“Radio Free Flint”

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CHAPTER SIXTY-TWO

RADIO FREE FLINT

The Federal Communication Commission suggested that a certain amount of weekly programming be devoted to discussion of community issues and other non-entertainment features. This was felt to be a meaningful demonstration of serving the public. In reality, it was utter nonsense. This is why Sunday mornings at many stations were (and many still are) cluttered with “religious broadcasts”, “informational features”, “public affairs discussions” and other nostrums. If a station buried everything in a single block, they could devote the rest of their time providing what the public really desired, as opposed to what it was supposed to want.

Sunday mornings were normally the trash-heap of the broadcast week.

“Might as well throw all the shit there, Burt!”

So they did.

We had to to make things more interesting.

Michael Moore of Davison Board of Education and “Hotline” fame had approached the local Public Broadcasting Station, WFBE-FM,  about doing a program addressing matters of interest and concern to young people. The station, wishing to be “safely hip” (as most such facilities do), allowed Michael to write and produce several broadcasts. A number of guidelines were given. Michael wanted to talk about abortions, contraceptive devices, sexual freedom, law enforcement harassment and drug use. These were beyond the “guidelines”. The station wanted to “inform”, not “offend”!

Michael and I had discussed the problem and had experimented with
a program called “Radio Free Flint” on WTAC. It was recorded in advance and ran very early Sunday morning. When I moved to WWCK, I decided to invite Michael along. “Radio Free Flint” moved too, except it was now broadcast live with open phone lines. Everything was approved for discussion and debate. From an FCC perspective, it was “Public Affairs Programming”. In reality, it quickly became the hottest radio talk show”in Flint. It might be 8 a.m. on a Sunday when Michael hit the air, but our twelve-line switchboard would light-up like a Christmas tree.

Al MacLeese was a columnist for the Flint Journal. I had read several superb pieces he had written and had dropped him a note expressing appreciation for his wit and style. He had called me and we had lunch. He was a grizzled old time newspaper rogue and was not unknown to heavily partake in liquid stimulants from time to time. I mentioned that Syracuse, New York was my hometown. He mused.

“I remember finishing the last of my gin at five in the morning in the middle of the lobby at the Howard Hotel in Syracuse while feeding what remained of my plastic Florida driver’s license to a light-brown hamster hurriedly spinning his rusty wheel in an old, copper cage.”

This was all narrated without pause and in a single breath.

I received a Christmas Card from Al the following week. I’ve kept it ever since with other treasured memorabilia. There are but four handwritten lines:

“Roses are dreary,
Violets are sick;
Did you kill Christ,
You Irish prick?”

Al’s column was called “MacLeese Unleashed”. I envisioned a radio version on WWCK right after “Radio Free Flint” on Sunday morning. I spoke with Al and then we both had dinner with his editor. The Flint Journal approved his participation.

In terms of chemistry, there was one additional perspective. Al MacLeese thought Michael Moore was an “ignorant punk” and Michael regarded Al as a
“typically untalented Flint Journal lap-dog.” Both had often expressed their views in print. For what more could I hope?

To bring the heat to searing levels, I thought it would be nice for Al to make his debut at the end of Michael’s show, and then feature Michael as guest on the radio version of “MacLeese Unleashed” for a few minutes. I carefully coached Michael on sensitivity, attitude and decorum. Al was an old newspaper pro, deserving of respect and courtesy. Michael reverted to his altar-boy and Seminarian days and couldn’t have been any nicer. As soon as Al’s program began and he was “in charge”, he called Michael “an asshole”. There was no tape delay. Michael just laughed. Al was off and running.

MacLeese lasted for sixteen weeks on WWCK and only retired from the airwaves when a Sunday morning broadcast became too much to expect from an old “hamster-feeder” such as Al. Hangovers were bad enough without sharing them with ten thousand listeners. The fact remains that he was as gifted a broadcaster as he was a writer. Sometimes, they just come and go.

With Al’s departure, “Radio Free Flint” expanded to two hours. Michael continued the program through late 1985, even as he expanded the “Hotline Voice” newspaper into the “Flint Voice”, which became the “Michigan Voice”.

Michael Moore left Flint. He was hired as editor of “Mother Jones” in San Francisco, a major “radical”magazine of national renown. Michael was too radical for the “radicals”. He published stories by Ben Hamper, the “Rivet-Head”.

Ben was a Flint factory worker who had written about life in the shop for the Flint Voice. At my request, Ben had also appeared on WWCK doing “News in Your Face” as a regular morning show feature. The owner of “Mother Jones” had more than he could handle with Michael and Ben. There was discussion of Hamper’s proposed feature article entitled: “Faces of Death”/”A Humorous Overview.” It was a question of “sensitivities”. Hamper got drunk. Moore got the boot.

Michael returned to Flint and spent most of his time at the movies. He figured he should make one. He shot tons of film, then decided what to do with it. He worked for more than a year arranging, editing, chopping, adding and revising. The basic thread was a search for the Chairman of the Board of General Motors. Michael theoretically wanted to bring him to Flint for enhancement of social awareness. Roger Smith was always unavailable. Had he not been, it would have fucked everything up.

Michael hoped his documentary might qualify for a shot with PBS or something. He entered the final product in several film festivals to gain exposure and recognition. No one could believe how good it was. Warner Brothers paid three million dollars for distribution rights. “Roger and Me” went on to earn over twenty million in global release. Later was to come “TV Nation” and “Canadian Bacon”, John Candy’s final film. Then “Bowling for Columbine”, “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Sicko.” Sometimes they just come and stay.

1980 had started with the killing of Brian “T-Bird” Jones in January and continued with the deaths of Bon Scott of AC/DC in February and Zeppelin’s Bonham in September. The year ended with the shooting of John Lennon in December.

We presented twenty-four hours of tribute on WWCK. Michael Moore, Jeff Lamb and our entire staff combined forces to hold a Memorial Gathering at the Capitol Theater, followed by a silent, candle-lit march through downtown Flint. The theater was filled to capacity.

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We watched selected moments from edited Beatles’ footage on the screen and many speakers rose to offer their own thoughts and reflections. A microphone was placed on the stage and members of the audience were invited to express their feelings openly and publicly. Many did so, with eloquence and passion. It was a very strange year which opened an even stranger decade.

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