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Review: 'Naptown Rock Radio Wars'

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The WIFE Good Guys are challenged by the bad boys at WNAP in 'Naptown Rock Radio Wars.'
  • The WIFE Good Guys are challenged by the bad boys at WNAP in 'Naptown Rock Radio Wars.'

In the beginning there was WIBC, and it drew crazy-high ratings. Then WIFE came along, playing the hits of the day, including lots of killer British Invasion tunes. And WIFE grand poobah Don Burden looked down on what he created and said, “It is good, guys.” So the WIFE Good Guys ruled the rock 'n' roll roost for years, until WIBC fought back, turning their FM station into WNAP, a counterculture enclave staffed with long-haired bad boys. “Good Guys?”, they sneered, “We don't need no stinking good guys!” And so was born the Naptown Rock Radio Wars.

Naptown Rock Radio Wars: A History of Rock 'n' Roll Radio in Indianapolis is a spirited documentary co-produced by David Fulton, Brad Schuchard and Al Stone and directed by Fulton. Full disclosure: I watched an earlier version of the documentary a few weeks ago and offered some suggestions to Brad and my old buddy Dave. I have not disqualified myself from reviewing the film because I'm old and ornery enough to say what I really think no matter what.

After the earlier screening, Dave abruptly asked how many stars I would have given that cut of the movie. I immediately said, “three and a half,” because I just knew. After watching the current edition, I waffled over whether to give it three and a half or four stars. Dave intends to go on the festival circuit with the film, and it will require tighter editing for that audience. But I'm not part of that audience. I grew up listening to Indianapolis rock radio, I love learning how media works, and I savored every morsel Dave and company fed me. So I'm giving four stars to this, the director's cut of the film. I look forward to seeing the tighter mainstream edition sometime in the future.

Naptown Rock Radio Wars tells a great story, adroitly mixing talking heads with images, footage and lots of music from the era. Kudos to Brad Schuchard for his stylish editing. After an intro by noted authority Allen Deck and some welcome background by Indiana State Museum historian Dale Ogden (both dear long-time friends — thus ends my full disclosure), the story gets laid out in detail by the people who lived it. WIBC was a massively popular AM station in the early '60s. They had an FM station too, but nobody knew what they played because no one listened to FM back then. Upstart AM station WIFE made its dramatic entrance right when the British Invasion was reinventing rock music.

Don Burden ran WIFE and, according to the interviewees, was a dynamo and a tyrant. “Difficult to like, very intimidating, but he was a heck of a businessman” said one Burden survivor. He would take employees to restaurants and move the group up to five times, until he got the table he wanted. “We would troop along and be very embarrassed,” said one exasperated veteran. It's a shame there wasn't more footage of Burden — he's a fascinating pit bull.

WIFE enjoyed astounding success for years, with incessant jingles that pounded the call letters and station numbers. There were constant contests and, get this — the station sped up the records to stuff more music in with all the ads, patter and promos. Bastards. 12-year-old me used to wonder why the songs that sounded so snappy on WIFE seemed a bit draggy when I bought and played the singles. Now I know. Bastards.

Years later, WIBC finally fought back with WNAP, the first successful FM-only rock station in the U.S. With it came a tribe of groovy broadcasters who made the conservative AM staffers bristle. But the public loved their new, counterculture-style approach to music. Fans of the Buzzard should appreciate reunions with many of its most famous faces. FYI: Reb Porter has weathered the years very well. He was good-looking then, and he still looks studly.

Naptown Rock Radio Wars covers more — pirate station Radio Free Naptown, the emergence of rock stations WNDE and Bill Shirk's WXLW, and the inevitable decline of both WIFE and WNAP. It's all interesting and fun, and it goes beyond nostalgia. Those were days when choices were relatively few and shared experiences were common. Radio was a big part of our community, and Naptown Rock Radio Wars captures the spirit of those times. You did good, Dave.

Naptown Rock Radio Wars plays Saturday night at the IMAX downtown at the Indiana State Museum. The early show is sold out, though some VIP packages remain. A 10 p.m. showing has been added.

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