Thursday, April 29, 2010

Coming of Age as a Jehovah's Witness and College Radio Lover: An Interview with Tony DuShane

Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk 
When I heard word that former college radio DJ Tony DuShane had released a coming-of-age novel, Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk, about growing up in the Jehovah's Witness religion, I was very interested to hear more about his personal story. The novel is based on his own experiences growing up in the religion and in places it touches upon the conflict that he must have felt between being part of a very restrictive religion and his burgeoning interest in music, radio and indie culture.

In his interview with me, Tony touches upon the similarities between his own upbringing and that of the novel's protagonist and goes into detail about radio has helped to save his soul. These days he continues to DJ at Pirate Cat Radio in San Francisco, doing his long-running show "Drinks with Tony," in which he interviews writers, artists, and musicians.

Spinning Indie: How closely does your novel "Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk" model your own youth?

Tony DuShane: I was that Jehovah's Witness kid, knocking on your door with my elder dad from four years old forward. I thought God was going to kill me at Armageddon because I masturbated or I watched an R-rated movie. I was deep in the belief system and very earnest, just as Gabe is in the novel. Into my 20s I thought God would expose this darkness inside me when he killed anyone who wasn't a JW at Armageddon and I would be the reproach of my family who would watch me die and not feel sorrow since I turned out to be a wicked man. Looking back, my darkness resembled a cup of whole milk, and the novel is a tribute to how I felt in that repressive environment.

Gabe is his own guy. I put him through some similar situations I was in, but I wish there was more of him in me at the time.

He was a fun character to work with and develop. It took many rewrites to balance his naivety with his strong belief system and ultimately give himself larger and larger dares to challenge the right and wrong in his world. The last rewrites were the hardest because I really fell in love with him, he was no longer a doppelganger of myself and I wanted to pull him out of the situations happening around him. That's when the writing break through really happened, when he spoke for himself and made decisions and I had to just watch and cry and laugh and slap him, yet give him a hug.

Gabe did get help from his step-uncle, Jeff and his cousin, Karen. The help wasn't always beneficial, some of it was purely silly, but it was a perspective he really needed to push him forward that I never had when I was growing up.

Spinning Indie: For someone clearly so into music, it must have been challenging for you to grow up as a Jehovah's Witness since so many music-related things forbidden by the religion (school dances, band posters & T-shirts) are enmeshed with teen culture and identity. Was that a source of conflict for you?

Tony: Personally, even though I hid my music from my parents, I had an odd sense of entitlement about it. There was honesty in it. My parents were so strict, I wished them dead often and when Suicidal Tendencies came out with "I Saw Your Mommy and Your Mommy's Dead", that was sweet bliss for under three minutes. Listening to punk was like a three minute orgasm. It was like I could leave my body and my family and religion for power chords and screaming. My parents found some of my punk rock contraband and made me throw it away. That was more dread, more guilt and more frustration. If it wasn't for music and literature I probably would've killed myself. Suicide runs in my family and I've had a few very dark periods where it was a real possibility.

Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk tows the line between dark comedy and tragedy, and then I start talking about it for interviews and I seem so tragic. I'm funny in real life. Tragically.

Spinning Indie: The title character, Gabe, seems to catch glimpses of the non-Jehovah's Witness world through his interactions with music, mixtapes, and the radio. Can you tell me how your youth was shaped by music and radio?

Tony: I found MaximumRocknRoll on KPFA one night after bible study. I think I was 14. Then, I found college radio and I thought I had made this huge discovery. KFJC was the strongest signal where I lived in
Millbrae, and KZSU came in as well.

I would tape songs off of the radio, then make mix tapes for Jehovah's Witness girls who I thought were cute and wouldn’t tell on me. I'd even talk in between songs, telling my romantic focus of the moment that I loved them "and this next song is about my love for you."Hopefully most of those made it into the trash, but it's kind of cool to think there's still a tape out there, that some girl held onto. If I listened to it, I'd probably have six therapy sessions dealing with listening to my 16 year old self profess his love via cassette.

Oh, and KZSU has those finals weeks shows where the DJs play album sides so they can study while DJing. I used to tape those religiously.

Spinning Indie: There's a scene in the book where one of Gabe's friends (who is grounded) asks him for a transistor radio. This seemed like a telling moment to me and a reminder about how isolated teenagers can feel when they feel cut off from friends and their culture. When you were a teen, what was your connection to radio?

Tony: Connected to my headphones every single night. The JW always told us not to listen to music at night since Satanic music can come in and we wouldn't be able to change the dial. Sometimes I would wake up to a
song that "sounded" demonized, and I'd quickly turn off the radio and pray. I was a spiritual schizophrenic.

Vintage Photo of KFJC DJs Mona Lott and Tony DuShane
Photo courtesy Tony DuShane

Spinning Indie: Tell me a bit about how (and when) you first got involved with college radio.

Tony: I was still a Jehovah's Witness and 19 years old. Within a year my uncle killed himself, my sister attempted suicide, my dad had a nervous breakdown and lost his job and I put my hands on my girlfriend's boobs and fingered her. Since the last part was a sin, I confessed to the elders so I could get my paradise handstamp again and not be killed at Armageddon. I told them about the girl and five of them agreed that God took his spirit away from our family and all the calamities were because I had sinned. Then they were telling me not to go to therapy and trying to disfellowship my dad because he must have a secret sin since he had a nervous breakdown.

My dad spent 18 years as an elder and putting his whole soul into helping others in the religion. To watch these people turn on him, I was at a complete loss. And, crazier, I still believed in the JWs, I just decided to leave and pursue my radio dreams.  Ultimately the JW elders caught up with me and offered to help me and I accepted. Again, because I thought I was dead at Armageddon if I stayed away. They made me stop the radio station, so I quit my show, but doubts sprouted up again after observing really bad shit happen to other people in the congregations. I went back to KFJC and did fill-ins without telling anyone and tried to play both sides.

Spinning Indie: How has radio changed your life?

Tony: It's an addiction. I have to DJ. There's a difference when DJing at clubs and bars. When you're DJing to FM airwaves, you're DJing into space. There's no feeling like it. It's like inviting people over and playing records and talking about the records. Except your friends are in range of a transmitter. There could be five. There could be 5,000.

I remember the thing new DJs always do, they always beg for phone calls. Giving out the phone number every five minutes, wanting to play requests, wanting validation of people actually listening. It's embarrassing to listen to, but we've all been there. Now, I never give out the phone number and actually pull the plug on the phone during my radio shows. I do a lot more interviews now and set up since my shows focus on literature, I don't need someone calling in to request The Dwarves.

DJing at Pirate Cat Radio in San Francisco
l to r: Tony DuShane, Johnny Crash, and Bryan Kehoe
Photo courtesy Tony DuShane

Spinning Indie: Are you still doing a show at Pirate Cat Radio? (since when?) How is that experience of DJing at a pirate station similar or different to working in college radio?

Tony: I got back into radio by doing a podcast back in 2000 for Filmjunkie. It was interviews with actors and filmmakers. Then Filmjunkie became a film festival for a few years, so I switched my focus to literature and interviewing writers. Which turned into Drinks with Tony in 2002 since I tended to tape interviews at bars. I joined Pirate Cat in 2004 I believe. So, Drinks with Tony was a podcast as I was focusing on my writing and I got in touch with Monkey who runs Pirate Cat and let him know he could play my interviews if he wanted and he said, "Just do a fucking show already." I’ve taken some time off  recently from the station as we were doing final rewrites and getting the publicity wheels rolling for the novel.

As with college radio, pirate radio goes in waves of staff disputes, this fucking sucks, can't I just do my show, to everyone's happy and there's a dysfunctional family love. Pirate radio seems to be more of a dictatorship than a decently run college station, where people can speak up, there are actually program directors and it seems to run a bit better. Then there's the whole FCC paranoia, which is very real, but Monkey was the first person I have seen who has changed they way pirate radio deals with the FCC...he's nothing less of a genius and I know his love for radio and his contribution will turn into something much bigger in the future.

Jehovah's Witness Literature Adjacent to a Gaming Magazine
At a Place of Business in San Francisco, April 2010
Photo by Jennifer Waits

Spinning Indie: What's your connection to the Jehovah's Witnesses today? Are people upset about the book?

Tony: I'm inactive. That means I left and didn't do anything to get disfellowshipped for. They drill you with questions, but I played the mental illness card and they backed off.

That said, a few JWs who wanted to be cool and go see bands with me or get free tickets to films and drink my liquor and eat my food at my house for the past 10 years of my being inactive, they would hang out with me and really pretended to be my friend. When word of the novel came out, when my JW wife cheated on me, they blamed me and my novel. Pure hatred was spewed at me from so-called friends. It hurt like hell. The book was written, so I was in deal and technical edits mode, but I've had nothing but ignorant hatred from people who don't even know that the book comes from a place of love, understanding and truth.

Spinning Indie: Are you willing to share what caused you to leave the religion and if radio (KFJC?) had anything to do with that?

Tony: Radio and literature saved my soul, but they had nothing to do with my leaving the religion. I started seeing how the elders would make people feel like shit from the stage at the Kingdom Hall. I'd been reading literature and psychology books for some years. I was trying to just fade out so my family would still talk to me, so my "friends" would still talk to me. One day, I said, enough. There's something very wrong with elders acting so arrogant, then expecting such pureness from the flock of devotees. When the elders or the leaders at the Watchtower did something wrong, very wrong affecting many people, the answer was, "we're imperfect, God is giving us new light." When someone touches a girl's nipple, you can lose your family. I realized the whole religion was arrogant.

Which is why I wrote a novel and not a memoir. The memoir would have told the story. There would have been a preachiness to it. I despise preaching, I was involved enough with it growing up. The story had to be compelling and throw the reader into the world of Jehovah's Witnesses. To understand that there is good and bad. To understand that some people need religion. To understand that even the people who exploit religion sometimes feel they're doing it for the right reasons.

Beyond religion, as humans, we all justify our actions one way or another. The novel had to dig into the humanity aspect of why people make decisions that others see as odd.

Writing is about getting to the core of the human condition. Comedy is about the same thing. A poop joke is actually an observation of something we all hopefully do at least once a day.

Spinning Indie: Coincidentally, while I was reading the book, Jehovah's Witnesses were making the rounds of my neighborhood. What do you do when they come to your door?

Tony: I live in San Francisco and I've only been approached by Spanish speaking JWs when I lived in the Mission, and they'd just ask if I spoke Spanish, and now I live in a neighborhood where it's hard for anyone to get past the security gate. Oh, short answer, I don't know, hasn't happened, mostly because I live in the inner city and they have a hard time preaching in these neighborhoods.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

UCRN College Radio Conference Offers up Tips for DJs, Insights on Commercial Radio, and a Forum to Debate the Digital Future

On April 10, 2010 I got to spend the entire day fixated on college radio at the University of California Radio Network (UCRN) conference hosted by UC Berkeley station KALX. Held twice a year, these confabs for DJs and staff of University of California-affiliated radio stations are a great opportunity for shop talk and networking, but are also a chance to get a glimpse into the current struggles and debates within the music industry and college radio.

Last year I attended the UCRN event at UC Santa Cruz station KZSC and found it to be an amazing mixture of pragmatic sessions, music-focused panels, and intelligent discussion. This year's conference was similar, with sessions about broadcast law, the community and music, news and public affairs writing, how DJs can improve their on-air presence, and a panel about the future of music and media. Staff members from KALX also toured DJs around their station, the highlight of which is their meticulously organized music library containing more than 95,000 pieces of music.

 A mere sliver of the Record Library at KALX

There were around 70 people in attendance at the conference from KALX, KDVS, KCSB, KUCI, KUCR, KZSC, KSDT and upstart UC Merced station Bobcat Radio. And, many of the music industry panelists speaking at the conference had college radio pasts, making for interesting discussions about the college radio world vs. the commercial radio world. Unfortunately some sessions conflicted with each other, so I was only able to attend a selection of panels. Here's my recap of what struck me during the conference:

Community and Music Panel at UCRN
(L to R: Bev Elithorp, Joe Barham, Kathleen Wentz, and George Corona)

The Community and Music: Building Relationships Panel

This panel was fascinating to me, mainly because we got some great insight into the differences between college radio and commercial radio from KSAN (The Bone) DJ/Music Director Joe Barham (aka Joe Rock). Joe has been a DJ since he was in high school (at Mendocino high school radio station KAKX), with stints in both college radio at San Francisco State station KSFS and in commercial radio at a number of different stations. Other panelists worked at music promotions company Terrorbird, for a UC Berkeley concert series, and for local paper The East Bay Express.

Joe argued that with the way the radio and music industry is going, "it's almost an obligation that we pay attention to the local community." He pointed out that with the growth of digital music and services like Pandora, music listening is most likely "going in the direction of on demand [programming]." He said that although "radio's limited to playing something at a specific time," it can excel by continuing to play "original content" and by focusing on "localization." Joe does a Sunday night local music show "Local Licks" on The Bone and told the assembled crowd that that particular program is "the funnest part of my job," arguing that it's important to support one's local music scene.

 KALX DJ Doing a Show Amid the UCRN Crowds Milling About

Music promoter George Corona from Terrorbird (who used to be a college radio DJ at KXLU) shared his feeling that the "landscape for radio [is] shifting" and that "charting [on radio]...doesn't mean that [a band is] going to sell records."

Joe encouraged those in college radio to embrace the power and freedom that they have. When asked during the Q&A about the "forces" that he has to "bow to" in commercial radio, he replied, "The number one thing...We have commercials." Although everyone laughed at this reply, Joe argued that the commercials bring with them certain obligations. He talked a bit about the chaos in commercial radio saying that radio has been "kind of creamed" in the past 2 years and that there have been lots of firings and a great deal of flux in commercial radio staff. He said that being in San Francisco (the #4 market) gives him a bit more freedom, but that he has to answer to an out of town corporate Program Director when making certain decisions about programming.

Giving the crowd of college radio DJs a reality check about the commercial radio industry, Joe pointed out that they have to "play 450 songs over and over again" and that song list is a result of twice yearly music research in which potential radio listeners get to hear an 8 second sample of a song "in a hotel lobby." He said, "That's not art. That's robotic" and contrasted that with college radio, which he said is more like finding out about music from a "best friend."

Although all of the panelists offered up advice (start with an internship was the resounding suggestion) to those college radio DJs hoping to get into some aspect of the music business, Joe was pessimistic about the opportunities for music fans in commercial terrestrial radio, saying, "Don't do it." He was more optimistic about syndicated radio programs and about non-commercial radio where he said "music is art." He predicted that terrestrial radio "will die out," but added that there might be a glimmer of hope when stations rise from the ashes. Joe said that with all of the corporate radio bankruptcies (which aren't over yet), there could be a shift back to local, private ownership and that if that happens radio has the chance to change dramatically and for the better.

I was also interested to hear that The Bone is doing some interesting things programming-wise, not only with its local music shows, but also with Sunday night programming (Little Steven's Garage and Joel Selvin's radio show) that hearkens back to the freeform, underground radio days of the original KSAN. Additionally, Joe mentioned that The Bone airs a high rated all-request show in which music not normally in rotation gets played. His saw that as a sign that listeners really are interested in more than just the same short list of songs approved for airplay.

DJ and Programming Panel at UCRN
(L to R: "DJ Dave" Richards, Khris Brown and Shawn Reynoldo)

DJ and Programming Panel

Next, I sat in on a panel discussion about how to be a better DJ. As with the previous panel, one of the most interesting aspects of it was that one of the panelists had experience as both a college radio DJ and a commercial radio DJ. Shawn Reynaldo of XLR8R started at UC Berkeley station KALX six months after he began working at commercial station LIVE 105 (KITS-FM) as a phone operator. Eventually he became Operations Manager at KALX and a DJ and producer at LIVE 105. As we heard throughout the day, he talked about the importance of internships as the path to jobs in the music industry.

Shawn also pointed out that if you are DJing because you love music, then corporate, commercial radio is the wrong industry for you. He said that the music played at commercial stations comes from a "giant list that a middle-age white man" has compiled based on phone surveys and added that on college radio "you can experiment more."

In terms of specific advice that Shawn and others on the panel had for college radio DJs, here are some of the highlights:

1. "Drink water. Eat a green apple. Imagine your audience is your friend." - Khris Brown (KBA Voice Production)

2. "Pull more music than you need ahead of's better to have too much." -Shawn

3. "Make an effort to expand your musical knowledge" and seek out advice from others at the station- Shawn

4. "Playing random things sounds like playing random things," so really think about your set -Shawn

5. When on the air don't apologize for your mistakes because the audience won't even notice them - Khris

6. Write notes before going on mic so that you remember what you need to cover - "DJ Dave" Richards

7. Be prepared for your shift and for mic breaks - Shawn

8. "Personality really makes a difference on the radio." Be yourself. -Shawn

9. Listen to the beginning and end of each track to ensure smooth transitions without dead air -Shawn

10. If you don't know what to say at the beginning or end of a mic break, say the name of the station - Shawn

11. When mixing sounds don't overlap voices or mismatch beats because "it sounds like shoes in a dryer." - Shawn

Panelist Prepare for the Changing Media Landscape Panel at UCRN
(L to R: Jody Colley, Corey Denis, Jillian Putnam-Smith, and Mike Cadoo)

The Changing Media Landscape: What is the Future of the Music and Media Industry?

The final panel of the day brought together everyone from the conference into one room to discuss the future of the music and media industry. As the KALX staff member introducing the panelists pointed out, "everything's transitioning to digital." This digital transition became the focus of the panel, with several of the panelists working almost purely in the online world.

This led to some tensions in the room as radio wasn't always acknowledged as being a part of this digital future. Corey Denis from Not Shocking Digital Strategies proudly said, "I don't deal with any traditional radio," but conceded that artists do still value radio and that college radio is particularly important for local musicians. She added that "unique programming is still going to be the backbone of radio." Mike Cadoo from digital-only label n5MD added that "[radio] charts are pretty valuable to a label" and said that his label services 200 radio stations in North America.

East Bay Express editor Jody Colley chimed in with the role that college radio plays in her job as the editor of a weekly newspaper that works hard to cover local music events, saying that college radio helps local music promoters identify talent because "college radio has always been on the forefront of finding the best bands." The East Bay Express just opened a music venue, so it's even more important for them to be tapped into the music scene.

Talk then turned to digital music and how it is stored and distributed. When discussing the possibility of housing music in "the cloud," located on servers far from one's own physical location there were concerns raised by both panelists and DJs in the audience. Jillian Putnam-Smith of online music company IODA acknowledged that artists seem to make less money from their music if it exists in this virtual space. One DJ said, "When I DJ...I'm being a fan, but I'm also selecting...instead of going to a faceless website and downloading." Another added, "We're a visceral, tangible educational resource" and stated that it's beneficial to have a "physical library [of music] with physical comments on [the material]."

At this point Corey made the claim, "College radio used to break bands. That doesn't happen anymore."

 New Release Bin at KALX

Corey asked the assembled DJs in the room if their stations accepted digital submissions and as far as I could tell no hands went up. Jillian (who used to be a KALX DJ) pointed out that for college radio stations it's often a very complex process to handle digital releases and navigate the password-protected systems put in place by promo companies.

A DJ in the audience then said that for college radio stations having libraries of CDs and LPs is important and that "the actual physical thing reminds you that it exists."

Later on in the discussion Corey added that if a college station created a system for accepting digital music submissions it would be "such a story" and encouraged stations to do so and hire grad students to develop this type of tool. Similarly, others in the audience wondered about the possibility of having digital music located in "the cloud" so that stations could access it without having to download it from promoter or label websites.

But, then the discussion turned back to the desires of DJs who want to be able to play physical music on their shows. Jillian agreed, saying that as a college radio DJ "you want to be able to go into your library and smell all the vinyl." Someone in the audience then brought up a concern about the sound quality of digital and the difference in sound between playing vinyl, CDs, or a stream off of MySpace over the radio. Corey's reply was that "audiophiles like us...We're not the general public" and she argued that people are being taught to expect lower and lower sound quality and that music formats have "degraded in sound over time" as vinyl made way for cassettes, CDs and digital files.

On the flip side, Mike agreed that there is a resurgent interest in vinyl, with vinyl-only labels cropping up. Jillian said that at IODA they create digital files from vinyl and that there's an entire online store ThinkIndie devoted to digital music converted from physical music, including vinyl.

 Audience for the Final UCRN Panel of the Day

Another DJ then brought up that he couldn't imagine preparing for his radio show without having access to bins of CDs and records and said that he likes that he "can see all the CDs...and the artwork" and that he wouldn't want to plan for his show by just going off of a list of music files. Inexplicably this comment caused Corey to launch into an attack on college radio. She complained about record stores being full of cast-off promo CDs and blamed college radio for selling off material, saying that bands pay $2 for that CD and when it gets sold off they don't make any money.

When I pointed out to her that it should be the responsiblity of labels and promo companies to identify stations that would be most interested in specific CDs, she backed off a bit, but didn't really acknowledge that the financial constraints of labels has a lot more to do with their push for stations to go digital than college radio stations getting rid of free CDs that they don't want. Her argument is quite similar to what I've heard on other panels, in which promoters said that they couldn't send out promo CDs anymore and that music stealing fans were to blame.

It was an interesting discussion to say the least and provided some great fodder for the piece that I was just finishing up for PopMatters about "Technology and the Soul of College Radio," so the timing of this debate couldn't have been better.

Thanks to everyone at KALX for allowing me to again be a fly on the wall at UCRN. It's an amazing event that is so beneficial to everyone who participates.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Record Store Day 2010 Delivered

Our collective haul from Record Store Day 2010

On Saturday I awoke and obsessively started scanning through Facebook commentary about Record Store Day in which people reported on where they went and what they bought (as of today there are more than 300 comments on a similar post from later in the day). Since I'm on the west coast, I enjoyed taking a look at initial reports from people visiting record stores in Europe and on the East Coast. Some reported long lines and others complained about their disappointment over not being able to get a specific "special" release. This worried me a bit, as I was hoping that people would embrace the concept of just patronizing their local indie record store, regardless of whether or not they were able to purchase a rare Record Store Day item. To me Record Store Day is more about raising awareness about the ongoing relevance of physical music and record stores and if that was its goal then I think it succeeded this year.

As I wrote on Radio Survivor, a number of radio stations joined in the fun this year. Some featured special programming, others had DJs spinning at record stores, and others just hung out at participating stores. I'm sure many college radio DJs were also unofficial participants, as I know many who hit up stores in their regions (and I personally spotted DJs from KZSU and KUSF during my visit to a store on Saturday).

Aquarius Records on Record Store Day 2010

I was thrilled to see that Aquarius Records in San Francisco was jam-packed with music fans loading up on goodies, from the free doughnuts to the limited edition Record Store Day releases. It seemed more crowded than at last year's event and from what I've heard Amoeba Records in San Francisco was also a hotbed of activity. We picked up a number of items at Aquarius, including a Mountain Goats DVD, the special Record Store Day Devo LP (they only had one copy), as well as some other CDs, LPs, and a couple of 'zines.

Grooves Records in San Francisco on Record Store Day 2010

After taking a break for food, we headed over to Grooves on Market Street to do some vinyl shopping. Although they weren't officially on the roster of Record Store Day participants, we wanted to go to support this amazing outpost for records. A handful of shoppers scanned through records, tapes and 8-tracks and we came away with some awesome finds, including a few wine appreciation records (I had no idea...), spoken word poetry LPs, some classic Disney albums for our 4-year-old, and a bust of J.S. Bach from a coin-operated arcade game.

On the blog Her Jazz, college radio DJ Maria Tessa Sciarrino posted an interesting critique of Record Store Day, calling it anachronistic and consumeristic. She writes,

"Record Store Day isn't relevant to right now. But we, collectively speaking, refuse to acknowledge this or attempt to break with past tradition. I'm not calling for the end of record stores, by the way, but I am all for the end of 'holidays' that reek of empty sentiment. If record stores are the genuine article, why are they doing something that is such a sham?"

Although I don't agree with Maria's overall sentiment, I do think that her point about raising questions about the event is valid. During Record Store Day I heard one clerk mention that this was the day for people to visit who don't normally go to record stores 364 days a year. If that's true, than perhaps there could be something a bit hollow about the event if it doesn't lure people into stores the rest of the year. But who knows, these people may actually become regulars after getting a "taste" on Record Store Day. What do you think? And did you partake in Record Store Day this year?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Record Store Day is Tomorrow!

 Gearing Up for Record Store Day in Berkeley

I'm so thrilled that Record Store Day has become a regular event and that it seems to be getting bigger every year. If you haven't already, clear your calendars for the third annual event being held tomorrow, Saturday, April 17th, so that you can spend some time combing through the shelves and bins of your favorite independent record store. Buy some records, CDs, and tapes and embrace the benefits of music that can be held in your hands. You may also get the chance to see live music, have your CDs/vinyl signed by artists, mingle with bands, get some freebies, and bond with fellow music fans.

The Record Store Day website has links to various events happening tomorrow, including the skinny on super-exclusive releases that will no doubt sell out quickly during the festivities.

Last year I went to Aquarius Records in San Francisco and let my then 3-year-old sift through the bargain bins for CDs. She ended up selecting a number of interesting albums, including 2 CDs that were later added (unrelated to her efforts) to current rotation of the radio station where I DJ (months after she chose them). I can't wait to see what she finds this year!

Although some radio stations are doing some Record Store Day-themed programs and events, I haven't heard about anything big being planned by college radio. If you have the low-down on any college radio stations with big plans for Record Store Day, please post your comments below.

For those in the San Francisco Bay Area, a whole bunch of record stores are participating and in particular there's a ton of stuff happening at Amoeba Records in Berkeley and in San Francisco, with signings, live music, and various giveaways.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Spinning Indie 50 State Tour: Stop 15 - Tennessee's WRVU

Just in time for Spring Break, the Spinning Indie 50 State Tour returns with an all-new virtual trip to a college radio station somewhere in the United States. The aim of this series is to bring to light some of the intriguing radio stations located in both expected and unexpected places in every corner of the U.S.

The 14 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, Nebraska and Idaho.

This time around, we venture to Tennessee to learn more about the Vanderbilt University station WRVU. They have been on my radar recently, as they've had some controversy brewing over a decision last December to reduce the number of non-student DJs over their airwaves. I was impressed that not only did WRVU General Manager Mikil Taylor reach out to me to see if I'd like to profile his station, but that he also didn't shy away from my barrage of questions about the brouhaha over community DJ involvement at WRVU.

In his interview with me, Mikil explains why they reduced the number of non-student DJs at WRVU and points out the impact that this move has had on their schedule. He also goes into detail about the history of the station, talks about their connection with the local music scene in Nashville, and explains how they bond with another local college radio station (WMTS at Middle Tennessee State University) every year through a kickball competition. On to our interview:

WRVU Control Room
(Photo courtesy Mikil Taylor)

Spinning Indie: In December 2009 WRVU placed a cap on the number of non-student DJs on the air. This decision to drop 25 shows hosted by community DJs has sparked criticism by station staff and listeners. Can you explain why a cap was placed on community involvement?

Mikil Taylor: Last fall, the board that owns WRVU, which consists of 5 students and 3 faculty members of Vanderbilt, grew concerned about the amount of airtime that was being devoted to those with no affiliation with the University. By last fall, the number was at about 50 or 60, and growing by 5 or 10 a semester.

Due to the nature of most, although by no means all, community DJs, they have tight schedules and can usually only DJ during the prime spots on weeknights and weekends. The general practice at WRVU was to create a list of "untouchable" shows and place them in their normal spots (that list had grown to about 20), then students and other affiliates, and then community members.

However, since students often have a much freer schedule, many community members would not have spots available to them to DJ when their spots came up. Thus, we moved students to other spots they could do, normally during mid-weekdays, and put the community members in. We broke our own rules in doing that, but it had been the practice since I had been here to get everyone in, in any way possible.

Should I have changed it back to what the rules said? Absolutely, and WRVU now runs that way. This unfortunately led to a few formerly "untouchable" shows losing their timeslots, but at some point we had to face the question as to what was more important: Educating students or providing good non-mainstream music in unfamiliar genres? Considering we are funded mainly by Student Activity Fees and were founded as a learning tool for students, emphasizing students has to be the priority. The board wanted to make sure that happened.

The Board has had a policy in their bylaws since 2003 that no one who wasn't affiliated with Vanderbilt University was to be a regular contributor to any of their publications (This Board also owns the student newspaper). This included a sentence for WRVU, saying they could provide exceptions as they saw fit. Last fall, they essentially changed that sentence to say that they could set a limit on the number of exceptions they could provide, a number that was to be set each year. They asked me for assistance in setting the number, and I failed to do enough research and preparation in arriving at a number. I believe the number 25 is a little low, and I think the increase in shows run by autorotation reflect that. Luckily, this number will be revisited before the fall semester, and I plan on lobbying for an increase.

Essentially, I think the issues boiled down to this:

- The board wanted to emphasize students, and feared that having over half of the DJs at WRVU be unaffiliated with Vanderbilt was crowding out students. In addition to the crowding out of times, they also felt that potential student DJs were discouraged by the number of older DJs at the station. Considering our funding, they did not want to do anything to discourage student participation.

- The drastic increase in community participation was going to eventually lead to a cap of some sort, and the board felt that now was a good time.

- WRVU is the only organization on campus that allows those not affiliated with the University to have access to buildings after-hours. The board felt the number given that privilege posed a security risk, especially given how little they knew about them. They have since began to collect more information about community DJs, including a copy of their drivers license just in case anything goes wrong.

I have talked to a few board members, and they are certainly open to the possibility of changing the policy next semester. However, there will need to be really good evidence and reasoning behind any proposal. I am currently in the process of gathering historical data to support our case.

WRVU Office
(Photo Courtesy Mikil Taylor)

Spinning Indie: What role do community and student DJs play at the station today?

Mikil: As per VSC bylaw, WRVU is entirely run by undergraduate students. Djs can be undergraduates, graduate students, alumni, faculty/staff, or community members. Even though we are run by students, we get a lot of help from all the Djs. There are a lot of people who know just about everything about the industry and help us tremendously when we try to plan stuff. The contacts, knowledge, and experience many of these people have is a great source of knowledge to draw from.

In addition, some of the old e-staff members are still at the station and are always there to help through a bind. In bringing non-students into the station to interact with the students, I think that WRVU is one of the best stations in the country. We're not overrun and ruled by people with an unspoken power like some stations that allow non-students; we're run by students. I like that, and I think it makes WRVU consistently changing. We don't have to worry about commercial considerations, so we play whatever we want.

There's something to be said for continuity and having a recognizable schedule or sound, but we're in college and don't have to consistently worry about that to stay afloat. Our Djs are very sympathetic to that mission, so we get 6am punk rock, a schedule that seems to do a squaredance, and that great feeling that you get when you drive down the road, flip on the radio to hear a show you don't recognize, and be blown away by the quality of the staff here.

I think one thing that's been lost in all this hubub is that there are still 25 fantastic community DJs at WRVU, in addition to the 70 or so students, faculty members, and alumni also doing great shows. It's tough to find ways to get everyone to interact outside of their shows, but we're trying a few ways. I think that's one of the biggest challenges of a station like this: How do you get everyone to stay and talk to one another and do more than their two hours and leave? It's a question I hope we can answer.

We get a lot of volunteers, student and otherwise, for some of our special events around Vanderbilt. One of my particular favorites is called "WRVU on the Wall", where we sit outside the cafeteria and blast music for an hour. It's open to any DJ who wants to do it, and we've got a bit of a waiting list to run them. It's a really cool shift from the dark windowless studio to being outside in 70-degree weather playing for people who can show their appreciation right there. We've had a pretty great reaction toit from students, many of whom didn't even know we existed.

WRVU (Photo Courtesy Mikil Taylor)

Spinning Indie: How did WRVU decide which DJs/shows to eliminate? Were any of them long-running programs?

The executive staff of WRVU, which is made up of students, sat down in December and put together a list of shows we recommended to stay at WRVU. We considered length of time at WRVU, type of music played, how helpful the DJ was (i.e. showing up at station events, programming CDs, generally making our lives easier), and other things. We submitted the proposal to the board, and most of our recommendations were accepted.

Anybody who was there can tell you that it was not an easy process. There really wasn't anyone who applied that wasn't entirely qualified. It sucks having to turn away so many great Djs, all of whom could do great shows. In the end, it was a case of having 50 or 60 great applicants and only 25 spots.

Spinning Indie: Has it been easy to fill the eliminated shifts? If not, are there plans to bring back any former DJs?

Mikil: We had an increase of about 10 unfilled hours as a result of board's decision, mostly in the middle of the day during the week, and some late-night shifts. We can't bring back any former DJs until a DJ on the list decides to leave WRVU or the board tells us we can go over 25 community Djs. They have put off reconsidering the number until the end of the summer. We're really sad to see a lot of these Djs go, and are working towards a good solution, as I mentioned before.

One of the main hopes is that these spots will be filled with more students. I think we've done a great job of increasing student awareness about WRVU this last year. We had about 30 students train last semester, and I think we're at about 20 right now.

Spinning Indie: I've heard that radio at Vanderbilt dates back to the 1950s. Can you tell me a bit about the station's history and/or some interesting bits of trivia about WRVU?

Mikil: We're extremely lucky to have the founder of the station as a current DJ, nearly 60 years after he started broadcasting from his dorm. His name is Ken Berryhill, and his show (Ken's Country Classics and The Old Record Shop) runs Mondays 12-2pm. Here's an interesting story about how it all got started, so long ago.

Also, the guy who wrote "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" used to be a Music Director here in the 70's. I don't know whether to be proud or slightly ashamed. We actually have a lot of music people who used to work at WRVU still around in Nashville, like the General Manager of Lightning 100, the local adult-contemporary station. As far as commercial stations go, it's about as good as it gets, so we're pretty happy to have that tie-in.

WRVU Music Library
(Photo courtesy Mikil Taylor)

Spinning Indie: Do you have music in your collection dating back to the early years of the station? Any favorite gems?

Mikil: I've never combed through the vinyl collections, but it looks like we've sold off most of our old music in favor of the new, especially the vinyl. We don't have very much space to store music, so we have to do periodic clean-outs of the library to keep new stuff flowing in. That, combined with the lack of any one studio location for the last 50 years and occasional water damage, looks to have reduced our old collections to very little.

Spinning Indie: Does WRVU still add vinyl? How big is your collection of vinyl and do DJs embrace it?

Mikil: We have some vinyl, although we've sold off most of it, since we just don't have enough space to hold it all. All we have left are some blues and hip-hop. We do get some vinyl, and add it on occasion, but it's nothing compared to the torrent of CDs we get. It's tough to find DJs willing to play vinyl, although there are always those who won't play anything but that.

Prepping for WRVU CD Sale
(Photo courtesy Mikil Taylor)

Spinning Indie: Are you guys set up to add digital releases?

Mikil: We're currently working towards doing that. We are adding a lot of our music library into a digital archive. However, our system may or may not support digital releases, because of some strange rules governing the software. Like many things here, it's a work in progress.

WRVU Rotation CDs
(Photo courtesy Mikil Taylor)

Spinning Indie: Are there any specific rules about the music that gets added to your stations? Are DJs required to play anything in particular? Is there anything they aren't allowed to play?

Mikil: We require about 2/3rds to 3/4ths of Djs to play music from our new rotation, which consists of the music we get sent. The number of songs a DJ is required to play generally depends on how long they've been here, and ranges from 3 to 7 per hour. There's about 50-100 CDs or more in there, so people can have a lot to choose from. We try to add music from a host of different genres, from indie to metal to blues to folk to rock. We also require all rotation shows to play at least one local artist per hour, to promote Nashville's music, and to let people know that Nashville isn't just country. We get a lot of great music made here, and WRVU does what it can to showcase that.

Spinning Indie: What's the longest running show/DJ at the station?

Mikil: I think Ken Berryhill can officially be considered the first WRVU DJ, since he sowed the seeds over 50 years ago. Even at his age, his voice is just perfect for the radio. Listening to his show brings you back into the days of old-time radio. You can actually catch a copy of his latest show on by clicking on Archived Audio and finding "Ken's Country Classics" and "The Old Record Shop."

WRVU Production Studio
(Photo courtesy Mikil Taylor)

Spinning Indie: Do you have any specific programs/specialty shows that are unique to WRVU or stand out as being different from anything else on radio?

Mikil: Being the country music capitol of the world, we get some fantastic country shows here, like the aforementioned Ken Berryhill-run programs, Hipbilly Jamboree, and the Honky Tonk Jukebox. We also have a really cool show called Nashville Jumps, focusing on Jump blues. A few blues shows (Spoonful, the Sky is Crying, and The Delta Groove), Metal shows (The Gauntlet and Out Ov The Coffin), and Punk shows (Loud Love, Misplaced Tracks, etc). A Liberal talk show that's followed by a conservative one run by students, and then later in the week are two sports shows run by students.

I particularly like Sacred Hymns, which is a fantastic collection of Gregorian chants and the like. Sound of the Bayou (cajun), Colombian Party Cartel (Colombian music), and Viva VAIA (Brazilian!), just to name a few.

If I absolutely had to pick some favorites, these would be in that list:

Nashville Jumps (a description of his genre can be found here).

Liberadio (Liberal talk radio, always interesting to hear in the home of the National Tea Party Convention).

Sacred Hymns. (His description: A unique program featuring Eastern Orthodox Christian Liturgical chant and acapella singing as the expression of an ancient Judeo-Christian Liturgical Tradition of nearly 3000 years combining Beauty and Worship.)

I could probably go on and on, but for the sake of my sanity (and my spring break), I'll leave it at that.

Spinning Indie: What role do you guys play in the local music scene in Nashville?

Mikil: We promote local shows, play local music, encourage our Djs to bring in local artists to interview and promote. Many of our Djs work closely with local musicians here, and we're always trying to bring in more local talent. We also require most of the shows here to play music by local artists during their show. Considering how easy it is for a local band to be played on WRVU, I'm surprised we don't get more submissions. We could probably do a better job of promoting all that.

Spinning Indie: Tell me a bit about the local college radio scene and how you've connected with folks from other stations nearby.

Mikil: There aren't many nearby "college radio" stations. There are a few stations run from colleges, but we mainly hold the banner of college radio for Nashville. We love WMTS, which is about an hour south of Nashville at MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University), but it doesn't reach all the way up here. We play them in kickball each year, and are currently scheduling the next game for the next few weeks. We're currently ahead in the all-time standings 2-0, and are hoping to increase our win total soon. Recently, to my happy surprise, Belmont University in Nashville just recently reached out to us, as they're looking to restart their internet radio station soon. We'll be doing what we can to make that happen.

Spinning Indie: Is there anything else you want to share about WRVU?

Mikil: WRVU is one of the most powerful college radio stations situated in one of the biggest music cities in the world. Despite this, we are not affiliated with any broadcast school. At many colleges, this would mean that WRVU was underfunded and consistently in danger of being sold off. We're extremely lucky to have a very supportive university and governing board. We never
have any substantive trouble with money nor are we in danger of going away any time soon.

The lack of a broadcast school means that WRVU can concentrate on students and music, without having to create a structure similar to any other station. We don't promise anyone a job at another station, so we don't have to be like any other station. I think that frees us up to do so much more, and to play some fantastic music. I'm not alone in remembering my first time listening to WRVU very fondly. After listening to nothing but the 12-song rotations of most stations around Nashville, I was very happy to find WRVU. It would be rare to hear the same 12 songs in a week here, let alone 30 times a day.