Broadcasting as it exists now in the United States is a pitiful unmitigated whore. At some stage in its history, there was a chance to turn it to a creative, artful, caring medium; but then all the toads came along, realizing the power of radio and television to hawk their awful wares. The saga of broadcasting in America is littered with the bodies of those who wanted to do something significant — and who were driven out (or more correctly, sold out) by the pimps and thieves who now run the media.
Broadcasting does not have to be so vile and boorish. The Canadians best of all have shown that it is possible to have a superb blending of commercial and non-commercial radio and television: and Canadian communications are alive and alert and funny and meaningful. They do not have to bore people to death (as the “educational” broadcasters in this country so obviously need to do); nor do they view the listener as some sort of dumb animal to be fed acres of pap — solely for the purpose of prying money from him. The art of radio can be used for artistic means; the radio-soul does not have to be made into a strumpet for soap and politicians.
The dismal state of American broadcasting is perpetuated by nitwits who should know better. Broadcasting Magazine — the memento mori of the whole 19th century robber baron tradition of commercial broadcasting — babbles about censorship every time the Federal Communications Commission moves timidly into the area of consumer (listener and viewer) protection. The turnips at the National Association of Broadcasters have millions of dollars to bang on every congressman or Senator who may dare to try to change the milking of the golden goose aether. And the FCC itself is harassed and badgered on all sides by an industry which has enormous power.
But the spectrum is as big as all outdoors — and there is a nitch here, a crack there, for those who care to try to squeeze some of the art back into radio. There are even ways for the poor and the dispossessed to get on the air, to have a chance to speak and be heard outside the next room, the next block. Although most of this vital natural resource has gone into the hands of the speculator-ruinators, there is a portion of the FM band which has been set aside for commercial-free operations. Due to some easings in the restrictions on those who may apply for these frequencies, it is possible for small groups to have their own broadcast outlets, even though they are independent of schools, colleges, and the big moneybag radio combines. . . .
The Most Vital Programming
You read in the newspaper that a local realtor has been accused of discrimination: Call up the realtor. Interview him on the air. Call up the person discriminated against. Interview him or her on the air. Make your questions biting and tough. Try to remain unbiased. Let them talk as long as it is interesting. You have done a public service, community, in-depth discussion of an issue of some importance.
A hot-dog from Washington is coming to town. Find out who is making the arrangements. Ask if you can interview that hot-dog. If there is a rally, send out two volunteers with a remote unit (cost: $100-$200 for the unit). If you don’t have that, send them out with two Sony cassette recorders. Interview the people who are there, why are they there, what do they hope to accomplish. Try to interview the policemen, the secret service, the dogs, the onlookers. Take the listeners there with you.
There is a continuing scandal going on in your town or city, having to do with unresponsive bureaucrats, or lack of action on some important issue such as housing, adoptions, welfare, civil rights. Talk one of your volunteers into doing an in-depth study of it. He or she goes out with a recorder. Or calls up people. Interviews them. Interviews people on the street. Comes back with 10 or 20 hours of raw tape. Edits it down, artistically, to 30 or 45 minutes. Interposes some music which has bearing on the subject. This is called documentary reportage. This is when you are doing your duty by your license — the duty that all the other broadcasters forgot 40 years ago.
Your program day is full. It seems that all you are doing is playing records, or old tapes from your “archives.” Take one of your microphones. Stick it out on the street. Put a sign on it saying, “You are on the radio.” Put the microphone (bird calls, cars, jets, trees soughing in the wind) on the air. Let it set for an hour or two. See what the kids do (they always discover a new technological device first).
Ralph Nader or Ralph Bunche or Ralph Duggins or Ralph Revolutionary or Ralph Birch is coming to town to give a speech. Find out who is sponsoring the speech. Get their permission to tape the speech. If it is great, play it on the air. If it is dull, erase it.
Th state highway department, against all reason and logic, is going to build an eight-lane freeway right through your neighborhood. No one seems able to stop them. The local newspaper reports a group newly organized. Call them up, interview them — preferably live (live interviews are more alive than telephone interviews). Call up the highway department, the AAA, the state senate committee responsible for highway affairs: get their side of it. Keep it on the air. See what happens. Interview the grannie whose house is going to be demolished by the bulldozers. Let her speak her piece.
A local minority person is shot by a frightened or heavy-handed policeman. There is a rally. Go record it. If it is good, play it on the air. Call the police department — try to get their side of the story. Call the policeman, try to get him down for an interview. Call the police chief. Try to get him down for an interview.
There is a hearing in Washington that no one is covering. It looks interesting: you have read about it on page 106 of the New York Times. Call up the staff counsel of the committee in Washington. Ask him to let you interview him on the air. Ask him hard questions. He appreciates your interest, and the chance for publicity.
You have read that Dean Martin or Dean Burch or Dean College or Dean John in Washington has said something interesting or outrageous. Call him up: ask him if he will let you interview him on the air. He might appreciate your interest, and the chance for publicity.
There is a member of the Birch Society, or the SWP, or the local Conservation group who has been denied a voice in the community for all of his 50 years. Ask him if he would like to do a 15 or 20 minute commentary for you. Set it up for an exact time. Let him tape it ahead of time if it is more convenient. Your first request should be for a one-time commentary (no interview; just him speaking). If he is great, or even just good, and wants the time — sign him up for 3 months. If he is still good, ask him to stay on. Neither you nor I can predict how someone will do on the air in a commentary job; that is why your opening offer should be what it is to all your program participants: a one-time on the air spot. If they deserve it, ask them back. Again and again.
Miss Golden Egg’s press agent calls up. Wants you to interview her. You know it is your regular hype (he has never heard of your station before). Go ahead — give her an interview time. Don’t let her read her hype statements over the air; instead, ask her why American eggs taste so terrible in comparison to the European variety. Ask her how many chemicals they shoot into the chickens — and what that does to the eggs (and to us). Ask what they do with all that chicken shit — whether it is polluting our water supplies. Ask what it does to the flavor of our eggs to have all them chickens shut up in coops like Howard Johnson Motel rooms shrunk down to chicken size; ask if that is what is fucking up the taste of our eggs, and chickens.
An important jazz or rock musician is coming to town. Interview him if you can, but don’t ask the usual dipshit questions that are asked on the other radio and tv stations. Get him to reveal some parts of himself that he doesn’t say to those commercial boobs. Give him enough time to be human. Realize that you cannot talk about music — you have to play it. He is separate from his instrument and his artistry. Talk about that.
The television stations are all doing convention coverage. Get two of your funniest volunteer on-the-air people. Set them up in the studio with a television set. Have them talk out over the air what they are seeing. Invite your listeners to turn down their television sound, turn you up. Blow their minds.
Read something great over the air: something like Winesburg, Ohio. Or the poetry of ee cummings. Or Black Boy. Or the memoirs of Salvador Dali. Or the poetry of Marvell. Or the diaries of Lee de Forest. Or the novels of Curzio Malaparte. Or The Tale of Gengi. Or the journals of Columbus. Or Jean Genet, Knut Hamsen, Lazarillo de los Tormes, Lytton Strachey, Nathaniel West, Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman, Thomas Mann, you name it. Don’t read more than 5 or 8 minutes at a stretch. Intersperse it with a cut or two of music which is (or seems) appropriate. This makes great half-hour or 45 minute radio.
There are 450 little mags (poetry, prose, essay) in this country — thousands in the world. Get their addresses (from The Committee for Small Magazine Editors and Publishers — COSMEP — Box 703, San Francisco, Calif. 94101). Send out a bulk mailer, asking for free subscriptions. Say you will read them on the air if they are good. When you find an especially good or interesting mag, read it on the air. Call the poets involved. Ask if they are ever in your area, to come by and do a reading for you. If they can’t, because they live in Muckleshoot, Washington, ask them to record a tape reading for you. Play it on the air if it is good.
A local representative of the Flower Garden Bucolic Society comes by with a PSA (Public Service Announcement). She has never heard of your station. Ask her if she will let you interview her on the air. If she consents, when you have her firmly chained down in front of the microphone (most people do not realize that they can get up and walk out of a live on-the-air interview), ask her about the starving children in India. Ask why, with 5,000 children in the world starving to death daily, she is bothering herself, her head, and you with the Flower Garden Bucolic Society.
A media salesman, a would-be Texas dj, an interesting kid, an old man comes into your station. They want to be on the air. You don’t have an air-shift for them — but you can and should interview them on the air. You have to be sensitive: if they are interesting (separate yourself from you-in-the-room-with-that-presence; think of you-the-voice-in-someone’s-home) . . . if they are interesting — let them talk on, guide them slightly. If they are stupid or dumb, cut them off after 8 or 10 minutes.
Every person who signs up to run for political office is asking to be heard; their candidacy is a cry for help: LISTEN TO ME, they are begging. Give them all equal time (you have to give them all an equal amount of time by FCC rules) on the air in interview. Get your toughest people to interview them for 20 minutes. Don’t let them get away with any statement, any promise. The biggies and the smallies will both come to you. Roast them all. Take what most stations make into dull programming — and make it into a vital exercise in sharp, deep, inquiring, live radio journalism. The listeners (and some of the candidates) will bless you for it.
These are excerpts from the book that made Dave Searls a man — Lorenzo W. Milam’s Sex And Broadcasting — A Handbook On Starting A Radio Station For The Community.
I knew little about radio before I read this book, and cared less. But for all its useful information, this book is really about the human spirit, and the magic of communication, and the mystery of The Word. If the people who run the industry took this book to heart, I’d start listening, and so would you. Imagine something truly loving, or truly ballsy, or truly anything coming into your home and your head from the air. Ideas. Life, unrehearsed and not for sale. The mouth of the world pressed against your straining ear.
Lorenzo imagines all this, and more. I enjoyed every page.
Sex And Broadcasting, published by Dildo Press, is available from Book People in Berkeley, California. Lorenzo writes, “My Great Aunt Beulah convinced me that a book with the word Sex in its title would double its sales, and quadruple its readership.”
Thanks to Lorenzo for permission to reprint these chapters.