Boomerang Days: Radio Head

 

Boomerang Days: Radio Head

A Longhorn does college all over again.

In my early years at UT I found a community of underground music rascals, pioneers of the Austin airwaves, and communicators of the radically alternative. I found student radio. Now, 25 years later, I’m returning to the studio to sit in on station manager Armando Maese’s late-night show.

KVRX sits just above the  offices in the Communication Center Building. In my day, KTSB, (as it was called from 1988-93) lived in the basement of the Moore-Hill dorm. But the vibe is the same. There’s a scattering of furniture that even thrift stores would turn away, the walls are covered with posters of bands I pretend to have heard of, and a collection of people self-assured in their love of the fringe.

I sit next to Maese, a young, professional, and friendly man in the pleasantly cluttered booth along with some other DJs, guests, and one guy fiddling with some knobs, possibly a technician trying to fix the audio feedback. While we wait for it to be adjusted, I tell Maese about my own experience with radio.

I applied to be a DJ back in the day, filling out a questionnaire on what discs I’d spin for the masses. I might have mentioned the Monkees. I possibly cited Erasure as evidence of my edginess. And I most certainly wrote that I would play “Billy Joel, but not the hits. The deeper cuts.” I was not offered a DJ position, but was instead sent to the news department.

Maese, like most of the students running the station, is a devout believer in KVRX’s mission to play “none of the hits, all of the time.” His show is dedicated to exposing listeners to the more obscure frontiers of electronica.

“Like Erasure?” I ask.

No. Not like Erasure. Once a band hits the Billboard top 200, they’re blacklisted from KVRX rotation. I don’t even ask about the Monkees.

As a student, I loved the news department. I tell Maese how many a night I’d stay up until dawn in the editing bay cutting reel-to-reel tape with a blunt razor. He looks at me as if I’m describing crushing beetles with a rock to make ink for my feather quill.

The highest honor I received in my radio days was an opportunity to co-anchor the evening news show at the end of my freshman year. This was live radio! The “On Air” sign blinked red and I choked.

It wasn’t that I didn’t speak. That would have been much better. I read every word handed to me, only incorrectly. I slaughtered the names of politicians, cities, and even common verbs. This wasn’t just my own mild dyslexia, this was my tongue leaving my head, participating in a Sixth Street pub crawl, and tying itself in a knot M.C. Escher would have applauded. Every sentence, every word was a sticky strip of flypaper that I couldn’t escape. But I didn’t stop. My co-anchor looked at me with genuine pity and the kind of awe reserved for snakes that accidently swallowed their own tails. Having that perfect radio voice is a true gift. When Maese turns to the microphone, he adopts the calm, almost disinterested tones of nonprofit radio the world over. It’s a mellow self-confidence I admire.

I struggle with mellow. My baseline is an over-caffeinated monkey who just found the “on” button of an electric razor. Frankly, I’d be more apt as a Top 40 morning show DJ, making crank calls and controlling a button that triggers the sound of a toilet flushing.

The technician is still messing with the knobs to fix the pulsing feedback tones. Maese lists some of the subgenres of electronica he plays on his show: acid techno, drone, power electronics, and noise.

“Noise?”

“Harsh, grating, and difficult to listen to,” Maese explains. “And that’s the point.”

I ask him to recall the weirdest music that has been played in recent years. He mentions a sorority girl who briefly tried to fill the airwaves with Coldplay remixes. She had to be stopped.

The technician removes his earphones. I’m about to thank him for fixing the sound issue when Maese congratulates him on a cool live set. I’m introduced to Sam Green—aka Hempwig—whose music I’ve mistaken for feedback for the last 20 minutes.

As I head out, I feel old and thoroughly unhip. I am pleated pants. I am adult contemporary. I am an appetizer at TGI Fridays.

The next day I do something remarkable. I find some Hempwig and listen to it. And I love it! It’s complex and beautiful, and I never would have heard had it not been for KVRX. So if you see me bouncing along with my earphones anytime soon, I might be getting deeper into Hempwig or some other KVRX recommendation. Or maybe just my old Billy Joel mixtape.

Illustration by Mario Zucca

 

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