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Leo Blais sign at WMBR

Solving the Mystery of the Ubiquitous Radio Station Call Letter Signs: The Leo Blais Interview

For quite a few years I’ve been intrigued by and obsessed with the handmade 3-dimensional radio station call letter signs that I’ve seen at numerous college and community radio stations all over the United States. One of the signs is posted at KFJC, where I volunteer and DJ, so I see it every week. I probably first started to notice that other stations had similar signs as soon as I started doing radio station tours back in 2008.

KFJC sign by Leo Blais

Leo Blais sign at KFJC in 2014. Photo: J. Waits

After a few years, it became a goal of mine to seek out these signs whenever I toured a station. If I don’t immediately see a sign, I now make a point to ask, “do you have a hand made call letter sign?” Sometimes people are confused by the question, whereas other times, I’m immediately led to the sign. I’ve seen the signs prominently displayed in station lobbies (at Northeastern University and at Pomona College), in on-air studios (at North Central College), in back hallways (KBOO), and in offices (KEXP). Most of the time, DJs and station staffers have no idea where the signs came from. Some people have told me that they were made by a fan.

I even saw some of these iconic signs in a photo accompanying a newspaper article about NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert” series. When I did the public NPR tour last year I made a point to mention my interest in the signs and managed to talk my way into a special stop at Bob Boilen’s desk, where a collection of these signs (reading: Bob Boilen, NPR, All Songs Considered, and Robin Hilton) is prominently displayed atop his shelving unit. I’m sure the tour guide thought that I was insane when I started talking about my obsession with 3-D radio station signs, but Bob Boilen was welcoming and let me take photos galore.

Leo Blais signs at NPR

Leo Blais Signs at NPR. Photo: J. Waits

Back in 2013, I finally found out the identity of the sign maker. Of course I’d had clues all along, as each sign contains a short handwritten message signed by “your friend Leo,” but it wasn’t until a commenter provided me a link, that I knew for sure that the signs were made by musician Leo Blais. It turns out that the Leo Blais sign project is much bigger than just the radio station call letter pieces. He also made album artwork using the same method, so some signs depict lengthy song titles. They are all crafted out of cardboard and are painted white/gray.

Leo Blais sign at WMBR

Leo Blais note on WMBR sign. Photo: J. Waits

I’ve seen the signs at college radio stations, community radio stations, and public radio stations, including: KFJC, KCSB, KSPC, KZSC, KBOO, KDUP, NPR headquarters, WONC, WRFL, KEXP (I only saw a sign featuring a DJ name), WLOY, WRBB, WMBR, WFMU, KUCI, KUSF, WPGU, SCAD Atlanta Radio, and KDVS.

It’s funny, now that my Leo sign scavenger hunt is in full swing, scouts have begun sending me pictures of signs that they’ve seen in their travels. Sharon Scott of ARTxFM texted me a great photo of one at St. Louis community radio station KDHX. Although the picture makes it look like this sign is gigantic and installed in a gallery, it’s actually the same size as the others.

KDHX Leo Blais sign

KDHX sign crafted by Leo Blais. Photo: Sharon Scott

After some recent correspondence, Leo Blais agreed to answer all of my burning questions about his ambitious project. After sending off my query to Leo, I had some twinges of regret, as it’s been kind of fun to wildly speculate about these signs for all of these years and keep the mystery alive…

In part one of my interview with Leo Blais, he gives some back story about the signs. In a future post, we’ll delve into more details about the scope of the project.

Radio Survivor: When did you start making radio station call letter signs?

Leo Blais: The first signs were made around the time the ‘Slow Drivin’ maxi-single was released in 2008. I started sending them out as a way to thank the stations for playing the records. Also the letters represented the actual artwork that went into each album. People would send me photos they found on the internet with the signs being spotted in the background or on the stations walls. It was really nice to know how happy it made the people who received them. The signs had this magic behind them. I remember my manager Steve Theo telling me he got a call from Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton at ‘All songs Considered’ asking about me and the project. It was wild. Suddenly these signs were opening doors of conversation with people I really never dreamed possible.

Radio Survivor: Do you remember which station you sent a sign to first?

Leo Blais: I believe the first station was probably 92.5 WXRV, but I could be completely off on that. I had made a sign for each of the DJs too. They have given independent artists great support over the years. I think they were one of the first stations, if not the first, but then again I’d have to check with UPS on that one.

Radio Survivor: How many signs did you make and during what time period were they sent out?

Leo Blais: I must have made hundreds of them during the time of the releases. I would try to send out around 5-10 each week, but some weeks it’d be more or less depending on what I was working on. I really wish I had an accurate tally of how many were done. I hope to have time do it again someday, but maybe not so many. You would have certainly gotten a surprise one in the mail Jennifer! I believe they were sent out during 2008-2011/12. I think there are still a few boxes I have yet to send that are in storage. I guess I never got to send them before moving to New York.

Leo Blais sign at KEXP that reads Cheryl

Leo Blais “Cheryl” sign at KEXP. Photo: J. Waits

Radio Survivor: How long does it take you to make each sign?

Leo Blais: It all depended on how big each sign was really. There were song titles that took a week to construct. The radio station call letter signs didn’t take as long, but could take 2-3 hours of total work time. I never really timed myself though. There were a few steps that went into preparing to do them. Before I’d leave work I’d cut out 1 1/”2 inch strips of cardboard to be used for the gray 3D sides. Then I’d use a metal sheet shear so they’d be accurate when cutting them. It made them easier to photograph, but also allowed them be hung flat on a wall if that was to be their new home. Then I’d steal all of the cardboard I could find around the drill shop to use them for the station call letters front panel. I’d draw them out with a sharpie and then each one was cut out with an X-acto blade that eventually led to a permanent callous on my writing finger. Then it was rolls and rolls of 3/4″ tape and lots of paint. The process was really laborious, but it was really just because of the scope of it all. It got a little out of control.

 

Thanks so much to Leo Blais for talking to me about his radio station call letter sign project. I hope to post part two of my interview in the coming weeks. In the meantime, here’s a video from Leo’s website, which shows the sign-creation process.



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