“Naptown Rock Radio Wars” is a new documentary that chronicles the rise of rock and roll radio in Indianapolis. It also tells the story of two competing broadcasters who used rock music as a weapon in their fierce battle for ratings domination.
In 1963, WIFE-310 AM signed on air with a rock-heavy playlist. The station rapidly surged to the top of the ratings race, bringing an end to radio colossus WIBC-1070 AM's longstanding reign as the king of Indianapolis' airwaves.
After struggling through five years of heavy ratings losses to WIFE, WIBC decided to strike back - and hard. In 1968, WIBC owner Richard Fairbanks converted the classical music-formatted WIBC-FM 93.1 into WNAP, the city's first FM rock and roll station.
WNAP was not a typical rock and roll radio station. While programming on WIFE largely focused on top 40 hits and bubblegum rock, WNAP ventured deep into the underground acid rock sound of the late '60s, adopting a free-form style that gave the station's DJs - a scraggly crew of freshly graduated 20-somethings - the freedom to play whatever music they wanted.
"We would get hundreds of records in at the station every week and we'd sit down and listen to them all and play what we liked. We broke a lot of songs that later went on to become big hits,” said Al Stone, WNAP program director and “Naptown Rock Radio Wars” co-producer.
"They gave us free reign, there were very few limits. The motivation was to take the young audience away from WIFE and get WIBC's ratings back up. That happened pretty quickly," Stone said.
This unorthodox broadcasting style quickly earned WNAP attention, both locally and nationally. The station became a testing ground for new releases.
"In the first year, we had all the major label reps coming to us,” said Stone. "We got the first Crosby, Stills and Nash album before any other station in the country. We had the Beatles' 'White Album' before any other station in the country and we played every cut on the album. Management hammered us for that, because some of the material was considered risque at the time."
Fairbanks' plan succeeded. WNAP took a huge bite out of WIFE's ratings and, by 1980, the station was gone.
"The credit goes to Fairbanks for being the type of owner to say, 'Here's my goal and I'm going to step out of the way.' We were a just a bunch of 24-year-olds trying to figure out how to be professional radio guys."
Director David Fulton has conducted extensive interviews with many WIFE and WNAP on-air personalities, which he weaves together with vintage audio and video clips to tell the story of the city's rock radio wars. I spoke with Fulton after a private screening of the film.
NUVO: How did you and co-producer Al Stone come together to make this film?
David Fulton: I've known Al for 30 years. He and I got together one day and I told him I had been thinking about doing a documentary on radio in Indianapolis and he said, “You know what, I've been thinking about doing a documentary on radio in Indianapolis too.' I have this video company, but I don't have the connections. He had the connections, but he didn't have the background in video. So we combined forces.
NUVO: What motivated you to tell this story?
Fulton: I was motivated by the death of Lou Palmer. He was a newsman here in Indianapolis. When he died, I realized a lot of these guys were leaving us. I thought that someone should try to chronicle what the world of radio was like back then. No one had done that yet locally, and it was kind of untapped territory.
Many of the people in this documentary were heroes of mine. Chris Conner and Buster Bodine, I grew up listening to them. You have to remember, back then, radio was your lifeline to the world. Now, with iPads and iPhones, it's easy to be in contact immediately. But back then all you had was your transistor radio, and that was your connection with the world.
NUVO: What made WNAP unique?
Fulton: I think WNAP was a creative Petri dish of programming concepts. They would try new stuff like the "Free Mind Weekend," which was 93 hours of continuous music. There were no commercials, just playing album cuts. These guys were gutsy enough to say “From noon Thursday until the end of the day on Sunday, we're not gonna run any commercials and we're going to play only album cuts and tracks people haven't heard.” You couldn't do that today.
NUVO: Any future plans for the film?
Fulton: Eventually, I'd like to retool it and enter it into film festivals around the country. Right now, the film is heavy on nostalgia. I would trim back some of the local content. That's important for audiences in Indianapolis, who want to relive those memories. But I think we have a good story at the heart of this film, with the radio wars and the personalities. It's a slice of what radio used to be, and it's not like that anymore.
NUVO: Tell me about the premiere.
Fulton: We have two tiers of entry. You can buy a regular ticket or a VIP package, which includes a meet and greet before the film. We're going to have a limousine service from the reception to the theater. There will be a red carpet and someone will be announcing the guests as they come in. Some of the on-air personalities will be there. We want it to be similar to an old-school Hollywood film premiere. I want people to walk away saying “That was really fun."