If you host a music show at a college or community radio station, how far off the beaten path should you go when choosing songs? That was one of the topics addressed at the Great Music Programs workshop sponsored by the National Federation of Community Broadcasters conference, held in San Francisco earlier this month.
I moderated the event, at which three well known community radio music programmers spoke. We’ve already profiled Florence Hernandez-Ramos’ excellent comments on the history of KUVO-FM. Her fellow panelists focused on many issues, but a larger question loomed over their comments. How adventurous (daring? risqué? outré?) should you be in your selections for your show?
Here are some excerpts from their remarks. First comes Anthony Bonet, regular deejay at UC Berkeley station KALX-FM in Berkeley, followed by Bonnie Simmons, of listener supported station KPFA-FM in that same city.
Cal has the reputation of being sort of the cantankerous free speech university, but to be honest with you, that’s not the truth. They kind of don’t like free speech. They don’t like you setting little fires. So when we raise little fires, when we say “They’re raising fees. Let’s go protest!” Or “they’re building volleyball courts on People’s Park, let’s go protest!” Then you are lighting fires that could potentially end up causing a lot of trouble for the station.
So what we do . . . what I’ve done . . . my air name, for example, is Sex 14s. There was an advice record called Sex For Teens, part of a series of three records called ‘Sex for Children,’ ‘Sex for Teens,’ and ‘Sex for Adults.’ These came out in 1970 and 1971. A couple of kids are fighting—tooth and nail, brother and sister, Bill and Sue. They’re fighting because Sue is a ‘whore’ (according to Bill).
Then Dad walks in and says “Hey. What’s going on?” Bill says “Gosh Dad. My sister makes me so mad!” But it turns out that Dad’s a gynecologist and he knows a little bit about what the implications of being a whore might be.
The reason that I mention that in my resume is that when I was a kid in Washington, DC, I used to deejay in clubs, and I was no good at beatmatching at all. I never learned how to do it. So I needed something to get me some segues from Song A to Song B. And most rock/punk/songs are about sex. So people would start saying, “Are you that ‘Sex 14s’ guy?” So when I got to Berkeley I was the ‘Sex 14s’ guy.
I’m not advocating cheap notoriety, but identity is what it’s about. On the first day of the new millennium, which was January 1, 2001, by the way. I was on the air for twenty-four hours. I went on at midnight and I went off at midnight. And my goal was to think of music as, the best music as the Sistine Chapel. This was the stuff that was put up there by Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, and play only that stuff. Only the stuff with six stars on a scale of five.
So you have people calling in and requesting some really questionable things. And I would reply “Sorry. That doesn’t quite fit.” But you do get a lot of participation. And I had an amazing amount of thing where “Oh my God. I hadn’t thought of that.” Classical pieces; bluegrass pieces. That gets people into that feeling of “I’ve got to call. I’ve got to be part of this.”
And I’ve always been about, even in situations like that, honoring requests, so I’ve always been about this idea of fostering thoughtful requests.
For example, when I first started deejaying, I played Coltrane and Ellington doing “In a Sentimental Mood.” And someone called and said, ‘This sucks.’
Now normally I’m quite insecure, but gosh, I was playing Ellington and Coltrane! Yeah ‘this sucks.’ Right, I thought. It did nothing to me at all. I felt great. I knew it didn’t suck. So I started encouraging the good requests and, that meant running all over the library and finding them, and back announcing them on the air.
Now I’ll say “If you’ve got any ideas about how to steer this ship, give me a call.” And people get into it. And I get into it, because I learn.
So as an example, the day before yesterday—I’m on from nine until noon now—I had to pay homage to Gil Scott-Heron, who passed away last Friday, a week ago. And what I discovered about Gil Scott-Heron is that you can play ‘The revolution will be televised’ and no one will hear it. People will say that it’s good, but everyone has heard it a million times.
And that’s the other thing about the way I program. I never need to hear “Respect” by Aretha Franklin ever again in my entire life. Life is short. There’s more stuff I haven’t heard. We don’t need to play, “We won’t get fooled again” by The Who. But there is stuff under the radar that does set people on fire. The thing I found was an extra track that I think was almost eleven minutes long, and it was a spoken word piece by Scott-Heron called “Black History,” and it is basically his take on how black history came to be black history.
No one plays it because it is eleven minutes long. So I played it. I let it go for eleven minutes and watched the phone lines light up. People saying, ‘What is this? This is incredible.’ And I think that that’s the other piece of advice that I have for you. Everybody wants to crowd in as many songs as possible. Sometimes . . . like if you are playing a track from Bitches Brew, it’s so unhip to fade it after five minutes. Let it go! That will get you the calls. That will get people saying, ‘Woah! They let it go, the whole way.’ That’s what’s unusual.
And when I did a tribute to Dylan’s 70th birthday . . . and what a treat to pay tribute to someone who is alive. I mean, I did three hours of tribute to Betty Carter when she passed, Joe Williams when he passed, so many people have died. It’s great to do pay tribute to someone who is alive. And the way I chose to do it was to play no Bob Dylan at all. I played only people doing Bob Dylan. And I found the best, most obscure . . . even local bands. I played Asobi Seksu doing Bob Dylan’s “115th Dream.” And when people caught on that there wasn’t going to be any Bob Dylan in this, they started calling in their favorites. Obscure stuff that I didn’t know.
And so it became participatory. And that’s the thing for me.
When I started out in radio I worked for a fellow named Ton Donahue at KSAN. Somehow he could have all us at KSAN working like dogs, and not going to sleep and not taking showers, and still thinking we were having fun. Because we were trying to get to some state of perfection in what we did on the radio. In our own definition of that.
He also taught us that radio is a local medium. And I believe that to this day. That the best radio communication is that that gives you a sense of place. I think part of the reason that I live in the Bay Area is that the Bay Area has a very defined sense of place and that gives me a great deal of comfort.
He made a promo once, that he put on the air, that just said, “Hello. My name is Tom Donahue and I’m the general manager of this radio station. If you hear a disk jockey play two songs in a row that you don’t like, just give me a call. And I’ll deal with them.”
And this was a radio station which was completely unformatted, where we all got to fly without any tightrope under us, forget about ‘Net. And I think all he was trying to teach us is that the audience needs to be able to trust you. You need to be trustworthy. In order to present things to an audience that they’ve never heard before or that might be out of context, although in your own head there is some context.
An audience will be patient with you for one song or two songs, but you need to bring them back. If you’ve gone way out on the ledge, you need to bring them back fairly soon. Because it’s not school, being on the radio. We’re not there to teach people, necessarily. It’s good to inform people, but we’re also there to entertain them, and to help them in their daily lives with their problems, and I think that radio done well can really do that and I think it’s important.
I think the thing that has carried me through this much radio is that I genuinely appreciate and love the audience. I think it is a privilege that I’ve been given a microphone. And that I am allowed to not only run my mouth on it, but it gives me access to an enormous amount of people out there and the audience knows everything. There’s someone in the audience who can answer any arcane question. And I really appreciate that I have that. I used to have that 20 or 30 hours a week; for the last 20 years I have it two hours a week. And that has its own kind of beauty to it.
We have no musical format at KPFA. I am unable to approach a radio show without having some kind of format, so I built my own. I like to think that it is a smart and workable format. It works for me.
I love hit records. And if I err, I go to that side, rather than the side that is very much completely unheard. On the other hand, having some faith that the audience is genuinely with me most of the time, I feel very able to expose them to new records, to play a number of different kinds of music. I don’t subscribe myself to doing one particular genre. I understand that some people would prefer to do that. It’s just not fun for me.
I have worked with a lot of kinds of music. I appreciate a lot of kinds of music. I like to jumble them all up together. At the same time I’m doing that, there’s this little Jiminy Cricket guy sitting on my left shoulder, and he’s whispering in my ear, and he’s saying “OK. I don’t know. Are you playing too much rock tonight? Should you maybe stick a few things that are lyrically driven rather than groove driven in here?”
I hear Donahue in my head saying, “If you are going to play something people don’t know or that’s chancy, that next one better be something that brings them back in.” All of those things go through my mind.