A smoky-voiced enchantress who dominated late-night radio in New York during the heyday of progressive FM rock in the late 1960s and seventies, Alison Steele was one of the first female disc jockeys in the country and one of the most influential DJs of either gender. During her reign as late-night queen on WNEW-FM—the flagship station for progressive radio in New York—Steele reinvented herself as “the Nightbird,” serenely reciting poetry and spinning psychedelic tracks from albums like Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and the Moody Blues’s Days of Future Passed, infusing rock radio with a powerful intimacy and otherworldliness that was perfectly suited for the times. Steele also served as music director of the station for a short time, playing a crucial role in determining what music was played not only on WNEW, but on progressive rock stations all over the country. As her colleague Vin Scelsa once described it, “She invented herself and she invented a character that then allowed women all over the country to finally become accepted on rock and roll radio.” Even rock legend Jimi Hendrix was impressed: he reportedly once wrote a song for her, titled “Night Bird Flying.”
A Brooklyn native, the freckle-faced, red-haired Steele began running errands for a New York television station at the tender age of fourteen. She worked through high school, and continued working at television and radio stations instead of going to college. (“I was too impatient,” she once told the New York Times.) Her big break came in 1966, when she was one of four women selected for “Sexpot Radio,” an all-female lineup of disc jockeys at WNEW-FM.“I backed into radio accidentally because in 1966 the FCC decreed that AM stations split from FM stations instead of simulcasting,” Steele told Gilliar G. Gaar, author of She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock and Roll. “WNEW had to hire DJs for the FM station, and the scale set by AFTRA [the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] for the FM station at that time was $125 a week. Now the guys across the hall [at the AM station] were getting $150,000, $200,000—who were they gonna get for a hundred and a quarter? So somebody came up with the idea of an all-female station. And I was hired.”
However, WNEW-FM abandoned the all-female/middle-of-the-road music format within two years, switching to progressive rock. Steele was the only female DJ to survive the purge, but was shunted to the overnight shift and given little guidance from management, which basically told her to “do your thing.” Steele recalls, “I knew nothing about rock music. Not progressive rock. Nobody knew anything about it, least of all the station management. There was no such thing as a playlist.” Forced to improvise, Steele made her ungodly hours work for her. “I began to think about the nighttime and what it meant to me, and a certain mysticism,” Steele told one interviewer. “And I thought about—it’s like when you don’t feel well, you have a cold, it always gets worse at night. If you’re worried about something it becomes more anxiety-producing in the middle of the night than it is when the sun’s out. And I thought there must be a lot of people in this city that need something to relate to in the middle of the night, and if I could create some kind of a camaraderie, a relationship between myself and the rest of the night people, then it would be more than just music.” Thus did Steele become “the Nightbird,” a character created, she said, “because of the duality—the nightbird, the nocturnal bird, the owl, and in ’66 guys were teddies and girls were birds. So here I was the only bird among all the guys.” Her male colleagues weren’t crazy about the idea—one even suggested she become Hilda the cleaning lady, trapped overnight in the WNEW studios, instead. “Nobody liked this Nightbird thing, but it was just so strong to me, I just felt it was a natural,” Steele said.
Steele penned her own opening for her “Nightbird” debut, seeking to evoke the mysticism and magic that she herself found so compelling about the night: “The flutter of wings, the shadow across the moon, the sounds of the night, as the Nightbird spreads her wings and soars, above the earth, into another level of comprehension, where we exist only to feel. Come, fly with me, Alison Steele, the Nightbird, at WNEW-FM, until dawn.” She scoured 6,000 albums looking for the right accompaniment; finally, on vacation one night at a friend’s house high above the Hollywood Hills, she settled on a piece of Incan temple music.
One morning early in her run, Steele was summoned to the office of WNEW’s program director, who told her, “I see you got a little hit there of a show.” “And I said, ‘Yeah, looks real good, doesn’t it?,’” Steele told She’s a Rebel’s Gaar. “And he said, ‘Well, now I’m going to tell you how to do it,’ and I said, ‘Wrong!’ And I did it my way. But let me tell you how hard it was. First of all they made me music director for the same money. Then, when the station got chugging, they brought in another man to shorten everybody’s shift. But instead of giving me the earlier shift, they buried me at 2 a.m., from 2 to 6 in the morning, an un-heard of shift then . . . But they paid for a survey and found out, I’m sure much to their surprise, that at 2 a.m. in the morning, I was number one in the tri-state area—in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut—with the colleges. And that’s when they finally realized that they had something. Finally. . . . They then moved me into 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., where I stayed for years.”
Steele’s move to the earlier shift meant she no longer had to serve as music director, a position she described as “an appendage of the two to six shift, so they could wring you out to the last drop. It was just a fancy title for somebody that would pick records and work harder. But because of it, I learned more about music. I used to take home ten records a night and listen to every note, and pretty soon I knew everything that was there; I brought to that progressive sound something they could never do, and that was a very poetic assessment of the music.”
Steele left WNEW-FM in 1979 and floated among other New York stations, including WNEW-AM (where she served as a sometime music director and, from 1984 to 1986, hosted A Little Night Music to help create a new sound and to attract younger listeners) and WPIX-FM. In 1989, Mark Chernoff, her old boss at WNEW-FM, invited her to WXRK (“K-Rock”) to host the station’s simulcast with VH-1 of the movie Woodstock; response was so great that Chernoff offered her a permanent spot. Illness forced her off the air permanently in 1995, and she died of stomach cancer on September 27 of that year, at the age of fifty-eight.
In addition to her regular radio shows, Steele was involved in numerous radio and television projects, including syndicated shows that she conceived and scripted herself. Cosmic Connections, a one-hour radio interview show with rock personalities, ran for four years on 1,200 stations. She also wrote and narrated a six-part history-of-music series for young children that was used in public school systems, as well as twenty-six one-hour specials titled Biography, which aired on 250 radio stations. On television she was a pop culture reporter for the Coors TVN Network, and from 1982 to 1985 was seen daily on Cable News Networks’s Limelight, which she also wrote and produced, spotlighting people in all aspects of the entertainment world.
Steele is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and in 1976 was the first woman to be named Billboard magazine’s FM Personality of the Year.
As her colleague Jo Maeder wrote in the New York Times shortly after her death: “She made radio visual and visceral, instantly drawing the listener into his or her own inner landscape. . . . Like the other DJ’s on WNEW-FM during the late 1960’s and 70’s, she helped an entire generation cope with the social upheaval and emerging counterculture through what was called a free-form or progressive format.” In 1997, WNEW-FM aired a posthumous tribute in which Steele refers to a framed saying—given to her by an unidentified loved one—that “seems to sum up my entire philosophy about what I’ve done in music and at this radio station.” The saying concludes: “The purpose of life is to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have it make some difference that we lived at all.” Clearly, Alison Steele fulfilled her purpose.