“keep on knocking” – death (2009)

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This year marks a whole decade since the release of …For the Whole World to See by Death, a protopunk band out of Detroit made up of African American musicians.  The album blew me away the first time I heard it.  It was the most exciting thing I had heard in a long time.  Everything about Death was just so fascinating.  From the band’s own journey to the story of the album’s delay and eventual release, it was so mindboggling how such an amazing band never got their due for the longest time. Though the actual anniversary of the album’s release was two months ago, I had some other things going on and knew I would get to it soon.  I knew I would eventually cover it.

I had first heard of Death and their album while working for a National Public Radio affiliate in Bowling Green, KY.  I did board operations every Wednesday and Saturday night, and I would hear shows like various news and arts show during that time.  I cannot remember what show was playing at the time, but it was this environment where I first heard of Death.  It was during a feature on this program that they covered the story behind Death and played cuts from the album.

So, why is their story so important?  These were three black guys from Detroit (Bobby Hackney, Dannis Hackney, and Bobbie Duncan) who started off as a funk band, but changed to rock after seeing The Who perform.  They eventually developed a harder edge and performed music that was a precursor to punk.  In 1975, they started working on their first studio album.  However, Columbia Records didn’t like the name of their band and requested they change it.  The members of Death wouldn’t do it and that is when their studio sessions ended.  The album would eventually be released, with only seven of the original twelve songs planned, in 2009 to critical praise and providing a document to a missing piece of Detroit’s music history.

I was stunned when I first hear Death, and I was shocked that I was hearing about it from NPR.  Before being hired to do board operations, I had never listened to NPR.  At that time, most of my personal life was dedicated to college radio and everything that revolves around a culture of kids on ego trips trying to force their music on everyone else.

I told everyone at my college radio station about Death, but not one seemed to care.  First, if I heard it on NPR, then it must’ve not been cool at all. Second, our station was going through a transition.  The station had been run in a way that many felt was stagnant and didn’t reflect a “progressive sound” culture that we championed.  At that time, the station’s direction reflected the taste and preferences of the student who was hired to be the station manager that year.  The decrease in the station’s quality was even noticed by the university newspaper who ran an article noting the criticisms the station was facing.

As much as the station manager tried to course correct after the article was published, it was the second semester already.  The manager was on his way out since he was graduating that spring, and the younger staff were eager to get new leadership and get back on target towards providing the community with a truly progressive alternative to commercial radio.

I was in my junior year and applied to be the station manager for my senior year.  I knew our station’s vision was off track and I developed plans to get everything back in alignment.  However, I was unable to do carry out my plans.  Due to internal station politics, I was declined for the position.  Plus, I was talking about music I was hearing on NPR and that was just decidedly uncool.  So, Death didn’t make it on the college radio station airwaves when …For the Whole World to See was released in 2009.  My plans to feature interesting music with interesting stories was scrapped and the station adopted the late-aughts hipster sound that was popular with the younger members.  Out with the old, in with the new. I didn’t do much with the station during my senior year.

However, Death did just fine on their own after …For the Whole World to See was released.  A few years after I moved to Chicago, I saw the documentary A Band Called Death at the Music Box Theatre and it was cool to see this incredible band get the attention they deserved after all these years.

The first song I had heard on that NPR feature was the album’s opening track “Keep on Knocking.”  The track open with these guitar power chords and then goes into high gear with pure punk passion.  Raw and angsty, but still tight and controlled, Death comes across as a cohesive entity right out of the gate.  Truly impressive.

If Death was allowed to finish the record, who knows what other great music they could make.  And their story is one of many where a talented, creative band is denied a chance to shine because of some stuff suit in an office.  Gatekeepers, whether they are a record executive or students in a college radio station, can often be blinded by their own interests and prejudices.  It is a lesson everyone needs to learn, one where we consider things outside of ourselves and expose yourself to something new and raw even if unproven.  You just might be surprised.

 

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“alive” – pearl jam (1991)

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College radio was an important part of my life during the tail end of my formative years.  Many of my favorite bands were college radio darlings at the beginning of their careers before becoming more well-known.  Plus, I respected the institution of it as a bastion of terrestrial freedom within an industry and market plagued with stagnation.  However, above all else, I was active in it.

I started college at Western Kentucky University in the fall of 2006 and, within a few weeks, I started volunteering at the campus radio station WWHR Revolution 91.7.  WWHR was an interesting place to start my media career because of the intense focus and structure guided by the general manager of the station.  For one, it was most important that the station not be free-formed.  There had to be a clear sound and philosophy behind our programming.  We weren’t just going to sound like a bunch of kids on the radio like the majority of college radio stations.

Next, the station had to be live 24/7 with a DJ operating the board.  With the exception of overnight hours during the summer and Christmas break, live human DJs were broadcasting around the clock.  Senior volunteers would first pick for shifts while newer volunteers like me would get what was left.  As a result, my first-year shift was Sunday mornings from 6 AM to 10 AM.  This meant my ability to party on Saturday nights was limited, or I just partied all night and powered through my Sunday morning DJ shift in a toxic haze powered by lingering alcohol and sleep deprivation. Oh, to be young again.

Every volunteer was a DJ and could be one after completing training.  However, for those who had a little more ambition, you could take on a leadership role on the board of directors. I spent a year in leadership doing traffic log operations before moving to promotions for a year and a half or so.  There were perks to this.  For one, directors got to go on trips to places like SCSW in Austin, the NAB conference in Vegas, or conferences in NYC.  The downside to all of this was there was the dreaded “director on duty” week.  You got a special flip phone to carry with you to answer whenever a problem ever came up.  And you had to drop what you were doing to handle it.  On a date but the DJ didn’t show up?  Tough shit.  Tuck it back in your pants, play indie rock for three hours, and take care of your blue balls on your own time.  The station doesn’t wait.

I was 18 when I started and 22 when I graduated.  In those four years, I had a lot of interesting experiences.  Most were good, but some were not.  And that’s fine.  A college radio station, which is essentially a collegiate club, is a strange place to be.  It is a microcosm of ego, hormones, and whatever else fuels awkward people transitioning from being kids into something that kind of resembles adulthood.  Naturally, an environment like that is ripe for drama but it is also a place where you make friends and get a sense of the kind of person you want to be.  What pissed me off and stressed me out no longer bothers me and I don’t hold onto to stupid grudges based on college nonsense.  We were all just kids trying to figure it out amidst all the fights, fucking, and fun.

This month marks 30 years since the launch of WWHR’s broadcast.  When it launched in October 1988, the station was called New Rock 92.  Back then, I imagine it was your typical college radio station; freeform and a place for kids to goof off.  Though, in 2001, the station was rebranded as Revolution 91.7 with a specific philosophy guiding the broadcast and aided by a new 30-mile radius transmitter.  The freeform was gone, but we still got to goof off in our own ways.

The last DJ shift of a volunteer was always a special thing.  In the last shift, a DJ could ignore the programming logs and play whatever they wanted.  They had earned the right.  And people would spend months planning their final shift.

I put a little thought into my last shift, but not much.  My musical knowledge, taste, and diversity is more complex and expanded now than when I was 22.  If I could go back in time with what I know now, I’m sure I could’ve crafted a really awesome playlist.  Instead, I just kinda winged it.  And that’s fine.  I don’t think it’s a bad way to go out.  After spending over three years following what a sheet of paper told me, perhaps going freeform with very little thought of what to play was the most spirited and alternative way to end my college radio career.  It is a big middle finger to the establishment within the establishment.  That is very rock and roll.

My last song I played was “Alive” by Pearl Jam.  The band’s first ever single from their debut album Ten, I played it because it was the most quintessentially alternative song I could think of at that time (yeah, I could’ve played something truly alternative, but I didn’t know as much back then so you Gen-Xers can chill out).  I loved the guitar that powers through the end of the song and the passionate shouts from Eddie Vedder.  I played it loud and rocked out in that studio one last time.  The same studio where I spent countless hours as a DJ, hanging out with friends, and doing all kinds of things only a young college student would be so brazen to get away with.

My college radio spirit hasn’t left me.  I’ve moved onto community radio.  I volunteer with a station in Chicago.  I don’t currently DJ (and haven’t since college), but I engage as a volunteer in ways that are helpful to my career.  I’ve also made a lot of great friends.  The age and background of our volunteers is a lot more diverse, but we have tinges of the kind of drama you would find in college radio (as you would with any large volunteer organization).  In many ways, the station I’m at now is a better station.  It is more professional and has a broader presence in the community. However, I won’t have the same memories like those I made while volunteering at Revolution 91.7.  For all the good and bad, it is a place I’ll always cherish.

“cool disc jockey” – boyd bennett and his rockets (1959)

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The Chicago Independent Radio Project (CHIRP Radio) started their fall fundraising campaign this week.  To do my part, I have set up a fundraising campaign and have begun to solicit donations from friends, family, and colleagues to contribute.  I’m doing this because CHIRP Radio has been a big part of my life in Chicago.  I believe in CHIRP Radio.  And as I was setting up my donation page and crafting personal messages to people to request donations, I spent a lot of time thinking about my personal connection with CHIRP; my story of how I discovered and became involved with such a great radio station.

I moved to Chicago at the end of February in 2011.  When I moved here, I had never been to Chicago before, didn’t have a job lined up, and didn’t know a single person in this city.  I travelled across the country from Alaska to start brand new without the aid of school, family, friends, a job, or any other of the institutions available to make difficult transitions easier.  It was as fresh of a start as you can possibly get.

No one can ever accuse me of being lazy because I am an extremely motivated person.  A lot of this has to do with ambition.  I seek new challenges and find ways to succeed at them to gain some personal satisfaction.  Plenty of good things come that like meeting people or gaining professional experience.  Getting your hands dirty and trying new things, I find, make an exciting life.  Plus, there is also the practical thing that motivation and ambition can generate income.  And being brand new in a city with no prior resources or connections can drain the bank account quickly, so finding work quickly means being resourceful and proactive.

Priority number one was to find stable employment that allowed me to live alone comfortably.  However, I also had to stay grounded and remind myself that I needed to have fun.  I was in Chicago after all!  Moving here was an exciting new adventure.  I had a few months where I could enjoy not having responsibilities before hitting the grindstone at the ol’ 9-to-5.  This is when I needed have a completely open mind and enjoy what this city had to offer.

I’ve talked about my transition to Chicago several times and this post isn’t about that.  It is about reflecting on a period of my life when I discovered CHIRP Radio.  Everything else is just exposition.

During this time, I was living in Rogers Park by the lake as my first neighborhood.   When I wasn’t exploring the Northside along the redline, I was venturing into Evanston because I was just so close to it.  Right off the Dempster purple line stop, there was this great used record store called Second Hand Tunes (it isn’t there anymore).   That was my primary record store.  I had developed a decent CD collection over the years, but I had start collecting vinyl.  Second Hand Tunes was where I bought a lot of the first records I would own.

It was also the first place where I had heard about CHIRP Radio.  There was a bulletin board in the corner on the right as soon as you walked in.  It had the standard fare; bands looking for members, ads for Evanston businesses, and info about upcoming shows and festivals.  On that board, there was a sign that was visually different than everything else on the board.  It was larger, printed on a thicker stock, and quite colorful.  It contained an illustration of a gramophone and featured a little bird.  The poster advertised an upcoming record fair and one that had been an annual event for several years already.  Everything about this from the quality of the poster to the longevity of the event told me this was a great place to be involved with.  That image of that poster is burned in my mind as my first introduction to CHIRP Radio.

Sadly, I did not go to the record fair despite that impressive poster.  I was still relatively jobless and the thought of being surrounded by thousands of great records made my wallet hurt.  So, I kept it in the back of my mind.

By that summer, I got a job which meant money and the security that comes with that.  I was now taking in the sites at the many street festivals this city has to offer.  One summer day, I was touring Edge Fest (in the Edgewater neighborhood) with some friends.  We got food and drinks and listened to music; all the standard street fest stuff.

It was at Edge Fest that I first saw CHIRP Radio in person.  They had a tent set up with a couple people sitting below it with a table full of goodies.  These were the first people from Chirp I had met and we talked for a few minutes.  I spent most of my time talking with a guy named “Steve” who told me about what I was like volunteering with CHIRP.  I had some knowledge of how radio volunteering worked after doing that for four years at my college radio station.  However, I knew being involved with CHIRP would be different.  This was a much larger city than my college town, was more involved with the local community, and it wasn’t entirely staffed with college students.  Talking with Steve was great and I knew that I wanted to be involved with CHIRP as soon as possible.

That was the summer of 2011.  It wouldn’t be until January 2014 when I would start volunteering.  The excitement over the job I just got quickly faded as it became a real nightmare.  I’ve talked about the experience before, but its relevancy to my involvement with CHIRP was that my employer made me sign a document preventing me from volunteering anywhere.  Looking back, I really don’t think that was legal.  Regardless, I didn’t have time to volunteer because I was working so much.  Until I got the opportunity to volunteer, I would just listen to their online in the meantime.

I was an active listener for almost three years before getting the opportunity to join CHIRP which didn’t happen until I parted ways with my employer.  I was patient and I really wanted this.  So, I was going to give this volunteer gig my absolute best effort.  I had some other things going on in my life, so I started doing what I could.  I tabled a lot of events because I enjoyed getting out there and talking about community radio.  My first time seeing CHIRP was at a street fest and that was where I wanted to be; talking with the people about great music and art.

As time went on and life situations settled, I knew I wanted to have more responsibility.  So, I signed up for a leadership position.  I wanted to do a job that involved organizing, public outreach, and would be beneficial to my professional development by looking good on my resume.  So, I became their new Partnerships Coordinator.  Specifically working within the realm of fine arts, I took my involvement with CHIRP to the next level by strategically developing partnerships and sponsorships with local non-profits and organizations to raise awareness for CHIRP’s brand and provide exposure for our partners.  With that work, I’ve been able to support community organizations and businesses.  The work was (and still is) satisfying and makes me feel great.

I have been in CHIRP for almost four years.  And it is a station that I absolutely love and has done so much for me. I really respect their engagement with the community and building up the people within it.  And I feel proud to have been involved with that.

The 501(c)(3) status was established a decade ago with the online streaming component starting seven years ago.  For seven years, CHIRP had broadcast exclusively online but managed to build a considerable hometown following.  And that is due to their strong focus on public outreach and community engagement.  Through the hard work of hundreds of volunteers committing thousands of hours over the years to creating an independent voice for Chicago, CHIRP has not become a cultural institution in Chicago.  It was that focus on community engagement that attracted me to something that would become a valuable part of my life.

A decade after its inception, the station is taking a huge step.  A broadcast license had been obtained and the funds collected to install a transmitter.  On October 21 at noon, CHIRP Radio will start broadcasting live to radios in your car and home.  This is an incredibly big accomplishment for any low-power station and another element that keeps the station focused on building a better community through art and people.

I’ve been listening to a lot of great songs about radio stations and disc jockeys to celebrate the occasion.  In 2006, Bob Dylan premiered his radio show Theme Time Radio Hour on XM Satellite Radio.  Each episode would be centered on a theme and Dylan would play tracks relating to that theme.  None of the show’s themes were vague or overplayed concepts like love or whatever.  Instead, episodes were devoted to more concrete themes like shoes, weather, Tennessee, or coffee.

On August 30, 2006, the “radio” episode premiered and featured a great collection of songs about the radio by artists like the Clash, Lord Melody, and Van Morrison.  It had been years since I listened to this show and I’ve enjoyed the radio-themed episode especially lately.

One of my favorite tracks from the episode is “Cool Disc Jockey” by Boyd Bennett and his Rockets.  Released as a single in 1959 on King Records, “Cool Disc Jockey” is a fun, swinging rockabilly tune that is pure fun and celebrates the iconic figure that brings us the best music around.  And frankly, CHIRP does have some pretty cool disc jockeys.  And CHIRP Radio has the coolest tunes in town.

CHIRP has been going strong for a solid decade.  I am proud to have been involved with the last four years.  However, I’m looking forward to being a part of something special as it enters its second decade.