Alison broke important ground for women in radio when she took wing on the airwaves in the 1960s as the first female disc jockey at a major radio station. “I listened to her faithfully,” says author Joan Steinau Lester. “She was absolutely fantastic. At the time, I only knew I liked her and the show. It was only years later that I realized she’d broken ground for women in a male-dominated industry.”
Progressive rock radio was becoming the hottest sound across the nation, and WNEW was one of the top stations in the nation. Alison was well on her way to a very Mary Tyler Moore-type career in TV, starting by leading a morning exercise program and climbing her way up the ladder to “weather girl.” When AM and FM radio stations split apart instead of simulcasting, competitive radio stations were forced to hire another staff to man the FM stations, putting many in a bind for salaries. Alison recalls that the standard rate for AM jocks at the time was $150,000 a year, while the FM scale was a mere $125 a week. Management at WNEW figured they could hire an all-woman FM crew and stay within the standard FM pay scale.
Alison and her companion women disc jockeys, mostly actresses and models, made their debut on July 4, 1966. Alison was nearly the only one with any previous experience in any realm of broadcasting. By September 1967, the all-woman stable of jocks was out of a job for a reason that Alison herself puts most succinctly, “America, New York, was not ready for lady DJs!” Thanks to creativity and experience in the world of entertainment, Alison wasn’t let go—the only woman to have survived. She had been experimenting within her on-air time, trying angles that kept the listeners’ interest high— theater reviews, celebrity interviews, and lots of high energy personality. When management found in a pre- purge survey that 90 percent of listeners knew her name and enjoyed her show, they made the smart decision to keep her on board.
Along with drastic personnel changes, the station management also made a format change to progressive rock. Alison was out of familiar terrain with rock music, as was the remaining all-male staff and the all-male management. When Alison asked for guidance, she was given the precise and, as it turned out, appropriate advice to simply “do her thing.” They gave her the graveyard shift, too—midnight to 6:00 A.M. The ever- intrepid Alison figured her nighttime listeners were a special breed of insomniacs, lonely people, and assorted other nocturnal types. “I felt that night was a very special time.” She knew from personal experience that emotions intensify at night—loneliness, depression, and illness. Alison’s sensitivity to people paid in spades; she reached out and connected to her listeners by creating this special persona, The Nightbird, and the listeners responded overwhelmingly. “I felt that if I could make this bond visible between people who are feeling things at night, then I’d have something going.” She put all of her creativity into her alter ego with high drama, fantasy, and many completely unique elements the likes of which nighttime radio had never heard. Listeners were hooked after her jazzy intro with the sound of softly fluttering wings and the poetic intro Alison had written ending with “as the Nightbird lifts 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.”
The phones at the station rang off the hook that first night. Station management told her that she had a “little hit” and then her male boss told her he would tell her how to do it. Instead of being congratulated for originality and the instant popularity of her new show, Alison was treated like a loose cannon, and they tried really hard to mold her and her show into something less unique and more like the shows all the other DJs, men at this point, were doing. Alison stuck to her guns and refused to change the Nightbird, only to be buried even further into the night hours, beginning at 2:00 A.M.! Alison’s stories include the station’s refusal to buy a step stool so she could reach the records on the top shelf. The response to the most popular DJ at the station was a threat to hire “a taller person.”
Alison went on to win Billboard’s “FM Personality of the Year” in 1978, the first woman to receive this honor. Although she was enormously popular, she was regarded with resentment by many of her fellow jocks. In fact, the station made very little effort to clue Alison in to just how important she was to the station. WNEW was
the top station in the country in the hot new category of progressive rock. They were also beloved in their own backyard of New York and began doing public appearances, including one at a concert in Madison Square Garden. This was really the eye-opener. Alison loves to tell this story, “I was the last person be introduced. So they were all on stage when they introduced Alison Steele, ‘The Nightbird,’” The six male DJs who had been introduced before her had to stand there and eat crow while the entire crowd stood and cheered and screamed and clapped for their favorite DJ, Alison, The Nightbird.
“It was my moment of glory, I worked hard for it. I took a lot of s*** over it. And I enjoyed every minute of it.”
— Alison Steele