Thursday, February 25, 2010

Noise Pop 2010 Has a Glamorous Start with Yoko Ono at The Fox Theater

Deerhoof at The Fox

It's hard to believe that it's time for another Noise Pop Festival. Each year it seems to get bigger and bigger and increasingly removed from those early years (it began in 1993) of shows at Bottom of the Hill and photocopied all-access passes.

This year Noise Pop extends out over the course of a week and encompasses a range of venues (from the large, fancy Fox Theater in Oakland to the tiny and funky Artists Television Access in San Francisco) on both sides of the San Francisco Bay.

My Noise Pop adventure began this year with the Yoko Ono show at The Fox Theater on Tuesday night. I'd never been to the Fox before and was taken in by its gilded vintage decor. It was a seated show and the crowds filled both the floor and the large balcony sections. Deerhoof started the show with a rousing set of satisfying pop, with the lovely vocals of Tokyo native Satomi Matsuzaki.

Yoko Ono Peforms

Yoko Ono was up next, backed by The Plastic Ono Band. As the audience awaited her appearance on stage, we were treated to vintage Yoko Ono film footage, ranging from clips from home movies, news stories, performance pieces, and from some of her experimental films. For those not initiated before, this was a great introduction to the history of Yoko Ono as an artist and as a public figure.

As the clips drew to an end, Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band came on stage. For this show, Yoko Ono was accompanied by her son Sean Lennon along with Cornelius, Yuka Honda, and Harper Simon. For the grand finale, Deerhoof, Pika from Japanese band Afrirampo as well as Petra Haden joined her on stage for an all-out all-star jam.

The entire show was riveting, and I was impressed that Yoko Ono continues to evolve as an artist. It was also exciting to see her embrace of younger Japanese artists and I enjoyed seeing how the sounds of all of the participating musicians meshed into one lovely hybrid of styles and sounds.

What a wonderful beginning to Noise Pop.

Also up on the schedule this week: tons of music, music-themed films, art, and the Industry Noise conference on Saturday.

Friday, February 19, 2010

FCC Grants New Non-Comm Radio Licenses, But Few Go to College Radio

On Radio Survivor I just reported on the great news this week that the FCC had finally awarded licenses for full-power educational FM stations to 59 organizations. Back in 2007 a licensing window briefly opened and non-profit groups were allowed to submit applications in the hopes of being granted a new license.

After a head-ache inducing scan of the FCC's PDF grid of the applicants and winners, I was pretty bummed to realize that college radio was not well represented. I guess I shouldn't be all the surprised, as it can be quite costly to get a station up and running. But it was also disheartening that religious groups continued their left-of-the-dial takeover, obtaining more of the new licenses than community groups, public radio organizations, or universities.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Radio Show Teaches the Lost Art of Love Letters

Happy Valentine's Day! Just in time for today's holiday, there's been some press from the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle for a radio show on San Francisco college radio station KUSF that's devoted entirely to the lost art of letter writing. Love Letters Live airs on Tuesday nights from 7:30-8:00 pm in the SF Bay Area and is also archived online.

From the show, listeners can learn to compose beautiful letters of all sorts; something sure to bring a smile to someone's face any time of year.

To learn more about KUSF, take a look at the article that I wrote last year after my trip to visit the station.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Spinning Indie 50 State Tour: Stop 14 - Idaho's KUOI

Welcome back to the Spinning Indie 50 State Tour, my virtual journey through all 50 states in an effort to bring attention to noteworthy college radio stations in every pocket of the United States.

The 13 college radio stations that I've featured thus far include stations in Arkansas, Wisconsin, Kansas, Louisiana, Alaska, North Dakota, Nevada, West Virginia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, California and Nebraska.

Today we head over to Idaho to learn more about University of Idaho station KUOI in Moscow. Thanks to Station Manager Mike Siemens for taking the time to speak with me by phone about KUOI.

In existence since 1945, KUOI is a freeform college radio station that claims to have the largest music library of any college station in the Pacific Northwest. The staff of DJs is made up of both community volunteers (10 to 20%) and students, with many also involved in bands (including Cougar LS, Stable Comings, Tim Blood & the Gut Panthers, Rhythmmemory, and This Kid's Not Supposed to be in the Family Portrait) and the local music scene.

According to their website:

"KUOI Radio’s story began like so many fairy-tales. From the obscurity of an attic in northern Idaho, several clever amateurs strung transmitting electrical wire through steam tunnels, thereby bringing two daily hours of music and Shakespearean drama to student residences. It’s fitting that the term 'Broadcasting' comes from the farming word for spreading seeds in all directions. KUOI in its early years was not only an outlet for new wireless media but a experimental training ground for journalists and engineers."

Recently KUOI has been hosting a number of experimental music shows, including some events taking place this weekend surrounding the exhibit "WeekSpot: Midi Glock and Soft Synth," running through this Saturday, Feb. 13. Running in tandem with the sound installation are some live events, including one tonight with Shelby Turner & Co. and a show tomorrow night with Steve von Till (doing material from his Harvestman and solo projects).

KUOI in the 1960s
(Photo courtesy KUOI)

Although Station Manager Mike Siemens told me that he's more focused on "right now," KUOI has a 65+ year history that is nicely documented on their website with stories and photos. In his phone interview with me, Mike shared some additional historical tidbits, talked about the station's role in the Moscow music scene, and pointed out some of the shows that are unique to KUOI.

KUOI in the 1970s
(Photo courtesy KUOI)

Spinning Indie: What's the overall mission/programming philosophy of KUOI?

Mike Siemens: "[It's a] free format radio station…true free format…anything goes.... [shows are] like personal mix tapes and there are no restrictions on DJs besides FCC rules"

They Even Had a KUOI Van!!

Spinning Indie: Your station has a lengthy history. What are your favorite tidbits from your station's past?

Mike: "It’s pretty cool how we started out with a couple of guys in an attic who got a block's worth of telephone cable, [but I'm] more focused on right now…"

Spinning Indie: Any long-time shows? When did they begin?

Mike: "A couple have been on for over 10 years. One is 40 Acres and a Clone Mule (Leigh Robartes has been on the air at KUOI for over 20 years). 'A History of Sound Recordings' host James Donely has done over 350 consecutive shows."

Spinning Indie: Do you have music in your library dating back to the early days of the station? Any favorite examples? Does it get played?

Mike: "Yeah, we do."

[Mike then told me a story about how a former Station Manager hated Frank Zappa and broke some of his records in half. The Music Director really liked Zappa, so he hid the records. To this day, people at KUOI continue to find "little caches" of Zappa records in nooks and crannies around the station.]

"our library is huge…we still have all of our vinyl and we encourage DJs to use the library…most DJs don’t bring computers or iPods and there are a lot of only vinyl DJs"

Spinning Indie: Are there any programs/specialty shows that are unique to KUOI or stand out as being different from anything else on radio?

Mike: "Everybody does different shows… it's eclectic…there's the 'Haiku Heavy Metalist Show' and one guy does a radio play every other Saturday. This guy who used to work at Bloodshot does a show called Audiodrome, playing mostly Australian rock. It's pretty bad ass."

KUOI Today (via the webcam)

Spinning Indie: Is there certain music that DJs are required to play? Is there anything that
DJs aren't allowed to play?

Mike: "Usually if they’re playing bad music a station fan will call. If they’re playing top 40 shit."

Spinning Indie: How does your MD decide what music to add?

Mike: "In general it's an even spread of music across every genre. The current MD has also been bringing in heavier sounds."

Spinning Indie: Do you add and play a lot of vinyl?

Mike: "Yeah…We add vinyl all the time…usually whenever it comes in. And DJs play it. I haven't bought a CD in 3 years, but buy vinyl."

Spinning Indie: Do most students at University of Idaho know about the station? Do a lot of students listen to the station?

Mike: "Yeah. It’s gone through its high points and low points…We’re putting out a lot of good shows…and pull out speakers and amps and set up in broadcasts in the Commons and hand out flyers…I think it’s really important….to get out there."

Spinning Indie: What’s the station’s connection with the local music scene in Moscow?

Mike: "Its awesome. Concerts out here are awesome and often 200 people will show up. A lot of the guys….in prominent bands around here are involved with station. Right now we’re just enjoying the wealth that is Moscow. It’s kind of like a safe place. I just don’t really want to live in a city."

KUOI Record Library
(Photo courtesy KUOI)

Spinning Indie: I'm amazed that you have your record library online for anyone to search. How many items are in your library and is everything searchable?

Mike: "No idea…It's pretty huge."

Spinning Indie: Do you listen to other college radio stations? Who do you admire? What's the college radio scene like in your area?

Mile: "KVRX—I met those guys awhile back. The Austin Community radio station in Spokane is alright, but is hard to get out here. The Pullman station is only 8 miles away and Lewis and Clark's station is an hour away…Local college stations will make promos for each other if doing shows and will hand out flyers for each other. Competition…what’s that? There’s room for everybody."

Spinning Indie: Anything else to share?

Mike: "The station is student owned and operated and is run on dirt and blood and sweat."

College Radio Creeps into New Arbitron PPM Ratings

Jose Fritz always unearths some amazing gems about radio on his Arcane Radio Trivia blog. Although he rarely writes about current news, yesterday he turned his attention to college radio ratings that he culled from Arbitron reports that use the portable people meter (PPM).

Now, the last time that I looked at Arbitron radio ratings I found that college radio rarely showed up in the listings, so I was very interested to hear that Jose found some stations who defied the norm.

With these new PPM-based ratings, Jose uncovered a number of college stations that managed to make their way into the listings. The first surprise that he found was that in Boston, Emerson College station WERS ranked higher (.9 share of listeners) than commercial rock station WFNX (.8 share of listeners).

Take a look at Jose's entire post to see ratings for some other college stations around the country. By the way, a few of the big buzz college stations also made the rankings, including Seattle's KEXP with .7 share and L.A.'s KCRW (.9 share). Jose postulates about the ratings, saying, "...perhaps this is real and can set a new bar for non-commercial stations. Maybe they can compete on their own terms."

By the way, Jose Fritz is one of the folks who I've profiled on Radio Survivor for our "Radio Obsessives" series. If you have suggestions for others who I should profile, let me know in the comments.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Gaston College Station Fined by FCC for Public File Violation

Over on Radio Survivor I just reported the sad tale about Gaston College radio station WSGE getting fined $8,000 by the FCC for having an improperly maintained public file and for not making that file available to the public.

This is a good reminder to all college radio stations: double check that your public file is up to date and make sure that all DJs and staff know where it is and how to handle requests from the public!

There are folks out there making it their job to monitor stations for FCC violations (both on and off the air), so it's best to not give them anything to complain about.

Debating the Supposed Death of Indie

Sign posted near CMJ Music Marathon in 2008

I just read the much buzzed about Paste magazine cover story by Rachael Maddux called "Is Indie Dead?" As I plodded my way through her lengthy story I was overcome by a strong feeling of deja vu, as we've definitely been done this path before. She provides an overview of various definitions of "indie" as applied to music and by the end of the essay pronounces that the concept of indie is dead and that perhaps we are now in a post-indie world.

Back in 1998 I wrote a paper about the debates over the term "indie" as it applied to a college radio station concerned with making airspace available for under-exposed artists. That paper morphed into my 2007 article for Radio Journal, "Does Indie Mean Independence?," which subsequently spawned this blog Spinning Indie. So, for awhile now I've been interested in all of the conversations surrounding the contested definitions of indie as applied to music and radio.

Yes, of course, "indie" can be understood as a genre. But, it can also be understood as a specific, non-corporate method of production and that still does matter to some people.

At the same time, in all of my recent radio station travels it's become clear to me that many college radio stations are not as concerned about the indie/major label distinctions as folks were back in the 1990s. Unfortunately many stations take the path of least resistance, mirroring the playlists of every other college station out there. More often than not, the artists appearing on the majority of these playlists have some sort of major label distribution or backing and that's how they are ending up in the hands of stations all over the country.

So, I guess my personal plea goes something like this: regardless of whether or not something has been deemed indie, independent, alternative, hip, post-indie, mainstream, or passe by someone with some sort of authority; try to cultivate your own ear for music and listen with an open-mind to new (and old) sounds.

I applaud radio stations (like the one that I profiled for Radio Journal) who work hard to create an airsound that's different from the mainstream and who really care about making room for artists with limited resources.

Wouldn't it be amazing if a scan of the playlists of college radio stations all over the country revealed radical differences from city to city? There is SO much music out there that I think we all owe it to ourselves to dig for things that are unique, unsettling, strange, or surprising. It doesn't have to be the newest and hippest; often some of the most incredible gems are lost sounds from different eras.

Do you think that "indie" is dead? And if so, is this a crisis?

P.S. For more reactions to the Paste piece on indie, take a look at Flavorwire's selection of short essays from various music critics responding to the article.