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Ruminations Of A Radio Therapist

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-■vmsich August, 1977. 1 was working in a gritty, sweltering greenhouse, raising the bench wires on a mediocre carnation erop. The fellow who was across the dirt from me began to talk about old wax; 78 rpm platters from the dawn of the century. I'd gathered a few myself, from junk shops and flea markets. The casual quest had taken me through Elkhart, Milwaukee, and the Upper Península. The relies were strange and wonderful. Well this character was serious. We took to raiding the Ypsilanti Flea Market on a regular basis. I believe the building was an Arlan' s at one time, then the Flea Market, and today it's half-empty, partially occupied by the Michigan Employment Security Commission. A logical progression. 1 pawed through endless piles of platters, preferring stupid popular melodies from the first half of the century. Also anything resembiing propaganda. Arthur Godfrey's ukelele propaganda, for instance. What does one do witli hundreds of old phonograph records? We piayed them for anyone who would listen, and I would have been happy to have kept spinning them in my living room. One day in the greenhouse, while hauling clay pots in a rickety wooden wheelbarrow, I was invited to accompany my friend to a radio program where Üiey actually aired the wicked old dises of bakelite, scratches and all. (Bakelite was an early attempt at record vinyl). This was the Cornbelt Symphony , hosted by Mark Hardin, who specialized in Hot Novelty Dance Music, and Jack Mingo, who had lots of George Jetson and Three Stooges. Hardin to this day works closely wilh film and alternative media - he returns from California once a year for our 16mm Film Festival. Mingo is somewhat famous as the author of many inspiring Couch Potato manuals. He' s taken the cathode tube by the horns and made a career out of Vidiocy, as the national spokesman for T.V. addicts. In 1977, these men conducted the most entertaining radio program I had ever heard, and listening back to the tapes I still find their style remarkable. Aside from the fact that they were playing kiddie records from heil mixed with collegiale dance music from the 20s, the Combel t boys programmed a weekly theme, be it dogs, fat people or automobiles, and they almost never played a song all the way through. Just enough so that you caught the title and maybe realized there was a theme going on. This means that they'd squeeze dozens of titles into one hour's time. It was delightfully obnoxious, funny, fast-paced and fascinaüng. We broadcast from the basement of the Student Activities Building, using gigantic old turntables that could even accommodate 16" records. I gradually became aware that this was WCBN 89.5 FM. Yes, that was the frequency back then. Originally confined to a carrier current dormitory audience, the student-run radio station at the U of M had obtained a public broadcasting license in 1972. The legends of CBN's beginnings lead back to the 50' s, and to the recesses of East Quad. CBN archives contain fascinating artifacts from long-forgotten proceedings. Particularly intriguing is the role the station has played in Ann Arbor' s opcn-ended coun - terculture circus of intcllcctual freedom, which still thrives, despite the university's trend towards business training and athlc tic investments. But on those mysterious Sunday Nights, when we crammed into Production Studio A with our ancient gramophone selections, we knew nothing of the history of WCBN. We were just damned well pleased to be there. I sat in and absorbed the laid back lunacy of alternative radio. Before Iong I was augmenting the mix in various freeform shows, at all hours. I played mostly Fats Waller's music. At the time, not many students knew about him. I was boisterous, loud, able to shout and spout. I had no idea what I was doing, and improvised fairly well. But it must have been scary for the show hosts, because you never knew what would pop out of my mouth. Apparently they regarded me as an eccentric resource; local color. One day, they switched the frequency to 88.3. This was to make room for WEMU, which today is an NPR affiliate, specializing in Jazz, Blues and World Music, residingat89.1 FM. Severalof CBN's Jazzheads crossed over to WEMU, most notably Michael G. Nastos. Reviewing the years I' ve spent at CBN, it's gratifying to observe how many students evolve for awhile and zip off to New York, L.A., Boston, Seattle, Frisco and Minneapolis, delving directly into broadcasting and music-media careers. WCBN may have a reputation for being loóse, but no one can deny that it is a training ground for young people who are willing to dedícate themselves, develop their abilities, and go out into the world to make a difference. That' s what Alternatives are about. Make a difference, and go ahead on. Opportunities are always plentiful. If you're able to make a difference. One morning, after a New Year's party atmy house, I discovered CBN' s program director sitting on the couch in my record room. She had just woken up and was staring at a wall of 78rpm records. As I activated the Fats Waller tape she quietly stated: "We ' ve got to get you a radio show, boy." This was it! An opportunity to conduct my own proceedings, rather than sitting in as a guest on someone else's time. I took her up on iL Within weeks she was engineering forme. Eventually I chris tened the program "You' ve Got To Be Modernistic," after a hot jazz number from 1929. Since most of my material was hopelessly outmoded, the title seemed wryly apt. In 1980IlandedanFCCpermit,andthe"Modemistic" show is still running Thursdays 7 to 8 pm. The most important lessons I' ve learned from WCBN are musical ones. Teil yourself that all of the music you're familiar with can fit into a thimble. There's oceans of music all around you. Why settle for everything you've ever heard? WCBN can expand your thimble. It surely did a number on mine. But I was fortúnate in that I got to watch the changes. When Ronald Reagan was "elected" to the "presidency" in 1980, WCBN responded by airing Leslie Gore's "It's My Party And FH Cry If I Want To" nonstop for 24 hours. Since then I've established certain broadcasting traditions, including the horrible Thanks-But-No-Thanks-Given specials every November. What is commonly referred to as "Thanksgiving" really bugs me for various historical reasons. Now imagine a mixture of racist children's records, meat songs and tape loops of Lee Oswald being shot, punctuated with the sounds of hogs being slaughtered. This is a Culture Shock Therapy wavelength, and you won't find anything else quite like it on your radio. Alternative information has always thrived at WCBN. Students appear, green and ready to alter the airwaves. Certain resource persons remain on the job 52 weeks out of the year, showing ropes and fielding questions. Between the grizzled townies like myself and the fresh imaginations of the students passing through, we come up with lively, unusualapproachestoprogramming. The concept of freeform is in itself a powerful tooi for exploration, and usually makes for good listenings. All types of music are employed, and soon it bécomes clear that labels don' t mean nothing. Labels for music are for easy marketing, the selling of units. All music is relative. You got that? In recent years, F ve worked at WEMU at Eastem Michigan University, and it' s exciting to catch the news off the sputnik at one minute past the hour. I've visited WFMU in East Orange, New Jersey, where they've moved the radio station into a wood frame house; you broadcast out of the living room. But there's nothing like the gonzo atmosphere of Radio Free Ann Arbor, where young minds go to root down awhile and absorb new views. And every time I get a compliment from a listener, just cause I aired Karlheinz Stockhausen at 6:30 in the moming, I know we're doing something wonderful. I firmly believe that WCBN is doing its part in the air war against homogenous boredom. There are no limits, really. I see it in the faces of the sophomores - no limits. Just poten tials, and realizations.


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