Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Pointless: A Freeform Jazz Odyssey

Choosing a college to attend was a tough decision. I had no loyalty to the two major universities in Michigan. In fact, it took me quite a few years to know that "State" was Michigan State University while "Michigan" was the University of Michigan per the common parlance of my fellow Michiganders. It came down to two key factors: State had a great radio station while Michigan had some kick ass record stores.

The record stores won out.

This was the early '90s before the concept of "alternative radio" had yet to break into the Detroit market (via Windsor). There was a few hour blocks on one station of "alternative" music every Saturday night ("Brave New Waves") and there was an amazing program from Canada that beamed its way across the ether even later, hosted by CBC's David Wisdom. Otherwise, Detroit Radio was a rather barren landscape (sorry WDET--you never did anything for me).

The radio station at U of M left a lot to be desired. Too many laconic disc jockeys jawing on about obscure jazz artists. I like the idea behind the station -- the station's credo was "freeform radio." You could hear anything at anytime.

Freeform excited me. But I wasn't sure if I fit in with the hipsters running 'CBN. Could I be pedantic enough? Could I dig out treasures most obscure? Would I be able to run the board without the major technical difficulties I heard so often? I had to give it a shot.

I made a demo tape, breaking out some of the stranger items in my record collection, and passed muster. I was in. And, like all newbie DJs, I got the graveyard shift of 12AM-3AM. One of my best friends, Jeff Dunlap, nabbed the 3-6AM slot.

Luckily, this was over the summer months--one day a week. I'd drive up to Ann Arbor, do my shift and either do Jeff's too (if he couldn't make it) or sit through his before going back to the house we were renting and sleeping on a flatmate's floor for a few hours.

I had a great time. I felt like the last man on Earth, broadcasting whatever tasty nuggets I could lay my hands on in the massive 'CBN record library. LPs were still king at this time with the station boasting just a smattering CDs.

Each semester brought an evaluation and a change at a new time slot if I was deemed worthy. I stayed in that graveyard shift for a while. I just wasn't very good. Regardless, I still had fun. I enjoyed experimenting with samples, mixing spoken word albums with instrumental tracks, et cetera. The most fun I had was doing a "Christmas Special" where I had every turntable in the place going at the same time--all with different albums going. It was a beautiful cacophony with various bit surfacing to audible levels briefly before fading back into the din of a holiday nightmare. Luckily, I had a witness for part of this--another 'CBN DJ who happened to stop by in the middle of it.

After my next evaluation I was slotted for 6AM-9AM. Drive time, baby!

I continued to experiment. I would give different shows a theme or take an hour and explore a certain genre or idea. I embraced the freeform.

One morning I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone. I had a box of 45s from my mother and wanted to transfer them to cassette tape for her (pre-burning your own CD). I decided to play them all on air and record my show, playing 45 minute blocks of music. To say that my mom's taste are as eclectic as mine is fairly accurate. She had a lot of great Ray Charles and Elvis Presley along with Sugar Loaf, Elton John, and Kenny Loggins among other things.

I got one really nice call (a rarity) during my show when I was playing some of the Ray Charles. "I haven't heard this in years! Thank you so much!"

Apparently, there was another phone call that didn't go to me but went right to the station manager. I'd find that out a few weeks later when my evaluation came due. Someone found it rather objectionable that I had played Kenny Loggins on WCBN and some of the big wigs at the station agreed that Mr. Loggins and his music weren't welcome on such a progressive radio station.

They were concerned that my show just "didn't have a point." This whole time I didn't know that I had needed to make on. I figured that "freeform" radio was rather... pointless. That is, something mercurial that couldn't be categorized. Thank goodness for my multiple turntable experiments being witnessed -- that's what gave me enough "indie cred" to maintain a position on the station.

I only served one more term on the 6AM-9AM shift before turning in my 45 adapter and graduated. I just couldn't get over being castigated for my Loggins playing. My first day of my last session I had a new themesong -- "Pointless" by Dinosaur. After spinning that slice of college rock I got on air and dedicated the next set to my fans -- a triple rock block of Kenny Loggins comin' at you, starting with "Danger Zone" and ending with a little "Footloose" with "I'm Alright" in the middle. And it was smooth.

I never thought I'd be Defender of Kenny Loggins, but I can't hear the bearded wonder without smiling even to this day.


keagirl said...

Kuddos to you for sticking to your guns and playing Kenny Loggins music. The man has had a long and sucsessful career, and deserves to be honored for that. But the best part about Kenny is that he is still rocking and his voice and his performances are better than ever.The songs you played were some of his more commercial songs. Try listening to his "Leap of Faith", or "Unimaginable Life" a better idea of his amazing musical range. He continues to experiment with different genres of music. He had a 2007 cd

keagirl said...

Opps- got caught off.
He had a 2007 cd released through Target called appropriately "How About Now" which has a funky hip country vibe. It is being re-released in March to reach a larger audience. For more info check out www.kennyloggins.com. Just cause a rocker get older (as we all do) does not mean he or she has to loose their edge. I promise give his other stuff a listen and keep smiling!


Anonymous said...

Hey -- people value the individual just as long as he isn't a REAl individual.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting story. It's awesome that you stood up for his music. He was one of my favs. back in the day. =)

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