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Radio is Dead They Say: The Best of LCD - The Art and Writing of WFMU

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Dusted's Kevan Harris groks the edited collection of WFMU's defunct programming guide amidst a 21st century radio holocaust.

Radio is Dead They Say: The Best of LCD - The Art and Writing of WFMU

The Best of LCD: The Art and Writing of WFMU
Edited by Dave the Spazz
Princeton Architectural Press, 238 pp.

I experienced somewhat of a musical revelation in my travels to the Middle East this past year. It was not the exotica and mysticism many find in non-Western forms of music. In fact, it related to how people sift through all the music that does come from the West. I was sitting in a wealthy young man’s car as he careened like a suicidal playboy on the highways of Tehran, Iran. White-knuckled, it took me several minutes to hear the music coming from his car stereo as he shuffled between discs containing hundreds of MP3s. It wasn’t the sickeningly inane Iranian pop music produced in Los Angeles, nor was it top 40 Billboard fare either. Instead, it was Camel, a somewhat obscure British band from the Canterbury progressive rock scene in the early 1970s. Then, a few tracks later, he played Jane – an even more obscure German band from the Krautrock era on the Brain label. Both these bands are not particularly good, but these two songs were amazing and gave me something to concentrate on other than highway-related demise. I asked if he had any Yes, but he had never heard of them. While my attempt to sooth troubled US-Iranian relations with prog-rock diplomacy failed, the encounter stuck in my head. A few weeks later I was in Istanbul in a hippie hostel and heard Gong and Wishbone Ash during my morning coffee. How did these guys find out about this stuff?

In Beirut, however, I got the flip side. Any car I sat in was tuned to the Lebanese equivalent of K-Rock, belting out Rihanna’s “Umbrella” every quarter hour. The Arab satellite channels on television were of no help, as “Umbrella” and its stupor-inducing mantra suffused all media outlets. I felt sorry for Lebanon: a never-ending site for proxy wars, incapable of a stable government, and now under Jay-Z’s imperial reach.

Here’s my crude hypothesis. If you’re listening to Jane in Iran or Wishbone Ash in Turkey, you are pretty far from the centers of the global culture industry. Therefore it is much less likely you are subject to the dictates of taste making by large media outlets: standardization of musical sounds, canonization of a few groups, and extreme emphasis on the newest creations. In other words, you never got the memo on Camel.

Before I get any emails telling me to love radio or leave it, this is simply to point out that while we can increasingly get whatever music we want, we more rarely ask why do we want what we choose. I can tune in to a host of radio stations and listen to the music I want to hear. When that gets old, I tune in to WFMU in New Jersey.

As this edited collection of WFMU’s Lowest Common Denominator makes clear, freeform radio is not for well-adjusted people. Many of its articles detail the sordid history of the disc jockey, a position that drives one to commit suicide, murder, or payola. LCD was WFMU’s programming guide from 1986 to 1998, helping listeners keep track of its eclectic shows as well as providing offbeat articles on music and radio before the Internet age. Let’s be clear – WFMU is practically synonymous with independent, non-commercial freeform radio. As Ken Freedman points out in the book, however, freeform radio could be found on many commercial stations by the 1970s, as the FCC “non-duplication rule” came into full effect. Starting in the late 1960s, FM stations could not simply retransmit the programming of AM sister stations in urban markets. WBCN in Boston, WHFS in Baltimore, WXRT in Chicago, and WABX in Detroit all embraced freeform programming. These and most FM stations rapidly shifted towards Album-Oriented Rock, however. By the 1980s, many stations catered to the aging hippie crowd by creating the “classic rock” genre, not coincidentally at the same time as many aging musicians rebranded themselves for high-income nostalgic audiences (Boys of Summer, anyone?). Another option was to attract the younger me-decade crowd by continuing to play singles from the new wave era, now generally regarded as an attempt by major labels to market the most media friendly punks. This path proved decreasingly commercially viable and stations moved into the poorly named “Alternative” radio format in the 1990s. By the 2000s, large media chains such as Clear Channel, aided by Clinton-era media “reforms,” had gobbled these stations up, reformatted them with even more homogenous content, and left us with a full-spectrum wasteland.

Freeform and its malcontented DJs took refuge in college and non-commercial outlets across the country. WFMU severed its ties with (now defunct) Upsala College in 1994, and has remained independent, 100% listener-supported, and non-commercial ever since. It is a testament to the ability of a radio station to buck the trend of corporate media mega-consolidation, albeit one close to the New York City market. Furthermore, with its Internet presence, WFMU has consistently been on the cutting edge of radio. Currently, listeners can usually see what tracks the DJ is playing in real time on its radio stream, listen to a large archive of old shows, and read the always-entertaining WFMU blog. I await the day when I can get WFMU in my car via a hacked digital radio.

Before all that, though, there was LCD. Predating the reissue craze, the LCD collection features articles on garage punk, Erik Satie, Bubblegum pop, flexi-discs, and Rodd Keith (by his son Ellery Eskelin). Many of these are available on WFMU’s website, so you might not learn anything new. Also, if you don’t dig reading about crazy DJs and the era of wavy gravy, then most of the other articles may not interest you. What is unique, however, is that LCD featured work by some of the best cartoonists of our era. Over half of The Best of LCD is devoted to short comics, illustrations, magazine covers, and one-panels by Kaz, Gary Panter, Peter Bagge, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Ivan Brunetti, Jim Woodring, Drew Friedman, and Joe Sacco (illustrating a Harvey Pekar story on Joe Maneri). Why would struggling underground cartoonists work pro bono? My only guess is that they are even more disgruntled than freeform DJs and therefore feel a strange affinity to WFMU.

Overall, The Best of LCD is less oddball than the RE/Search volumes, but beats anything that comes in a NPR tote bag. Frankly, it is hard to understand why anyone should give money to public radio stations when corporate sponsors underwrite so much of their programming. Presently, most non-commercial radio is marching down the NPR path. Media saturation is giving us unlimited choices that result in homogeneous fare, inevitably trickling down to our tastes in “underground” music (ever seen a CMJ top 40 these days?). The satellite radio “revolution” is unimpressively dull. Stations like WFMU can only become more important in this environment. They never got the Camel memo either.

The WFMU Record Fair takes place this weekend at the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York City. You can find out more information at www.wfmu.org/recfair/.

By Kevan Harris

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