Tuning In During the Wee Hours
Plenty of experiments are performed at KCSB, as at any freeform radio station worth its salt. Tune in during the day and you’re more than likely to hear several conventional definitions of radio programming pushed to their limits, but tune in by night — late night — and you’ll catch moments that make those daytime shows sound like All Things Considered.
I like to think of the hours between 1:00 and 6:00 a.m. as KCSB’s radio laboratory, a place of looser rules, freer aesthetics, and much, much sleepier DJs. If you want to be exposed to some of the minds who may well influence the radio of the future, listen to KCSB; if you want to be exposed to the future of that, listen to KCSB long after you, and the person behind the microphone, should be asleep.
Every KCSBer has stories to tell about their first time slot, which almost without exception will have been either 2-4 a.m. or, worse, 4-6 a.m. This graveyard serves as the proving ground for recent graduates from KJUC-AM, KCSB’s training station, and it therefore brims with fresh broadcasting ideas, ideas that the hour will put to the test. Conveniently, though, the whole stretch of time is protected under the FCC’s “safe harbor” policy, meaning that, if you play a song with swears in it, the world will not end.
Nor will it end if you play any other kind of swear-intensive recording, apparently. I learned this by tuning in to Afrotensity, hosted by a certain “Mr. Comedy,” at 1:00 a.m. on Wednesday. In the same manner that other DJs mix songs, Mr. Comedy mixes bits and pieces of, primarily, live stand-up comedy albums. Listening to his show, you might hear — as I did hear — Chris Rock bemoaning the trials of monogamy at one moment, and David Cross bemoaning everything he possibly can about George W. Bush at another.
As the juxtaposition of those two selections might suggest, this particular night seemed to offer an “anything goes”-type playlist, though Afrotensity has been known to feature themed installments: all musical comedy, for example, or all material on vinyl, or all Richard Pryor. Hearing such a variety of material and delivery over two hours taught me something about comedy that struck me as an important point: The funniest stuff ridicules everyone equally.
I chose to sample KCSB’s late-night schedule for this column during UCSB’s finals week, the days that mercilessly decide thousands of young people’s academic fates. This is either the most or least logical time to listen to these shows. One school of thought says that there’s not much of an audience during finals week, given the amount of restorative sleep that every hardworking student needs. Another school of thought says that, because sleep is the one thing a finals-oppressed student isn’t getting, there’s more of an audience than ever.
On Thursday at 2:00 a.m., at the top of Electrodynamic, the host acknowledged this very condition, proceeding to spin a couple of hours of electronic dance music to facilitate any studying going on. Whether this host was Ginger Kid or Azn Glo, both of whom are credited on the schedule, is unclear, but I did feel the show made good on its promise, also given on the schedule, of “intense electro continuously mixed with a smattering of other EDM.” Some of it took an anthemic style; some of it ground forward with just enough repetition to induce a trance-like effect. Whether it actually was the electronic subgenre known as “trance,” I’m not sure. That’s a branch of musical knowledge complicated enough to demand a final exam of its own.
Over all the time I’ve been a KCSBer, electronic dance music has held its position as something of a fixture in the overnight schedule. Do the form’s enthusiasts not like to go to bed? Is it best listened to with that distinctive combination of muddledness and clarity brought on by the wee hours? I returned for another hit of the stuff at 4:00 a.m. on Thursday, when I tuned in to Melody Wang’s straightforwardly titled Overnight. It turned out to be different from the other electronic music shows I’ve enjoyed on KCSB, in that its cuts sounded just slightly, er, less electronic. While no piece played lacked one or more layers of digital electronic instrumentation, they all contained a lot of sounds that sounded analog, natural, or downright handmade.
But isn’t this the direction music in general is going? We live in an era of unprecedented genre cross-pollination, and no genres have sent the pollen out further than those under the electronic umbrella. Electronic instruments and textures have been around a while; they’re not novelties anymore. The real novelty comes when you mash them up with components borrowed from rock, jazz, and even folk. I don’t think many purists would look kindly on semi-retro, semi-forward-looking, decidedly 4:00 a.m.-y sonic feel of Overnight, and that’s a delightful thing.
The intrigue of KCSB’s graveyard shows often begins with their names, and that’s especially true of those that have elected the “eclectic” format. If you’re asking people to listen at 3:00 on a Monday morning and can’t quite describe what you’re going to play for them, you’d better promise some serious weirdness. Titles like Voluntary Synesthesia, Armed with a Mind, .Hole in the Wall, and Dementia 13 give me much to hope for—but they’re material for future KCSBeat overnight diaries. Three o’clock on a Monday morning happened to be exactly when I tuned in, but since the show I tuned in to was called Elusive Squab, I felt as if I was in good hands.
I dropped into the middle of a spoken-word piece that sounded vaguely familiar; only after about 15 minutes did I realize it was a piece of the late computer science professor Randy Pausch’s well-known “Last Lecture.” Then came a vintage Spike Jones routine. Then came Seu Jorge, best known as the guy playing those Portuguese David Bowie songs in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic. Then came tracks from an album called Afro-Cubism. Then, promised some Dweezil Zappa down the road, I settled in for a solid set of Indian jazz fusion. It’s in moments like these when I remember what community radio is all about.