GET YOUR OWN SHOW!

by Don Joyce
1995

 

A quick run up and down the AM and FM frequencies of your radio dial reveals a relentless predictability. The radio dial represents a little horizontal map of thoroughly familiar places you are expected to visit because they are familiar. Everything is right where it always is, doing what it always does. There is one semantic transformation that drips from the unconscious lips of the media consultants guiding this whole communications laundromat of mediocrity which says it all. What was once an audience is now a "market". Broadcasting stations are not located in geographical places, they are located in "markets". Programming is not directed at the organic uncertainties known as people, it is directed at the numerical common denominators of a "market". Such terminology reveals all we need to know about all that matters on our radio dial, as well as all we need to know about any of today's other forms of mass-distributed "culture".

The supremacy of corporate culture's pursuit of profit at any cost has become so enmeshed in the creation and distribution of mass culture that any other imperative which may have once informed cultural needs is now the dead frog in the pan of water that was gradually brought to a boil a long time ago. I do not place the primary blame for radio's timid predictability on the individuals in charge of programming. If left to their own devices, these individuals would undoubtedly attempt all kinds of escapes from the boredoms, compromises, and redundancies they are now cooking in. However, they are not in charge. Advertising is, and everything media managers come up with must be sold to advertisers before it's sold to an audience. It is advertisers who demand "suitable contexts" for their products, which they have deemed to be the kind of unchallenging, undisturbing, non-disruptive, and familiar media formats we receive today.

The bottom line pressures exerted by the advertisers' perogative to accept or reject programming for sponsorship are the guiding lights of every creative department. In today's mass channels of communication, whatever semblance exists of moral, ethical, intellectual, or perceptual integrity, which might be an alternative to monetary motivation, is present only to the extent that it can, indeed, be sold. When culture becomes a "product", we are left with only "popular" visions of the above virtues. The universal commodification of mass culture has all but removed the very idea that cultural activities might have some kind of integrity for their own purposes.

All the above opinions, of course, are just my own intellectual shield against the inevitable. It turns out that the general population tends to accept what it's given as the best of all possible worlds. After all, it's a "free" country, isn't it? Choice is a relative term, best illustrated in our society by the soap display in the supermarket - there must be 30 or 40 different competing brands which are virtually indistinguishable in their ability to remove dirt. This pointless plethora is a sign of "the good life" we are all acclimated to appreciate, so "popular" is popular, even though too many choices in too few categories is no choice at all. However, those of us who aren't yet another example of something "popular" can hardly afford to create many alternatives to a market driven culture without getting paid for it. The producing of media, any media, is expensive. And yes, we all buy into the commodity mainstream to some degree, solving our "problems" by purchasing something "popular" to do the trick (what do you see in your house, your garage, or your mirror?).

When I look in my mirror, I see someone interested in screwing up the stultifying radio status-quo with programming designed to probe the airwaves with surprise, curiosity, confusion, controversy, or anything else which might push listening into less familiar territory. But when I began a show of my own, such options, while vaguely attractive to my history as a painter, seemed beyond formulation. In 1981, after several years of learning how to do radio as a non-student volunteer at U.C. Berkeley's campus station, I eventually changed stations to do an all-night show at KPFA in Berkeley. KPFA is the non-commercial, 59,000 watt flagship station in the Pacifica Network, and is almost totally listener sponsored through subscriptions. KPFA presented no particular obstruction to any kind of format I might want to try, but as usual, the most effective barriers to innovation are within our own minds. Familiar format formulas and the expectations of the medium are all too easy to go along with when you actually get behind the controls.

The whole wide radio environment around me at that time, and to this day, was entirely devoted to being about things. With the invention of television, resulting in the mass exodus from radio of big budgets and performing talent to TV, radio rapidly evolved away from any sense of being an originating medium. Today, radio is filled with everything but itself. It is, as McLuhan observed, one of those formally original mediums now using other mediums as its content. Mostly, radio is now about the record industry, and this general reliance on musical "products", produced and pre-recorded completely outside the realm of radio, is typical of radio's retreat to a status of reference medium.

My early attempts at programming found me more or less on the usual disk jockey track, although I always did hate to back-announce titles, perhaps realizing that that was the clearest manifestation of radio-as-pimp for the record business. This used to greatly annoy some of my listeners, who were quite used to the idea of listening to the radio to find out what records to buy. I would play very long sets with song subject themes and sometimes related spoken word and comedy thrown in, or sets of widely varying styles and eras, as one sometimes hears on non-commercial stations, yet the vague dissatisfaction with being ambivalently tied to DJ conventions remained. It was all too linear, too orderly, and too unoriginal to produce the kind of creative jolt I suspected was still possible in radio. I never did figure it out for myself. My breakthrough came some months after I began my show at KPFA, which was called "Over The Edge". This program began to live up to its name when I became acquainted with Negativland, a group who were making their own records and performing occasionally. Their works were odd collages of all kinds of music and sounds, both found and original, strung together in sometimes noisy sound collages. I invited them up to be on the show one week and we soon began to do Over The Edge together every week.

Their approach to the equipment surrounding me was different. I suddenly learned how to stop a record before it was over, to play two records at the same time at the wrong speed, to turn the turntable backwards, and to nudge the needle gently across the whole disk with a lot of echo to make an interesting noise. This generally irreverent and unconventional attack on radio's sacred foundation - the record, extended to the whole broadcast studio. We were a busy group of hands, and all the studio's equipment came into simultaneous play. Beyond this revision in the use of pre-recorded material, we also brought in guitars, synthesizers, percussion, effects gear, noisemakers, and sometimes even scripts. "Over The Edge" became live-mix radio and there was nothing to back-announce anymore.

As interesting as this might sound in print, I can't casually recommend our radio procedures to anyone bored with playing pre-recorded tapes or one record after another. It can, and often enough has, resulted in an extended mush of inept clutter and annoying, babbling chaos. This can be the most boring thing you've ever heard, so watch out. If O.T.E. has succeeded in this live-mix approach to the broadcast studio, it's because of the particular sensibilities involved and our developed ability to organize chaos and cultivate coincidence. Anarchy is not a goal of intelligence, but forging sense out of randomness is. It is especially this idea of cultivating coincidence which has come to light in our process. It remains mostly a mystery to me, yet the amount of times coincidences occur is actually startling. (a random tape responds cogently to a live caller's comment, two or three unconsidered music recordings mesh in perfect synchronicity, separate source tapes on divergent subjects converse meaningfully with each other for periods of time, etc.) I think there is some form of increased intuition in play here which optimizes such coincidences, but it seems to be beyond analysis. Or maybe we're just lucky...

Our approach to the broadcast studio is a logical extrapolation from modern radio's main source of content, the recording studio. As Brian Eno has pointed out, the record industry has, since the 50's, moved away from its original goal of faithfully capturing and transmitting the "naturalness" of whatever sounds its microphones pick up. The modern recording studio has become a manipulator of raw sounds, and along with this, a place of audio experimentation. Many of the sounds and quality of sounds found on records are created by studio engineers and their devices, not by musicians and microphones. Multi-track recording has occasioned the deconstruction of music in time and space. Most modern music is created piecemeal, being a series of discreet musical elements, not necessarily recorded at the same time or place but laid side by side on separate, manipulatable "tracks" which are ultimately mixed together to form the whole. Modern recordings of any kind are often as much collage as performance. The recording studio, as a large aggregation of inter-connected audio equipment, has become a form of sonic instrument itself. It was a small leap of the imagination to see the broadcast studio, containing much of the same equipment, as having the same potential. All one had to do was use it that way, but there the similarity ends.

The recording studio allows for weeks or months of experimental mix "takes", playbacks, and evaluations in order to achieve the desired effect. On the air, it's all at once, one time only, and then it's gone forever. But it's this aspect which makes live broadcast mixing so exhilarating (as opposed to the tedious labors of recording mixes). OTE airs for 3 hours weekly, and for 5 hours when there's a 5th week in the month. With this much time involved on a weekly basis for 17 years, I now find myself relatively proficient at a rather risky business. Although the unrehearsed flow of the live mixes is arranged and improvised from moment to moment, proficiency is in the preparation. I've been collecting audio material for all of those 17 years and have built up a large archive of widely divergent source material labeled by subject. Most shows are organized around some sort of subject theme, for which I collect and correlate related material, both dialog and music, during the week before each broadcast. The day or two before the show I make edits and pre-record selected material onto a large number of analog carts. (Radio cart machines which use recorded loops of tape in varying lengths are the crucial equipment which makes our kind of collage broadcasting work, as well as to what makes Negativland's stage performances sound at least something like our studio recordings.)

My archive of recorded material has been either collected as commercial products or recorded off all the media forms available to everyone in their own homes. Although Negativland has run into a few serious legal problems using such copyrighted material in our recorded studio works which are for sale, we have never run into any such problems using rearranged copyrighted work in our live radio mixes. Even though every type of recording one can find continues to harbor a ridiculous statement prohibiting reproduction or broadcast of any kind, radio, with its' here and gone nature (and commercial ability to sell what it plays) appears to be completely ignored by copyright holders of all kinds, which makes radio a kind of heaven for unrepentant appropriation artists such as we have always been. Much of our esthetic is couched in various familiar and esoteric examples of our recorded culture at large - sort of like a cultural sampling service.

Starting with this foundation of pre-existing media, we create "direct-reference" collages, manipulating and mixing both found and original sounds to produce a new kind of audio animal. O.T.E. is always concerned with recycling existing cultural elements to some new, unintended effect. One of the joys in having our own show is the ability to actually inject edits, reuses, and revisions of mass media back into the mass media itself, on a regular, up-to-date bases. All broadcasting is one-way, designed to be absorbed, capable of being rejected, but impossible to affect by all those who are subjected to it. Whether malevolent or benign, these are the rules of propaganda, so we like to focus on mass media as both a source and subject we can rearrange, redirect, or mutilate, and spit back into the media stream for alternative consideration. If the one way arrogance of media bugs you, this kind of culture jamming is a surprisingly satisfying form of self-defense against the unmovable status-quo.

In regard to this attitude, O.T.E. makes an unusual use of phone access practically unknown in the rest of radio. As uninspired as the general range of call-in radio is, it remains the closest thing we have to public access into mass media channels. For this reason, I often find it preferable listening to the bulk of "professional" media personalities occupying the channels with programming based almost wholly on promotion as entertainment. (Celebrities appear and subjects are covered solely because of the latest books, appearances, or events they are promoting.) It's as if no one has anything to say until they have something to sell. But call-in radio remains far from the democratic principles it likes to imply. Here too, the iron hand of centralized, top-down formatting maintains control, ensuring that, in fact, nothing unusual can happen.

Listening to call-in shows, you will notice that when the host and caller talk at the same time (when they are arguing for instance) the caller's end of the conversation is automatically suppressed to become hardly audible. This insidious technological innovation squelches the phone input whenever the host speaks into their mike in order to give him or her the ultimate upper hand in any discourse. Raw, unsquelched input was soon found to be too raucous and interruptive for commercial tastes. To guide the input into desired directions, callers are screened before they reach the air to decide if they are "worthy" of air time, to insure that they are on the subject beam, and to determine what order they should appear. Beyond this, the whole proceeding is on a 7 second delay system in order to allow the host to censor any verbal aberration before it can hit the air. All these forms of channeling, intimidating, and straightjacketing the expression of citizens just because they are appearing on mass media has just about smothered any unexpected or perverse spark of "reality" which call-in radio might be capable of.

>From the beginning, O.T.E. had a different idea about using phones. We call it "receptacle programming". Callers to O.T.E. are able to punch their way directly onto the air. This also requires a punch from us, but we most often do that as their blinking call light appears. When their phone stops ringing, they're on the air. We use no screening, no delay, and no audio squelching technology. Our motto to callers is, "Don't say hello" ( a very difficult phone habit to break, but a useless one in our case, as we usually neither respond to nor converse with callers at all. ) Receptacle programming is there to deposit ideas and sounds from the real, live, simultaneous life outside our broadcast studio. Real-time participation allows a direct interaction with our mix as it is happening. Thus, musicians can join in with an over-the phone instrument and follow our live beat or provide a responsive bed for our elements. This, as we like to say, is best accomplished by listening to the show on stereo headphones tuned to KPFA when you call, and holding the telephone like a microphone. Then the caller is "in" the mix, hearing his or her own real-time sounds being broadcast right along with our mix in headphone stereo. Some callers have their own mixers which they connect to their phones and send in their own rather elaborate mixes of music and tapes with their own effects added. Undelayed, real-time perceptions are crucial to this kind of true interaction. Incidently, we also make use of extreme STEREO, often putting opposing callers in the left and right channels, panning other sources around, etc. It is strange to me that, with a dial full of "stereo" broadcasters, this function is virtually unnoticeable outside the stereo records being played.

Our basic phone philosophy is reversed to that of commercial media. Rather than revering the principle of public access while saturating the presentation of it with a palpable fear of what might happen, we assume no respect, but take whatever happens in stride. We are simply interested in whatever real people actually decide to do on the air when they are not qued, coached, channeled, or intimidated. It is necessary to censor caller input for two reasons. The first is voluntary and is used to spontaneously edit for purely esthetic reasons. The second is involuntary and is occasioned by current FCC prohibitions against any broadcast of the seven deadly words. These are simply clipped at the first recognition of what they are, even though they are firmly planted in everyone's mind by the time they are gone. (This inevitability remains a chilling, continuing danger to any non-delayed system, of which we must be one of the last in America.)

Whether brilliant or juvenile, enlightening or obscene, our phone access is always an actual and instructive little window on what is actually out there (at least among that part of the population who are up at midnight and inclined to call radio shows, and this is generally estimated to be only 1% of any station's total listening audience). There is little to be learned from someone who is given a subject to respond to (the trouble with polls) but much to be learned in the unsuggested subjects people initiate out of their own psyches. Not always pleasant, but somebody's got to do it. Not always interesting, either, but that too is a true indication of our growing inability to entertain ourselves in this one-way, "professional" culture promoting only vicarious stimulations and universal spectatorship. And yes, I would ultimately consider OTE to be a form of strange entertainment, only sometimes approaching an artistic result.

So this is where assuming no respect comes in. If callers are not interesting, we ditch them quick, and this can happen in mid-sentence, or after just a few words. Sometimes we cut them off after a few words when they are interesting because, in terms of the mix, what we want are those few words right there, right then. They can call back as many times as they choose, but the mix is what we're all making from moment to moment. Callers are treated as just another element in this mix, as ruthlessly cut and replaced as any other sound source involved. Our intent is to impress the caller with the unusual idea that they are not the point of the show or the subject of our undivided attention, but are active participants in a busy stew of sounds and subjects which are both competitive and being edited on the run. The callers, like everyone else present, are simply expected to help compose it. The caller's job is to find his or her own part to play, and we never stop to blame for failure or praise for success. Receptacle programming seeks anonymity for all concerned.

We use the term, "conversational composition" to describe, in general, what works in this context. There are many sources in play simultaneously and no one in the studio or at home knows when someone else will push a button, make a sound, or speak - just as in a spontaneous conversation. So we advise a pause policy, in which one should not attempt to unilaterally plow over everything else in a continuous fashion, but wait for a hole in the "conversation" to act, and then pause to let others through. Many callers now play tapes of their own into the phone and this can sometimes become an almost musical interchange, but attempts to deposit continuous material without pause indicates someone oblivious to the rest of the mix, and that remains the quickest path to a disconnect. Anonymity extends to both ends of the broadcast signal. We often employ "no host broadcasting", in which our mike usage is reduced to the minimum hourly ID's required by the FCC, creating a continuous, evolving sound mix which occupies enough undissected time to become a thing unto itself, rather than the subdivided realm of a 'host's" personality. Callers are then able to inject themselves anonymously into this place, rather than confront the specific and distinct phenomenon of personality, (especially a personality in charge). We like to keep its nature up for grabs and we are wondering what radio might be like when anyone can play with it.

The Over The Edge "place" might best be described as dream-like. Being on all night, I have heard from many listeners who have fallen asleep while listening and woke up later (with the show still going) and realized they were having show-filled dreams. Our collage approach seems to melt into subconscious processes much more easily than "normal" radio which, if left on while you sleep, rarely finds its way into your dreams. I consider O.T.E. to be a uniquely "after dark" form of creation, suited to, if not resulting from all the subtle, uncharted ways our brain patterns shift after the sun goes down. It would not play well in the office, and it's hard to imagine it as a commuter's companion, but in a bedroom or on an interstate at night, it's probably perfect. But it's not for everyone, and usually not immediately. I have also heard from many listeners who, upon first hearing the show, didn't like it, didn't get it, or thought they had two or three stations overlapping. Just noise. Then, somehow, it apparently becomes more interesting over time. I think this has to do with actually learning how to listen to this type of no-boundaries sound collage - discovering how one can actually hear two things at the same time, realizing how interesting and evocative noises can be, or getting in tune with the ragged spark of live unpredictability.

Nevertheless, listeners who stumble across O.T.E. for the first time are often confused by it, demanding some kind of reasonable explanation from those responsible as to its meaning and reason for cluttering up valuable air time. These are usually those who I call "information people". These are people bred to the sanctity of distinctly delineated, carefully categorized, discretely analyzed information, which is so catered to by modern mass media. This is fine as far as information goes, but it's foolishness when it comes to art. Because they assume that information is God, information people usually assume a need to resist art-directed media experiments which cannot specifically define their own social "usefulness", especially "out of control" ones like O.T.E. Actually, such doubts are often just down the hall because radio is mostly run by information people. They control almost all the power positions in public media, and probably most of those positions in commercial media as well. This is certainly true at KPFA, which nevertheless maintains my continuing respect because O.T.E. has seemed to escape any kind of blatant attempt to exercise what have surely been, at times, institutional predilections against it.

In general, the greatest fear information people have is confusion. They are unable to see the value in it. However, we in Negativland quite enjoy flirting with confusion, which is often a healthy and productive state of perception in which conventions are being overturned, evaluations are remote, and the senses go primitive. Confronting something unfamiliar and unexplained, one actually thinks and perceives very acutely, drawing up meaning from within oneself. Information people, who depend on precedent, corroboration, and mutual confirmation to establish the "meaning" of something, are quite insecure with art's most evocative ally - confusion.

I am constantly amused at the degree to which all media strives to eliminate any possibility of confusion and, in the process, somehow inhibits the thinking process, not to mention filtering the art out of everything. Mass media is obsessed with instant interpretation - interposing its own evaluators, commentators, and pundits between the subject and the public. This reaches a zenith of absurdity when someone like the President gives a broadcast speech which is immediately followed by a panel of interpreters who tell us what was just said, as well as what we should think about what was just said. Just exactly how "useful" is this when the President was supposedly talking to us, not the networks, and we all heard it for ourselves? How intellectually muted do we want our out-of-the-loop population to be?

This mediumistic "necessity" to couch all content in a bed of explanations extends even more to whatever forms of new art mass media does decide to present. The confusion level, particularly in experimental art, is so great that mass media virtually never allows us to experience it "raw", as the artist intended. Although few art concepts include announcers doing biographical intros, summary outros, or analysis of any kind, when such works appear in mass media such mollifying comforts are apparently indispensable. Again, our mass mediums are not interested in being something, they only want to be about something.

Media artists interested in creating alternatives to the present format paradigms will find that the actual accomplishment of any such alternative requires much more than theory or "guest" appearances. These simply remain a "subject" of the current paradigm, safely enclosed in the showcases of information people. One needs to get some training, get some experience, get a license, and GET YOUR OWN SHOW! As remote as this may sound to the uninitiated, in radio it can all be accomplished surprisingly quickly, especially given the number of non-commercial and college stations out there eager for volunteers and interns. My very first involvement with radio came at age 35. Of all people, artists should know anything is possible if the goal justifies the exertion.

Long after the common availability of the benefits of civilization made it unnecessary, some Americans went off into an uncharted west and learned how to build their own houses out of trees! As in any art form, the trek after new definitions requires no-excuses dedication and a lot of practice in the actual arena. Spouting off in arenas like this is quite beside the point. So are one-shot media guest shots in which you are allowed to do what you want to once, under somebody else's format umbrella. Nothing I have mentioned about "Over The Edge" is the most unusual thing about it. The most unusual thing about it is that it's on every week. It's not only crucial to be in charge of your own presentation (the format), but it's also crucial to be able to develop your esthetic over time, in the context of practicing it regularly.

This is the one factor that virtually all media art works lack, aside from the fact that such works are almost never live, being pre-produced outside of radio, just like records are. These guest artist experiments in media remain singular, rare, or occasional. We have the distinct impression that such events are "special", esoteric, and must be too weird to appear on a regular basis. Such efforts always register as "outsiders" within mass media. It is impossible to even begin to think about all the uniquely radioistic potentials of the medium, all the possible paths in "radio land", unless one settles in to work at length. When radio artists get their own shows, it changes everything.

"Over The Edge" would never have achieved its present level of adeptness if it had not had years to develop. This aspect has allowed not only the perfection of techniques, but also evolving practices such as subtle but fruitful themes which would never occur as anyone's first choice, returning casts of characters, regular "features", a whole fictional network called The Universal Media Netweb, and countless interrelated "plots" and fantasys which have developed over time. And just when all that becomes too familiar, we can pull a complete hoax and pretend to replace O.T.E. with some other show entirely. All this depends on the ability to play with regularity. (A key to understanding the effects of all transmission media.) Being somewhat interactive in unfamiliar ways, O.T.E. in particular, requires a regularly scheduled slot which listeners can become acquainted with and, over time, explore their own ways to develop a creative relationship with it. Such potentials are not always fulfilled, but they are important potentials to hold out, and there is always next week... I repeat: GET YOUR OWN SHOW.