by Michael Goldberg
Monday, May 10, 2004
Radio Is A Sound Salvation
Plunging headfirst into community radio
I am sitting in a near-dark radio studio, behind the mixing board. "On a Nerve," an ethereal song by Vetiver, the spooky San Francisco folk-rock band that includes Devendra Banhart, is going out over the airwaves this warm Sonoma summer night. And I am ecstatic. For two hours now, I have been playing some of my favorite music, indie rock songs (American Music Club's "Outside This Bar," the Red House Painters' "Helicopter" and John Wilkes Booze's "Meanwhile, at the Hideout"), alt-country (Wilco's "Passenger Side"), post-punk (Life Without Buildings' "The Leanover"), amusing New Wave (The Pony's "I Only Love You (Cause You Look Like Me)") and punkish rock (Iggy Pop's "Tell Me a Story," The Washdown's "We've Listened to Your History"). Even some jazz (Charlie Haden's "Els Segadors"). I am flying high, but not on any drug. This radio thing is a gas gas gas, as Mick Jagger sang, back when he was a young man.
Yes, I've really taken to the airwaves. I'm a real DJ now, host of "The Unheard Music," two hours of the "hippest sounds from the underground." Delivering, as I like to say at least once each show, "A sonic elixir to cure all your ills."
But perhaps I should start at the beginning, which was in early March when, as I ate my morning bowl of oatmeal and cut-up organic Fuji apples, I noticed in the local Sonoma paper a page one story about KSVY (91.3 FM), a new non-profit community radio station that was starting up.
You know that old comic-strip cliché about a light bulb turning on over the cartoon character's head to indicate that he has a brilliant idea? That's what happened. I had a vision, and the vision was me, sitting behind the microphone in the KSVY studio, stacks of CDs everywhere, sending the hippest sounds an eclectic mix of indie rock, blues, folk, country, electronic, jazz and world beat out into the ether. This, I thought, was my destiny.
After exchanging some email with KSVY station manager Matt Nelson (he's since been replaced by the charming and talented Lisa Daniels), and providing a demo CD that I put together on my Mac (I love technology!), a few weeks later I found myself in the KSVY broadcast studio with Nelson, Daniels and two guys who appeared to be about half my age. One of them, Mark, was planning a show of downtempo electronica and jazz, while the other, Jim, was set to do an avant-garde rock show (Acid Mothers Temple, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, the Boredoms that kind of thing). Already, I felt right at home.
The Start of Something Amazing
The KSVY studios were still under construction that afternoon. They're located in an old faded-pink stucco house on West Napa Street, a block and a half from the center of town, the Sonoma Square. There are three rooms an 8-by-10-foot office where Ms. Daniels and Programming Coordinator Maire McDermid share space, the production studio and the broadcast studio. The broadcast studio is small. I mean, it's cramped for one person to be in there; you've just got room to sit behind the board. Back up a foot and you're hitting a wall. There's a window in front of the mixing board that used to look out on West Napa St., but it's been shuttered of course it would be pretty weird if people could stand outside and watch the DJs do their shows. Off to the left of the mixing board is spot where a couple of guests could sit and be interviewed, on-air. Somehow five of us were crammed in there.
On that March afternoon, the place looked like a scene out of one of those old "hey kids, let's put on show" films. The mixing board rested on raw plywood. Only some of the equipment was hooked up. And the only indication, from the outside, that this was a radio station was a computer-generated paper sign taped to a window that said "KSVY 91.3 FM."
But Matt was talking like we were KROQ or something, filling us in on the do's and don'ts of being on the air what could get the FCC all hot and bothered. I learned that you could play a song with one of George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words," as long as it was after 10 p.m. He was full of bravado. I loved that. The little station that could.
For weeks, when you tuned to 91.3, you heard classical music. Nelson explained that an iPod was currently hooked directly up to the transmitter, which was located on a tree nearby. I couldn't help but smile.
Yes, the scene was pretty funky, but there was an excitement and an energy that was sparking between the two other would-be DJs, Matt and Lisa, and me. I didn't say anything, but I thought to myself, "This is the start of something amazing."
It was the same feeling I'd had a decade ago, when I'd first viewed the Web, and had subsequently launched the Addicted To Noise (ATN) Web site. Community radio has, of course, been going strong for a long time. But here in Sonoma, it was brand new. And for me, a person who had dabbled in radio in college back in the early '70s, and had created some virtual radio shows at ATN, there was something vital, organic and real about this scene. I loved the idea of playing music for my community. People I knew, people I came in contact with on a weekly basis, were my potential audience. This wasn't going to be about broadcasting to the faceless masses; it was more like playing folk songs to friends gathered around a campfire.
Not Writing About Music, Playing the Music
For much of my life I have been a journalist, writing about music. WRITING about music. Now I love good music journalism it fills the important role of helping those of us who really care about music, and who feel it's more than just entertainment, understand what we're listening to, what it means, what others who care are about it are getting from it.
But as much as I dig reading about music, it pales beside actually listening to it. Now, after years of writing about music and editing reviews and stories, featuring the occasional free MP3 on Neumu, I was going to actually deliver the goods directly to music fans. How could I not be excited? Just thinking about this made me feel like I'd drunk four cups of strong coffee. For weeks before the show started I was buzzing about the house driving my wife crazy.
Now we're going to take a short detour. But don't worry; it'll all make sense. This past December, I was given an iPod for Christmas. My ancient late-'90s Rio500, which held an hour of MP3 songs, had been retired. In its place, a sleek white iPod. Now I could carry hundreds of songs wherever I went. But the iPod turned out to simply be the Trojan horse to get iTunes onto my desktop. iTunes is a music database that organizes all of the music you rip or download.
iTunes is the perfect way to plan for a radio show (see, I told you). More than just plan utilizing iTunes I could create a "playlist," a list of songs that I could then listen to and tweak until I had two hours of music that "worked," each song making sense in the context of the one that came before or followed it. And if, say, that American Music Club track, "Outside This Bar," didn't sound right coming after Iggy's "Tell Me a Story," well, no problem, I could easy sub in and test John Wilkes Booze's "See Through Sound" and see if that one worked better. I could quickly locate, say, both Jolie Holland's and Blind Willie McTell's versions of "Delia" and add them to the list.
'Like Just About Everyone in This Room, I've Got a Radio Show...'
As I prepared for my first show, I began to get the word out. The town of Sonoma is small. It's a community of about 9,000 people. Info spreads quickly here, mostly by word of mouth. When I announced at a weekly Ecstatic Dance class I attend that I'd be on the air in a couple of weeks, the response was positive. But not just about my show; the idea of a local radio station focused on Sonoma, featuring members of the community as DJs, in some cases doing shows about Sonoma, excited others just as much as it excited me. "I'm gonna go down there and see if I can do a political talk show," Ken Brown, the former mayor of Sonoma and currently a member of the city council, said to me after the class.
"How do I get a show?" asked a guy named Ted, who is also in the class.
A few weeks later, at a monthly open-mic event at the Sonoma Community Center called "The Center of the Universe," after Ken and I and a friend of ours named Chris had each announced our new radio shows (Ken had landed his political talk show; Chris, a psychologist, was going to focus on interpersonal relationships), a woman got up and said, "Like just about everyone in this room, I'm going to do a radio show on KSVY."
The room exploded in laughter.
By then live programming had begun to replace the automated classical feed that, in turn, had replaced the iPod. Probably my favorite show thus far other than my own of course is Peace and Conflict Radio (P.C.R.), which is hosted every Sunday night from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. by two high-school students, Larry and Kellan. They discuss political issues (everything from a documentary on Kent State they recently viewed to army recruiters coming onto the Sonoma High School campus) and play hardcore punk. Very cool.
When I was a kid, I read in the newspaper about a new radio station, KMPX, that was playing underground, non-commercial rock music. When I tuned in, I discovered that much more than that was going on. The DJs were really mixing it up. Indian ragas, classical music, unreleased tapes by Janis Joplin, new music by a band called Blue Cheer, something off Country Joe and the Fish's Electric Music for the Mind and Body, Buffy Ste. Marie's "Codeine," and an old blues number by Howlin' Wolf. Gluing it all together were the impossibly laid-back DJs, who made you feel privy to this secret world of great music, none of which ever made it onto Top 40 radio.
Sitting in the KSVY studio, in the midst of my set one recent Sunday night, I thought back to my youth, and to the impact KMPX (and all my other music-related experiences) had on me. To this day, I am probably interested in a broader range of music than anyone I know. Perhaps, I thought, some 13-year-old is tuning in right now, listening as I mix it up with songs by Jolie Holland, Nina Simone, Sparklehorse, The Avengers, Sam Rivers, the Rev. Gary Davis, Life Without Buildings, Devendra Banhart, Deerhoof, Joe Ely and The Shins. Perhaps, listening to The Unheard Music will change someone's life. I sure hope so.
(You can currently only pick up KSVY if you live in Sonoma, but it should start streaming on the Web in a month or so.)