Politics, Culture, Zombies
Freak Along with Ted
Concentrating hard during the usual rushed minutes of deejay-to-deejay handoff between KCSB shows, Ted Coe whips out a stack of notes that, no kidding, are written on actual napkin. But they appear to be detailed, and they serve him well. As the previous programmer’s sign-off song, a harmonica cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” plays out, Coe arranges these and other technical and intellectual accoutrements necessary for the first half of his show, an interview with Emily and Sarah Kunstler. The daughters of well-known lawyer and civil rights activist William Kunstler, they’re coming onto the program to discuss Disturbing the Universe, the documentary they’ve produced about their father, which is scheduled to screen during the upcoming All-Gaucho Reunion weekend.
Though always subject to some degree of on-the-fly flexibility and improvisation, the show is planned in a loose framework. After chatting live on the air with the sisters Kunstler, Coe airs a prerecorded conversation he’s conducted with Brett Morgen, the director of Chicago 10, the cinematic multimedia retrospective on 1968’s post-Democratic National Convention anti-war protests. Providing a musical lead-in to the whole business is “Student Demonstration Time,” the Beach Boys’ 1971 track in which Mike Love name-checks Isla Vista and its 1970 troubles. (See also this column’s coverage of KCSB’s role in the turmoil.)
Clearly there’s a theme this week, and a strong one at that. Protest, social activism, and pushing for change by any means, no matter how unusual have long been the leitmotifs of The Freak Power Ticket, the program Coe has hosted and produced on KCSB since 2002. They’re present in a heavy way in this installment, but his interest in the more artistic and cultural aspects of such endeavors balances them out. “We go into his use of music and aesthetics,” Coe tells me about his interview segment with Morgen as he readies it on his silver MacBook, balanced atop the studio’s mixing console. “I was focused on cultural studies in grad school, in the English program. I’m interested in the interaction of music and politics.”
The more I ponder those napkin-based notes, the more symbolic they become of The Freak Power Ticket itself, a ready-for-anything kind of show that’s deeply imbued with D.I.Y. [do it yourself] aesthetics and sensibilities. It’s obviously not a straight music-show, but it’s not a straight talk show, either. Coe and his guests are the types to pull concepts from the wider zeitgeist and pass them through their own cultural prisms, making the kind of radio nobody would ever get to hear were it not for freeform stations like KCSB. There’s just no telling how their source material will be presented on the airwaves.
“I kind of see the show as a magazine,” Coe said, describing the program’s core organizational principles. But “magazine” doesn’t capture it; to give me a better idea, he references the 1980s’ and 1990s’ explosion of ‘zines, the handcrafted, Xeroxed, manually distributed publications so beloved of certain stripes of Gen-X rock listeners, cult cinema fans, or general fringe-culture enthusiasts. Despite their makeshift nature, any given ‘zine often managed to deliver more interesting, impassioned material than a dozen of its high-budget counterparts. By the same token, Coe’s project is the creative risk-taking ‘zine to Terry Gross’s glossy, more middle-of-the-road NPR magazine. “I’ve been compared to Fresh Air a few times,” Coe mentioned, “but when they play music, they don’t play the full tracks.”
It is easy to discern a certain generational and subcultural mix in The Freak Power Ticket‘s composition. “The overarching theme—you might just call ‘counterculture,'” Coe explained, though his long list of influences seems at once both varied to near-randomness and selected with the utmost deliberateness. These are some of the figures who, Coe tells me, contribute directly or indirectly to his imagination’s ideal of how radio should be done: Bill Hicks. Thomas Pynchon. Huell Howser. ‘Zine icon and This American Life contributor Dishwasher Pete. John Cusack. Pre-corporate Mad magazine. The Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew. Richard Linklater. Chuck D. And of course, no true fan could miss the reference of the show’s very title. “Hunter Thompson is a big influence on my thinking,” Coe need hardly add, “and the word ‘ticket’ is also a nod to Willy Wonka.”
Some of the members of Coe’s pantheon have also been his guests. The “six intense minutes” he spent at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival interviewing Danny Boyle (director of such films as 28 Days Later, Trainspotting, and Slumdog Millionaire) became a Freak Power Ticket discussion of zombie films. Further probing the genre and wider cultural phenomenon, Coe has also had no less a zombie luminary than Night of the Living Dead director George Romeo on the air to discuss his gruesome craft.
Coe traces this interest in zombies, and the cinema they call home, back to fond memories of a 1970s northern California childhood spent watching Bob Wilkins host Creature Features, a Saturday-night double bill of horror films from across the quality spectrum. “Sometimes he’d show bad movies, and acknowledge it,” Coe remembers. “He’d say, ‘You know, you might wanna not watch tonight.'” Wilkins’s studio segments, shot in advance and aired before the movies’ commercial breaks, made a lasting impression on the young future broadcaster. “He would interview Boris Karloff, he would interview Star Trek people … and he would interview fans!” Coe enthused. “He covered fan culture, conventions, all this do-it-yourself kind of stuff. It was all about that inclusiveness.” Coe draws his guest list, a roster that has lately included protest singer David Rovics, prolific Washington D.C. musician Ian Svenonius, S.B. filmmaker Ted Mills, and Ventura Gypsy jazz prog rock band Plotz!, from spheres both local and international.
As KCSB’s development coordinator, Coe’s frequent presence around the KCSB studios over the past decade has allowed him to befriend and learn from the many programmers, both brief and long-standing, who have passed through the station’s control room. He names more than a dozen KCSB programs as inspirations on The Freak Power Ticket‘s Web site, and frequently invites fellow KCSBers onto his program as guest deejays to discuss and explore their own areas of interest, expertise, and obsession. Soon, True School Reunion host Jorge Cuellar will step in to broadcast a live exegesis of the work of political hip-hop duo Dead Prez. With each passing week, the program’s cultural mandate widens a little bit, but its freakiness never dilutes.
The Freak Power Ticket airs Mondays from 11 a.m.-12 p.m. on KCSB, 91.9 FM. See also the program’s official MySpace page.