From BAM Magazine 12/18/87


David Gans' Deadhead Hour

by Mary Eisenhart

Among other things, 1987 will be noted as the year the Grateful Dead finally achieved significant radio airplay&emdash;and a correspondingly visible radio audience. "They finally made a record that radio likes, for one reason or another," says David Gans, producer of the nationally syndicated Deadhead Hour, "and the net result is an increased opportunity to play their other music on the radio." For an hour each week on eight stations nationwide, the Deadhead Hour brings Grateful Dead fans soundboard-quality live music, along with interviews, historical material from the Dead's past, and an assortment of perspectives on their work.

The Deadhead Hour was first produced by DJ M. Dung in November of 1984 at San Francisco radio station KFOG. Gans was an early guest on the show, promoting his book Playing In The Band, and soon wound up taking over the show himself. Early shows often entered relatively uncharted territory: a lengthy discussion of the Grateful Dead phenomenon and its cultural implications by lyricist John Barlow, punctuated with performances of Barlow and Bob Weir's songs; two hours in which classically-trained GD bassist Phil Lesh played his favorite music, ranging from Charles Ives to John Coltrane; an entire show devoted to "Dark Star"; collages of political commentary interspersed with Dead songs.

Although this year's national syndication has imposed new requirements of uniformity in form and content, the Deadhead Hour is far from sinking into a format. Says Gans, "I try to be informative, I try and remember that there are people listening to the program who have never seen the Dead live, and to whom this chance encounter with the Deadhead Hour is their first exposure to this music. That doesn't mean I have to take them by the hand and explain it all to them, but I try to give enough information that they're not completely bewildered by what happens. There's a lot of ground to cover between the absolute novice and the hardcore Deadhead."

Covering that ground leads to the occasional misunderstanding. Perhaps the most common complaint Gans receives among his overwhelmingly favorable listener feedback comes from tapers who'd like to hear entire sets on the air at once -- a practice expressly forbidden by his license agreement with the Grateful Dead. "The only restriction that I have, really, is that I'm not allowed to play full sets. So l don't try and fake a concert ambience," Gans explains. "Radio doesn't have the patience for long pauses between songs, and radio doesn't have the patience for extended drum solos, and besides there's so much more information to be imparted over and above the music.

"In the best tradition of the Grateful Dead, I try and optimize the use of the medium. In the radio medium you have the opportunity to intersperse interviews and music, and other pieces of information. You can concentrate a lot of stuff into that little hour-long window. Rather than just play music I try to shed a little light on the music from different angles."

Shedding light on the music can involve playing the original version of cover tunes in the Dead's repertoire, interviewing people involved in the creation of video and music projects (one recent guest: Justin Kreutzmann, video producer and 18-year-old son of drummer Billy Kreutzmann), and, more rarely, performance of Dead tunes by outside artists from Garrison Keillor to Elvis Costello. "I occasionally get letters from people that say, 'why don't you just shut up and play whole sets?"' Gans says. "I've even had people write in and say, 'I don't give a damn what John Barlow has to say. I want you to just play whole concerts so I can fatten my tape collection.' But, if the Dead are going to allow me to play their music over the radio with, up to now, absolutely no cash benefit to them, I think the least we can do is provide a forum for some of their ideas too."

Gans also uses the show to dispel the myth that the Dead's studio albums deserve all the obscurity they've received. "Their studio records generally have failed to arrive at the energy level of their live performances," he concedes, "but I defy you to find very many records that do approximate the energy of live performances. So I'm sort of on a campaign to help call attention to the amazing body of work of the Grateful Dead's record library. Not just Dead albums, all the peripheral stuff. All of Garcia's solo records and Weir's solo records and Mickey Hart's world music projects -- everything that everybody's done. There's something worth listening to on every single thing that's out there, so I try to work in some of that stuff."

Given the unique qualities of the Dead's music and audience the Deadhead Hour is sign)ficantly different from most syndicated programs. First, since playing 20-minute pieces of music is often necessary, there are not commercial breaks every 10-12 minutes as in other shows; there is one break per hour, which occurs at logical breaks in the music. Also, since the shows are frequently taped by Deadhead listeners and sent to friends in outlying areas, the shows are made to repay multiple listenings. "I don't think that we necessarily have to reach the lowest common denominator," says Gans. "The Deadhead audience is smarter and more willing to invest its attention. So I don't have to go to the extremes of shallowness that radio sometimes seems to want." While he doubts that the exigencies of syndicated programming will ever allow a repetition of the memorable show in which Phil Lesh dumbfounded unsuspecting listeners by playing all 35 minutes of Charles Ives' Fourth Symphony, he'd like to have an ongoing segment of the show in which he plays works picked by GD band members, along with their explanations of the song's merits.

"In a way," Gans says, "you could sum up the Deadhead Hour by saying that it is an attempt to amplify aspects of the Grateful Dead that don't get seen at the concerts. Grateful Dead music is a coat of many colors, and if you just look at the shape of it I think you're missing out on the immense amount of information that's embedded. Every thread that makes up that coat is a different thing. If you could explode that and take a look at all the pieces, you'd see an amazing variety of influences at work.

"Part of what I'm doing is lobbying for cultural icon-hood for the Dead, I guess, because I think what they're doing is significant in the history of world music, and not just in the history of rock and roll, or local pop music. I think what they're doing and what they have done for the last 22 years is absolutely unique, one-of-a-kind stuff, and it's worthy of the attention that it gets, and I think if it's on the air new people are going to hear it and be attracted to it."

© 1987 by Mary Eisenhart and BAM Media. All rights reserved.

Reproduced here with permission of the author.

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