Now We Are 20: Reflecting on Two Decades of Radio Life

The Beginning
(Originally broadcast on 15 April 1998 on KWVA.)

This was my first ever radio broadcast.   4 A.M. – 7 A.M. on KWVA.  What follows is a recreation, based on playlists, recordings, and memories from that evening.  This is an approximation of what it was like to listen to my show in those days.

Here’s the backstory: I have been obsessed since I was 10, when I got my own radio / cassette combo, and a box of tapes to go with it. (Plus a couple blank tapes.) Staying up, past my bedtime, listening to radio dramas (not called “Old Time Radio” among fans) and classic rock DJs as my pre-adolescent mind tried to wrap itself around all the things I was hearing. It stuck with me, as I started calling KZEL to request songs and chat with the DJ, my mom already working in that field herself. It was KZEL that broke grunge to me, my friends at school how suggested KRVM, and as alternative began to find it’s way to the sleepy town of Cottage Grove, I found myself wanting to break out of the confines, and find the world I was hearing through the radio.

Pump Up The Volume is sort of the nail in the coffin, isn’t it? Suggesting a winder world of radio and music that is not what you once thought it was. When I finally did burst out of Cottage Grove for Eugene, KWVA was the station we all huddled around, and you would hear it all over town, blasting out of coffee shops and front porch freak-outs. It was almost as instructive as the tapes Colin & kiisu would make for me, and this inevitably led to the Colin Mix tape that featured Negativland heavily. I connected with them, and copied my roommates’ albums immediately, to find that I loved this group. As I dug into them more, I had heard tale that they did a radio show, which sort of blew my mind. A band, that does a radio show? I love radio! I need to heard this!

By the time I was staying with Little Jon, I had not only come into recordings (through CDs and tapes friends would mail me), but our mutual friend Shane With No Last Name starting a morning mix show on KWVA. All of these vectors sort of coalesced, and I obsessively taped Shane’s show (and a lot of KWVA), anticipating each new entry into his “9 AM Slayer” segment, and getting to know the station in general.

I immediately filled out an application to become a DJ, and submitted it, only to wait for some time, not hearing a peep. I was a little discouraged, as it seemed like it had been so easy for Shane to get his show. I must have done something wrong. At the time I was still making ‘zines, so I focused my energy into that, until one day, several months later, when I was in the area and dropped into the station. I asked about my application, and there it was, in a pile of “to be read” applications. None of the staff had actually seen it yet. I hadn’t done anything wrong, and nothing sinister was afoot. The first rule of radio was learned: if you keep showing up, you’ll eventually get on the air.

It wasn’t long before I got a call back, and was asked to start out in the “beginner” slot. This is the dreaded 4 AM to 6 AM airtime (with a 3 AM to 3:30 AM “arrival” time). I took it, because I was 23 and full of energy and what was I gonna do with my time, anyway? This was the ’90’s, and everything was cheap. I was working part time jobs and living with roommates. Of course I’ll leave the bar, pick up some records, cruise on down to the radio station and DJ for a couple hours. What else am I going to do?

And so, on April 15th, 1998 (a Wednesday), I waltzed into the KWVA studio at 3 AM, and began a tradition that has now lasted me 20 years. Fortunately, these days, I don’t go in at 3 AM anymore.

In the time since I’ve been on at a number of stations here in Oregon, and 14 years ago we began podcasting, which has changed the game considerably. I’ve moved, changed the name, hosted up to three or four shows at once, and for years and years on end, hosted a weekly live band, too. (I’ve recorded somewhere around 300 radio performances in that time.) And if we roll the clock back to include the ‘zines and bands I’ve been in, and the live shows at venues I’ve put on too, and we’ve got 25 years of this nonsense I’ve been making, trying to carve out my own version of art in that time.

It’s a lot to process. But I’m entirely grateful for this career that I’ve managed to sort out for myself. Being on the radio for 20 years has not only given me a chance to figure out who I am and what I want, but has given me a creative outlet that really feels comfortable. When I set out to make a new radio show, it feels as exciting as it was to show up to KWVA 20 years ago, and have the station manager look me up and down, and say, “Okay, when I leave at four, you’re on. You’ve got the place to yourself. Don’t screw it up.”

Hopefully, I haven’t. Making radio has been incredibly rewarding, and I’ve met incredible people in that 20 years, who have all contributed to making this show possible, week after week. When I get discouraged, I return to radio. When I’m happy, I can say it in a show. Before I had this outlet I would make tapes, obsessively, sending them out to friends, trying to perfect the mix. While I keep redefining what that mix “is” as I get older, I have to say I’m fairly happy with the shows I’ve made over the years. It reflects who I am, and how I’ve changed. While the show that I pitched to KWVA – an Over The Edge clone – was not the show I ended up making, as the years progressed and as my tastes changed and evolved (and as I moved from station to station), the show I originally pitched became the show I do now, and you can hear that 20 year evolution if you’ve been along for the ride.

But that isn’t to say that my show wasn’t more conventional at times. I used to do an all 60’s Rock show. For a spell it was strictly punk. I went through a phase of just playing everything at once and hoping for the best, and then a full pre-planned and pre-produced phase, that sometimes felt that way, too. For years it was just live bands, and I even did a brief stint doing only progressive rock. My show is difficult to pin down because I don’t really want it to be any one thing, restricting it to a format of which I can then grow tired. But as the years wore on it was clear that I was gravitating more and more to something that was obviously influenced by Over The Edge, even though it did not start that way.

On April 15th, I was more than a little drunk, and the station manager actually left before it was officially 4 AM. (She had been called in suddenly to cover for the 2 AM – 4 AM gent, who suddenly didn’t show up.) And to make matters worse, the DJ after me didn’t show up either, so the Programming Director came in and relieved me. Most likely I was actually on from 3:45 to 6:50 (or something like that), but I didn’t keep track of thing then as precisely as I do now. (A phrase which could probably go on my tombstone.)

The show had the incredibly unwieldy name of The Church of Blasphuphmus (Not Jesus) Hour, and up until 2013, some variant of that name was the one I used, on the air, no less. I got a few complaints about the “anti-religious” sentiment, but very little, considering how long I kept the name around. Since then, the name has changed a few times, but Mid-Valley Mutations seems to suit best the nonsense I’ve created, and feels like a good roadmap, too. While the old name was informed by the religion kiisu & Colin made up (and I willingly began to join in on), I can’t help but acknowledge all that the SubGenius did for me, and for them, in giving us ideas, too.

Through the miracle of tape and digital archiving, there is actually a recording of my first broadcast. The recording that follows is a re-creation of it that I made, using the surviving tapes, playlists, and guesswork as to what was popular then, and in particular, what I remember hearing / playing on KWVA in those days. (So, the re-creation is only as good as that.) In those days, it wasn’t as practical for me to record and keep all the tapes necessary to archive my entire show, and I played a fair amount of music that I already owned in other formats. So when archiving my KWVA shows, I would cut out the songs I owned elsewhere, and just keep the other bits. I rarely saved commercials, and I regularly lost huge sections of shows. (Near the end of my KWVA run, I just stopped taping entirely, and have still not yet found the supposed recording I made of my “last” KWVA show, before I moved to Portland.)

Suffice it to say, the recording here is a pretty good reproduction of what my show was like back then, but also, is like a journal entry from that day, from that year, that I can look back on. Because I’ve recorded so many of them, and because there are plenty of specific places and dates associated with all of them, the really do act as a way I can “listen” to my own story, and get a sense of who I was and what I’ve become in 20 years. This first show is not “great,” but it is a nice slice of nostalgia, and it shows the potential of what was to come.

I’ll be including occasional other selections from the archives to bring out some of my favorite moments from my radio years. I’ve done a few shows that I think are very indicative of the fun I’ve gotten to have on the radio over the years, and I want to share those moments with you now that I’ve had a couple of decades to reflect on them.

Most importantly, thank you. Without an audience, there is no art. And without you, the listener, there is no show.

Be seeing you.

* * * * * *

KWVA Studio

The Beginning

HOUR 1

01.) Strychnine * Strychnine * Born to Loose * Industrial Strength Records
02.) Millionaire * ?? * ?? * ??
03.) Teenagers From Mars * Misfits * Collection * Caroline Records
04.) Christine * The Con Men * Live In-Studio * KWVA Radio
05.) Dicks Hate The Police * The Dicks * 1980-1986 * Alternative Tentacles Records
06.) Stereo Phasing Test / Television * Man… Or Astro-Man? * Experiment Zero * Touch & Go Records
07.) Cramp Stomp * The Cramps * Big Beat from Badsville * Epitaph Records
08.) Selector Pt. 2 * Dub Narcotic Sound System
09.) Buenos Tardes Amigos * Ween
10.) Fade In / Fade Out * Red Aunts

11.) Forest Fire * Dead Kennedys * Plastic Surgery Disasters * Alternative Tentacles Records
12.) BluBlud * KARP
13.) KWVA In-Studio Performance * The Outclass
14.) My Novel * Oswald 5-0
15.) Let’s Go Away * The Wipers
16.) Neat Neat Neat * The Damned * Damned Damned Damned * Stiff Records
17.) Justification * Against All Authority
18.) Streamline Yr Skull * New Bomb Turks

HOUR 2

19.) Embryodead (Aghast View Remix) * :wampscut:
20.) Shaved Women * Crass
21.) Praying Hands * Devo
22.) Caught In My Eye * Germs
23.) Smokin’ Banana Peels * Dead Milkmen
24.) Hexenzsene * Unwound
25.) Metanoia * King Missile
26.) The Way Of The World * Flipper

27.) Happy Hero * Negativland * Dispepsi * Seeland Records

28.) Kill All The White Man (Live) * NOFX * I Heard They Suck Live!! * Fat Wreck Chords
29.) Germfree Adolescents * X-Ray Spex
30.) Universal Corner * X
31.) Hustler * Blatz
32.) Gargoyle Waiting * …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead
33.) Persistent Vision * Rites of Spring
34.) Whirling Hall Of Knives * Butthole Surfers
35.) Treat Me Right * The Con Men * Live In-Studio * KWVA Radio

HOUR 3

36.) Titanium Expose * Sonic Youth * Goo * DGC Records
37.) Birthday Sandwhich * godheadSilo
38.) Theme * Los Mex Pistols * Unreleased Radio Promo Tape

39.) Runnin’ Through My Bones * Tight Bros. From Way Back When
40.) Ain’t No Woman Gonna Make A George Jones Outta Me * Daniel Johnston *
41.) This Is Radio Clash * The Clash * The Story of The Clash, Volume I * Epic Records
42.) Egg Raid On Mojo * Beastie Boys

43.) Excuse Me, But Pardon My French * Unwound * The Future of What * Kill Rock Stars Records
44.) Balalaika Gap * Camper Van Beethoven
45.) Born To Do Dishes * The Queers
46.) Sidewalk Warrior * Screeching Weasle
45.) Jello Biafra * Wesley Willis
46.) Hangin’ Tough * New Kids On The Block * Hangin’ Tough * Columbia Records

47.) False Start * Bikini Kill
48.) In My Mind * Crimpshrine
49.) Kasimir S. Pulaski Day * Big Black

04.) Tennessee Stud * Jimmie Driftwood * The Wilderness Road * RCA / Victor Records

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Sunday Service: A Mutation Showcase

sundayservice00It’s Time For Something New.

Over the last year, Mid-Valley Mutations has evolved from a mere idea to a flourishing weekly radio program that features music and live performances you cannot (and will not) hear via other venues.  To that end, the program has featured a number of artists from all over Oregon, to highlight some of the incredible experimental acts that are right here in our own back yard, even if you don’t see them play very often.  Until now, that is.

To help further the cause, Mid-Valley Mutations is launching a monthly live showcase in conjunction with The Space Concert Club, to give you a chance to actually see these acts, in person.  Sunday Service will happen the last Sunday of every month, and offers a wide range of experimental artists that cover every kind of music: electronic, post-punk, noise, deconstructed folk, home-brewed and circuit-bent gear, and everything in-between.  “Experimental” can mean almost anything, and our hope is that we can offer small slices of this world, every month.

While the phrase “experimental” can conjure up wild (and often inaccessible) performances, Sunday Service will offer intimate shows with performers who are dedicated to their craft, create art that is personal and meaningful, and would like to share this work with the world around them.  While the music may be atypical, the intent is not to be obtuse or difficult.  These showcases are presented to feature the beauty and joy in creating music, and the freedom that comes with following your muse, where ever that might be. Sunday Service will not just feature music, but will offer a chance to meet these performers, and find out more about what they do in person.  These shows will be curated, organized and hosted by Mid-Valley Mutations mastermind Austin Rich

Our first gathering is March 26th, with the incomparable Guyve headlining the show, playing their first Salem gig in their 24 years as a group.  And in April, join us for a rare performance by traveler and recording artist Eric Hausmann, who has called Portland, Ipoh Malaysia and Pittsburgh his home in recent years, .  The spring and summer are full of surprises too, and we can’t wait to announce them once they are final.

Sunday Service Showcases are Free to the public, and are 21+.  The Space offers a full bar, vegan menu, and a positive, inviting atmosphere for discerning and excellent guests.

Join us for Sunday Service: A Mutation Showcase every month to hear the best in experimental artists you can’t hear anywhere else.

We’ve been waiting for you.  Join us.

 

Help Two ACRONYMS at Once: ACLU & KMUZ.

WTBC Getting Into The Act. It’s ACRONYMs all the way down…

Mid-Valley Mutations

a1373653999_10As many of you have probably heard, Bandcamp is donating 100% of their proceeds this Friday to the ACLU, which makes spending money on music that much easier to do. Additionally, KMUZ’s Pledge Drive is very soon, and with that in mind, 100% of the money I make on these same purchases will go to KMUZ’s Drive. Two great causes supported by your single purchase.

a1714948314_16You can get the entire bundle of all 21 of our releases at a discount for $16.25. Or, you can pick and choose what you’d like to purchase. Either way, there’s plenty of releases new and old that are worth investing in, and you can support both the ACLU and KMUZ, two acronyms that do a lot of good for our community.

We all love music, and we all love supporting good causes. Here’s a way to do both.

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Halloween Spook-tacular, 2016!

img_20141025_110248While not the production it was last year, I wanted to quickly mention that we are celebrating Halloween the old fashioned way, and yes, that involves your podcast feed.

Mid-Valley Mutations is offering bonus episodes on Mondays and Wednesdays of October, for a total of 13 Holiday podcasts.  Four of these shows will air on KMUZ, as the shows do normally.  (10 PM, Friday nights.)  But there are nine gems, hand picked from our 13 years of producing Halloween Radio.  This is a chance to hear the many permutations our program has perpetrated, and gives you ample bonus material for that impending holiday party.

You can find all of our holiday entertainment using this handy link: midvalleymutations.com/category/halloween-spook-tacular

Or by enjoying the podcast feed, available in all your local podcatchers of choice.

Happy Holidays, from us, and Mid-Valley Mutations.

Be Seeing You.

#thankful4KMUZ: Here’s How You Can Show It

cropped-KMUZWebHeader_2015A#thankful4KMUZ: Here’s How You Can Show It

KMUZ, like many radio stations depends on listener contributions to continue generate excellent programming.  When you make a donation to our station, you are showing how #thankful4KMUZ you actually are, by contributing to a cause that is now been on the air for five years.  You can make a donation by going to kmuz.org and following the PayPal links, or by calling 503-990-6601 starting tomorrow – October 1st – and pledging your support to our station – all the way to October 7th.

As part of our usual Pledge Drive, anyone who donates $50 will receive a black KMUZ Mug.  Drink coffee in style, and show your support for your favorite community radio station.

temp-coverFor listeners of Mid-Valley Mutations, we like to sweeten the deal.  For anyone who makes a donation of any amount to KMUZ, we will give them a digital copy of our new album, Mid-Valley Mutations Vol. 1.  This is a collection of some of the live moments from our program since May of this year.  This includes live performances by Paco Jones, devils/club, Guyve, Entresol, Entrail & Fiasco, a fine gathering of artists that have all contributed to this program.  And all you have to do is make any kind of donation you KMUZ you can afford.  I will e-mail you your digital album as a thank you gift for listening to the show.

a1714948314_16For contributions of $25 or more, you will get to choose from one of three gifts, curtesy of Personal Archives, No Part Of It & WTBC: Wanting To Be Cool In Beautiful Anywhere, Anywhen, including albums by Thollem, Bob Bucko Jr.Sex Funeral, Illusion of SafetyArvo Zylo / Dental Work and physical copies of The Shindig Shakedown, a gift that was largely available at Austin’s 40th Birthday Party.

For a contribution of $35 or more, you will get a vinyl copy of the Blood Rhythms Assembly LP, with a hand-made cover.  There is a limited number of this LP, so please make your contribution soon.

I could go on and on about how important these Pledge Drives are, so let me just say a few more words.  Without listener donations, KMUZ may have trouble paying the rent in the future.  We would not only loose all the great shows, but the physical space we use to make all of this happen.  This is why we need your money.  Radio is loose ground every day, and for us to have made it five years is quite impressive.  But to make it much longer, we’ll need money, and we’ll need your support.

If everyone who listens to my program were to contribute even $5, that would be enough to keep Mid-Valley Mutations and KMUZ on the air.  Let’s hope that we can raise that much – and more.  Make your donation now, and mention that you would like to support Mid-Valley Mutations (and which perk you are interested in).  Let’s make radio in the mid-valley powerful again.

 

A Pledge Drive Request (That You Won’t Feel Bad About Fulfilling)

cropped-KMUZWebHeader_2015AFor many years now I have been urging friends and family to donate to the radio station I happened to be volunteering at when I made that year’s particular request.  And, it is easy enough to see this as yet another plea to add to the many I have made in the past.  Combine this with NPR’s regular pledge drive’s, your kid’s trying to raise money for band, the homeless guy that hits you up for change, and you are pretty consistently being asked to donate money to something where you are not getting a nice tasty treat or some new gadget that you can play with.

I understand.  You are strapped for cash, and we are thankful that you listen at all.  For those of you who are not doing that well, financially, this message is not for you.  We urge you to keep listening, and we promise to continue to deliver incredible programming the way we do normally.  And, during Pledge Drive, you can expect even more great radio than normal.  Everyone goes the extra mile to make great radio during the drive, and this is a great time to listen, no matter what.

But, for those of you with a little extra money, please, consider donating to KMUZ and keep Community Radio funded.

KMUZ’s Winter Pledge Drive is February 6th – 12th, and if you enjoy community radio made in the mid-valley here in Oregon, then we urgently need your help in keeping this station on the air.  Not only do I volunteer in the office at KMUZ, but I’m a regular panelist on their Geekly Update program, that airs every Sunday at 2 PM, where we talk about nerdy topics and a host of other subjects that appeal to the nerd and geek in us all.  KMUZ also offers a number of great music programs, as well as unique talk shows that you can’t find anywhere else.

Unlike most entertainment, community radio is entirely funded by listeners.  No one pays us to come in and do this.  No company is coming in every month to keep the lights on.  We don’t have wealthy donors to help us stay in business.  The only time we get any money is because people like you decide to offer your help directly and give us the financial support that keeps community radio going.  There is no well of money beneath our station, and no celebrity philanthropist offering to make our dreams come true.  Instead, we turn to the people who count on listening to community, and rely on us to give them shows that they can’t find anywhere else.

These days, between a Netflix subscription, the comic books you pick up weekly, the movie you see with your partner every so often, those expenses add up.  We realize that even a small donation is asking a lot.  But, consider putting us on your list of expenses, next to Gas and cable.  Not only will you be keeping community radio up and running in an area that gets no other funding, but you will be making a difference to the lives of us, our listeners, and the very idea of community radio as a whole.

If supporting KMUZ Radio sounds like something you’d like to do, please consider following this link and make a donation.  You can also call us at 503.990.6101 during the drive itself – February 6th – 12th – and support us directly in a way that means so much to those of us who give our time and energy to this kind of endeavor.

Radio has been an important part of my life, so much so that I’ve dedicated the better part of 20 years to it.  If you have been touched by any of it, and would like to help out, then this is the way you can do it, now.

Please, donate to KMUZ, and keep Community Radio in the mid-valley on the air.

Do it!

 

KZEL Memories

site-logoA Completely Subjective Discussion Of The Classic Rock Radio Format As Recollected By A Radio Nerd Who Did Some Online Research And Got Unnecessarily Nostalgic.   

As a kid, my parents listened to what has come to be referred to as, “Classic Rock” in the radio world.  Little did I know that, as I was growing up, this was a relatively new format on radio.  I had no knowledge of the history of formats at the time, and couldn’t tell you the difference between AM and FM back then.  All I knew was that my parents liked The Who and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and stuff like that, and where we lived, the place to hear that kind of music all day, everyday, was on KZEL-FM, which you could hear just about everywhere in rural Oregon between 1980 and 2000, when I moved out of range of the station.

Not that I listened all the time.  I started to loose interest around 1992, when I discovered music that was outside of my parents influence.  To me, KZEL was the soundtrack to my childhood.  My mom would record her favorite songs off of KZEL broadcasts, and it was the station our cars were always tuned to.  Every time there was music on in the yard, or the stereo was blasting and wasn’t playing an LP, the sounds we heard were always KZEL.  No other station would do.  In fact, my mom won a listener contest when I was in High School, and she got to host a show with some of their DJs as part of the contest.  (This led to her interest in, and eventual minor career in radio.)  KZEL was where I learned to love listening radio, to ignore the songs and to listen for the DJs and the commercials and other produced bits.  It was, through osmosis, my first radio station.

But it played music that, while clearly my parents music, did not speak to me personally.  “Classic Rock” is an interesting format, because it was developed around the time that the “Oldies” format came to be (that is, Rock and Roll music from the early ’50s through the early ’60’s).  “Classic Rock” itself mostly defined itself as being of music from the late ’60’s through to the early ’80’s, and even then, focused on big acts, well known songs, and music that fell into a particular “70’s Rock” vein.  (I used to call it, “Music you can’t drive 55 to,” or, “Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock And Roll”.)  “Classic Rock,” by definition, was trying to plant a flag in the ground, staking out the territory for a generation of radio listeners who felt that a very narrow range of sounds and styles spoke to their lifestyle and their interests, and by labeling it “classic” on the radio was stating – for the record – that these songs and bands would last for generations, and would define rock music for the future.

But none of this music really spoke to me as a kid who was 10 in 1985.  While I came to know and even appreciate some of the music I heard, it always sounded as if it was out of place, out of time, and of someone else’s childhood.  I didn’t understand the excesses of the ’70’s, and in my own childhood, with ’80’s pop culture and my TRS-80 feeding my brain, I didn’t understand the bong-rattling importance of Grand Funk Railroad.  I never got to hear much current “popular” music in my house growing up, aside from my mom’s interest in ’80s hair metal and the occasional “new” B.B. King / Eric Clapton release.  (And even those are extensions of “classic rock” motifs, that of partying and rocking and finding a good woman that will treat you right, etc.)  We grew up with Classic Rock in our heads.  Songs like “Smoke On The Water” accidentally became associated with my childhood, in spite of the fact that I was at least 20 years too young to have any idea what that song was about, why it was important, or who the band even was.

 

Let’s Get Some Of The History Out Of The Way.

The first Classic Rock station was, of course, born out of Cleveland in 1980.  Radio had long since been dominant in Cleveland, and many big name DJs had made names for themselves there in the ’50’s and ’60’s, cementing on-air style and patter that was copied by other DJs across the nation.  But the fork in the road really happened in the early 1960s, when FM Radio hit the airwaves, leaving the monophonic and “tinny” AM Radio sounding like some archaic dinosaur from the Antique Radio era being tuned in on a crystal set.  Stations that had made their name on the AM found themselves competing with the improved fidelity and superior quality of FM, and many stations bought FM signals so they could simulcast their programs and stay competitive.

The FCC eventually mandated that FM stations couldn’t just re-air the same stuff that their AM counterparts were playing, to the distaste and frustration of radio station owners and programmers.  This left American with a huge swath of FM stations that had 24 hours a day to fill with new shows and DJs, and being locked out of their tired old AM formats, they had to innovate, fast.  In a rush to get programming on the air, DJs were given the chance to have “freeform” and “progressive” formats, something unheard of before 1964.  A DJ could play anything, even songs that were not hits, if you can imagine it.  The cut that takes up all of side b could finally be played on the radio, where old programming rules would forbid something that wasn’t a nice a peppy four minutes.  Freeform and Progressive radio of the mid ’60’s was a place where DJs could really cut loose, and with the improved sound of FM, listeners could really appreciate the music on these records that DJs were playing.  FM stations all over the country switched to this new format so they could keep on Rockin’ in the Freeform world.

Of course, station managers hated these changes in the cultural climate.  Radio was a very good way to make money in the old days, and the way stations made money was to sell ads against a show that listeners loved.  Station managers knew listeners loved the shows because of a consistent format, where the same set of personalities delivered the news at the same times, where hit songs were played in a more or less random order, and where every minute of every hour – including the ad that was being played – was micro-managed.  Sure, certain DJs would attract more listeners than others as they became engaging personalities, but that was largely because the DJ was well known over time, or their time-slot was ideal (like, drive-time, or early evening commute.)  Using the old way, station managers could guarantee that a show would be successful merely by packing their playlists with hits and guaranteed programming the sponsors could count on.  Sooner or later, the advertisers would start calling if they wanted to be associated with a hit show.

The switch to FM and Freeform radio was the first huge fragmentation of the way money was made in the music industry, a kind of disruption that is on par with home cassette recording, or the iPod.  Allowing DJs to do whatever they wanted made it difficult for stations for sell advertising they way they were used to it, and old-fashioned radio listeners found the new music that was popular on progressive radio stations to be too “wild” and “strange” for their tastes.  (FM comes on the air in the early ’60’s, just in time for the British Invasion and the Garage Rock / psychedelic explosion that followed in its wake, of which DJs loved.)  Genre was largely out the window on Freeform stations, yet another difficulty when trying to sell the station to advertisers.  While this led to a host of non-commercial, listener-supported stations that enjoyed being contrary to conventional radio standards, Freeform became an f-word in the radio world, especially when it came to money, and when the naiveté of the ’60’s developed into the cynicism of the ’70’s, something had to change again.

First, radio stations lost money.  A lot.  Most of them cut expenses by laying off staff, reducing the size of their studios, and selling off late-night or early morning broadcasts to run syndicated programs, not as popular or well loved, but at least consistent enough to generate a little dependable revenue.  When that wasn’t enough, stations switched to “Album-oriented rock” – or AOR, as it was known at the time.  It was clear that rock music was changing yet again, now that singles were no longer the dominant form of music and bands were getting louder, heavier, and raunchier.  As new technologies like computers began to take over marketing, Station managers and programmers became enamored with research-based approaches to what they would play on the air.

Taking cues from listener requests and the kinds of information they could gather in each region, stations began to make an effort to find out what music and artists were hits with their own specific listeners, and in some cases ignoring Top 40 trends.  Stations began to create playlists and structure their broadcasts around albums that were getting the most traction with their regional audience, which could now be tracked in ways it had never been in the past.  Whole albums were now allowed on station playlists, hence, the AOR name, and this generated a whole new generation of stations that each created a unique identity in the minds of listeners.  Some stations played lots of Beatles.  Some played a lot of Stones.  No two stations curated the same kinds of playlists, and station rivalries in competitive regions were common, the way sports rivalries developed between fans.

Of course, a side effect of all these white station managers and white DJs polling their white audiences about the white artists that they loved the most created a huge backlash against the AOR format – now referred to by opponents as MOR: Middle Of the Road.  As hard rock and psychedelic trends began to mellow out, you encountered a much “softer” kind of radio in the mid-’70’s, dominated by The Eagles & Fleetwood Mac clones, changing radio from the exciting and “loud” place it once was – hosting Summer of Love concerts and outdoor festivals – to a mellow, relaxing place where listeners could put it on in the afternoon and would barely notice the radio on.  It became clear, as black artists were being excluded from any of this, that other kinds of formats were just around the corner.

R&B has always had a rocky relationship with radio before the ’60’s came around, and while Motown and Stax helped improve the image of black music in white America, rarely would a black artist break on the white charts.  While some DJs would play black artists – often against station policies – smaller stations near large black populations where the places that played this kind of music, and sometimes, only in very large cities with diverse radio markets.  But as Funk music crept into the national consciousness in the ’70’s, it became clear that there was a world of popular music that was largely being ignored by commercial radio, and culture clashes between the old-fashioned radio racism and the changing formats found black artists as pawns in the chess game of radio programming.  Stations that were willing to incorporate “acceptable” funk acts that complemented their current sounds were often considered “edgy,” and gained younger audiences.

The ’80’s saw two big artists enter the popular culture that required radio to change.  When Michael Jackson and Prince made it clear that the kind of institutional racism radio had been guilty of could no longer be tolerated, radio formats were revolutionized.  AOR stations began to die off, as advertisers found the selections to be boring, and generated little business for them.  R&B stations were loud and bombastic and fun, began to fill the musical and advertising void that radio had been lacking during the “mellow” years.  What few stations were left that needed something new switched to either a talk or country format.  (Both talk and country had existed before, of course, but in the ’80’s radio had fractured so much that these became viable format that could actually compete on a scale as big as anything else at the time.)

In the old days, radio had largely been created at the station level, and perhaps some stations would package one of their popular shows as syndicated content, that they could send that to other stations if they wanted to expand their own programming  (in those days, the show was a scripted and recorded program).  Networks eventually popped up, and these independent stations became associated with a larger network.  For many stations, the network was just a different way to get syndicated content; they still created a number of local shows, but they ran some of the big-ticket shows from their parent company (either NBC, ABC, CBS, etc).

The ’80’s saw radio going national in a very big way, and other companies wanted to get into the act, too.  New businesses would buy up as many stations as they could, and would generate new syndicated content on a huge scale, making radio sound uniform across the country, but through music formats rather than through specific syndicated shows.  A company that excelled in one kind of music – soft rock, for example – would create a cookie cutter playlist format that they could teach to any station, and transfer this to the stations they bought up.

College Radio Stations took the country by storm in the ’80’s, clinging to the freeform idea in spite of the fact it had virtually disappeared nearly everywhere else.  And with punk rock and DIY music beginning to build a network of their own, the college stations became the backbone for keeping that music alive in the public’s mind.  NPR took of in a huge way in the ’80’s after getting improved funding and more national attention.  When all was said and done, it seemed as if the old fashioned rock and roll radio that had been derailed by AOR might come to an end in the ’80’s, and for a while, “Old Time Rock And Roll” seemed out of place in the modern era.

 

Bringing It All Back.  

WWWM 105.7 in the Cleveland was the first station that decided it was time to bring back “Classic Rock” music in early 1980, and that is the year that ’70’s nostalgia officially began.  (Sorry Dick Vaughn.)  Classic Rock as a format was fairly straightforward: use the lessons of Top 40 and research-based radio, but narrow the focus to albums and artists that encompass music that would appeal to people who had been in High School during the last years of the ’70’s, to some, when “the best” rock music was being made.  At the times, this usually included music from the mid to late ’60’s through to the late ’70s, and pretty much nothing else.  The emphasis on Rock and Roll of that era served a two-fold function: teenagers who lived through this music were now adults making radio-listening decisions, and this music spoke to nostalgia and adolescent desires that wasn’t being tapped into elsewhere.  Secondly, the Classic Rock format was intentionally exclusive; there were no black artists included in this original incarnation of the format.  There was no country.  There was no talk.  There was none of this modern college radio bullshit or that lame jazz crap you hear in cities, just loud guitars and a healthy disrespect for authority.  Yes, Classic Rock comes from Cleveland, but it wasn’t that many years later that the format swept the country.

In the ’80s, for the most part, you could tune into a Classic Rock station almost anywhere in the US, and while you would think that the years Classic Rock covered could uncover a huge number of songs to play, usually listeners would hear the same 50 songs being rotated through all day, every day.  This was, in many ways, the McDonald’s-ification of radio, where you could go anywhere and hear the same things you were used to hearing back home.  This was great for people who traveled a lot, like truck drivers, but left little to the imagination if you wanted to hear a cut from side two, or a song that wasn’t necessarily a classic “hit” in your area.  (For example: try finding a single Classic Rock station that will play anything from Led Zeppelin III.  Unless that station is doing a “Zeppelin Weekend”, you will never hear any of those songs on the air.)

Need I drive the point home any more, Classic Rock was a coded form of racism on radio in an era that was supposed to be post-racism.  It was a way for people who grew up in a sheltered white childhood to pretend that black artists and country music was not part of their musical landscape, and even the lack of news, sports or weather – save for occasional, 15 second updates near the top of the hour – makes a Classic Rock station a perfect way to isolate their listeners in a world that is not difficult or complicated.  Here’s another rock song, another twofer-tuesday, another chance for the production manager to edit “I Love Rock And Roll” or “We Built This City” into their station ID.  When you listen to Classic Rock, the passage of time is irrelevant.

 

Now, Let’s Tune In to 96.1 FM in Eugene, OR

This brings us around to the Classic Rock station in question – and the one of which I have the most first-hand knowledge – KZEL.  The station that became KZEL was first known as KWFS, which went on the air by the end of the ’40’s.  (There had been plenty of radio stations in Oregon going back to the ’20s, but there was a huge surge of new stations in the Eugene area just after WWII.) KWFS continued until the ’60’s, when an FM signal was launched at 96.1.  (KWFS almost immediately abandoned AM in favor of the 96.1 signal.)  However, the owners of KWFS found managing a station to be too much work, and sold the station in 1967.  The new owners changed the call letters to KZEL, and the KWFS call letters were adopted by a new station in Wichita Falls, TX.

KZEL – in its new form – first hit the air that same year, but again, was a bit much to handle as the freeform format wars began to change the landscape of radio.  The big competition in those days was Wolfman Jack, which you could hear almost anywhere in the US, and unless local stations got hip, kids would flip over to him at night.  By 1971 KZEL changed hands (and formats) again, where the new owners were happy to adopt a progressive format to stay competitive with Wolfman.  But the ’70s and early ’80s made it difficult for any station to turn a profit, and many advertisers pointed to the progressive format as part of the problem.  (“We like some of the music you guys play, but not all the time.”)  In danger of changing hands yet again, in the early ’80’s the station managers at KZEL began to take notice of the Classic Rock sounds coming out of Cleveland.  Most of the KZEL staff already loved that kind of music anyway, so almost overnight, KZEL switched to “Oregon’s Classic Rock.”

By the time I was growing up and listening to the station with my parents in the ’80s, they were just like any other station you could hear anywhere that played “Classic Rock”: the same 50 songs, every day, every week, keeping listeners suspended in their High School and College days, just the way the late-Baby Boomers liked it.  Of course, I had no understanding of this history, or how the radio I was listening to got to be the way it was.  I was just some kid being raised by hippies, and this was the music we listened to in our house.

I received a cassette deck / radio with a built in microphone for my 10th Birthday in 1985, and using that I began recording my favorite songs from the radio onto tapes.  Pretty soon I found myself more interested in the commercials, and I began editing together my own voice overs (impersonating my favorite DJs) with my own songs and commercials recorded from KZEL.  There were nights when I would have the radio on, quietly in my room, letting the sounds wash over my childhood mind.  I would surf stations often too, and listen for a while, but I would always return to 96.1, just like everyone else in my family.

As a regular listener, I started to get familiar with when the hosts would take calls and requests, and once I broke through that barrier, I became a regular on the air.  Usually in the afternoon and evenings, and soon I was pretty proud of the fact that I could get my name on a show almost any time I wanted.  (I would regularly ask the DJs to give birthday shoutouts to my friends and family, and if nothing else was going on, make a request for my song de jour that day.)  Of course, radio stations are notorious for contests, and I was consistently able to win new tapes from these giveaways because I was quick on the phone, and knew their habits well.  This is how I discovered Tesla (the band), .38 Special, both of the Use Your Illusion Guns ‘n’ Roses albums, and got my very own Led Zeppelin tapes.  But I didn’t listen to the tapes as much as I thought I would, and why not?  I could just turn on the radio.

I remember vividly the first time my mom drove me to the station, to pick up an album I had won.  There was a well-known commercial for KZEL on TV, where the DJ was running through a maze of LPs to get the next record to the booth in time for the next song, and I absolutely believed that the station must be like that.  My mom has thousands of LPs, so it made sense that they would have even more.  But arriving at the front counter was a very disappointing experience.  All these voices I was familiar with, reduced to flesh-and-blood bodies that were just like everyone else I knew, looking at this gawky kid, they sort of rolled their eyes.  A cheap cardboard box was produced, and inside were a ton of cassettes, some mangled from typical radio station neglect.  Even though I had specifically won the live Tesla album, the girl at the counter said, “Just take any one you want.  There’s plenty in the back.”  The fun and mystery of listening at home ruined by the bland reality of fluorescent lights and the work-a-day lives of these people who were just punching a clock.  It was a revelation, in a way.

As the years wore on my relationship to this station changed.  When I got to High School I started meeting people who listened to modern music, stuff I’d never heard on KZEL, ever, and this music was absolutely fascinating.  But this was the early ’90’s, and I wasn’t the only one going through this identity crisis.  I remember listening to KZEL one night when one of the DJs mentioned a band that everyone was talking about – Nirvana.  The DJ was convinced the song couldn’t be as good as the hype, but decided to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” anyway.  I remember being non-plussed at the time, until I heard the song again, and later, saw the video.  By the fourth time I’d heard it, I was hooked, and suddenly anything else KZEL played seemed tame and boring.

I won Nevermind on KZEL in a listener contest, but even when I showed up to get the album, I could tell that my time as a KZEL fan was limited.  The girl at the counter laughed when I asked for it, and I could tell they didn’t like the album as much as I did.  They would dabble a bit in new music in that year, but the Classic Rock format always dominated in the end.  Sooner or later, they would return to a block of The Who songs, and back to their old format.  And by then, friends had hooked me up with Ministry and Nine Inch Nails, and my interest in Classic Rock and KZEL was on the way out.  I pretty much stopped turning on the radio at all by the time High School was over, and I never heard the station once in the six years I lived there.

 

Coda

In 1997 the Cumulus Media group was formed, and made an effort to buy up as many stations as they could, KZEL being one of them.  By this time, I was living on my own, and hadn’t tuned in for years.  The Cumulus Group began to popularize the AAA format (adult album alternative), a new iteration of Classic Rock that included all the old “heavy” albums, with “new rock” hits from the “alternative” era.  (A lot of stations call this format “New Rock.”)  This made sense; as demographic groups age out of listening to their father’s rock and roll radio, the younger groups have different tastes that need accommodation, too.  And let’s face it, “alternative” music is absolutely the Classic Rock of Generation X.  Essentially, the same kinds of people are listening to KZEL now than they did then, just with a slightly different 50 song playlist and a bigger chance of having a Soundgarden tattoo.

And why not?  Radio has often been for the middle class, and there is a who swath of bros who are looking for something to get pumped up for as they try to remain comfortable with being in their 40s.  They want the music that spoke to them in High School to insulate them in a place where they understand what “cool” and “hip” is.  New music is scary and hard to find, and it is much easier to ignore the culture and the world around you when it doesn’t make sense to you.  Coded in two levels removed from the racism it once was, Gex X Gym Rats can listen to very while music in their small towns and never have to question the way they fell about it, ever.

It isn’t that The Cumulus Media Group is trying to be horrible.  They’re trying to make money, and that is largely the motivation behind any tired old ineffectual dinosaur clinging to the radio dial like some monster from a bygone age.  But even the remotest scent of that kind of radio turns me off, instantly, and these days I’m looking to the generation after mine to hopefully clue me into something that doesn’t feel old fashioned and too “white.”  But even I fall into this trap; I listen to music with guitars and live drums and it is hard to think of Black Flag or Bad Brains as anything other than “quaint” when you think of the brutal music that kids like these days, or the electronic harsh noise that is also available.  And I’m still trying to break the color barrier in my own collection, as I have noticed an abundance of while men among my 12 Inches.

But at least I’m aware of the problems inherent in my playlists.

When I was a kid, I never thought that the music I was immersed in was boring.  It was the music I was immersed in.  It WAS music.  But now that I can see it from outside, and see it for what it is, I’m glad I moved on.

I’m just wondering how much longer the vestiges of Classic Rock Radio will need before they move on, too.