Intro from Jay Allison: Whenever I suspect I might be getting too sanctimonious or preacherly, as is my wont, I'll think about what Larry Massett would say. If I were to ask him outright, he'd drag on his Raleigh, and without any change in expression, nod, "uh-huh." Larry and I got into radio at the same time in DC in the mid-70s. He did the music for a Brecht play I directed in a storefront theatre. I was living in his basement, by the furnace. His dog slept on the floor next to me. Ruined my rug. One night a friend of Larry's, Keith Talbot, came over and told us about this new thing in town: National Public Radio. Keith loaned us tape recorders - Sony 800B open-reel portables (same as Nixon's, by the way). We stole supplies from NPR and went through a lot of tape. We spliced our masters. Twenty-five years later, here we are - still in public radio. Larry and I founded SOUNDPRINT together a long time ago, and Larry became its host. Right now, he's Senior Producer for Hearing Voices. Over the years, he has made a singular assortment of strange and remarkable pieces, many still referenced today, usually with the introduction: "Why don't we do anything like that anymore?" Larry's work has had a strong influence on those who've sought it out. He was an early encourager and producer of some of public radio's most distinctive voices - Scott Carrier, Joe Frank, Barrett Golding, Andrei Codrescu. Larry encouraged Transom too, when it began, dropping by to pitch into our conversations and see if he could hear something new. Sometimes, he's been gratified. Other times, he's exhaled smoke. In his unpretentious way, Larry Massett has helped keep alive the very idea of a Fringe in public radio when the trend has been steadily toward an emphatically finished seam. Please welcome him. Find out what he's been listening to lately.
In Search of Aliens
As a small child I used to watch my grandfather listen to the radio. His favorite broadcasts- indeed the only ones he followed- were the local election returns. He’d pull up his rocker and stare mesmerized at a wooden floor radio roughly the size of a medieval cathedral, while a ghostly voice crackled: “Smith 4, 501 votes, Jones 3,480 votes… blah blah blah… Smith 4,601 votes, Jones 3,589 votes… blah blah blah… Smith 4,721 votes blah blah…” on into the night.
This was incredibly boring. His other hobby was squirrel-hunting, which in the dense Georgia woods meant the two of us standing around peering at moss-tangled treetops intently, for hours, as if waiting for local election returns. The advantage to hunting was that now and then -BLAM!- for no particular reason -BLAM!- you could let loose -BLAM!- with your shotgun (“All right, son, now that’s enough” ) while with radio you were just plain stuck.
I still listen to the radio only when stuck. Researchers claim most of the public radio audience is stuck: stuck in traffic jams, stuck washing the dishes, stuck in the middle of Wyoming a hundred miles from the nearest Blockbuster. In these circumstances radio does seem like a reasonable alternative to masturbation, once in a while anyway. Yet people grow maniacally attached to it.
At a dinner the other evening I wound up seated next to an NPR maniac. Far from being stuck, he was an advertising photographer who spent half his life jetting off to shoots around the globe. Nonetheless he had committed to memory the names of every single NPR staffer, including the ones mentioned in a rush at the end of a show, the way dead fish are jettisoned when a trawler docks. He wanted to hear all about them. How old is X? Is Y funny in real life?
The polite thing to do in a conversation like this is to lie. Nothing to it if you’ve had a few glasses of wine. X is no longer with us- yet fortunately, while on death row, managed to record all the words in Webster’s dictionary, which the editors now combine as needed. In real life, Y sobs incessantly. And so on. But for some reason I answered his questions soberly, as best I could…..until he got to (insert commentator’s name here.)
“Why do you care about (commentator)?” I asked. “Isn’t (commentator) completely predictable?”
“Sure, ” said the aficionado. ” (Commentator) hasn’t said a word in twenty years I couldn’t guess ahead of time.”
“But that’s why we like it, don’t you see? Don’t you get it?”
Oh all right, I get it. For a lot of people radio is a family thing, a communal experience. I happen to feel this way about movies. You haven’t seen a film till you and your popcorn-munching buds pile into some megaplex on opening night for twelve bucks a pop. Community is swell. And people who come into public radio after growing up with it naturally want to reproduce what they’ve loved; in this way the memes of ATC and Garrison Keillor and Dave Isay and Ira Glass spread across the airwaves. This ensures continuity and… oh all right, community. So let’s call producers of this ilk the Communists.
Then there are the Anarchists. These are producers who backed into radio from hearing tapes. At least this is how it worked for me and a couple other producers who’ve popped up on Transom: a friend plays you a tape or a DAT or whatever, and it’s a weird fish that’s not music, not journalism, not (so far as you know) anything that’s got a name. Yet it’s done with spectacular care for sound and time and nuance, and it seems true. So you make one of these oddities yourself. You share it with friends. Somebody somewhere calls it a “documentary” and sticks it on the radio, but that’s trivial to Anarchists. They mainly listen to tape. Or the Net.
Finally there are Aliens. Disguised as housewives, school kids, poets, convicts, bag ladies, or even stockbrokers (Aliens are endlessly inventive), these folks have something to get off their chests. They don’t give a rat’s ass about the art of documentary but they’re dying to unload. Aliens may go so far as to learn Protools in order to be heard, and from there…who knows?
Okay, we now have enough Arbitrary Categories to reach a conclusion: Public radio needs Communists. Listeners like them. They’re good citizens. Yet because Communists tend to repeat themselves to a degree which, eventually, even the audience will notice, radio also needs Anarchists. Just a few, thanks. Anarchists are trouble and the system can only stomach a few at a time. So the great need is for Aliens — for people no one would expect to hear.
The question is how to find them.
We can help with that.
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It’s worthwhile, I know, looking below the poverty line. Radio should give voice to the imprisoned, the oppressed, the marginal- to all those who live, as Andrei Codrescu puts it, “on the wrong side of the television screen.” Still, as an Anarchist, I fear this has become a Communist strategy. It’s downright mainstream. What self-respecting Anarchist wants to agree with the majority just because they’re right?
So, another strategy is to poke around randomly. Forget washing the dishes. Take a walk in the woods. Listen. Wait. Sooner or later something unlikely may fall from the sky, like ….why, like a squirrel dropping from a Georgia treetop.
Here now are some squirrels, I mean Aliens (Commentator: sadly, the writer has lost control of his metaphors), I mean unexpected voices I’ve encountered in the last few months:
Foreign Ladies dot com
Ned Dantes is a television producer, a manic depressive, an old friend. Recently he began sending me emails so strange I begged him to read them on tape. The story starts with him trying to find a mail-order bride over the net and ends with a scary bout of electroshock therapy. (This Hearing Voices series is no longer online).
Ned is pure Alien. He could produce his own pieces in a snap if he cared to; but he doesn’t care, so I took a whack. As a game, I tried to include a whole cut from his band’s CD in each episode. That’s why the music goes on so long. It’ll have to be redone if these things ever make it to radio broadcast.
The Theory of Everything
Chris Langan I don’t know personally, I think a friend of a friend of his brother told me about the site. Apparently the guy is a self-taught genius employed as a nightclub bouncer. In his spare time he’s worked out a “Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe.” It explains absolutely everything, from quantum mechanics to consciousness. Does it explain why Drew Barrymore married What’s-His Name? Dunno. Can’t make head nor tail of the theory yet. But Langan looks suspiciously like an alien. And as a night club bouncer he should be, you know, personable. Worth checking out.
Mark Allen Cam
At last count there were 476 gadjilllion webcams running on the net, mainly soporific porn. MarkAllenCam.com is different. Mark Allen describes himself as a former go-go dancer and underground celebrity who retired from the stage after a bout with cancer. Though his cam never seems to be working, you can read the journals he writes now and then when he decides to get the hell out of New York and drive “to the middle of nowhere.” His take on the American hinterland is like nothing you’d expect. Okay, maybe it’s exactly what you’d expect from a retired go-go dancer, but still….Somebody (not me necessarily) should grab a mic and go with him on his next road trip.
Other potential Aliens crop up on the message board. Trucker John is a gay truck driver who keeps a detailed diary of his routes. From what I’ve read, he’s very, very interested in the mechanics of truck engines. If someone with a mic rode along it might be fascinating, though. The carburetor problems could be edited out later.
By the way, Mark Allen hosts a “live radio program” from his site every Monday. Never heard it, but the image is intriguing: one person, one mic, a computer, and- voila!- a radio show. If it’s this easy why don’t we all have our own radio stations? Or maybe we do and I just don’t know it yet?
This is about what I know on this topic at the moment. Out there in cyberspace, any thoughts? Other ideas?