Charles Pitts Tapes
Donated by David Lerner in 2020 – 2021. After donation, funds donated by Lerner were applied to professional digitization to create preservation-level audio files.
Scope and Content
This collection includes over 100 reel-to-reel audio tapes and audio cassettes in original cases; 102 digitized audio files (user copies); and 167 digitized audio files (preservation copies) created by a vendor after donation. There also is a folder of correspondence.
Most of the recordings are of radio programs from the public radio station WBAI which Charles Pitts participated in or hosted such as “Homosexual News” and “Out of the Slough.” The recordings include many on-air call-in conversations where Pitts discusses homosexuality and the ways it has affected his life. There are unedited recordings made remotely at events and meetings as well as edited broadcast versions. These include recordings of candid interviews with miscellaneous participants during the Christopher Street Liberation Day Marches from 1970 and 1971 with descriptions of the march along with sounds of the chanting. There is a complete recording of the speakers at the March 14, 1971 protest rally in Albany, NY. Other highlights of his radio shows include a group discussion conducted by Arthur Bell at WBAI’s studio with members of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) including Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera. Bebe Scarpinato, Butchie, Bambi and Andora. There are also accounts of many early protests against police harassment and student gay activists at NYU, Columbia and Brooklyn College. A panel discussion with gay authors about how “Maurice” by E.M. Forster is criticized by the straight press is a rare literary topic on one of Pitts’s “Out of the Slough” programs. There are some miscellaneous music tracks and recordings of the gay singer/songwriter Michael Cohen whose first album Pitts engineered and produced. Correspondence relates to Pitts’s firing.
History or Bio
Charles Pitts (1941-2015) was an American gay activist, journalist, radio host and sound engineer. He was born in Jamestown, NY where he attended community college after high school and worked at a local radio station. In the mid-1960s he moved to NYC and worked as a freelance audio engineer for various companies involved in radio, educational, and film projects. Notably, he worked as sound engineer for the film crew at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. Pitts explored the City’s emerging gay world and became an active participant in hippie and countercultural circles. His personal and professional inclinations drew him to WBAI, NYC’s progressive public radio station, a platform for left-leaning viewpoints and eclectic music. Pitts started at WBAI by just showing up and volunteering his engineering expertise, but soon became a staff member working on both sides of the microphone. In 1968 along with Baird Searles, Bill Weaver and other gay men started a weekly program on WBAI called “The New Symposium” with the intention to inspire “a sense of social identification within our subculture.” With a wide range of topics related to the gay community discussed by invited guests and callers, the half hour show was recognized by its listeners for it’s candid conversations of issues rarely heard in public media.
In the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots, Pitts along with Bill Katzenberg, Pete Wilson, John O’Brien, Bill Weaver, and other gay activists founded the Gay Liberation Front.
In 1969 Pitts was fired from WBAI for refusing to adhere to the station’s music policies, but Pitts insisted it was really because the management was fearful of the station “being taken over by homosexuals.” He was eventually rehired by new management and from 1970-1971 Pitts co-hosted the show “Homosexual News” with Pete Wilson. In 1971 WBAI gave Pitts his own freeform radio show which he titled “Out of the Slough” with a mixture of discussions with callers, his reflections on gay life and current events as well as music. The show ran until January of 1973 and the following May Pitts was again fired from the staff by WBAI manager Jerry Coffin and while he appeared as a guest on other WBAI shows after that, he never hosted his own radio show again.
Pitts had many critics even among his fellow activists, particularly concerning his discussions celebrating the gay male sexual culture that included anonymous sex, promiscuity, S&M, and particularly intergenerational sex. However, his radio shows were acknowledged by many young gay men in the 70s and 80s as an important exposure to gay male life that empowered and influenced them very positively.
In 1978 Pitts suffered a severe beating by a stranger after a night out at a Chelsea leather bar. After multiple surgeries and long hospital stays Pitts recovered but would suffer chronic pain from his injuries for the rest of his life. His assailant was never caught.
Pitts continued to work in radio serving as a production engineer at WNCN from 1976-1991. From his professional audio work miking, recording, editing, and mixing he won industry recognition with an Armstrong Award and two Peabody Awards. From 1994 until his retirement he was a production engineer for WQXR. He died of lung disease on May 21, 2015.
Full tape list in progress; reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org for access.