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RADIO: GET YOUR OWN SHOW! by Don Joyce
Voices and musical fragments, environmental noises, electronic glitches, mechanical rumblings -- a live tapestry of call-and-response created from the things you hear every day, some of it on the radio. Whatever you call it -- avant rock, radio art, sound animation -- it's fun, it's live, and it's waiting to be explored. On "Over The Edge, " the entire studio becomes an instrument in a weekly session of live spontaneous sound combustion with the band Negativland. This is radio that tries to be something rather than be about something.
The options now open for innovation in radio formatting are all but invisible. The commercial radio giant sleeps in the arms of accountants, salespeople, and attorneys paid to see red lights. It is hopelessly smothered by ratings and, like TV, operates with a copycat mentality that finds safety in numbers. The audio artist interested in the indiscriminate radio signal as a carrier of new cultural proposals must look to the non commercial arena. But even here, as within our own minds, stubborn barriers to innovation exist: format formulas and expectations of the medium are all too easy to go along with.
In 1981 I was doing an all-night show called "Over the Edge" on KPFA, Berkeley. It was an unusual mix of various musical styles and eras with some comedy, spoken word, and theme sets, but my approach to recorded material was still that of a disc jockey. I had come to radio from a background in painting, and I had a suspicion that radio could be used to originate. Most radio is about the recording industry. Even Public Radio, which likes to think of itself as a significant cultural force, rarely takes the role of an originator. It's usually about some other aspect of culture, for which radio, itself, is only the messenger.
Public Radio and the Pacifica Network, of which KPFA is a part, are completely dominated by information people, not artists or originators. The greatest fear information people have is confusion. The are unable to see the value in it. Confusion is a very healthy and productive state of perception in which conventions are overturned. Confronting something unfamiliar and unexplained, people think and perceive very acutely, and must draw up meaning from within themselves.
Mass media is obsessed with interpreting -- interposing its own evaluators between the subject and the public. This reaches the zenith of absurdity when someone gives a broadcast speech which is immediately followed by a panel of interpreters who tell us what was just said. As an artist the only way to avoid the constant filtering of you ideas through "interpreters" is to GET YOUR OWN SHOW.
Soon after beginning "Over The Edge" I became associated with Negativland, a variable group of three to five people who make records at home and perform occasionally. Their works are odd collages of all kinds of music, noise, taped material, and found sounds. They were interested in radio and I was ready to go over the edge, so we began to do "Over The Edge" together. I learned a lot from them about how the manipulation of content could become a new kind of content. Up to that time I had never even stopped a record before it was over.
It's well known in the record industry that the studio is, itself, an instrument. Many of the sounds and the quality of sounds on records are created by studio devices, not by musicians and microphones. Multi-track recording has encouraged the deconstruction of music. Now music is created piecemeal in time and space. It's a series of elements that exist on separate, manipulatable tape tracks which are ultimately fitted together to form the whole.
It was a small leap of the imagination to see the broadcast studio used as an instrument. We began doing "Over The Edge" with this in mind. The KPFA on-air studio contains six microphones, four reel-to-reel tape decks, three cart machines, three turntables, a cassette machine, and a CD player. During the normal broadcast day, the equipment is used one piece at a time. We decided to use them together, to make a continuous live mix with a variety of material. We also brought in guitars, synthesizers, percussion, effects devices, noisemakers, and sometimes even scripts.
Most of the time "Over The Edge" is a spontaneous, unrehearsed mix, with several people operating various machines and instruments in what I would call "conversational composition" -- turning sources on and off in a sort of call-and-response fashion, looking for a gap in which to place a sound, never knowing what is to come from other sources. Everything is done together, in real time. Audio chaos is always a possibility.
We are now proficient at twisting any broadcast source into a new and unrecognizable sound or texture. This can range from burying a record so deep in reverb that it becomes a waterfall of sounds, to sampling fragments of whatever is playing, then sampling the sample, then putting it through a reverse regeneration mode and making an endless backwards percussion of it. We also use relevant spoken material: it is broken up, often edited to say something new, and interspersed with everything else that is going on. In doing this, I have learned to cultivate coincidences. How it happens is still a mystery to me, but it comes with experience.
We include public access via telephone in addition to the equipment and audio material we bring to "Over The Edge." We can punch in two callers at a time, often putting them in the left and right channels of our stereo mix. (We make use of extreme stereo all the time, something often ignored by stereo broadcaster.) Our use of live callers is called Receptacle Programming and our motto is "Don't say hello." Callers should not expect to converse with us but whatever they wish to say or do becomes an element in the ongoing mix. This might involve tapes or instrument played over the phone, or singing, ranting, raving, rude noises, or just talk.
Our phones are undelayed and callers are unscreened. If you listen to talk radio, you realize when the host and caller talk at the same time, the caller's sound is automatically suppressed. This insidious technological innovation of the '70s suppresses the phone input to give the host the upper hand. Raw talk radio, the closest thing this society had to interactive mass media, was soon found too raucous and uncontrollable for commercial tastes. Now it's all heavily formatted and straightjacketed with delayed censorship and audio suppression.
Negativland has invented another use for phone lines. It is a new concept in touring without traveling called the Radio Teletours. These are the concerts we play in our own studio, which are connected by telephone to a radio station. The station broadcasts the concert live over their on-air phone line. We developed a special line transforming device that increases the fidelity of a normal phone line from our end. We hook up our studio mixer to this, and then into the phone line, so we are able to play a concert just as we would on stage, sending our whole mix over a long distance phone line. This does not produce true high fidelity, but we get unusually good audio quality with decent highs, low, and clarity.
The teletour concerts are free, with the receiving station paying only for the call. Earlier this year we toured about 20 cities -- including cities on the East coast, in Hawaii, and in England. Except for the BBC in England, the receiving stations were all college stations.
As for "Over The Edge," the techniques used for sound organization are really not the most original thing about the radio show. Unfortunately the two most original factors are that it's created live, and that it appears on a regular, weekly basis. Live radio has virtually disappeared on a national scale. The satellite distribution system, for all its usefulness in spreading recorded programs, does not encourage live transmissions. Every downlink station has the option to record for rebroadcast and then fit the program into their own schedule of pre-recorded programming.
Secondly, when live events do occur locally, they are always one-shot events. They happen once and are gone, giving the impression that such work is special, rare, esoteric, and somehow impossible to manage on a regular basis. Live radio composition remains an outsider, unless it can be a continuing event, appearing in regularly scheduled slots that listeners can grow accustomed to over time.
"Over The Edge," which incorporates live listener input, would never have achieved its present level of sophistication if it had not had years to develop, and years to develop a following which has learned how to use it. The many levels of permutations possible in live broadcasting will never occur to anyone as long as the form is "new" each time it occurs. I would like to see live radio art get beyond the one-shot mentality of sensationalism. I would like to see what it might mean and how it might be used when it becomes as expectable as the news. I repeat: GET YOUR OWN SHOW!
Negativland has released four records, the latest of which is Escape From Noise (SST 133). A new record, Helter Stupid, will be released in early 1989.
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