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On the Air When You Least Expect It

Suddenly, Conceptual Radio


It’s happened to every dedicated KCSB listener: You go to tune in your favorite show and it turns out the DJ is sick, on vacation, spending the night in the drunk tank, or otherwise nowhere near the studio.

Disappointment is the most common reaction, and I wouldn’t dream of begrudging you that emotion. But the way KCSB works, chances are you’ll hear something equally interesting instead, or perhaps even more so. This is thanks to the phenomenon of “subbing”: We at KCSB have all done it, and you tuned into KCSB have probably all, for better or worse, heard it.

Unlike most radio stations, KCSB maintains a policy of keeping a warm body in the control room as often as humanly possible. This turns out to be very nearly always, and if you don’t believe me, you’ve got a convenient means of verification. Try giving the studio line a call at 893-2424. When a DJ picks up at 11:00 in the morning, sure, it’s nice, but not totally unexpected. When one picks up at 11:00 in the evening, that’s a pleasant surprise. Call again at 5:00 a.m., and you’ll almost certainly hear a live human being answer within moments. Now give it a shot at 3:00 a.m., provided you can drag yourself from the pillow to the phone. You’ll no doubt be greeted by a KCSBer who dragged himself or herself all the way to the studio.

Audio Clip

KCSBeat “Conceptual Radio”

KCSBeat explains the unscripted, unpredictable broadcasts of Conceptual Radio

But life happens, as they say, meaning that not every KCSB programmer can turn up for every single one of their shows like clockwork. In order to uphold the station’s always-an-actual-person-there sensibility, other DJs, be they those with their own programs on the schedule, those who once had programs on the schedule, or those who intend to get their programs on the schedule in the future, usually come to the rescue. The subbing arrangements tend to fall into one of two broad categories: those where the sub tries to do the same sort of show the subbed-for would have, and those where the sub disregards the time slot’s established vibe entirely and does their own thing.

I admit that, when called upon to sub, I opt nearly without exception for the latter. But I have a theory, the determination of whose soundness I leave to you, on which I base that perennial choice. It’s that, as a listener, the experience of being mentally prepared for a certain show, tuning in to hear that show, and hearing that show, is well and good. Settling into the particularly receptive mode for a show and then hearing almost that show—a sub trying to imitate the original DJ’s musical taste or flow, say, but not quite getting them right—is more like hearing a sour note, or taking a big gulp of Clamato when you think it’s going to be water. (If you can’t forgive that analogy, I understand.)

The most interesting possible listening experience, to my mind, is when you’re geared up to hear one show but then hear something almost entirely different, a program far away on an axis of radio entertainment you might not have even known existed. The interaction of a specific set of expectations with an unexpected piece of culture that’s completely skewed from them gives rise to some of the richest moments in the modern history of performer-audience exchange. Ponder, for a moment, the potential mind-blowingness of the Nonstop Dixieland Rarities mindset suddenly receiving the Mechanical Drone Hour sensibility. (Neither show is real, though I now wish both were.)

This is why I do Conceptual Radio. Conceptual Radio isn’t a show on the KCSB schedule, nor has it ever been. By its very nature, it can’t be: It’s a project that must exist only irregularly, only ephemerally. It comes into existence when the stars align, when Venus goes into negative rotation and Saturn’s rings tilt at just the right angle—that is to say, when another KCSBer needs a sub, I have time to sub, and I feel particularly irked that radio has fallen too deeply into the same old formal and aesthetic grooves. This is a show that rises unpredictably, strikes at the medium’s deeply ingrained habits, and subsides. Needless to say, it’s the kind of program you’d be hard-pressed to encounter on any station but KCSB.

During my time at the station, my even longer time as a fan of radio and, especially, my time examining the medium’s freeform variant here in this column, I’ve put a lot of thought into one issue above all others: Why isn’t radio more creative? Certainly KCSBers do far more work outside the box (to use an expression that itself sounds strikingly unoriginal and uncreative) than the desperate inhabitants of commercial and even mainstream public radio’s vast, arid plains. Yet even on this station I often find myself slipping into established, time-worn radio ways of thought and performance, and I’m not alone in that. Thus, in the spirit of being the change one wishes to see—or, in this case, to hear—I adhere to one concept especially: Do nothing normal.

Subbing for the eclectic Saturday-afternoon show Kittens vs. Godzilla this past weekend, I let fly with Conceptual Radio once again, constructing an improvised on-air audio collage out of avant-garde compositions pulled from KCSB’s vinyl library, listeners’ phone calls, clips of vintage radio programs like Quiz Kids and I Was a Communist for the FBI from the 1930s, 40s and 50s (when, counterintuitively, broadcasts seem to have been more adventurous), and, naturally, my own voice bemoaning the unimaginative state of so much radio today. Will there be another Conceptual Radio? Probably. Will it be in the same vein as this one? Maybe, maybe not. How can you hear it? The only way is to listen. A lot.

Please send questions, comments, or feedback of any kind to colin@independent.com.



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