Freeform radio: freaking the frequencies

by Paul Pearson, The Stranger

Although it's become a popular pastime for many, I have reservations about criticizing KEXP.

One, I've never worked there. Two, the station doesn't suck. I've heard the depths of suckhood, and KEXP isn't there. Three, I have acquaintances and friends who do great shows on KEXP, and I don't want to diminish my appreciation.

The biggest reason for my reservations is personal: After bashing KCMU in 1992–93 as an officer in CURSE, I'm wary about doing so again now that it's KEXP.

Talking about that time is no fun for me, but, briefly, here's the background: CURSE stood for "Censorship Undermines Radio Station Ethics." It was a coalition of KCMU volunteers and listeners, formed in response to highly unpopular programming changes KCMU made in 1992. These included adding a tame, syndicated music show, World Cafe, which displaced some volunteer DJs. There was also an objective on management's part to veer from "harsh and abrasive music." I think the station manager believed Soundgarden was killing America, or something to that effect. Maybe it was Fugazi.

When volunteers offered criticism of these changes, they were dismissed. Hence the "censorship." So we got CURSE together, called for a station boycott, produced the propagandist tract CURSEword (which I edited, with Marsh Gooch), and led a somewhat successful campaign to divert contributions from KCMU's fundraiser. They called us names; we called them names. Nasty times they were, our own little high-wattage Bastille, but without the romance.

CURSE ultimately won the war in court, where the judge decided in the fired volunteers' favor. Since none actually returned to the station, the victory was mainly a moral one: all the righteousness, none of the satisfaction or book deals. I then moved to Olympia for some real radio experience at KAOS (kaos.evergreen.edu).

CURSE's freedom-of-speech war sometimes lapsed into aesthetic debates, which I avidly stoked, and now wish I hadn't. They're unwinnable battles about subjective topics. I don't relish such pissing contests, even among friends in protective bodysuits.

But the July 19 firing of DJ Greg Jaspan from KEXP raised some disillusionment on The Stranger's Line Out blog, where the ex-employee has been stating his case. Jaspan's manifestos have produced arguments among Line Out readers about whether KEXP is a corporate sellout. Some claim the station went south when Paul Allen gave it money (I dispute that). Others sense arrogance in KEXP's grip over the public-radio market in Seattle (I can't tell).

Jaspan says KEXP's rotation requirements—which state "variety," DJs must play six to eight tracks an hour from a finite list of current albums as determined by station managers—exceed the average public radio station's rotation scheme, if there is one at all. Since KEXP's rotation skews heavily toward rock, Jaspan says, other genres are underrepresented.

Then there are KEXP's money and corporate sponsors, which Jaspan says made some KEXP employees tweak their station's slogan to "Where the money matters."

Financial success doesn't automatically turn a station into shit. It hasn't quite done that to KEXP, though I wince when its DJs play something I know is on the current Billboard Modern Rock chart. What cash does is magnify the bottom line, and clip stray branches that scrape against it.

I'm not just talking about big-money stations not playing the new CD from seven theremin players doing Norwegian death metal in waltz time. I mean entire eras, whole histories, being shelved.

Bellevue's KBCS (kbcs.fm), where each individual show has its own self-contained focus, does the region a gigantic service by airing Democracy Now! and giving blues, jazz, folk, R&B, Americana, and electronic music an outlet. However, KBCS omits contemporary and college rock. I appreciate why, but it still excludes.

With KEXP and KUOW entrenched, and KBCS taking up slack, the left hand of the Seattle dial appears booked. But I'd be lying if I said I haven't fantasized about something that could be added to Seattle terrestrial radio that could find an audience if properly executed.

And that something is... freeform radio.

The phrase "freeform radio" carries unfortunate connotations, many of which are tied to curious, and as far as I know totally unproven, notions about artistic reach and maturity.

Some think freeform is childish. It rejects discipline. It lacks structure. It serves no other purpose than gratification of a DJ's id. There are also the blood-curdling images of hippie culture: interminable programs featuring Dead bootlegs, with the DJ having to navigate his arm around a smoldering hookah to change the record.

If not for the trendy root word "free," "freeform" would be about as popular as a lupus outbreak. Freeform could quickly turn disastrous.

But it can thrive. Just go to New Jersey. WFMU (www.wfmu.org) in Jersey City has been around for 48 years. It's been freeform since the late '60s. Its program guide is a taxonomist's nightmare, with country, metal, comedy, soul, experimental, and just plain absurd shows, alongside indie rock.

One show plays music recorded on cylinders and heavy discs between the years 1895 and 1925. WFMU jock Irwin Chusid is almost singly responsible for the preservation of "outsider music" in America. Country singer Laura Cantrell hosts a show. Many Famous People love the station. WFMU has a patent pull on American counterculture, and does so with no rotation.

WFMU fundraisers usually bring in about a million each. None of it comes from companies. In fact, station manager Ken Freedman says WFMU refuses all corporate funding based on "general principle."

Listening to WFMU can inspire the audience to launch expeditions to find the music it plays. Maybe that happens often with you, but with me it's only happened with WFMU. That's the difference between "supporting" a public station and "believing" in one—when it transforms, not just comforts.

Now, one station's über-eclecticism is another station's bludgeoned gumball machine. It's annoying that someone hip enough to love KEXP would take the red-state, vaguely xenophobic route of poking fun at people who want to cast a wider net. ("I am appalled at the lack of Trinidadian calypso music on KEXP," one Line Out poster smirked.)

I'm convinced there's a way freeform can be welcomed and revered as an asset in Seattle. Well, once we find someone willing to fund the initial operations budget, a sum I don't quite have on me at the moment. I blew all my money on napalm last week.

Never mind, Captain Intrepid. Let's go dreamin'. Assuming we have an available frequency, money, a skeletal crew, a deep catalog, and the necessary equipment, how do we keep our freeform station—let's call it KORK—from turning into a turd orgy?

First, you establish a very important tenet: Freeform is not synonymous with irresponsibility. What's being freed up is genre, rotation, and subject restrictions. You should not willfully do crap shows. All your crap shows should be accidents.

KORK therefore screens prospective programmers. It should take little more than an hour's conversation to determine whether new talk-show hosts or DJs are going to strive for quality, or whether they're just going to sling spittle all over King County for three hours weekly. If a host has a cohesive mission and commitment, he/she is in. Just have the candidate answer, "How have you thought through this show so it will be unique?" Music-show hosts don't even have to be that articulate with their plans; they just have to be believable.

Here's the hilarious, choked-with-irony part. I just said I flinch when KEXP plays a song that's on the Billboard charts, something I might conceivably hear on commercial radio. My most recent example was when someone played "Message of Love" by the Pretenders. I love the Pretenders, love the song—have heard it a zillion times. So it's going to sound hypocritical for me to say that KORK should have no restrictions whatsoever on the music it plays, except FCC profanity regulations. Every piece of music—hit, miss, success, failure, next big thing, least likely thing—that comes across the desk at KORK should be eligible for airplay. Maximum glasnost.

Why will we allow this? Because KORK's staff of volunteers will be swashbucklers skilled in the Art of Context. I'll Photoshop the shield crest when I'm done here.

For genre-specific and historical shows, it'll be difficult to limit selections to brand-new indie albums. Sure, it'd be great to stick with lesser-known works by popular artists—in the above reference, why not "The English Roses" from Pretenders II instead of "Message of Love"?

But you know what? Screw me. That's just my snobbish preference. I'm willing to be subject to the liberties of KORK, and if KORK does not announce a preferential hierarchy, it shouldn't be bound by one. In a variety music show, a popular song could gain new meaning when juxtaposed with other different, lesser-known works. I tried this once on my KAOS show with "Give a Little Bit" by Supertramp. Maybe it didn't sound different, but it sure sounded new coming on the heels of God Is My Co-Pilot.

That's how freeform stations work—the acceptance of stark contrasts, whether they be song-to-song or program-to-program.

Granted, the ultimate liberty of the KORK playlist would result in some unsound programming decisions. It's to be hoped that these can be isolated. One KAOS DJ I knew in the '90s played Primus' "My Name Is Mud" and Bauhaus' "Bela Lugosi's Dead" every week. That's self-indulgence, in my opinion: phoning it in. Mega-eclecticism isn't self-indulgence because at least you're trying. Indulgence implies that you're sedentary, stuffing chocolate truffles down your gullet while on a recliner, being fanned by the cabana boys from Night of the Iguana.

I believe—well, hope—the access to all musical works will encourage KORK DJs to slip into the library and retrieve something they haven't heard before. They'll pass that on to the listeners. And then everybody learns something new from that show, or at least spits out their beverages in unison.

With the lineup set, we'd have to get the KORK name ingested by the community. KEXP and WFMU both do this brilliantly. Seek out locally owned business sponsorships, develop graphic recognition via logos and websites. You might have to take cues from mainstream American business, but there's nothing inherently dirty about that.

Finally, be prepared for KORK to not be a runaway financial success. WFMU is set for life, but it's served the number-one market in America for half a century. There are probably enough people in New York willing to fund 15 WFMUs. But its listener loyalty over three-plus decades is remarkable, and the station attained it by never underestimating its audience's intelligence and valor.

A main component of KORK's philosophy would be that hosting shows is a privilege—it's okay to be enthusiastic, giddy, jocular about it. Even if you're an all-knowing snooty twit, you can enthuse. That enthusiasm should trickle down to the listeners. Humor helps.

Forget the money. It's not about money. Your financial imperative is significantly reduced by having all-volunteer programming. Maybe it's unreasonable to expect people will do radio shows with no direct compensation. But several have done so at KAOS, one for more than 30 years. I did Shrug Festival for six-and-a-half years without once getting salary or payola. (Unless you count the Jägermeister that Vern Rumsey from Unwound once bought me at the Brotherhood in Olympia. But that's not payola. I still owe Vern five bucks.)

There you go. The founding operating principles of KORK. I know: void, sunny optimism. Excuse me as I traipse through daisy-spotted meadows in a frock, whistling Rodgers and Hammerstein. But deep down, I think I'm right.

Next comes the part about the billionaire philanthropist. Haven't worked that out yet. I'll get back to you.

article originally published at http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/Content?oid=55930.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey