Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Why I left BuzzFe... er, I mean, why I got the fuck away from terrestrial radio

Baby Driver

This is the eighth of 12 or 13 all-new blog posts that are being posted on a monthly basis until this blog's final post in December 2017.

Named after a Simon & Garfunkel tune that's like a turtlenecked-and-khaki-pantsed precursor to Prince's "Little Red Corvette" ("I hit the road and I'm gone"), Baby Driver is Edgar Wright's wonderful antidote to superhero movie fatigue (the recent thrills of Wonder Woman aside), as well as a subtle rebuke to the often-afraid-of-idiosyncrasy superhero movie studio system that chewed the idiosyncratic Wright up and spat him out (back in 2014). Wright's caper flick is the inventively told, occasionally Kid Koala-scored story of a 20-something getaway driver known simply as Baby, whose method of drowning out the tinnitus he's suffered from since childhood is to continually play the likes of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Bob & Earl in his omnipresent iPod earbuds, even during high-speed car chases. While mowing through truffle parmesan butter popcorn at a Baby Driver screening at the Alamo Drafthouse, I realized Wright basically made a movie about me.

Sure, I'm not a getaway driver and I can't parkour my way out of a tight spot like Baby astoundingly can at one point during Baby Driver, but at all hours in my apartment building, I always wear headphones full of music from my phone or my Mac, not to drown out tinnitus, but to drown out annoying footstep noises from my apartment's paper-thin ceiling. Atop the ceiling, it always sounds like two elephants fucking.

Baby Driver

Part of the challenge of writing these blog posts in the past nine years--and now, in addition to the posts, a prose novel manuscript--has been trying to concentrate while all these infuriating noises from my ceiling ensue. If it weren't for my headphones drowning those noises out, I don't think I could ever get any shit done in my apartment, and I don't think I could ever sleep at night either (for that, I switch off the music and put on in my headphones a copy of one of those eight-hour YouTube audio clips of starship white noise from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and then I'm out cold like Riker after having to listen to Data's poetry slam).

The music I hear while being perpetually clad in headphones largely consists of mixes like these:

Baby uses his favorite tunes to also time both his passengers' heists (kind of like what Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello did during their heists in Hudson Hawk) and his own escapes, whereas I can't be constantly clicking to one song after another like Baby doesn't mind doing. It simply interrupts my creative flow. Lengthy mixes like the above live sets by the likes of Qbert and Cosmo Baker spare me the trouble of having to constantly stop typing just to open another song on QuickTime (my favorite audio player on my Mac) after one song's over.

Then whenever such a 45-to-90 minute mix concludes, I sometimes open the FM radio app on my phone to check if any terrestrial radio stations are playing anything worthwhile so that I can continue shielding my ears from the upstairs elephant booty call or some five-year-old kid's upstairs reenactment of "Near and Far!" from Sesame Street. In all these hours I've spent with headphones on while writing, I've discovered through the FM radio app that a lot of present-day Bay Area terrestrial radio is pretty fucking dire.

Unless I'm mistaken, no Bay Area stations do "No Repeat Thursdays" anymore. A lot of repetition goes on in their playlists. It's as if the music of a current favorite R&B producer of mine, the prolific Dev Hynes, doesn't exist. The late Prince left behind a massive catalog of music, but in the Bay Area, you wouldn't know how massive it is because only three Prince tunes get airplay on the airwaves in the Bay these days: "I Would Die 4 U" and the shortened versions of "When Doves Cry" and "Purple Rain." That's it. The classic rock station KUFX (which confusingly brands itself as KFOX) is so white that the only Prince joint it plays is "Stand Back" by Stevie Nicks (Prince was an uncredited keyboardist on "Stand Back").

The only times when Bay Area terrestrial radio truly comes alive are the mix shows, where Asian American mixers get to be the star of the show by killing it on the turntables, and the monotony and repetitiveness of the normal playlists get temporarily shaken up by either mash-ups, remixes or the original (and more soulfully sung) Spanish versions of certain current pop songs. Also during these mix shows, you get to hear something from Prince that has nothing to do with either martyrdom, doves or rain.

In fact, I've got it all down to a science: I switch on Bay Area terrestrial radio only at noon, when DJ Rick Lee "The Dragon" takes over the ones and twos on KMEL; 5pm, when DJ Mind Motion does the same during Chuy Gomez's shift on Hot 105.7; 7:50pm, when Wild 94.9's DJ Patrix starts mixing and bantering with the enjoyably self-deprecating Gabby Diaz, perhaps my current favorite Bay Area nighttime radio host because of how often (during Patrix's mixes) she makes fun of her own accidental brain farts, her pasty legs and her mustache (her brief mentions of her off-the-air attempts to have her mustache removed always crack me up because my mom has a mustache too, but unlike Gabby, my mom refuses to have her upper lip waxed); and Saturday nights at midnight, when Cutso, TRUTHLiVE and various special guest mixers take the reins on Wild 94.9 for Rebel Pop Radio.

DJ Patrix and Gabby Diaz

Oh, and the way-too-commercial-heavy Bolly 92.3 might occasionally play something dope like "Nashe Si Chadh Gayi," which comes from the Paris-based 2016 Indian movie Befikre and interestingly alternates between Hindi and French lyrics. And the commercial-free KDFC might occasionally play a film score cue or a full orchestra's re-recording of a beloved movie theme. And Chuy Gomez or Q102.1 might play during their respective Sunday oldies shows an underplayed gem that makes you wish the South Bay had a terrestrial station that's more along the lines of KDAY. Oh, and I can't forget how much I like to listen to Dubs games in my headphones. But otherwise, Bay Area terrestrial radio is dire.

And had I continued hosting my old college radio program A Fistful of Soundtracks on Bay Area terrestrial radio (more specifically, Central Coast terrestrial radio) instead of taking it to Internet radio (which I did a year before leaving college radio, in fact) and expanding it into a 24-hour Live365 station of the same name that lasted 13 years (until Live365 folded), I don't think AFOS would have lasted as long. (By the way, from here on out, every time AFOS is in italics, I'm referring to the hour-long program that originated on college radio in 1997 as a two-hour one, became exclusive to the Internet in 2003 and ended in 2008. Every time AFOS is not in italics, I'm referring to the 24-hour station of the same name, which stopped streaming in 2016. I was so fucking stupid in 2003. I should have renamed the hour-long program that year so that all this confusion wouldn't occur.)

If I stayed in college radio past 2002, I likely would have gotten tired of hosting and producing AFOS after about a few months. On my own as a Live365 broadcaster, that same type of creative burnout didn't develop until about five years after I relaunched the college radio program on the Web. I also doubt I would have had the many kinds of loyal listeners I befriended during the AFOS channel's 13 years and have continued to occasionally encounter for the first time online, even long after the channel's demise.

When AFOS was on terrestrial radio, doing that program on my campus radio station wasn't really a natural fit for me. I like being a misfit, but I also like to feel like I belong somewhere. (Does that even make any sense?) I rarely felt like I belonged at that station, and I would occasionally receive from the station absurd notes about my program like this:

That was one reason why I bounced and made the move to Internet radio: on my own, I would no longer have to receive notes from higher-ups like that stern warning to DJs about playing half-hour cassette recordings of Ted Koppel (when your station has a crazy person who plays audio from Nightline for a half an hour and never does anything fun with it like taking the voices of Koppel and his interviewees and doing Qbert-style or Kid Koala-style scratching with those voices, that's one of the universe's ways of telling you it's time to bounce), and I would no longer have to do pledge drives either because I hated doing pledge drives (plus college radio DJs never get paid, which doesn't make a lick of sense). Another reason was because I had a feeling that the Internet, where anything has a niche, was where AFOS would be able to find a lot more fans who would understand what I was trying to do with my program, which was to give the underappreciated art of film and TV score music some shine and sometimes deliver behind-the-scenes details (or brutally honest commentary) about an original score or the project it was written for.

I knew that on the Internet, there would be a lot less people like either 1) the local callers who would ask me if I could play some pop song that was never written for a movie (although requests like that, as well as the occasional complaint from some dumb asshole that I talk too much in between the music, would continue to haunt my inbox from 2002 to 2006) or 2) my older brother. He insisted that I stop pre-recording my program or do any fancy editing beforehand and just do the program completely live, exactly like how all other college radio DJs do their programs, which I refused to do because it wasn't the kind of program I wanted to host. What I preferred to host was a program that sounded much more polished yet wasn't so fucking posh. He was--and is annoyingly still--incapable of understanding that film and TV score music is not like most other genres of music on the radio. It can be a tricky genre of music to handle on the radio for so many reasons, and scripting and pre-recording the program helped make it all much less tricky.

Outside of classical music, score music is the only genre where the pronunciations of the names of composers and performers are so damn difficult. Because it's primarily instrumental, it's also the only genre where a bit of context to set the stage for a composition's non-verbal and unconventional nature is absolutely necessary, whether that context is in the form of a simple intro that IDs the origin of the score cue you're about to hear or, in the cases of the new hour-long mixes I currently post on Mixcloud, a soundbite from the source of the composition. Without that context, you're completely lost and confused about what you're hearing, unless you're familiar with the movie or TV show the cue comes from. Because there are often no lyrics, score music is the only genre in which the Googling of lyrics posted on Genius will not help you ID a tune you're not familiar with.

And I've found that any subject that's related to film or TV comes attached with a lot of elaborate facts to share and substantial trivia that's more than just "Hey, Gal Gadot and the little girl who played her younger self back on Themyscira share the same birthday!" or "Michael J. Fox is allergic to carrots!" The elaborate reasons for why Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock's longtime working relationship fell apart are kind of difficult to ad-lib off the top of your head. Sure, Greg Proops, a veteran improv comic and stand-up, can easily ad-lib that Herrmann/Hitchcock story off the top of his head if he ever felt like doing so during The Smartest Man in the World and Greg Proops Film Club. But I'm not Greg Proops.

My older brother would often say to me, "You should try to host your show without relying on those scripts you're always typing out for the show." My reaction to that in my head was always "My brother's knowledgeable about everything else, but in the radio show hosting department, my brother doesn't know shit." During the kind of film-related program I wanted to do, you can't just fucking wing it. You need a script to guide you through the complicated pronunciations and historical facts. I offer as evidence the amount of context and info Karina Longworth delivers during her impeccably edited Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This. It's simply difficult to ad-lib much of that.

Sure, I had loyal listeners during the college radio years who understood, a little better than my brother did, what I was trying to do with my pre-recorded program, but they were never as passionate about the program (or as knowledgeable about score music) as a lot of the Internet radio incarnation's listeners later were. This is how passionate some of those folks were: they would either send me AFOS fan art or recreate playlists I assembled (and they even gave those playlists their own key art), track by track, so that they could revisit them any time they want, because both my program's airplay of music that's not podsafe and the headaches that would have developed from having to deal with expensive music licensing fees had kept me from turning AFOS into a podcast and allowing listeners to download AFOS episodes.

When New York-based AFOS listener Vincent Bernard, a graphic designer like so many other AFOS listeners (I feel like 98 percent of them were graphic designers), wasn't able to listen to the 2003 AFOS episode "Sleazy Listening" on demand like he wanted to, he simply recreated the episode's playlist on a mix CD and then came up with cover artwork for it.

The listeners were from all over the place and beyond America too, thanks to iTunes adding the AFOS channel to its radio dial in 2003, a year after my move to Live365. The size of my audience during the college radio years never went beyond the Central Coast.

See why I didn't stick to terrestrial radio? I'm not even sure if certain episodes I received praise for from fans of the program, particularly "Kiss Kiss Ban Ban," a 2006 AFOS episode that looked at why a bunch of original songs got dumped from the movies they were written for, would have been possible had I stayed within the confines of terrestrial radio. I feel like sticking around in that kind of radio would have infected and destroyed my creative side. Maybe the blandness of non-mix-show terrestrial radio would have been infectious.

"Kiss Kiss Ban Ban" is a new addition to my Mixcloud page, where listeners who miss the AFOS channel can revisit a few other old AFOS episodes and hear them for the first time in stereo, as well as any time they want to, which they weren't able to do when AFOS was powered by Live365 (however, none of the content I'm posting can be downloaded from Mixcloud, and also, I don't have any plans to add episodes of Morning Becomes Dyspeptic, the channel's 15-minute clip show of stand-up comedy album excerpts, to the AFOS archive). The message in that last screen shot of praise for "Kiss Kiss Ban Ban" above isn't listener e-mail from 2006. It's a DM from last month, sent by Paul Panfalone, a graphic designer and photographer from Columbus, Ohio who interestingly does handsomely photographed dioramas of G.I. Joe action figures and had recently let me know that he's been an AFOS fan ever since he first listened to my station while in college.

The Mixcloud page reignited Paul's enthusiasm for AFOS, as well as the enthusiasm a couple of other fans had for the channel as well. (AFOS has also been on Nancy Holder's mind lately. Holder--the prolific author of the Wonder Woman movie novelization, countless short horror stories and tons of YA novels--says her favorite thing to listen to while writing novels is film score albums, and she used to frequently e-mail me with requests for movie themes to play on AFOS.) At about the same time as the Mixcloud page gaining a few new listeners like Paul, I found out that Live365, which closed up shop early on in 2016, is back in the Internet radio game.

Last year, Billboard posted a piece on a possible relaunch of Live365, and I doubted that resurrection would ever happen. Now it has happened. Seeing Live365 in business again is like hearing that an ex-girlfriend is single again, so you think about inviting her to get a coffee (and just a coffee and nothing more), but then you remember that you've moved on from that relationship (it's not really worth it to try to rekindle it), and you mutter to yourself, "Nah, I'm good."

I like where I'm at with Mixcloud right now. In fact, I currently prefer it over Live365 as a broadcasting platform. Mixcloud didn't exist in 2002. Live365 was the best of the broadcasting options I considered at the time as I was preparing to leave terrestrial radio.

I always got along well with Live365, although I had one beef with them. When I first joined Live365, the company didn't allow me to type out the station's name in full because my station name's amount of letters went past Live365's weird limits at the time for the amounts of letters in their webcasters' station names, so I was forced to chop out the "A" from A Fistful of Soundtracks at the station's Live365 homepage.

When Live365 later relaxed its rule about letters, which finally allowed me to type the station's name out in full, iTunes Radio never bothered to update its outdated listing of my station, so a lot of iTunes Radio listeners forever erroneously called it "Fistful of Soundtracks." It was never "Fistful of Soundtracks" or as some would like to spell it, "Fist Full of Soundtracks" or "Fistful of Sountracks." (Have you seen that movie called The Soun of Music? Julie Andrews souns wonderful in it.) The official name was always either A Fistful of Soundtracks or simply AFOS in later years. (That was one reason why I was itching to change the station's name in 2008.) It's not "Slickback." It's "A Pimp Named Slickback."

Even though Live365 has returned (but will it last as long as its previous incarnation did?) and is hopefully not weirdly strict about letters this time, I'm not relaunching AFOS as a Live365 channel any time soon. First of all, posting content on Mixcloud is free. Being a Live365 webcaster is not free. Second of all, you know the enthusiasm I once had for both hosting/producing an hour-long score music radio program and running a 24-hour Internet station that functioned as the home for that program? It disappeared in 2008.

After hosting and producing 99 episodes of the program, I ran out of things to say on the air about film and TV score music and felt that 100 was a good place to stop. There was also no future in trying to make a profit from Internet radio. I only kept the station going for seven more years because, even though the station's audience had dwindled and the ease of accessing music whenever you want on YouTube or Spotify was making Internet radio look increasingly outdated and obsolete, I knew there were two or three listeners out there who remained attached to the station, even after iTunes dumped AFOS from its radio dial in 2012. Mixes in the style of something like Las Vegas DJ Dave Fogg's 2012 "Cineman" mix (the presence of John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 theme and Glass Candy's "Digital Versicolor" automatically makes Fogg's playlist a worthwhile one) are how I prefer to present selections from film and TV score albums these days.

I like not having to flick on my mic and speak during these mixes. I've had laryngitis since 2008.

I'm kidding about the larynx. Though I still enjoy listening to film and TV score music (however, score music is actually only about nine or 10 percent of the music I regularly listen to) and I don't mind taking any questions from any former listeners who were fond of the exclusive-to-the-Internet program I hosted from 2003 to 2008 (that was basically six seasons, but there definitely won't be a movie) and I often like seeing AFOS get mentioned on social media (just don't leave out the middle initial in my name because there are hundreds of folks with the same name), I don't want to be known as "the A Fistful of Soundtracks guy" forever. I have other things I want to do. I'm more than just a score music radio show host.

The running of a 24-hour Internet radio station? I simply got bored with it just like how I got bored with being part of terrestrial radio. You'll understand the urge to amscray and make the move to Internet radio if you ever skim through non-mix-show Bay Area terrestrial radio these days. Its monotony and repetitiveness will depress you and make you want to hit the road, like Baby Driver, and be gone.

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