By Claire Tighe
Our meeting was improbable, but lucky. I found Alex van Oss through Jennifer Wilson’s work involving the University of Buffalo’s Leo Tolstoy College/College F. In the 1970s, van Oss came to Buffalo to earn a graduate degree in microbiology, but was immediately captured by the energy of the political and theatre communities on campus. His personal coming out and friendships with the broadcasters of WBFO, the university’s radio station, lead him to regularly listening to Stonewall Nation, WBFO’s queer radio show. Soon enough, van Oss became a host for Stonewall Nation, interviewing the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Eric Bentley, at the beginning of what would become a thirty-year career in radio.
Stonewall Nation was created and hosted by SUNY Buffalo students in the late 1960s and covered topics “informative to anyone ‘happy, sad, gay, or interested.’” According to van Oss, his subject matter ranged from “in-depth analysis of leather/levi; scholarly investigations of Beethoven and his nephew; historical accounts of early homosexual rights movements in Germany, England, and America; the coming out of a transsexual; conversations with Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, you name it.”
I spoke with van Oss on a chilly fall morning, both of us with coffee in one hand and phone in the other. For someone who spent three decades leading audio interviews, van Oss is a natural interviewee. His voice is that of a seasoned broadcaster — steady, calm, and clear — leaving no doubt as to his confidence on the mic.
In 1979, van Oss left Buffalo for Washington D.C. to pursue his career in radio, and ended up working for many years as a producer, reporter, and editor with Monitor Radio (Christian Science Monitor), NBC, and NPR. After leaving NPR in 2002, he went to work with the Foreign Service Institute, and continued to explore silence, sound, and broadcasting. Now spending his days “living the life of an erudite and flaneur,” he stands by his time as a host at Stonewall Nation as the most important work he has ever done.BELT: How did you become involved in Stonewall Radio at WBFO?
Alex van Oss: In 1977, I was a graduate student at the Main Street campus of State University of New York at Buffalo. Buffalo is a wonderful city. It used to be a very grand city. By the time I got there in the early 70s it was sort of in decline. The steel mills were closing. But it had very strong ethnic communities and the cultural scene was very strong.
I was coming out of the closet and was hanging out with a wonderful group of people, gay people and very accepting people who weren’t gay. There was a radio station on campus called WBFO, a very important station in terms of National Public Radio. A lot people started there — Terry Gross, Ira Flatow, and others. I started to learn how to produce and mix sound and found out about the gay program called Stonewall Nation.
I had been listening to the program, which started in the late 60s/early 70s with Jim Zeis. He was a faculty member at SUNY Buffalo who became a public figure in the gay community and in city government in Washington, D.C. In 1971 he called up a woman from Buffalo named Madeline Davis. She was very involved with the Mattachine Society, an early gay and lesbian group. Zeis called and asked her to go to one of the state conventions in Albany where they were deciding legislation for gay people and lesbians in New York. Davis was known in the community as a folk singer, wonderful guitarist, and organizer. She went to Albany and was so moved by the experience that she composed a song called “Stonewall Nation.” That became the theme for the radio program. The version online is a 45-rpm LP; we used a slightly peppier rendition for our broadcasts. There was also another program on WBFO that was a lesbian program called Sisters of Sappho. That got going in the mid- or early 70s.
After the hosts of the show moved on, I started taking over with some other people.
The program was half an hour every week and it was very open in structure. We sometimes pre-taped, sometimes talked live. It was a mix of cultures and politics, all kinds of things. It was very fancy-free. We were all doing it out of the love of it. And it was exciting.
At WBFO, Alex van Oss worked on other programs besides Stonewall Nation.Van Oss: A group of us went to a protest in Seabrook, NH, an anti-nuclear rally, in 1977. It was a very large protest, there were 2,400 of us and 14 people arrested were from Buffalo. We spent a couple of weeks in the detention center and were finally released. After spending these two weeks or so locked up, meeting Quakers, and people from all over the United States, the Clamshell Alliance. We came back to Buffalo still kind of blown away by it all. We were very moved. We decided to have a small men’s group who had gone to Seabrook just talk amongst themselves. The WBFO program director agreed that we could record for a few hours. I shortened it slightly and they ran it on the radio. We got a lot of responses. Some people were upset, others were moved. That was the adventurous, radical radio that WBFO did at the time.
Part of the context though was that SUNY Buffalo was called the Berkeley of the East. They had had many student protests on the Main Street campus. Students had been shot at by the local police and the National Guard. The radio station had been really important in calming down the situation by creating venues for people to speak with each other from the administration, police, and students. This was slightly before I got there, in the early 70s. It was very crucial. After that all these interesting programs developed.
BELT: I saw that the show had some peers in western New York state. Was a gay radio show new for Buffalo?
Van Oss: I’m sure this was new for Buffalo. There were other gay and lesbian radio programs but not in Buffalo. In Washington D.C. there was a program that started at about the same time at Georgetown called The Friends Show. There was another called Sophie’s Parlor. That later moved from the campus station to the local Pacifica station, WPFW. In New York City, at WBAI, I’m sure there was a program. That was just a wild and crazy station from which many famous broadcasters have issued. This was all post-Stonewall riots, the heady days of activism after the 60s. You had the feminist movement and civil rights, of course. The gay liberation was all part of that ferment of protest and demand for change immediately, right away, now. But certainly it was the first in the Buffalo region. I’m not sure about Cleveland or Detroit. I don’t remember any at the time but there may have been.
Some people were upset, others were moved.
That was the adventurous, radical radio that WBFO did at the time.
Van Oss: I don’t recall any negative reactions. A couple of years after I left Buffalo, I met a couple who said they had listened to Stonewall Nation. One fellow who was in his early twenties said he had listened to it as an adolescent under the covers of his bed. He didn’t have headphones. There were no earbuds in those days. He didn’t want his parents to hear. He told me that he had been very depressed and suicidal but the program cheered him up. And he was still alive to tell me the tale. I was very moved by that and therefore, have always said that what we were doing at Stonewall Nation was far more important than anything I have done since then. And I have worked at networks reporting the news and all that. It comforts me to know I may have helped someone get through a dark moment.
BELT: What was it like to come out in Buffalo at the time?
Van Oss: I was in my early 20s, working in theater instead of doing my microbiology. One time the Living Theatre came to perform for a weekend at the theater department in Buffalo. We had many top actors and playwrights groups come through Buffalo. The Living Theatre is a very historic group. They were the ones who were the first to have nudity, or turn around and confront the audience. They were very political. They came to Buffalo and were putting on a long, very interesting event called Seven Meditations on Political Sadomasochism. They asked if there were any volunteers to train with them to be a part of the group for a couple of performances. I took part in this. It was a lot of fun. I remember one member of their troupe was a Swiss fellow, a few years older than I. He was wearing a T-shirt that said something in French like “Gay Liberation.” I asked him what it was and he explained. And the penny dropped. I realized that I must be gay and felt a weight lift from my shoulders.
I was also getting involved with College F/Tolstoy College, which was patterning itself after the Women’s Studies college. They organized a series of groups called men’s support groups and they had Men’s Studies courses. It was a very serious venture and a very powerful experience for men of all kinds. An offshoot of that was the local gay groups and gay literature classes. The men’s support groups were very informal, like peer group counseling. Just small groups of men meeting every week to discuss their lives and whatever topic they wanted to. The idea was to have men open up and talk to each other.
The men’s groups were held on campus or in people’s homes and were open to anyone who wanted to participate. There were men from all walks of life. It was largely associated with the university but not exclusively. There were people who worked in stores downtown and a few steel workers in there as I recall. There was a fellow named Michael Bazinski who is now head of the poetry archives at SUNY Buffalo. He is an excellent poet. I remember at the time that he was part of a class or was teaching a class at College F while working at the Buffalo China Factory. We also had a few men’s groups on WBFO. They broadcasted for about three hours. That was pretty radical radio I would say.
So I was with a group of men, gay, straight, and in-between, who were comfortable with talking about sex and being supportive. All of this was before AIDS. That really changed everything in a few years. But this was exciting and gentle and it was part of, for me, a larger experience of getting to know and develop friendships with people who had grown up in Buffalo families. I had lived all over the world but hadn’t really lived in the middle part of the United States, certainly not in an industrial city. I was learning a lot.
BELT: What role did WBFO and Stonewall play in Buffalo and the gay movement at the time?
Van Oss: WBFO did all sorts of things. They recorded sounds of the city live on the air. They would interview taxi drivers, the voice of the people. That philosophy, along with other stations from the Midwest, was the spark for starting National Public Radio in the late 60s and early 70s. Radio had been largely commercial and there was an opportunity for legislation to ensure that there would be public broadcasting. A lot of people from the Midwest and from Buffalo went down to Washington and started what is now NPR. The rest is history.
On how the program affected the gay movement, it’s hard to say. I think what was really important for the movement was what was going on in the bars, and in the beds, roundtable discussions, and in the support groups. Radio is very ephemeral. It does live out in the archives, but people living their lives was the thing that affected the movement the most. And then of course, along came AIDS, a mighty whack, all over the world. The party was over. The party changed. And of course the internet has changed everything. There’s same sex marriage and the military, it’s a different vibe [for the gay movement] now.
BELT: Your show with Allen Ginsberg is still available for streaming online. You had the chance to talk to many of the Beat writers during your career in radio. How did the show with Ginsberg come about?
I…have always said
that what we were doing at Stonewall Nation was far more important than anything I have done since then…It comforts me to know I may have helped someone get through
a dark moment.
Ginsberg was giving a reading and he agreed to come on the program. He brought along Peter Orlovsky who was his lover and another poet. They were together for many decades. It was a wild and crazy time. I was just so nervous. I didn’t know quite what to do. If you listen to the program you can tell from my voice. Ginsberg was perfectly at ease. They brought his little harmonium and some finger cymbals and they sang one of their rollicking songs. These were people who may have been considered on the fringe and strange at the time but boy, in retrospect they were just crazy sane. Ginsberg’s talks about poetry are very interesting. He’s almost rabbinical, a natural-born teacher. One time at NPR I was interviewing him about his latest collection of poetry and he was going on about Cassady, and Kerouac, and his nostalgia. I finally got a little impatient and said, “Allen, don’t you get tired of this, of remembering when you were all young and beautiful? And now time has gone by and you’re not so young and beautiful.” He thought for a minute and him being very Buddhist, he was humble. He just looked at me and said, “No.”
BELT: Are there any other recordings out there folks can listen to?
Van Oss: The university sold the station a few years ago so it’s a completely different station now. But there’s material about Stonewall Nation still out there, surprisingly. I found an article that I had completely written for a gay newspaper called The Fifth Freedom, the Nov 1. 1978 edition. It’s a typewritten document from a mimeograph machine. There’s an article from me talking about Stonewall Nation.
In the poetry archives at SUNY Buffalo, which are very important archives, they have two programs: one long interview I did with Eric Bentley, who is still alive in New York, a very noted theatre director, critic, and playwright, very important. Then this one I did with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. It’s a wonder that the recording survives. I lost my cassette copy and the original tape was severely damaged by water and the lack of a climate-controlled storage facility. Then one day, I was tooling around the internet and discovered a pristine recording, all cataloged and everything. Apparently I had given a copy to Ginsberg, and also to poet Robert Creeley, who was hosting him in Buffalo when he came through. I feel like I’ve had six cups of coffee just remembering all of this.
Claire Tighe’s other work on Belt can be found here.
Banner photo courtesy of Alex van Oss: Photo of a group from Tolstoy College in Washington, DC to attend an anti-nuclear rally on May 5 (or 6), 1979. Shown are: Chip Planck (left, the founder of Tolstoy College); Charles Haynie (head of Tolstoy College, 4th from left), and Alex van Oss (2nd from right, kneeling). The others in the picture were also connected with Tolstoy College, either as instructors or students.