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How Gil Scott-Heron led me to college radio

1. Mandate, my ass

The dissatisfaction with what had happened to both AM and FM commercial music radio led some to talk radio, but others fled to college radio, at least those of us who could find it. In this increasingly privatized world, by now just about the only hope for a cultural present was in this little sliver of the federally established radio dial reserved for 10 Watt community stations. Despite the autonomy many of these stations could flaunt publicly, they were always on a very short leash. As early as 1979, both the old money National Association of Broadcasters as well as the newer National Public Radio convinced the FCC that these low-power stations were somehow detrimental to broadcasting, and class D licenses were no longer issued for applications for “left of the dial” stations.

Like AM-Talk radio, college radio offered the flow of the now, a continuous present—especially for those of us who couldn’t afford to buy records, let alone “upgrade” to CDs. It provided a social alternative to corporate rock & talk that was much more connected with a grassroots scene of live shows, locally owned record stores, ‘zines, squats, warehouse spaces, bands and labels than even the late 1960s “free format” counter culture, which had been colonized by the corporations almost from its inception. Almost everything I had merely read or heard about the golden age of music radio (50-75), I was finding in the radio scene in the late 80s. In fact, radio even had a lot to do with making me want to go to college.

College teachers helped get me off of TV—but they didn’t get me off of radio. In fact, many of the best teachers I first discovered through the radio. A lot of them weren’t really people, but songs, lines in songs, phrases: one hit wonders in the democratic flow; sometimes they were not just transient events, but people or collectives. I had to wait 45 minutes to get the singer’s name. In the college radio flow, the song almost always came before the “actual biographical” whoever—for better and/or worse. I didn’t have to take out a loan to turn college radio on and hear things like:

Well, the first thing I want to say is…”Mandate my ass!”

Because it seems as though we’ve been convinced that 26% of the registered voters, not even 26% of the American people, but 26% of the registered voters form a mandate – or a landslide.

What has happened is that in the last 20 years, America has changed from a producer to a consumer. And all consumers know that when the producer names the tune…the consumer has got to dance. That’s the way it is. We used to be a producer – very inflexible at that, and now we are consumers and, finding it difficult to understand. Natural resources and minerals will change your world. The Arabs used to be in the 3rd World. They have bought the 2nd World and put a firm down payment on the 1st one. Controlling your resources will control your world. This country has been surprised by the way the world looks now….They don’t know if they want to be diplomats or continue the same policy – of nuclear nightmare diplomacy. The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia….And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes riding to the rescue at the last possible moment. The day of the man in the white hat or the man on the white horse – or the man who always came to save America at the last moment – someone always came to save America at the last moment – especially in “B” movies.

As Wall Street goes, so goes the nation. And here’s a look at the closing numbers – racism’s up, human rights are down, peace is shaky, war items are hot – the House claims all ties. Jobs are down, money is scarce – and common sense is at an all-time low with heavy trading. Movies were looking better than ever and now no one is looking because, we’re starring in a “B” movie.

In Gil Scott-Heron’s “B Movie,” Reagan represents the corporatist merger of state power with Hollywood’s culture industry. In reassuring Americans that the loss of the production base was no big deal, but just another movie: not even a song that you could dance to (getting up to dance is too much like blue collar labor), Reagan tried to make people forget that the change from a producer to a consumer means both an increase in debt, loss of jobs domestically, and increase in foreign slave labor.

Enjoining us to squarely face the present with its depleted natural resources and, as a country, circle our wagons, the weary warmth of GSH’s basso profundo floored me with direct authority; its tone, while primarily angry, was wise and funny, and disarmingly casual. It was music; it had a beat; I could still rock in my sleep to it, but it was also a lecture and it left a lot of space to digest. I wish I had teachers like this. Wait, I do. Screw school. No, that’s where the radio station is.

Under Reagan, America became even more of a consumer; the war against workers trumped the war against drugs, but “B Movie” sped up and focused a journey I was already on from the first time I asked “Mommy, why does Stevie Wonder sing “coz where he lives they don’t Use colored people?” Commercial radio seemed dead, but college radio gave it a new leash on life.

2. Another Song, Another Classroom

“It’s like my school teacher’s on acid and he’s yelling at me”–Lars Frederickson

“Oh, you can have a band and talk more than you play songs”–Gavin MacArthur

“If you want to shock people, that’s okay–as long as you got something to shock them into.” John Kezdy,

Not long after “B Movie,” I discovered “Holiday In Cambodia” by Dead Kennedys. Like “B-Movie,” it was a didactic wake-up call to one living in a fantasy world in denial about what had happened in America’s transition from producer to consumer. Once you realize that you’ve been acting in a “B-Movie,” it becomes hard to escape the ugly truth that the American Dream has turned into a “Holiday In Cambodia:

So you’ve been to school for a year or two and you know you’ve seen it all

In daddy’s car thinkin’ you’ll go far back east your type don’t crawl

Play ethnicky jazz to parade your snazz on your five grand stereo

bragging that you know how the niggers feel low and the slums got so much soul…

It’s time to taste what you most fear, Right Guard will not help you here, Brace yourself, my dear–

it’s a Holiday In Cambodia; it’s tough kid but it’s life;

A Holiday in Cambodia, don’t forget to pack a wiiiiiife.

The portrait of this upper-middle class kid might seem exaggerated and cartoonish in retrospect—not nearly as rational as the analysis in GSH’s apocalyptic lament, but when I first heard this, it felt like an accurate portrayal of the “Young Republicans” and Reagan Youth who tried to make many of my friends and I feel small. I could now shoot them down with this as well as GSH’s “mandate; my ass!” or at least could find other people closer to my own age to help me get as far away as possible from the Reagan Youth who were taking over mass-culture with the help of many white ex-hippie types.

Pedagogically, Biafra almost forced the listener to take a stand, and it didn’t seem excessively harsh or even “on acid;” its yelling seemed real or at least more real than anything in what was left of my town. 30 years of Reaganomics have borne this out, especially given the revelations that finally came to life about Jack Abramoff (born the same year as Biafra) and others of the “Wrecking Crew.” Like “B-Movie,” “Holiday in Cambodia,” demanded that we look in the mirror and make sure that we are not this person. Of course, I don’t think life’s just a movie; of course I’m not that sheltered white racist. Yeah, I’ve been to school for a year or two and played “ethnicky jazz,” but I had a crappy stereo, etc.

Yet the lyrics clawed deeper into my conscience. I hardly even knew any black people, let alone could call them friends, and most of my white friends were in exactly the same “boat.” We had no idea how much racism had informed our self-evident truths; just because we loved black music and rebelled against our parents’ racism (whether blatant or “white flight”), didn’t make us less racist. Since most of my friends were raised in working class re-segregated white neighborhoods, this song got me asking is the soul of the slums the same as Cambodia?

I couldn’t take this song lying, or sitting, down. How much of its message was non-verbal anyway? Its sound made me want to smash up my seat and “rock to this brand new beat” more than “Revolution Rock,” if not the Sex Pistols, could. When Gavin MacArthur says, “Oh, you can have a band and talk more than you play songs,” he puts his finger on the absurdly explosive potential that was unleashed by the combination of rocking and talking in Biafra and the Dead Kennedys. It may seem ironic that songs like this lured small town kids like me back to the big city, but they did.

3. WKDU

WKDUBiafra was also a gateway to bands in which there would be no mistaking that the words were less important than the music, bands who rocked more, and whose simpler words lured me to the pit, and changed my attitude toward music more than any record was capable of. While the only Philly band I knew of at the time was The Dead Milkmen, I knew by WXPN’s event calendar that there was something happening there. Others who dared leave Reading to move to the big cities were following the money; I was following the music.

When I arrived in 1986, I soon discovered WKDU, Drexel University’s Punk station—and just in the nick of time, as WXPN was purging punk from its station. Soon it would even purge the local classical DJS to make it more attractive to syndicated corporate colonizers.  WKDU especially proved that the radio could still be educational in a way that poetry and college was not. Even in the darkest Reagan times, when people couldn’t afford to buy records, let alone make them, WKDU brought coherence to the Philly punk scene.

WKDU was eclectic, but very much drew a cut off line at 76/77 (with a handful of godfathers like Stooges, VU and Sonics). It played enough New Wave Art Rock and Brit Pop largely thanks to the women DJs, but still had a basic punk character. It helped bring my attention to touring bands. It may have even done more for the national, touring bands than it ever did for Philly bands, but that wasn’t really WKDU’s fault, especially given Philly’s notorious lack of a viable record label. WKDU played local bands, broadcast live sets, sponsored shows and hyped me on where to find them. When they played Philly bands that I could afford to at least record for mixtapes–alongside national one-hit nugget wonders), I found no less quality in the Philly bands.

4. The Erased Generation?

I Google the lyrics to a song on my now destroyed February 1987 WKDU/WXPN cassette. I thought the band was called “Painted Saints.” “All You Ever Gave Me…Was Nothing…And Nothing’s…All I Want!” A beautiful lonely fist raising, yet introspective yearning melodic anthem-tempo anthem: “And you think we’re so different coz we don’t care if we win…”or “And this generation’s got its feet on the ground…And this generation’s being ignored.”  What comes up in search engines when you type in “this generation is being ignored” are references to the limits of demographic niche targeting; how they’re ignoring the older generation–probably the baby boomers. This makes the message of the song even truer now than it was in 1988!

This may not be the golden age of radio for any of the Wiki or Time/Life anthologists, in part because it wasn’t pushing records. Instead, we choose to keep up with the new music we were discovering by those closer to own generation, which seemed to be coalescing despite the industry’s best attempts to prevent that. Allegedly we were marginalized because our generation didn’t have the demographic numbers, but we also didn’t have the spending power or the access to commercial radio. By the standards of the America we were born into, the music on college radio should’ve, could’ve, and would’ve been much more popular had not the big corporate take-over occurred. The success it had is remarkable given that College radio was legally forbidden from competing in the open market, by virtue of its Class-D license.

While college sports developed a populist, regional characteristic for communities under-served by the NFL and NBA, an analogous business model was banned from college radio; it was now called “conflict of interest.” College radio was allowed to be more autonomous for the same reason it was no longer a small business with a modest sustainable profit model. It was a volunteer economy out of necessity as–nor was the privilege of on-the-job internship that extended to college sports available for most of these DJS, but as long as college radio ran as free as running water in a public fountain, I could get better music more cheaply. According to Steven Taylor:

“Punk rock simply does not occur in the living room. Punk music and community are inseparable from the dance. One critic said to me that a band that has a record in the shops is already useless, passe, “sold out.” In this view, even the most community-minded, do-it-yourself, politically empathetic record company robs the music of its true function because in recorded form the community is not present.”

While the critic Taylor quotes has a point, he ignores the core importance of college radio in disseminating punk at least as much as the live venue. If records threatened to kill punk by making it into just another commodity, college radio was helping de-commodify it, especially for those of us in small towns that had no live scene. As Jesse Michaels puts it: “The real energy is where it’s always been, in some 16 year olds bedroom where he or she is coming up with the next revolution.” In this sense, college & community radio played a large role in creating, or recreating, a local scene. WKDU at its best presided over these factions as a bridge or at least tunnel, by widening the audience, as well as access to the airwaves for bands that put on the best shows in 100-500 capacity venues precisely because they lacked the A&R focus groups of the out of touch colonizing “majors.” And it led me to my first mosh pit…..



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2 Responses to How Gil Scott-Heron led me to college radio

  1. Lawyers August 13, 2013 at 11:37 pm #

    Oh yea, an excellent text!

  2. Chris Stroffolino August 14, 2013 at 11:53 am #

    thank you—
    still gotta revise it for a possible book—but glad you liked this version!

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