Lorenzo Wilson Milam, guru of community radio, is dead at 86

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Lorenzo Wilson Milam, guru of community radio, is dead at 86
A photo provided by KRAB archive, of Lorenzo Wilson Milam in the studios of KRAB, the noncommercial Seattle FM station he helped start in 1962. Milam, who devoted much of his life to building noncommercial radio stations with eclectic fusions of music, talk and public affairs, died on July 19 at his home in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. He was 86. KRAB archive via The New York Times.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Lorenzo Wilson Milam, who devoted much of his life to building noncommercial radio stations with eclectic fusions of music, talk and public affairs, died on July 19 at his home in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. He was 86.

Charles Reinsch, a former manager of KRAB-FM in Seattle, Milam’s first station, announced the death. Milam moved full time to Mexico from San Diego after having several strokes in 2017.

He also struggled with the effects of polio, which he had contracted as a teenager, and which led him to use crutches and leg braces for much of his life and a wheelchair later on.

Milam loathed commercial radio stations, which he saw as purveyors of mindless junk. With KRAB and about a dozen other stations that he helped start in the 1960s and ’70s, he created a freewheeling, esoteric vision of commercial-free community radio as the voice of the people it served.

He wanted his stations to have inexperienced contributors, both on and off the air. He encouraged locals to help him program the stations and contribute a few dollars to keep these shoestring operations open.

“What’s wrong with commercial radio?” Milam said in a 1967 interview on “Mike Wallace at Large,” a CBS News radio program. “They play material that will be accepted by the masses. I say, ‘To hell with the masses.’” He added, “We play things that aren’t commonly accepted because no one else will put it on the air.”

KRAB’s on-air menu featured ethnic and classical music, readings (poetry, newspaper articles, children’s books, histories and scientific journals), commentary (some of it rantings by radicals on both the left and right), panel discussions, radio plays, interviews and programming produced by local groups, among them a fringe White Citizens’ Council.

Milam did not want a poem or piece of music diminished by the sound of an announcer breaking in at the end. To let listeners absorb the intensity of what they had just heard, he sometimes let as many as 10 minutes of silence pass before another program began.

The silences — which on a commercial station would have been filled at least partly by ads — were an element of Milam’s noncommercial policy.

“Broadcast time is too valuable to be sold,” he said on the Wallace program. “I think it should be given away — and I think it should be given away with a rose.”

Milam was not the architect of noncommercial radio. The first such station was said to be KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, founded in 1949 by Lewis Hill, who also established the Pacifica Foundation, its parent organization. Milam volunteered at KPFA in the late 1950s while he was taking graduate courses at the University of California, Berkeley.

“If Lew Hill fathered the movement, Lorenzo Milam reared it,” Jesse Walker wrote in “Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America” (2001).

Milam left KRAB in the late 1960s and helped start commercial-free stations in St. Louis; Dallas; Portland, Oregon; San Francisco and Los Gatos, California, and elsewhere. KRAB went off the air in 1984.

“He was so excited about radio and truly believed in it,” Reinsch, who is also KRAB’s archivist, said in an interview. “He had this fantasy that he would change the world with it.”

Lorenzo Wilson Milam was born on Aug. 2, 1933, in Jacksonville, Florida. His father, Robert, was a lawyer and real estate investor. His mother, Meriel, was a homemaker.

Milam was stricken with polio in 1952, after his first year at Yale. His sister, who was also named Meriel, also contracted the disease and died a few months later, leaving him with memories that he excavated in his book “The Cripple Liberation Front Marching Band Blues” (1984).

“The iron maiden continues to pump dead lungs for over an hour before the night nurse discovers the drowned creature, gray froth on blue lips,” he wrote. “My sister, who never did anyone any harm, who only wished joy for those around her, now lies ice and bone, the good spirit fled from her.”

Milam learned to use a wheelchair at a Jacksonville hospital. He was also treated at a rehabilitation facility in Warm Springs, Georgia, founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

He studied English literature at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, where he struggled to navigate the campus on crutches. He graduated in 1957 and worked at a Philadelphia television before moving to Berkeley. In 1959 he decided he wanted to return east to start a community station in Washington. His goal for it was lofty: He wanted it to help avoid World War III.

Milam envisioned influencing government policymakers and generals with vigorous foreign policy debates and a documentary program on the hazards of nuclear radiation.

“After a few months of this, they would be saying to themselves, ‘We must be idiots to think that war is the answer to our problems,’” he was quoted as saying in “Rebels on the Air.”

But he was unable to get a license from the Federal Communications Commission after informing the agency that the station would be Pacifica-like.

“I filed the application, and it took me over a year of sad waiting to find out that Pacifica was considered to be a front for the Communist Party,” he told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2014.

Milam turned his attention to Seattle and received a license for KRAB in 1962. His successes there and elsewhere led him to write the whimsically titled “Sex and Broadcasting: A Handbook on Starting a Radio Station for the Community” (1975).

But the failure in 1977 of a Dallas station that he had started with partners, KCHU-FM, after operating for just two years, led him to back away from community radio.

Over the next 40 years, he focused on writing and editing. He published The Fessenden Review, a literary journal, and RALPH: The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities, an online book review magazine.

He described his career in “The Radio Papers: From KRAB to KCHU” (1986) and wrote passionately about disabilities in “The Cripple Liberation Front” and “Cripzen: A Manual for Survival” (1993).

In later years, his polio returned.

“All disabled people know fear,” Milam told New Mobility, a magazine for wheelchair users, in 2000. “We know that we’re very vulnerable. We know we’re going to get more and more disabled and we’re going to get more and more dependent and we’re probably going to get more and more scared.”

“How do we handle being an old, scared geezer?” he asked.

He is survived by a daughter, Kevin; a grandchild; a sister, Patricia; and a brother, Robert. His marriage to Clare Marx ended in divorce.

KRAB came to define Milam’s sense of mission. Having been thwarted in his first efforts to start a station, he turned KRAB into a centerpiece of listener-supported radio.

“It took me from being a loser poet and failed Washington, D.C., broadcaster to being something of value for my society and my culture,” he wrote in “The Radio Papers.” “It took me from vague hopes of good programming in 1959 to a purveyor of what is and can be the best in men’s souls.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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