Seattle’s counterculture has always owed much of its growth to prescient people who have come here from elsewhere, bringing new ideas and energy to our otherwise deeply parochial city. One such outstanding outsider was Lorenzo Milam.
Born on August 2, 1933, in Jacksonville, Florida, Milam is best known in Seattle as the founder of KRAB-FM, Seattle’s first listener-supported, volunteer-run, non-commercial radio station, founded in 1962. KRAB’s innovative free-form programming format would have a great influence on the counterculture that would develop in Seattle later in the 1960s. KRAB’s debut broadcast occurred on the date in focus here.
From its humble beginnings in a former donut shop in Seattle’s Maple Leaf neighborhood, KRAB gradually gained great fame within the Puget Sound region for broadcasting an eclectic mix of music and conversation, chosen mostly by the whims of its all-volunteer staff. Unlike many similar independent radio stations that would later emerge across the nation — typically low-budget, low-power, “left-of-the-dial” operations — KRAB was a high-powered station that operated at the 107.7 MHz frequency on the regular, commercial FM broadcast band.
Milam’s life story is interesting beyond his role in founding KRAB. He began his career in radio in 1958, volunteering at KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California. KPFA, founded in 1949, was the first “community” or “public” radio station in the United States. A disciple of KPFA co-founder Lewis Hill (1919-1957), Milam aimed to take Hill’s concept of community radio a few steps further when he set out to establish his own station in 1959. An inheritance of $15,000 enabled Milam to effectively pursue this ambition.
Why did Milam choose Seattle as the location for his first serious foray into the frontier of community radio? Apparently because that’s where the Federal Communications Commission assigned him an available frequency. Once he obtained the frequency at 107.7, all he needed was a physical location for the station. The creation of KRAB began in earnest in April 1962, when Milam first visited a vacant storefront (the aforementioned “former donut shop”) at the southwest corner of Northeast 91st Street and Roosevelt Way Northeast in the Maple Leaf neighborhood. After determining the site to be a good location for a broadcasting tower, Milam bought the tiny building for KRAB for $7,500. By December, after much hard work, that building was a fully-functioning FM radio station with a studio, equipped with a single microphone.
Part of the groundwork for the creation of KRAB included the Jack Straw Memorial Foundation, created in June 1962 by a group of local educators, artists, and journalists (including Milam) as part of Milam’s efforts to establish KRAB.
When Seattle’s counterculture came into full bloom circa 1967, KRAB played a significant role in fomenting that transformation. The leading counterculture newspaper in Seattle during the late 1960s, Helix, was inspired in part by the KRAB Calendar, a low-budget, locally-circulated publication promoting KRAB’s programming along with local music and arts events. During Helix‘s publication between March 1967 and June 1970, KRAB and Helix complemented each other within Seattle’s independent media landscape, organizing several benefit concerts together. Helix also reported on the station’s activity and helped promote some of its programs, such as novelist Tom Robbins’s popular program “Notes from the Underground.” In addition, Helix co-founder and publisher Paul Dorpat was a regular volunteer at the station.
Milam left KRAB in 1968, and would go on to play a part in the creation of some 40 other non-commercial community radio stations across the nation (known collectively at the time as the “KRAB Nebula”), earning the rubric “Johnny Appleseed of community radio” along the way.
During the 1970s, KRAB played a critical role in fomenting the early punk rock scene in Seattle by being the first radio station in the Pacific Northwest to broadcast punk music on the air, mostly on its “Life Elsewhere” program, hosted by DJ Norman Batley.
After a long period of financial difficulty, KRAB finally went off the air on April 15, 1984.
KRAB’s infrastructure and assets would eventually enable the founding of KSER-FM, a Snohomish County community radio station licensed in Everett, Washington, which began regular broadcasting on February 9, 1991, at 90.7 FM, with the studio and transmitter located in Lynnwood, Washington. Meanwhile, the 107.7 FM frequency in Seattle would eventually become KNDD-FM, the alternative rock station that debuted on the air on August 23, 1991 — just in time for Grungemania.
As of December 2012, KRAB’s legacy lives on through Jack Straw Productions, which continues to operate from Seattle’s University District, housing a high-quality audio recording studio and a permanent exhibit dedicated to the memory of KRAB.
–Jeff Stevens. Sources: “Radio Tower Permit Sought,” The Seattle Daily Times, April 14, 1962, p. 11; “North End FM-Radio Station Granted Permit,” The Seattle Daily Times, June 22, 1962, p. 13; Lorenzo W. Milam, “Sex and Broadcasting: A Handbook on Starting a Radio Station for the Community” (Dildo Press, 1975); David Armstrong, “A Trumpet to Arms: Alternative Media in America” (J. P. Tarcher, Inc., 1981); Lorenzo W. Milam, “The Radio Papers, from KRAB to KCHU: Essays on the Art and Practice of Radio Transmission” (MHO & MHO Works, 1986); Linda Shaw, “KSER will be KRAB radio’s Snohomish successor,” The Seattle Times, August 17, 1990, p. B3; Ignacio Lobos, “Radio Days: KSER, the spiritual descendant of Seattle’s KRAB, wants to be fiscally healthier but equally interesting,” The Seattle Times (North Edition), February 6, 1991, p. H1; Walt Crowley, “Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle” (University of Washington Press, 1995); Jesse Walker, “Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America” (New York University Press, 2001); Jonathan Lawson, “Principle, not profit: Seattle’s history of alternative media resistance,” Reclaim the Media, September 24, 2006 (http://www.reclaimthemedia.org/grassroots_media/principle_not_profit_seattles_history_of_alternative_media_resistance.html); Tyler Hartung, “Producing art and a sense of community: A look inside Jack Straw Productions,” University of Washington Daily, February 27, 2012, p. 4; Paul Dorpat, “A sound investment,” The Seattle Times, Pacific NW magazine, July 8, 2012, p. 23.