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Man From Mars Productions

Stephen Kane
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  WCCC schedule - December 15, 1969

By the fall of '69 you were on WCCC A/F, then programming MOR. I thought you fit in great as a relaxed morning driver. Was this good practice for the laidback, non-hype AOR delivery you would take to WHCN a year later?

 
 

WCCC was a strange experience. But again, the late 60s were strange and bloody times, maybe the most violent years in this country outside of the Civil War. I worked for Morgan Tell, a great guy who I'd work for again several years later in Chicago. It gave me more of a sense of myself as a personality without the hype, but they were skittish about playing songs that were border rock and roll. I mean, "Suite Judy Blue Eyes?" No. But "Our House?" Oh, okay. Cute. Then the station was sold and in clomped Sy Dressner, who told me one day - I was programming it by then - that he didn't want any songs played where you could "hear the bass through the wall." Ha! That's right up there with my being told not to play any piano pieces in morning drive, or - quoting here -- "no screaming niggers, like Johnny Mathis." All true. Sad, but absolutely true.

Your e-mail indicated you were "moving toward a more counterculture perspective." The next major chunk of your career was at what we used to call "underground FM" stations.

 
  That lasted about as long as Flower Power. But what a ride. Like trying to interpret Firesign Theatre logically. From WHCN ($99 a week, no deductions), to WBCN, to WGLD Chicago, WNCR Cleveland, CJOM Windsor, Ontario, the most radical of the bunch, and KPRI San Diego. At CJOM I inherited the PD's job - who was an ex-pat avoiding the draft - and held sway over the likes of Kokaine Karma, a former member of the Rainbow/White Panther Party.

WHCN schedule - March 15, 1971

 
  Stephen Capen at WNCR Cleveland
Stephen Capen at
WNCR Cleveland

We were out to test the limits of the Canadian Communications Commission. Fired en masse and locked out on Thanksgiving Day. It was pretty wild. In the end the owner decided we were out of control after hearing what he deemed a "farting contest" on my two-man morning show with Larry Himmel. Actually we'd created a character named "Sheena" and her voice was the sound effect of a creaking door off a Disney album, so that's apparently where he got that idea. Course, calling the mayor of Windsor a cocksucker probably didn't help.

By the time you reached San Francisco, you had many notches in your radio belt. At what point did you give up playing records and morph into a journalist?

I have to say here that joining KSAN was a redux in the progressive radio experience, short-lived as it was, but still happening in 1980 and that's pretty late in the free form game. It also opened the door to other morning shows for me in San Fran where they game me carte blanche. We pulled off some pretty outrageous theatre, and all this was pre-Morning Zoo crap with no reliance on bodily function jokes, tits n' ass, or the mentally deficient to reap laughs. Can ya say "prurience?"

 
 

In 1990 I took up the flag, if you will, of investigative journalism and wrote a piece on a Japanese transnational marketing a bioengineered food supplement that people were actually using as a sleeping pill. Someone close to me had been paralyzed then killed by it. The company was dirty, cutting back on purification to get the product out. The Village Voice ran the story and I thought I was off to a respectable start, full of high hopes. But like they say, keep your day job, and I continued to work for various radio outlets in the Bay area, at one point simultaneously contributing to San Francisco Magazine, really unsatisfying given that city magazines are basically lists and fluff.

Can you clarify this - was it you who worked at WXRK New York, or someone else with a similar name?

Stephen Kane at KSAN San Francisco
Stephen Capen at
KSAN San Francisco
 
 

That'd be me. It's funny because quite a few people have commented on my work for CBS Radio News when in fact that's someone named Steve Cathen, who coincidentally started on the air when I was stringing for CRN in 1998, filing reports on nouveau Deadheads from the Rainbow Family Gathering in Arizona. Gets confusing, doesn't it? But yes, I went to K-ROCK in afternoon drive where I made the agreement with Howard Stern that I'd take the audience from the waist up and he'd have them from the waist down. Eventually it got too political for them, meaning the Republicans at Infinity and we, meaning Hank Rosenfeld, my longtime producer, and I, were history.

During the 1990s you conducted many interviews which ended up in print, and many more that can be found on the Internet. You talked with major celebrities and also got into some weighty issues. Is it presumptuous to say your career was evolving?

My track record in radio and writing is the greatest argument against career evolution ever waged. I went from working behind the counter at a newsstand in San Francisco to the biggest market in the country. I was promoted by at least two radio stations as joining them imminently and then never showed. I left San Francisco radio to study Jungian psychology and ultimately landed in the rural outskirts doing hog reports and working the Latino gang beat. I was privileged to interview some of the finest and most original authors, revolutionary thinkers, and talented performers in the world but it was a bust freelancing at a few hundred dollars a pop. It was a really hard dollar.

Thirty five years later, what does the Hartford chapter say in the Life Story of Stephen Capen?

Mama don't let your children grow up to be deejays. Unless you want them to wake up one day realizing that what they do for a living is sit in a padded room speaking into a lead pipe.

I josh. It was at once both my introduction to big time radio and a period of the greatest transition in my life. Everything happened so fast and furiously I'm just now beginning to make sense of it. To me Big D was what rock & roll radio could be, and still can be, like the early '60s WBZ Spirit of New England days of Bradley, Kaye, Summer, Carl de Suze and even Jay Dunn. A highly credible and respected news department. A time when rock & roll hit a high water mark. And it was orchestrated by one of the most talented, likable, generous people ever to grace the business, Charlie Parker. I mean, for openers, with a name like that how can you lose?

When I was a kid I listened to a Hi Fi - as opposed to WiFi -- in the corner of the living room. On the wall above the Magnavox were plastic music notes and instruments my artsy mother, being the consummate hostess and performer, had decorated with. At times I'd get so caught up in the music I'd grab the saxophone off the wall and be wailin' -- pretend, you know? Caught up in the music, where you can't sit down. Playing to an invisible audience. I'll paraphrase Greil Marcus's book, Like A Rolling Stone, which he dedicates "to radio," where he might be characterizing radio as well as anyone ever has: "when it comes on the radio, it's a surprise. It breaks the day, it gives you a lift and, suddenly, 'OK, I'm sticking with the story as long as it lasts.' It's a gift when it comes from the radio."

Stephen Harold Capen died in Plymouth, MA on September 12, 2005 at the age of 59.

 
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