Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Missing 15 Minutes: A Life In Radio

I was thinking recently of the process through which I came to have such a diverging set of intense fascinations. You know what it's like: you have a coffee in one hand, your eyes on the horizon and start thinking through the past. I realised (and not for the first time) the importance for me of ten years I spent producing a weekly radio programme, and how this led to a broadening and deepening of my interests. So here, a little personal history. (It's a blog after all; I'm allowed.)

In 1985 I had already worked as a DJ and announcer for several years at the college radio station CHRW in London, Ontario, Canada. If you look today you will find a station in that city with the same call letters. But the frequency has changed, the people have changed and the philosophy has been fundamentally altered.

Those who were able to listen to independent and community radio in North America from the sixties through the eighties will know what a vital time it was for artistic and political expression on the airwaves. That all died with the commodification of "indie" music in the nineties. Once "alternative" became just another marketing category, the death knell had sounded. College and community stations hooked their wagon to the commercial train, sold their soul and sat back to collect the rewards... which of course never came. Mass Corporate Copyright Moguls take, take, take and take again, but never give back anything but bribes. (And a bribe is not a gift; a bribe is a debt.)

But I didn't know anything about the upcoming expiry date way back in 1985. All I knew was the growing boredom of a typical DJ routine. So, to make a change, on 3 June 1985 I debuted a specialty show by the name of Missing 15 Minutes. This was an hour-long forum for whatever thematic concerns might come my way. At first it was largely devoted to music, featuring a different recording act each week. Sometimes I did interviews with the musicians themselves, as they passed through Ontario on tour. I talked with The Pixies, Simple Minds, Modern English, OMD, Icicle Works and others... often before their big "break". I distinctly remember telling a member of The Pixies, who then had only one (stupendous) EP released upon the world, that they would soon be the biggest band in America. They laughed.

Musically you could expect me to play "popular" (they weren't then) artists like Echo and the Bunnymen, Julian Cope, Joy Division, Gary Numan and Kate Bush (OK, she was already huge). But I soon realised that interviewing bands meant only that I was an unpaid marketing flunkie. I was not struck by the mystery of being in the presence of a star. The decisive moment came when I had the choice of private tea with Kate Bush or staying at home to study for an exam. I chose the exam. So I stopped chatting up stars and turned to more elusive fare: Durutti Column, Philip Glass, Wim Mertens, :zoviet-france: and The Hafler Trio. Serial music, ambient, industrial and noise artists muddled the mix alongside more pure pop offerings.

I wondered what the listeners thought, or even if I had listeners. It turned out that I did. Maybe they were few in number, but they seemed dedicated. Years later I'd run into someone who recognised my voice and would say something like "that show you did on Cocteau Twins changed my life". This was always nice to hear. Music can change a life; I know that. Never underestimate the power of pop. (Read Jon Savage, Paul Morley, Greil Marcus and Bill Drummond if you don't believe me.)

There were other sources for fans of creative music -- one or two late-night shows on the national radio network CBC catered to this audience. But these programmes were generally too pompous and inaccurate to be taken seriously. On the upside they introduced a lot of people to some great artists; on the down-side they scrambled histories, repeated lies and invented mythologies whole cloth. (Cocteau Twins being a good example, actually.)

Despite the great need for intelligent shows about intelligent music, my own programme slowly turned away from music as its primary focus. Instead of biographical details and discographies, Missing 15 Minutes was now more likely to feature a dramatic or fictional reading. There was a strong science-fiction component, with works by P.K. Dick, John Shirley, William Gibson, Hilary Bailey, Andrew Travers, John Sladek, Michael Moorcock, Thomas Disch (recently passed on in tragic circumstances) and others playing a large role. Also included were "slipstream" writers like Italo Calvino, Pynchon, Anais Nin, Baudelaire, D.M. Thomas, Marguerite Duras, Steve Erickson and Borges.

The stage was set in the second episode with a work by J.G. Ballard, soon to become a recurring favourite. But it was not for some time that an entire programme was dedicated to a reading of "Crash"... long before the film adaptation.

These writers were almost unknown on the airwaves in the years 1985-1995. (I am inclined to say "completely unknown" but I do know of a series of Ballard adaptations.) Looking back at this list I imagine some of these writers have not been heard on radio subsequently. I mean, Andrew Travers? Who the heck is he? Find Science Against Man edited by Anthony Cheetham and be prepared to have your mind blown wide open.

Obscurity aside, I think the biggest achievement in this catalogue was the erasure of genre boundaries that came from jamming such diverse authors side by side. I have always believed that "science-fiction" (bad term) is a superset of literature and not the other way around. This programme did not set out to prove that theory (it didn't set out to do anything, having no explicit agenda) but through accretion over time and force of will, demonstrated this principle better than any alternative praxis could.

Eventually "theory" itself began to make itself known in a more deliberate way. Readings from Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Albert Camus and Roland Barthes made way for excerpts from papers by Derrida and Baudrillard. I spoke on "The Problem of Building Socialist Cities" from a USSR publication I found in a library sale. Guests read from Welsh mythology and were interviewed about the journalism of disaster coverage.

My interest in pure sonic activities led to the broadcast of film audio tracks divorced from their visuals. These I later called "kinoscapes", to differentiate them from the musical cues commonly known as soundtracks. Popular favourites in this regard included THX 1138, The Prisoner, The Manchurian Candidate and Catch-22. You'd be surprised: some films are improved by turning off the visuals.

Or maybe this was just part of a process of refusal the show encompassed.

Politics too came to the fore. A potent entry on the Kent State massacre might have had the distancing effect of history to soften the impact (I don't think so... I was pretty worked up), but "IraqUsa", a collage of noise, industrial music and contemporary broadcasts (sampled off TV and radio) held no prisoners in January 1991. I played this as a symphony from the eight-track recording studio instead of the normal control room. All live, all unrehearsed, an eight-pronged octopus of media mayhem, with me barely in control.

My interest in radio itself as a medium led to alliances in the field of radio art. The Radio Possibilities Week event of 1991 turned the community station inside out in an attempt to discover what made it tick. Performers from across North America descended on the city for a series of art events. After this it seemed all barriers would break down. Extended programmes on nonsense and Alice In Wonderland were juxtaposed against a reading of "On An(archy) and Schizoanalysis" by Rolando Perez and the music of psychiatric inmate Adolf W├Âlfli. Special episodes on encryption and gravity were followed by those on China and hypnotism. It seemed like this was the only "reasonable" response to a world turning itself inside out: contort this medium likewise.

Back to Dada it seemed.

I thought of quiting several times, the work of the show being done, my energies spent. But the greatest refusal was a refusal to stop after so many years. An eight-part series on the New World Order established where I stood on the issues of the day. Just as seven shows on the group Wire made clear my musical allegiance (it's so obvious).

But though it was always about me, it was never only about me. My friends and fellow collaborators brought in Elliott Carter, Don Marquis, Donald Barthelme, John Zorn and more... influences I was feeling second-hand but which they could express directly. It was odd listening to someone else at the microphone during that designated hour... like I was on both sides of the radio signal. The effect would transfix me. Shot by both sides.

After this almost anything could happen: Aircraft Injuries, Fakes, a show for artist Greg Curnoe, an election programme, David Cronenberg, Isak Dinesen, Bill Clinton, Virtual Reality. In a Pythonesque turn Greenaway's film "Prospero's Books" of the play "The Tempest" was interpreted through the book of the film by presenting the radio programme of the book. If only we'd had a film crew in the studio! But some circles are better left broken.

Some weeks I spent a dozen hours researching and preparing for sixty minutes of air time. (Actually it was more like 45 minutes once one subtracted out the sponsorships and titles -- missing 15 minutes indeed!) Other times I winged it based on a few photocopied sheets and a handful of records. Or even just one record.

The final programme, on 20 September 1993, revisited Borges (appropriately enough). Following this I was issued a trespass order forbidding me from broadcasting, the result of a long dispute between the station manager and the most politically active volunteers, all of whom gave their time to honest forms of creative expression, without expectation of anything except being treated decently.

Radio is always about power. M15M was an attempt to decentre that power by putting forces of randomness and chance at the helm and then setting the accelerator to "full speed ahead!" Power does not like that, so eventually something had to give.

This would be the easy narrative arc, but in fact my show was never directly threatened. It was a matter of me being unwilling to sit by and watch others get shafted. I had grown through the years of radio activity into the sort of person that couldn't allow that to happen. The programme created the necessary conditions for its own extinguishing.

At least three dozen of the best and brightest were shown the streets. But, being a creative and adaptable lot, many of us liked what we saw there. Theatre companies were founded, performance groups spawned and an international music festival was birthed. I went on to help found the first community Internet station in Canada. And so on and so forth... death led to rebirth as it always does.

I learned a lot from that. I learned my life from that. Four-hundred and three hours over ten years. That's something to be thankful for.

So thanks to Chris Keep, Allan Bernardi, Len Temple, Gord Zelinski, Jeff Culbert, Mark Harrower, Herb Bayley, Tim McLaughlin, Antoine Moonen, Chris Cole, Katherine Hajer, Arun Konanur, Susan Birkwood, David Freeman, Al Ross and so many others I can't remember right now.



Anonymous said...

I was delighted to read this account of M15M. While its messy and unfortunate demise must cloud the memory of the show, it really shouldn't overshadow its dazzling achievement. Week after week, it afforded not only a great mix of voice, music, and text, but, what is more rare, an opportunity to rethink the very bounds of radio. I certainly had never really thought of radio as an artistic medium in its own right before becoming involved, in whatever peripheral and occasional way, in the show, but I did after.

Looking back now, in the latter days of the first decade of the twenty-first century, thinking about M15M prompts one to reflect on the demise of terrestrial radio, of what is lost when we no longer bend over tuners to pick up the signal of an underpowered college radio station, with the static interference seeming as much a part of the program as the program itself.

But instead, I'll close with my fondest memory of the show. Having been asked to co-host a show on cyberpunk, that heady mix of science fiction and film noir that gave us both William Gibson and the term cyberspace, I brought in Mirrorshades, a collection of short stories edited by Bruce Sterling that helped eastablish the genre in the late-eighties.

I don't remember which short story it was that I was reading but something there struck me as just so funny, so absurd, so strikingly original, that I laughed till the tears came to my eyes. That hasn't happened much since, but then we haven't a show quite like this since either.

Thanks for this, Robin!


robin said...

Thank you Chris for that lovely appreciation.

I continue with radiophonic explorations, even if only occasionally. My last art performance involved flesh inductance and radio feedback... I think the time is right to look back on radio at the moment of its death, to see how it has shaped us and our world.

Anonymous said...

Your show was a godsend. An intelligent and always creative well crafted labour of love. The multi part Kate Bush biography was definitely a highlight for me and you even mailed me the transcript! With deepest gratitude and respect.

robin said...

I mailed you the transcript! I don't even remember that. But thanks so much for this comment. These days, with reminders of mortality all around (Tom Verlaine is dead), it helps to know the memories continue...

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