VFR in the Valley Advocate, as “fixed-up” by me
UPDATE — Two of the below letters — Thank You Dean Nimmer (<–link goes to his book with the picture of my butt on the cover, to which he refers in his comment) and Dwight Smith — made it to the next issue in the WHAT DO YOU THINK? forward in each issue! Wow! To quote Sally Field at the Oscars years ago, “You like me, Tom Vannah, you really like me!” ;-)
and now, comments by my fabulously sweet pal Claudia Mendoza in Geneva, and the oh-so-lovable Sheryl Jaffe in Granby (paper artist extraordinaire), are in the comments section of the next next issue. Maybe I will reconsider starting up my blog column at the Valley Advocate again? :-)
Even though I (lovably?) antagonize you (because you are like my pal, for my Ramona, The Pest persona) about arts coverage and all that. I am impressed! maybe I *will* restart my VA blog column — my “Blolgulmn”…?
Valley Free Radio’s low-power station keeps our local airwaves vital, interesting and honest.
Mo note — This appeared in the valley Advocate on December 23 but thee (typo, but I’m keeping it!) reporter did NOT use the picture he took of me in my fabulous new sweater from Goodwill, so I am pasting it here with photo added. And soon I intend to add a preamble here, detailing how this story came about and my pesky but lovable ‘relationship” with the editor, from the vantage point of various soapboxes…. ;-0
Also, ALL OF MY SHOWS CAN BE DOWNLOADED AND/OR LISTENED TO HERE, AND EACH HAS A BLURB ABOUT THE SHOW WITH PICTURES OF MY GUESTS AND/OR THEIR ACCOMPLISHMENTS/INTERESTS.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
By Mark Roessler (Mo note — Mark is a fabulous writer and a great guy!)
“I said, get here ahead of time. What happened? This is live radio, Mark. Where are you?” Mo Gareau (formerly Ringey) said.
I’d called her cell phone, and she answered me on the air—10 minutes into her morning interview show (Mo note — more like 2o minutes…), where I was supposed to be the guest. My first encounter, a few years ago, with Valley Free Radio was a bit of a fiasco.
I had gotten to the studio at 8:45 a.m. (Mo note — my show was 8-9 am and he called at 7:35. I’m just sayin…) and waited for Gareau to drive up in her car, proud I’d beaten her there (Mo note — ROFL). Only as 9 o’clock loomed and my car remained the only one in the parking lot did I realize that perhaps I was outside the wrong building
When I’d listened to the station or read about it, I’d always pictured the broadcast studio being located in the house next to the Lilly Library, the Florence Civic Center. But no. I’d pictured wrong.
Florence Community Center. Not in the pretty house downtown, but in the basement of the former grade school out near the Arts and Industry building. For reasons too tedious (read: pathetic) to explain, I ended up being a half-hour late to her hour-long interview talk show. (Mo note — Mark, You must stop being so hard on yourself)
Recently, Gareau sent me links to some of her favorite episodes of her show, and included among the selections was my demi-visit. I didn’t think I could relive the humiliation. But after listening to the gentle, engaging way Gareau talked with such Valley luminaries as woodworker Silas Kopf and journalist Greg Saulman, I figured my only real penance could be to listen to my almost non-appearance.
I could picture Gareau sitting alone in that basement studio on a weekday morning, with only a tiny window high up the wall amongst the duct work, quietly freaking out (Mo note — I freaked out loudly and made a few frantic calls to pals to help, as i don’t do solo radio) as I’d been sitting in my car wondering where she was. As I listened to the MP3, I waited with terror to hear the pandemonium ensue when she realized I wasn’t coming any time soon and she deservedly dragged my name through the gutter (Mo note — I would never tear someone up on air, or off).
Instead, something else happened.
She called a friend to ask what to do, and he (Mo note — that was my fabulous pal who I call Mr. Sir) obliged by interviewing her on the air. A fellow artist, he asked her about an upcoming gallery exhibition she was soon to be staging.
Gareau’s interview technique is conversational, cunning (Mo note — “cunning”? whoa. ) and a lot of fun. She baits you with personal information of her own and then jigs the line, taking things off on sudden tangents. She shares a thought of her own, often seeming to seize random ideas through free association and asking her guests what they think about the seemingly unrelated topic. The tactic is disarming. As you stumble for a response, she usually follows up with a more incisive or pointed personal question that—relieved you don’t have to decipher the first one—you spill your guts to answer. (Mo note — I had no idea I had a technique. This is how I talk to all my pals, and to myself. And my cat. And the plants. Even my fake trees.)
In my absence, having the tables turned on her, it was Gareau who was disarmed—she was guileless with her pal on the phone. He knew what lit her artistic fuse (Mo note — that was my fabulous pal who I call Mr. Sir), and with raw passion and naked enthusiasm (Mo note — that is just who and how I am) she described her show of beautiful period appliances covered in intricate webs of sparkling mosaics. It was far better radio than even my on-time company could have offered. She was a great guest on her own show.
When I did arrive, another of Gareau’s friends and emergency guests was there already. With the two of them riffing about hot dog carts and other topics, and me playing the hangdog bass in the background, chuckling like a mopey Ed McMahon, Gareau completed the show with humor and at least her dignity intact. (Mo note — Mark is being way too hard on himself. We had fun teasing him, oh so gently; we two teasifying chicks)
There’s an adrenaline rush and intimacy to live radio (Mo note — yes, it is scary — especially if you have to do it alone. I’m just sayin…). People performing before a live microphone are engaged in a high-wire act without the net of the pause or fast-forward buttons their podcasting colleagues employ. It’s an art that’s becoming endangered in this digital world, where it’s easy to edit and broadcast your own professional-sounding show for a multitude to stream or download on their computers.
My iPod and the wonder that is “shuffle” have changed my radio-listening life. (Mo note — I need an ipod. Does anyone have one they aren’t using? It is not in my micro OR macro budgets)
Growing up, I went to bed and woke up listening to WNEW in New York City, 50 miles away from my bedroom. Listening until way too late on headphones in my bed, I fell in love with my imagined studio and idealized these DJs who brushed elbows with rock gods like Lennon and introduced nobodies like the Police, Squeeze and Joe Jackson. Way past midnight one early morning before school, I listened to an album skip endlessly for 45 minutes, only to be rescued by a napping DJ who said, smooth as hot butter, “It’s WNEW, where nobody’s perfect.”
Long before it became “The River,” I’d had a close personal relationship with WRSI—while I was a college student in the ’80s. From the phone booth outside my dorm room on a mountain top in southern Vermont, I’d call in requests to the staff holed up in a studio above Memory Lane in Greenfield. A favorite late night radio moment: After playing it a few times in a row without explanation, Buddy Rubbish threatened to rerun Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” (Mo note — I remember that song!) all night long because “there is humor in repetition.”
At moments like that I felt connected with the distant DJs, sharing a moment in time with them and a handful of other late night listeners. Over time, through thick and thin, you developed a relationship with the broadcasters. (Mo note — Mark, we did connect on air, very much so. You were actually a great guest, once I got you there, and an affable foil)
But then I got an iPod and discovered podcasts. Bit by bit, I stopped listening to the radio.
Podcasts are like radio programs, but instead of something you pick up with an antenna, they’re a series of digital audio files you download off the Internet to play at your leisure. It’s possible to find them on almost every imaginable subject. Now, when I travel distances, I load my iPod up with music and Podcasts and set it to play my selected list of media randomly. Voila—I have my own “radio station” personally catered to my tastes, moods and whims. When I walk to work in the morning, another stew of tunes I’ve prepared for myself is ready for me to listen to.
While some podcasts (very few) are recorded live without editing, you never get the sense you’re listening to something put out there that the makers were utterly embarrassed by. There’s no chance of hearing a serious glitch, and while there’s plenty of improvisation, the general public never witnesses the worst gaffes. This safe way of working, combined with not being restrained by a time limit, can sometimes result in podcasts that lack vitality and focus.
The perilous nature of an unedited live radio broadcast, though, can embolden and empower even the meekest personality (Mo note — the meek shall inherit the earth. I’m just sayin’), making what they say more vital (or at least seem that way) and sometimes more succinct. A live broadcast can also be a tonic for audiences accustomed to listening to pre-recorded material. Without a rewind button at hand, your attention to what’s being said and anticipation of what will happen next are far more acute than when you know you can come back later if you find your mind’s been wandering.
But even more, as self-satisfying as it is to hear only what you want to hear on your iPod in a mix, live community radio (Mo note — VFR if YOUR community radio right In your backyard. Everyone should listen as we are YOU) puts your attention in other people’s hands, filling it with wild and wacky poetry, music and ideas. Instead of spending your time listening to some canned show recorded months ago by a distant geek you’re never likely to meet mumbling into his laptop’s microphone, you can share some quality time in the present with your neighbors broadcasting from up the street.
In 2000, a motley crew (Mo note — We call ourselves a motley crew too! You are psychic, Mark! Might I call you every time I am facing befuddlement over decision-making moments?) of Northampton-based radio hopefuls applied for a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for a low-wattage community radio station. In 2004, after a long mulling, the FCC approved their application, giving them 18 months to get on the air before the license would be revoked. Much fundraising and logistical planning ensued, but in 2005, during one heroic weekend—with the help of technicians from Pacifica, the national community radio network—they went live on the air.
Being a Pacifica affiliate carries some weight (Mo note — oh YEAH.). The Pacifica Foundation started in 1949 as an alternative to commercial radio, and they are pioneers in listener-supported community radio. As advocates for free speech, they describe themselves thus:
“Pacifica’s mission is to promote peace and justice through communication between all races, nationalities and cultures. We strive to contribute to the democratic process through public discourse and promotion of culture. Unbeholden to commercial or governmental interests, we recognize that use of the airwaves is a public trust.”
As a blossoming venture struggling to be born, Valley Public Radio offered lots of opportunities for a news reporter to chronicle, but once they became a viable concern, their news value diminished. And some of those who worked to see the station realized were disenchanted when it became actual. (Mo note — I don’t really grasp this, but then, I am often grasp-less.)
When it was still a fantasy—something that was going to happen—people were able to cherish their own vision for the station. The hope seemed to be that the craziest ideas would get sifted out and never come to be. More even-keeled personalities would take over. But when the station went on the air and became a living, breathing enterprise, to some on the outside it appeared that instead of the practical, sober approach they’d been imagining, something else—more organic, perhaps— had taken place. The public is welcome to meetings and the agenda is open; the minutes for the board meetings are posted regularly on the station’s home page (valleyfreeradio.org). Those minutes give a view of leaderless self-governance in action. It’s a bit messy, goes on tangents, but seems to shamble forward. (Mo note — we like to think of it as creatively and humbly deer-in-headlights-without-a-GPS-style. I’m just sayin’)
On a dark and stormy night at the end of November (Mo note — I love love love that Mark led in with that phrase), I found Mo Gareau’s new studio hidden behind a blank storefront in downtown Holyoke (Mo note — I am in the infamous “Flast”, but no matter. I’m just sayin’). At her invitation, I crashed a Valley Free Radio fundraising party. There were a pile of photocopied letters and boxes of addressed envelopes. After digging into the snacks and libations Gareau had on hand, the board members, broadcasters and friends of the radio station found a seat and started assembling pleas to their supporters for another dose of funding for the volunteer-run public station.
Bob Gardner (Mo note — Bob is awesome!) ambled over to me—tall, buttoned-up, clean-shaven, he had the steady, relaxed calm of a Western sheriff (Mo note — I LOVE that description! Sheriff Bob! Yay!). He’d been with the station since its start and was on the board of directors. Could he be of service and answer any of my questions?
Blaming the economy, Gardner said that revenue from fundraising was down this year, but he added that they were somewhat sheltered from hard times by relying chiefly on a small army of passionate volunteer helpers. (Mo note — I am mad at the economy)
The nonprofit radio station pays for utilities, rent and Internet access. Each year it pays copyright licensing fees for the music it plays, but because of its low-voltage transmission (100 watts) and low range, the costs are minimal. There’s a grant-funded part-time position, but otherwise, no one there is collecting a check. (Mo note — except for a soundcheck. hardy-har-har)
There are more than 30 shows on the station, many of them from home-grown talent, and the station actively recruits new DJs from its listeners, offering training and possibly slots in the lineup. Gardner is proud of the diversity of its offerings and cites inclusion as part of its mission. The off-kilter, somewhat random potpourri of shows isn’t a liability, he asserts; it’s key to the station’s success.
If you’re not familiar with the station’s schedule, there’s no knowing what you might be tuning in to when you turn to 103.3 FM in Northampton. Could be you’re listening to environmentalists, communists or J-Magic’s music jambalaya (Mo note — OR, you might tune into the AMAZING and exhaustive reporting on serious issues on The Enviro Show, by d.o. and Glen Ayers).
Maybe you’re getting an earful of the Baha’i perspective, poetry readings or metal music. The first time I recently tuned in after a long absence, I listened to old tango records for an hour over lunch, enjoying the whispering hiss and grit of the vinyl.
Is there any kind of show Bob Gardner and his fellow board members wouldn’t allow on the air?
“Maybe if it’s too mainstream. Part of our mission is also to provide programming you can’t get anywhere else.” Then he laughs and shrugs, “But if someone one wanted to do a show of mainstream pop music (Mo note — Ew.), I don’t know, maybe they could go on at two in the morning.”
Keeping what they’ve got going is his chief objective, he said. Some involved with the station dream of getting a full-power license, boosting their transmission up to 1000 watts (Mo note — donations welcome), but Gardner seems indifferent to growth. Along with the additional cost, Gardner is mindful of how long the FCC can take to grant licenses. He also points out that, in an effort to satisfy as many applicants as possible, the government agency can mandate that more than one group share the space on the radio dial with other prospective broadcasters.
“We have an exclusive license, but sometimes when two groups apply, they split up the license,” Gardner said. “That’s what happened up in Greenfield [with WMCB 107.9 LPFM]. For 12 hours it’s a Christian station and 12 hours it’s a community station.”
Many I spoke with that night (Mo note — Mark, again, I laughed out loud when you honored my half-serious request that you begin the article with that old Snoopy-writing-his-novel-at op-his-doghouse line, “On a dark and stormy night…”, that makes you SO awesome! ) said they felt that when they first had heard of Valley Free Radio, they’d felt a calling. Some, like Bob Gardner, don’t appear on the air, but their devotion for community radio keeps them working in other capacities. Others crave the limelight and their chance at the megaphone. As human beings, they feel whole broadcasting their own shows. They give their programs everything, letting it all hang out, and free from the constraints and demands of commercial radio, their shows have strengthened and matured, becoming as strange and beautiful as their hosts.
Johanna Halbeisen, (Mo note — Johanna is so uniquely and wisely awesome) whose show Sing About It originated in 1983 on the other side of the river at WMUA, the “voice of” UMass-Amherst, joked that a chief attraction VFR held for her initially was “not to have to drive across the bridge all the time.” She has been involved since the early days, long before there was a station. She describes her show as focusing on “social justice, topical folk music.” During her off-air hours, Halbeisen runs the New Song Library, a vast collection of songs “about people’s lives, hopes and struggles,” which is available as a repository for songwriters’ work but also as a resource for singers and activists looking for music to support their cause.
Sidra Eisman (Mo note — Sidra Eisman is THE BOMB!) had hosted a reggae show when she was in college, and when she heard there might be a community station in Northampton, she said, “the hairs stood up on the back of my neck and I just knew I’d get involved.” She’d kept her distance initially, though: “I was kind of scared it was too good to be true.” But as a guest on a show hosted by blues singer Marla BB, she couldn’t resist the attraction. She now begins every Friday morning with her show Sidra at Home at 8 am. She plays music from all over the world and interviews performers, “particularly those that educate. And now I’m on the board. And I love it. I love my people. I am home.” (Mo note — I truly love and admire the amazingly original bomb that is Sidra Ellison [formerly Eisman])
Arjuna Greist has been on the air since two days after the station’s birth. Her Monday night show, Patchwork Majority Radio, runs from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. and features music, stories and poetry to inspire and support social justice movements. Shows often follow a topical theme, and between the music and interviews with local artists, she provides commentary of her own. Some of the artists she most admires (and regularly plays) include Lenelle Mo?se, Pamela Means and Michael Franti. She’s also been on the VFR board for two years.
Tony Shannon (Mo note — I just lurrrrve my Tony Shannon!) was on the board for three and a half years, “but,” he says, “I’m done with that now.” He identifies himself with Bob Gardner as someone who is more comfortable off the mic. He’s responsible for maintaining many of the station’s broadcast systems, especially keeping the automated, syndicated shows running when no one else is around. He says he enjoys being a part of their “unintentional community,” and everyone clearly values him. All the show hosts make an effort (often within earshot of him) to impress upon me how indebted they are to Tony’s services.
While keeping others on the air is his chief function, Shannon (Mo note — Tony Shannon is a very skilled masseur, and also keeps VFR running with his mind-boggling hours of volunteer work and his passionate commitment to “herding kittens”, which is what it takes to keep VFR running) has managed to figure out a way to host a show without actually appearing on it himself. He uses the female vocal talents of the all-digital, computer-generated Cherries Jubilee to DJ a selection of ’80s New Wave Italo-disco music Fridays evenings at 8.
“I was attracted to Valley Free Radio,” Tony Udell said, “because I’m an inveterate communist, (Mo note — Yes he is, in a very good way) and I was trying to spread my anti-capitalist virus to the rest of the world. I’ve found such a pleasant little home with all these other misfits (Mo note — I am proud to be a misfit. Oh, so proud) . I do a show called Seeing Red Radio, which is the revolutionary, socialist-marxist perspective—all the different shades of red—and I’m also doing an Afro-beat show on Saturdays, which is more a recent phenomenon. The politics show is a calling—where else can you hear communism on the radio?”
Udell’s been involved since the start, and also had prior college experience. Over the years, he’s been on the board and been a program director, but the role he continues to embrace beyond his shows is as the group’s head trainer. The first Sunday of every month, they open the studios from noon until three, and he makes himself and the studio available to anyone who’s interested. It’s a complex system, cobbled together from donated equipment, but Udell will patiently hold anyone’s hand, get them familiar with the controls and show them how to broadcast.
“We have an open door policy,” he said. “And from my own, personal political perspective that’s important; I believe we have a capacity for self-organization. We don’t need to wait until we get paid. We can get this done, driven by our own passion for the truth.”
Driving home from Mo Gareau’s party (Mo note — Mark drove himself home), I was resolved to listen to more Valley Free Radio—and trying to remember where to find it on the dial. (Mo note: 103.3 FM, streaming at www.valleyfreeradio.org)
In less than an hour, I’d met almost a dozen radio personalities (Mo note — we ARE personalities, wrapped in people) who felt confident that if they were just given a chance, they’d take care of their audience for as long as they’d listen. Instead of swimming around in my own headspace on my iPod, they invited me and everyone else to tune in and step inside their noggins for a while.
Though they play by the FCC’s rules, they project the feel of a pirate station broadcasting from just off the coast. Unburdened by the demands of a corporate owner or the need to satisfy an advertiser’s politics, they call things as they see them. The promo for Udell’s Seeing Red Radio show doesn’t just promise to report news you won’t hear elsewhere, but news that’s “being actively suppressed.” If a DJ thought a recent community meeting might be of interest, he would play the whole dang thing. The music is often radical, and often selected with wit and satire in mind.
Running around town on holiday errands, instead of Bing Crosby crooning to me as I sat stuck in traffic, someone at VFR was playing Hayes Carll’s new country tune, “She Left Me for Jesus.” He bemoaned his loved one’s fixation with this new guy who wears sandals and has long, pretty hair:
She says I should find him
And I’ll know peace at last.
If I ever find Jesus,
I’m kicking his ass.
(Mo note — as the FCC isn’t much enthralled of indie radio, if we had let that word by and not bleeped it, we’d be hit with a #344,000 fine!)
Not a song many businesses would want to stick an ad after, and not one I’d ever have heard, except when I was listening to someone else’s set list. But the song fit my soured mood for the pre-holiday frenzy perfectly. Take a listen for yourself. 103.3 FM in Northampton.
Editor’s Note: Last week, the Local Community Radio Act was passed by the U.S. Senate, expanding the low-power FM (LPFM) service created by the FCC in 2000. It will make broadcast licenses available to thousands of groups nationally, such as schools, churches, local governments and non-profit organizations. The bill repeals earlier legislation supported by corporate broadcasters who claimed the proliferation of 100-watt stations would affect their broadcasts, a claim debunked in a 2003 Congressionally mandated study. The Local Community Radio Act was also approved by the House; at press time only the president’s signature was needed for it to become law.