The Top Spots
Tiny Scraps of Everlasting Comedy
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Given the slightest prompt, old radio hands will tell you all sorts of stories about the cumbersome, unreliable studio technology of decades past. Few pieces of equipment take greater pride of place in these tales of endurance than cartridges, or “carts.”
Carts were like regular audio cassettes in that they contained a reel of tape onto which you could record a song, a commercial, a public service announcement, or a brief station identification. They weren’t like regular audio cassettes in that you had to load them into a particular type of rack to play them. Theoretically, you shoved a bunch of them into a rack and they would play in order, one by one, although the number of moving parts involved in such a system sometimes made this a dicey proposition.
Most radio stations have long since set both carts and racks out on the curb in favor of computer-based digital audio libraries. KCSB did this in the 1990s, eschewing jammed tape, questionable labeling, and ever-diminishing sound quality for simple pointing, dragging, and clicking. Since digital “carts” don’t need active preservation or maintenance — you can play a sound file over and over until the end of time, after all — the average life span of an audio clip at the station has risen tremendously. Weird stuff of hilarity both intentional and unintentional hangs around in the system for years and years, providing a peculiar kind of continuity through KCSB’s perpetually changing schedule. No matter whether you’re listening to a show about Irish folk music, Japanese jazz, or the troubled conditions of third-world factories, no matter whether you’re listening in the morning, the day, or the wee hours, you stand a decent chance of hearing one of these classic KCSB carts.
Somewhere in the mists of KCSB history, a very creative fellow by the name of Ben Lau seems to have gotten quite busy indeed at the digital audio workstation. The station’s file system still carries a few gems bearing his name, including a lengthy masterwork about how you can hear a Chinese-language version of the theme from Titanic coming out of your walls by way of KJUC, KCSB’s AM training station transmitted by residence hall electrical current. Lau’s most popular work remains a simple station ID called “Thanks, Bye” in which a couple of guys—well, record a simple station ID. (Like many great works, it’s a little meta.) One of the guys doesn’t quite seem to get it; he doesn’t even know what “FM” means. Add to that the slightly overdriven recording and the confused fellow’s impression that “we were here to talk about my movie,” and you’ve got a tiny scrap of everlasting comedy.
While that ID might have stuck around in a world of physical cartridges filled with physical tape, a station ID featuring Janeane Garofalo would’ve become history a long time ago. A magnetic recording of such a towering icon of the 1990s would easily have worn from excessive playing in the 1990s, but as a series of ones and zeroes, this one lives on. The buzzy phone connection over which it was recorded gives this spot an endearingly handmade quality, but the real stroke of genius comes in its framing. Or, rather, it comes in its lack of framing. Just like the cart above, this one is a station ID of the making of a station ID. The best part is obviously the moment of silence when Garofalo writes down what she’s expected to say. The runner up is the interviewer’s response to her reading of the lines: “Bomb.” “Thanks,” Garofalo replies. I can’t help but believe this all fits perfectly with the actress’s established persona of sly insouciance.
As reliable public service announcements go, it’s hard to beat one straight from the mouth of the Godfather of Soul. James Brown’s “Don’t Do Drugs” sees much airplay on KCSB, and no wonder. Not only does he deliver a strong message, he delivers it in what sounds like a strangely disoriented fashion, dropping lines like, “If you use drugs—you’d better leave it alone,” and “Drugs will take your life away, and if you want to live, stay away from drugs.” His declaration of drugs’ super badness, repeated no fewer than six times as the spot fades out, is the icing on the cake.
Few spokesmen can hope to match Brown’s style, but some match his idiosyncrasy. Last month in the KCSBeat, I mentioned a public service announcement in which “an anthropomorphic epididymis urges listeners not to kill their parents.” Clearly, I would be remiss in not including that spot in this column. Though E-Diddy the Epididymis’ lesson is, at its heart, simple, direct, and healthy, the production that surrounds it always impresses me with its intricacy. Just listen to those echoes as E-Diddy’s chuckly pronouncement gradually deepens and elongates into the hellish voice of the underworld. At the same time, a veritable thicket of graveyard noises rise all around it. What I wouldn’t give to see the reaction of the unsuspecting freeway motorist, spinning his radio dial as he passes Santa Barbara in the middle of the night, as he happens upon this thing.
With irony points as well as funkiness points, Gil Scott-Heron’s PSA about the dangers of “angel dust” has long been a winner. Angel dust, Scott-Heron tells us, is “a killer white powder or a chemical mix that is sprayed or sprinkled on tobacco or marijuana cigarettes” that “has come between the best of friends.” Though I’ve never heard of any enthusiasm on his part for that particular drug, the media’s coverage of his recent musical comeback invariably focuses on his truly astonishing enthusiasm for other, similar substances. It’s not as if many KCSB listeners haven’t been warned away from drug use by his cart, but his profile in The New Yorker last August presented a much scarier cautionary example. Gil Scott-Heron doesn’t need to record PSAs; he is a PSA.