New Yorkers. Steele always had time for listeners, to hear them out, to help them as she could.

Steele loved her listeners. They loved her. About a million New Yorkers got through the night, with Alison Steele. The music, the caring, the talk, the bonding made Steele a radio legend and her listeners legion.

Born Ceil Loman, in Brooklyn, New York, on 26 January 1937, Alison Steele was a class act. All who met her noted her elegance and gracious manner, even when she smoked those little cigars. "She was such a lady," says Dick Summer, who did AM Drive, on WNEW-FM. "She was so sexy because she actually liked men; even me. Allison and my wife became quite friendly, too. Allison liked everybody. I liked Allison a lot." It was typical, of WNEW-FM, to hire class acts, such as William B. Williams, on AM; Dick Summer, on FM and AM, and Scott Muni, also on FM, to name three.

Steele, a freckle-faced, red-haired teen, began her career, in the 1950s. She ran errands for a local television station. At 19, she married orchestra leader, Ted Steele. He was 20 years older than her. Ted Steele's best-known as the bandleader on "Cavalcade of Stars," in the 1950s. There's some question whether they divorced or permanently separated, but she kept his name and their daughter, Heather, with her.

In 1966, Alison Steele heard about the great WNEW-FM experiment: an all-women line up. It was a gimmick to boost sagging ratings. The gimmick angle didn't bother her. "The AM side," she told an interviewer, "was paying [djs] ... $200,000. The FM side had trouble paying scale, of $125 a week. [Its] only options were gimmicks." For Steele, this was an opportunity to become one of the first high-flying women djs, in the USA.

Steele auditioned. She won one of four shifts offered. She bested 800 women.

Her beautiful, fine-tuned and genuinely personable voice impressed WNEW-FM. The gimmick lasted 18 months. Steele was the only woman Scott Muni, the new programme director, of WNEW-FM, kept.

Steele worked WNEW-FM for 12 years. She left, in 1979, fed up with management hassles, working nights and rampant gender discrimination. She needed a sabbatical, not unemployment, it seems.

Floating around New York radio, she worked WPIX-FM. She spent 18 months on the Am side of WNEW, as music director and hosting "A Little Night Music," to create a new sound to attract younger listeners. At CNN, Steele worked as a news reader, writer and producer as well as a correspondent for the programme, "Limelight." The hours were better, at CNN; the money probably the same or less than at WNEW-FM. She was also the voice of "Search for Tomorrow," a long-running, syndicated television soap opera.

She and sister, Joyce Loman, ran a cat boutique, "Just Cats," on East 60th Street, in Manhattan. "I think she liked stray cats more [than people]," says Dick Summer. "She must have saved a zillion [cats]."

In the heyday, of WNEW-FM, a champagne-coloured French poodle shared her studio. Every night, the dog at her feet, the Nightbird read poetry, talking to listeners, and created "Space Rock." All mystical, spiritual people understand the place of animals in a full human life.

In 1989, Steele joined WXRK-FM, to do overnights, the lead-in into Howard Stern. Shackled to all nights, her choices were two: quit or continue. Management viewed her as an all-night cash cow. She paid the price.

Alison Steele passed away 27 September 1995, age 58. Her New York "Times" obituary noted she said, in 1971, that she loved to work hours that most other people find good for sleeping. "I'm a night person ... I think [the night] has a mysterious quality. I never get lonely ...." Most night workers share this sentiment.

Another comment about Steele, wrongly credited to the New York "Times" obituary, captures the essence of her work. "She made radio visual and visceral, instantly drawing the listener into his or her own inner landscape. As did the other DJ's on WNEW-FM, during the late 1960s and 1970s, she helped a generation cope with the social upheaval and emerging counter culture through what was called a free-form or progressive format."

Shortly after her cancer diagnosis, Steele told friend she blamed radio management; gender discrimination, in the industry; fame and her nocturnal career, which she said was, unnatural. She described herself as a bird in a gilded cage, unable to fly free. Much, less deathly, weakens our immunity.

Afraid of losing her medical insurance and job, which paid the bills, Steele didn't speak publicly about her illness. Using the guise of vacations, she had surgery and chemotherapy. She knew management wouldn't understand. She'd lose her job. She'd lose her medical insurance, if she lost her job. She had to pay the bills. Radio is no place for the imperfect, unless you are management.

Remembering Alison Steele takes listeners back to a mystical state of sleepless nights and a spiritual connection. The Nightbird eased the homesicknesssmall town girls or big town boys, now in the big city, looking to make it. Alison Steele offered a connection, to the city and the world, gave solace.

Her destiny is the destiny of many radio entertainers: wrung dry and discarded. Steele gave her all. From the depths her soul, she gave. Then, when deserving more money, fewer mindless hassles or ill, discarded as a worn-out shoe, soul clinging to boot, but not forgotten. Can anyone recall the name a hassling, discriminating radio manager? Be specific, now, "All," doesn't count as a correct answer. Who doesn't know Alison Steele?

Note: Alison Steele is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, under the name Allison Steele. Djs are selected, for membership, by the staff of the Hall. Steele was selected for her work at WNEW-FM and contributions to radio in the 1970s.

JR Hafer writes from his home in central Florida.

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