(Above: Bill Shapiro appeared on television in Kansas City in 2008 to celebrate 30 years of his radio show, “Cypress Avenue.”)
By Joel Francis
Late at night, the house is silent.
Everyone is asleep, or so it seems. In a bedroom, a dim light shines through the blankets peaked around a small figure sitting up under the covers. The sound of tinny music can barely be heard.
The boy beneath the sheets is still, but his heart is racing. His hands tremble as he fine-tunes the radio under the covers with him. He thought it was lost forever, but he has found it: the jazz radio station carrying the songs of Dave Brubeck and Shorty Rogers. It was only late at night he could pick up the phantom AM signals from stations in exotic places like New Orleans. Forget sleep, he had found something far more important.
Fast-forward 50 years.
Today, the city – Kansas City – is alive. Cars zoom past on the interstate, clearly visible from the law office’s window on the 20th floor near Crown Center. Visitors scurry in and out of the renovated Union Station.
A train blows by in the distance. The stress of daily life is lost in this picturesque, birds-eye view.
The scene is quite different, but the boy, now 62 years old, has not changed. The passion for discovering new music still burns within.
Today Bill Shapiro doesn’t hid his love of music; on the contrary, he broadcasts it. Shapiro has hosted the weekly radio show “Cypress Avenue” for more than 20 years on KUCR 89.3 FM, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, National Public Radio affiliate.
Taking the show’s title from a song on Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” album, “Cypress Avenue” has become one of KCUR’s highest-rated local shows.
Shapiro has found freedom on the airwaves. Unrestricted by playlists generated by demographic studies and corporate interests, Shapiro plays the music that excites him in hopes of engaging his audience.
“He has a lot more information and insight into groups that commercial radio doesn’t know about,” says Robert Moore, KCUR and “Cypress Avenue” producer and music director. “A show like his would never happen on commercial radio because they don’t break down artists. They just play one format.”
While commercial radio serves a bevy of Bachman-Turner Overdrive and saccharine teen pop, Shapiro slips his sophisticated audience the Velvet Underground, Stevie Wonder and Uncle Tupelo, all linked by a common theme for a given show.
When Beck’s “Midnite Vultures” was released in 1999, no Kansas City radio stations would pick it up, despite heavy play from MTV and VH1. “Cypress Avenue” not only spotlighted the album, but buttressed it with Prince’s “Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic,” forming a fitting tribute to both.
Shapiro sprinkles his shows with information from box sets, liner notes and magazine interviews, but for the most part he lets the music do the talking.
His inspiration may come from a television special or an album passed onto him by a friend.
More often than not, Corky Carrol, co-owner of Village Records in Overland Park, Kan., points Shapiro to a quality release. The two usually talk once a week about scheduled new releases.
“It’s strange to think that this is the only place to hear Elvis Costello or Nick Drake on the radio,” Carrol says. “You know at least for two hours you are going to get a solid effort, not a couple of good songs then Celine Dion.”
Says Moore, “He turns the public on to new groups they won’t hear anywhere else. Unfortunately, it won’t have any impact on commercial radio because it is run by corporations. It’s expected that this is what non-commercial radio does.”
“Cypress Avenue” may be popular, but Shapiro has yet to reach the notoriety of Murray the K. Sure, he gets calls at the office from fans and fan mail isn’t unexpected, but for the most part Shapiro is anonymous. That’s fine by him.
“Other than family I don’t think I could tell you a specific person who might claim to be my biggest fan or a longtime listener,” Shapiro says.
Carrol has supplied Shapiro with music for more than 25 years and is a regular “Cypress Avenue” listener. Carrol says he has bought “thousands and thousands” of albums for Shapiro.
“It’s hard to get one past him, but there are a few records he’s missed,” Carrol says. “His purchases are all over the board. I think the only thing I haven’t sold him is a classical record.”
A hit all over the country
The diverse playlists on “Cypress Avenue” have made the show successful not only in Kansas City, but all over the country. During much of the 1980s, “Cypress Avenue” was distributed on NPR’s satellite uplink system.
“In those days you could buy an hour of stereo time for $40,” Shapiro says. “I thought it was worth a shot and was willing to invest a couple thousand dollars.”
Several stations picked up “Cypress Avenue” and it became a hit in Minneapolis and a dozen other smaller markets, but when satellite costs rose, Shapiro pulled his show.
“I knew it wasn’t going to grow because it didn’t fit the NPR format,” Shapiro says. “People think public radio should be country and jazz or folk for the adventurous.”
But Shapiro wasn’t content with confining the show to his hometown. He decided to give the satellite one more try, this time with a national sponsor. “Cypress Avenue” proved to be popular, running in more than 40 markets, including Detroit, San Francisco and Jacksonville, Fla. Unable to find a sponsor, expenses were mounting and Shapiro was faced with a decision.
“I decided I could either earn a living as an attorney, or I could get in my car and drive across the country and build ‘Cypress Avenue’ into a radio show,” Shapiro says.
For the second time, “Cypress Avenue” was pulled from the uplink
“We just weren’t penetrating the major markets,” Shapiro says. “Today radio is a secondary medium. People don’t care about shows, they care about stations and that’s why radio is as homogenous as it is. Advertisers just want a demographic to sell their product to. I don’t fit that mold. I knew I’d never get the audience I wanted.”
Compromising the show to build a bigger audience would be counteractive to everything Shapiro was trying to do – share the music he loves with his friends. And if his only contact with these friends is through the radio, so be it.
“A lot of people use the TV as a companion. My stereo is my companion,” Shaprio says. “I lawasy have 30 to 50 unopened CDs at home. They come to me faster than I can listen to them. There is always part of my head saying, ‘Is this something you want to take further and put on the radio?’”
When Shapiro listens to music at home, he makes sure it gets the audio treatment it deserves. At age 12, Shapiro built his own Hi-Fi system from a Heath kit. That system has been upgraded and replaced many times since.
“I’m a sound freak,” Shapiro says. “I have more money tied up in sound equipment than most people have in a home. I wasn’t to hear it as well as I can hear it. I buy all the gold CDs and audiophile stuff.
“To me, music is as important as oxygen and food,” Shapiro continues. “When I’m home, I have music on 24 hours a day. In the car, music is on the whole time.”
Hooked by a phonograph
Shapiro got hooked on music in 1942 when an uncle gave him a phonograph player for his fifth birthday. A family friend in the jukebox business kept Shapiro supplied with records once they were too scratched for commercial play. At age 12, he discovered Brubeck, Paul Desmond and West Coast jazz.
Shapiro tried music lessons – he tackled the piano, vibraphone and banjo – but his musical aptitude was mental, not physical. He spent his time amassing records and building playback systems.
“Whatever money I made went into getting more records and improving what I had,” Shapiro says.
Shapiro migrated across Missouri and graduated pre-med from Washington University in St. Louis in 1958 with the intent of becoming a doctor.
Still an avid jazz fan, Shapiro would often get together with friends and playrecords. Then he saw Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey show. Shapiro was hooked on rock and roll and spreading the gospel of Elvis.
“I didn’t know who or what it was, but it had the same impact on me as hearing JFK was shot,” Shapiro says. “I can still visualize that room and the TV set and here we are 50 years later.”
To a generation of buzz-cut, starched-collar squares, Elvis represented the rebellious, darker side of 1950s adolescence.
“Presley was a lightning rod from my generation, a button-down generation,” Shapiro says. “There was a whole side of our lives – smoking cigarettes, sipping beers, getting lad – that was never talked about, and here it was in our living room. I immediately became a hard-core rock and roll fan.”
By the time Shapiro graduated, he had abandoned the idea of being a doctor. He headed north to the University of Michigan and enrolled in law school. With his law degree in hand in 1961, Shapiro decided he wanted to be a tax attorney. He heard that New York University had a graduate tax law program, so he went to the Big Apple. One show on Manhattan Public Radio planted the germ that would become “Cypress Avenue.”
“It was a thematic program,” Shapiro says. “They’d take someone like big-band arranger Fletcher Henderson and play arrangements done by different bands. They might play a combo version next to a big band version. I listened to that show religiously. In later years, I got thinking that there was so much richness and social impact in pop music as in jazz and I could do the same thing.”
Shapiro had finally found his calling, but after three universities and seven years of higher education, a career shift was not going to happen.
“By this time my family and I had spent a lot on higher education,” Shapiro says. “If I’d know then what I knew no, I would have been in the music business. It just wasn’t in the cards.”
The jump from disc jockey to tax law may seem extreme, but Shapiro says his work is extremely satisfying.
“Tax law is not what most people think it is,” Shapiro says. “It is the most creative part of the law, because what we do is planning. You might want to buy your partner out. If you do it one way, Uncle Sam takes a hunk. If you do it differently, you save money.”
Shapiro left New York in 1962 and returned to Kansas City to work and start a family. As his family grew and Shapiro flourished professionally, he became involved with broadcasting, but it was television that proved to be Shapiro’s stepping-stone to radio.
Deeply involved with public television’s early on-air auctions and fund-rasiers, Shapiro’s good deeds did not go unnoticed. A high school friend working at KCUR called Shapiro and asked if she could take him to lunch and discuss fund-raising methods. At the end of the meal, she asked if there was anything she could do for him. Shapiro asked for an audition to do a public radio rock show.
The dream was starting to materialize. Shapiro arrived at the studio with a stack of records for the show and hoped that the manager liked it.
“My first show was called ‘Ballads by Rockers.’ It was all ballad material done by people thought of as screamers,” Shapiro says. “He (the manager) says, if you can do that every week, you’re on.”
As Cypress Avenue entered its second decade on the air, Shapiro realized new music and artists – particularly rap and alternative – were not striking the same chord with him.
“I’ve known for a long time I’m the generation these people want to rebel against,” Shapiro says. “I respect the fact that the music says this to the previous generation,” he says, emphatically holding up his middle finger. “There is a need to shake up the status quo.”
Shapiro doesn’t mind the envelope pushing done by newer artists, he just doesn’t get it musically. The Talking Heads and Beck are about as modern as Shapiro gets with “Cypress Avenue.”
But Shapiro’s show doesn’t need Moby and Soundgarden to be effective. “Cypress Avenue” is a discovery process – for both Shapiro and for listeners – of influential artists and the impact they’ve had on music.
By showing listeners the roots of music, Shapiro leaves the listener naturally curious of the modern amplification and integration of this process.
“Cypress Avenue” isn’t a forum for Shapiro to amaze everyone with his knowledge. It’s a platform for him to share his love of music and enlighten listeners who don’t fit commercial radio demographics.
Jackie Nixon, NPR director of strategic planning and audience research, says that shows like “Cypress Avenue” are what NPR is all about.
“We treat our listeners with respect and intelligence and try to produce programming that makes people think as well as entertain,” Nixon says.
For Shapiro, those sleepless nights in the early 1940s were a discovery process.
“It was like going into a cave with a flashlight and all of a sudden – bang, something is shining back at you,” he says.
Shapiro has not forgotten that feeling and tries to instill the same feeling of excitement in his listeners.
“I think I broaden the awareness of the intelligence and importance of popular music,” Shapiro says. “I lift it out of the aural wallpaper and let people know it can be a powerful element. That it shapes opinions and tells a lot about where we are and where we are going.”