Radio Days

20Nov11

[FR : Mon parcours musical, à travers les émissions de radio qui m’ont formé, et celles que j’ai créées moi-même par la suite. Écouter : KALX WMBR]

Sorting through endless boxes of crap after the third move in 4 years, I decided it was time to trash the many hundreds of audio cassettes I had been dragging around for 2 decades. A friend told me: “If you haven’t seen it in a year, you don’t need it.” I don’t think I had listened to a cassette since 1999. It was just dead weight.

Starting in the 70s, I had taped all my favorite albums and made many dozens of compilation tapes with favorite punk and 60s music. I would listen to them at home, in the car or on band tour in the van. There was also a bunch of tapes I’d saved with radio shows I’d hosted.

But let me tell a little story.

I grew up in suburban New Jersey in the 1960’s. It turned out to be a great time to be born, but a lousy location. My favorite toy was my battery-powered transistor radio. I listened to the Top 40 AM radio stations in New York and Philadelphia. My earliest memory is listening to the Supremes on a car radio. Another great memory is me and my friends singing along with Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the jukebox in our school cafeteria in 1972.

Check out the audio on this page, in particular 1964-1968. This is exactly what I listened to constantly on WABC, 770 AM, New York. Since these links are “airchecks”, they do not contain the full length of each song: they are edited to mainly show what the DJs used to say, introducing the songs, talking over the beginning and end of songs, doing hokey commercials, being stupid, taking phone calls on the air, etc. I thought they were so cool! Maybe one day I could be a DJ.

I recommend that you listen to this one because it is not edited like the others, many songs are full-length. It’s a show from 1967, with DJ “Cousin Brucie”. According to the site, it was also broadcast to American soldiers in Viet Nam, and pointedly includes Victor Lundberg’s “An Open Letter to My Teenage Son”.

Top 40 was literally (after taking bribery and manipulation into account) a list of the top-selling 40 singles for the week, in the country or in a particular market. They would be broadcast all day and night on these stations. But that was not a problem: in the 60s, it was all incredibly great. In my neighborhood chain store, they had 40 wooden bins for the 40 hit 45s, arranged in order. I would save my allowance money and buy my favorites.

In the 70s, pop music changed for the worse. And simultaneously, I started to become aware that I did not need to listen to the crap that was being fed to me on commercial radio, as I had done happily for years. I was looking for something else, but didn’t really find it. I started listening to electric blues (John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Lowell Fulsom…), in particular on the University of Pennsylvania college radio station in Philadelphia, WXPN. I dug the first George Thorogood album too. When he played in Philadelphia, I made it in the door of the club by wearing a big hat and a heavy coat with a collar that went up to my nose, since I was way under age. There was a teeny punk scene in Philadelphia at that time, but I was unaware of it.

I left suburban New Jersey for Boston in September 1978 to attend MIT. Soon after arriving, hanging out in my dormitory, and with my habit of listening to WXPN, I decided to see what the college radio station of my own school was playing. It changed my life.

WTBS (soon to sell that name to Ted Turner for $50,000 and be renamed WMBR) was (arguably) the best college radio station in town, and maybe in the US. It was a crossroads for the burgeoning punk scene in Boston. Numerous punk shows featured all the latest records and tapes by local bands as well as national and international acts. Don’t forget that, at that time, these records were extremely difficult to obtain. Newbury Comics, a little comic book shop opened by an MIT dropout, had innovated by placing a cardboard box of punk 45s for sale next to the cash register. It soon turned into 2 boxes, and then more.

I listened constantly to WTBS, as well as the other college stations in Boston. I started going out to shows, motivated by the “concert report” on the radio. Blaine, my neighbor in the dorms, taught me to play guitar (in 5 minutes). I practiced along with the first Ramones album for a few weeks (top tip: turn the “balance” knob to cut out the original guitar or bass), and then started a band. I began DJing at WMBR about a year later. Newcomers had to start on the 7am shift playing 60s music (Top 40 as well as garage, although I snuck in some other stuff). The show was called Sleepwalk, and it was the first show of the broadcast day: we turned on the transmitter. The Pebbles series had recently started appearing, sparking renewed interest on the part of punks for our garage predecessors. Nuggets was still available for cheap in cut-out bins. The Lyres, who played their first show in January 1979, were one of the first current-day bands to get into this style.

MIT students were few and far between at the station (most DJs were community members with much more musical and radio experience than the students; also, the average MIT student did not care about music or any other cultural or social notion), but it was station policy to favor students by putting them in positions of responsibility. This enabled me to make a rapid climb up the station hierarchy and after a while I was Program Director, in charge of choosing what shows went on the air. My friend Mick was Station Manager. As reckless youth will do, I threw numerous “boring” shows off the air and put on a wide variety of additional punk shows in their place, as well as 60s shows, an anarchist political show, etc.

The best and most legendary punk show on WMBR was (and remains today) the Late Risers Club. It’s the show I heard when I first arrived at MIT. I was never a permanent DJ on that show, although I did a couple of fill-ins. I founded my own weekly show called No Fun, with my friend Don, based on the concept of only playing “old-school punk”: records from before 1980 (including 60s garage punk). This concept was ahead of its time, as it was only 1982! I also filled in on Media Blitz, which featured California bands, and Who Are the Mystery Girls, which normally featured Sheena and Spencer, two charming and unpredictable hostesses who could play or do anything. We took over the venerable Night Owl show and turned it into an all-request punk program.

College radio stations and shows like this were instrumental in the rise of punk music in the US in those pre-Internet days, keeping people informed about new music, local bands, upcoming concerts, etc. I was proud of that, and still am. DJs would compete with each other to stay on top of the latest music by reading zines, and would order records by mail from far-flung labels and bands to play on the air. (The dearth of college radio in France was surely an impediment to the rise of punk in that country.) When I moved to San Francisco, I formed Disorder Records, a not-for-profit mail-order business which lasted a few years. With the help of Frank, Kenny, Max and some other friends, we drank beer every week in my living room and sent great records to people from Nebraska to Singapore who had no other way to obtain them. (Customers: if I still owe you money, let me know.)

While making my own mail-order purchases in the 80s to get records I was passionate about, I would not have believed that one day you would be able to listen to any song you wanted instantly and for free by clicking a button, record stores would be closing, and yet the Misfits records I was getting for $3 would sell for hundreds of dollars on EBay. While playing “Whole Wide World” on WMBR in 1981, I would not have believed that 30 years later I would “Friend” Wreckless Eric on Facebook (and be accepted, yay!)

A little anecdote… One of the jazz hosts I threw off the air at WMBR was Melanie Berzon. She went on to a long and successful career on other public radio stations. Years later, after moving to San Francisco, I participated in the Maximum Rock n Roll radio show on KPFA in Berkeley and did many shows along with Tim and the Gang. However, Maximum Rock n Roll was eventually thrown off the air by the KPFA Program Director…Melanie Berzon. Years later, I was at the dentist in San Francisco. He gave me some headphones to listen to music, to make my visit more pleasant. It was tuned to KCSM, a jazz station in San Mateo. Melanie Berzon was doing a show and it was time for the pledge drive, so when the dentist finished, I borrowed his phone and called in a pledge. I wonder if she recognized my name.

After almost five years at MIT, I managed to graduate despite myself and moved to San Francisco in 1983. I started volunteering at KALX, a community radio station in Berkeley. I met a lot of good friends there, including Dr. Frank, already legendary for his brilliant radio show, and soon to start the Mr. T Experience. I worked my way up the ladder at KALX as well, and did about 10 years of shows before retiring. The KALX format included the requirement to play current music (as you can see, hardcore was in the air) and a variety of styles. It’s remarkable to see the quantity and variety of great new stuff that was coming out in the mid 80’s. Frankly, when was the last time the likes of the Dead Kennedys (1981) or Minutemen (1985) were seen in the “new record bin”?

A peculiar aspect of the KALX shows is that radio station policy required DJs to play a certain proportion of “current black music”. I don’t want to reopen that can of worms, but while I genuinely liked the songs I played in this context, they don’t always fit with the rest of the program. They have been removed for your listening pleasure.

So back to the cassettes. Before throwing them out, I copied some to the computer. Here they are:

listen to KALX archives 1985-1987

listen to WMBR archives 1980-1982

There are also some recordings of other peoples’ shows.

I apologize in advance for my lousy attempts at humor, my stilted mic breaks, my bad engineering, etc. On the WMBR shows in particular, I talk too much, a direct repercussion of being weaned on WABC. The 1985 Punk Awards can be best understood as my version of the 1967 WABC Top 100 with Dan Ingram (listen). As time went on, I learned to shut up and play the music. Hope you enjoy these shows despite everything.

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