It was 306 miles from West Hartford to Watkins Glen. It was dark.
They had a full tank of gas in their friend Harry’s Jeep, pulling a trailer, which had been converted into a radio studio. They had 20 cases of SpaghettiOs, five cases of Budweiser and some brownies that Jack Chamberlain’s mom made.
They were a bunch of guys with a dream of broadcasting live from what would be the biggest rock concert ever.
It was late July 1973, four years after Woodstock. Jack Chamberlain and John Ramsey were too young to go to upstate New York in 1969; this would be their Woodstock. They were on the road to Summer Jam, a concert featuring the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers and The Band, which would draw 600,000 fans (more than Woodstock) for a one-day show at Watkins Glen Speedway.
Ramsey, 18 at the time, had a pirate radio station in his basement in his parents’ house in West Hartford. Chamberlain worked for a local TV station and had worked in radio. Chamberlain had the idea; he met Ramsey and his friends and they all went along for the ride.
They ended up broadcasting for about five days, before and after the concert, which took place 50 years ago, on July 28. They gave traffic reports, weather updates, played records, did interviews with the band members and even broadcast the concert live that Saturday afternoon and evening.
Their little trailer with the letters CFR on the side — Concert Free Radio — quickly became an information hub. Bob Weir and Phil Lesh from the Grateful Dead stopped by to be interviewed. The state police came by to give them traffic updates from their helicopter. The concert promoters gave them information to pass on to the half-million plus concertgoers, many of whom brought their portable transistor radios to the event and were tuning in.
“(Jack’s) idea was to broadcast in advance of the concert, playing music people could tune into and also give traffic information and stuff like that, knowing the problems they had with traffic at Woodstock,” said Ramsey, who still lives in West Hartford. “Ideally, we’d broadcast the concert itself. I wasn’t aware of the concert till he mentioned it. He had a feeling it was going to be so big, there would be people stuck in traffic that wouldn’t be able to hear it live so we could bring it to them on the radio.”
They didn’t know if they could pull it off or not. They didn’t know if the FCC would show up and shut them down or if the promoters would chase them away. They had no idea of the scope of the event. They didn’t bring a generator or any power source. They got stuck in traffic like everybody else on the way there. But somehow it all worked.
“It was such a stroke of luck — these dumb kids from West Hartford, Connecticut — up they go, and they actually pull this off,” Chamberlain said.
Pirate radio in West Hartford
Ramsey had just graduated from Conard High School in 1973. He was a self-described radio geek and had obtained an old Korean War-era 40-watt FM transmitter. He called his station WYBS.
“I loved the technology of radio,” Ramsey said. “There weren’t any or many stations at the time in Hartford that were playing the progressive rock and the jazz my friends and I liked so we had our own station.
“Operating without a license is against the law, although it’s not a criminal offense, it would be a civil offense, but the FCC is really overworked and they’re not going to bother you as long as you stay out of trouble.”
Meanwhile, Chamberlain was working at a local TV station. He had been at the Grateful Dead’s Dillon Stadium show in the summer of 1972, where the Allman Brothers got up on the stage and jammed with the Dead and the idea of the ’73 Summer Jam was born.
Chamberlain was 20. He had a 50-watt AM transmitter but needed an FM transmitter because younger people didn’t listen to AM radio.
“I’d been around the business long enough to get a handle on what really had to be done,” he said. “I just had to find the people.”
A mutual friend introduced Chamberlain and Ramsey. Ramsey liked the idea, even though the idea of large crowds made him nervous. Chamberlain rented a trailer, brought it to his parents’ house in West Hartford and they started converting it into a studio. Ramsey got his friends — Harry Sloan, who had the Jeep; Edward Wynn, Mike Kirvin and Gerry Putnam, most of whom worked at the station in his basement — and they all climbed into Putnam’s Blazer and off they went.
They arrived at Watkins Glen at sunrise. The line of traffic already stretched far away from the venue. They sat in the traffic. They weren’t sure what to do.
Chamberlain remembered he had his press pass with him, from the TV station. He hopped out of the car and walked up to one of the policemen directing traffic.
“I explained who I was, where I was from, showed him my press pass and he goes, ‘Oh, sure, hang on,’ ” Chamberlain said. “Next thing we know, a cruiser comes down to us, has us go into the oncoming lane, escorted us down the road up the hill and into the press area. We pulled right up to a power drop. We were the first ones in. Parked the Jeep with the trailer, pulled out the transmitters. I think we taped the antenna into some pine trees and ran the cables back to the trailer, plugged in and we’re on the air.
“It was a strange set of events because we could have easily wound up in the camping area with nowhere to go and nothing to do.”
And no power. They had not thought to bring a generator.
They also discovered the friend they had sent out to buy food before the trip only purchased SpaghettiOs. They had no way to heat them because they had converted the entire trailer into a radio studio. Luckily (again), they were stationed right next to the police barracks on the grounds and in exchange for the station airing police reports of traffic and detours, the police invited the ragtag group to their commissary, where they ate all weekend.
They called themselves “CFR,” with the idea that maybe people would think they were Canadian (Canadian radio call letters start with the letter “C”) and maybe they wouldn’t get in trouble.
They had parked near the helipad where the bands flew in, and the members and crew had to walk by their little trailer to get to the stage. Soon, the DJs, who had started by interviewing anyone who walked by, including the guys who cleaned the 10,000 portable toilets on site, were interviewing Lesh and Weir and promotor Bill Graham and members of the Allman Brothers.
Ramsey wrote in a blog post: “The Bob Weir interview started off a bit awkward. After getting over the shock of having a member of the Dead sitting right across from him in the studio in front of live mics, one of our crew, who shall remain nameless, when at a loss for words (and not having slept in several days), held up a copy of ‘Workingman’s Dead,’ at that point, perhaps the most quintessential Dead album, and said to Bob on the air, ‘Is there anything good on this that we should play?’ What he probably meant to say is, ‘What’s your favorite song?’ or ‘What song would you like me to play on this album?’ but that’s not the way it came out. Luckily, Bob took it in stride and the interview continued for over an hour.”
Promotors had sold 150,000 tickets. About 450,000 more people showed up and they simply opened the gates and let them in.
And they were listening to CFR.
“I didn’t do this but everybody on our staff went into the crowds and sometimes they’d disappear for a day or two,” Ramsey said. “They came back and said, ‘Everybody is listening to the station when the bands aren’t playing.’ ”
The first night, Chamberlain took the midnight shift and watched as cars came in on the road.
“I said, ‘Hey, I’m up all night, if you can hear me, if you are listening, can you flash your headlights?’ ” he said. “I said, ‘I’m going to step outside and look.’ I looked at these miles of headlights coming in and they’re all flashing. I was like, ‘Well, I guess we got our audience.’
“We weren’t competing with anybody. We weren’t commercially operated. We weren’t taking any money. We very carefully chose AM and FM frequencies on the dial that weren’t used; we didn’t step on anybody’s toes.”
By Saturday, the day of the concert, Ramsey had become friends with the sound crew from the Grateful Dead. Someone suggested that maybe the pirate station could broadcast the concert.
So Ramsey dragged his 79-pound FM transmitter up to the stage and hooked it up. He stayed there with it; he didn’t want it to get lost or stolen and, in the process, he witnessed history.
“I got to see the whole show up on the stage,” he said. “At one point, it started raining and got cold and I was there in a T-shirt and shorts. But it was fun.
“I’m not pretending our little CFR had that big an audience, but I think we had the biggest audience of any domestic pirate radio station — at least for a few days.”
Then it was over. The traffic jam going out was once again, legendary. In no rush to leave, CFR continued to broadcast traffic reports and play music.
“When we were packing up, (Grateful Dead sound engineer) Ron Wickersham came by and he said, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to broadcast live but we never really had anybody who wanted to get behind it. We can only do so much ourselves — do you want to come on the road with us?’ ” Ramsey said.
“I was not into drugs; I had a family at home and a good job and I said no. It would have been a different lifestyle for sure.”
So they came home.
“It was just something we did, and we moved on,” Ramsey said. “Nobody talked about it for 35-40 years.”
Chamberlain went on to work in radio as an on-air personality for the next decade, then became a commercial pilot and a police officer in Manchester before retiring.
“It all just came together,” Chamberlain said. “It still amazes me. I think back at what we pulled off. I had been thinking about it for about six months before it came into play and once I knew this concert was going to happen, I said, ‘Well, that’s what I want to do.’ ”
Ramsey still works in radio; he is an engineer for many Hartford radio stations and some stations as far away as Westchester County and Boston as well as the general manager of the University of Hartford radio station, WWUH.
“I didn’t know how historic it was,” he said. “The funny thing, we never got the promotors’ approval. I got a chance to meet *(Summer Jam promotor) Jimmy Koplik 10-12 years ago. I was talking to a friend and said I want to tell Jimmy about the concert, the live broadcast, and he said, ‘Don’t do that, he won’t like that.’
“He seemed like a mellow guy, so I mentioned it to him, and he said, ‘I heard about it, that’s great.’ ”