Michael Wolf
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In Defense of Old Things, In Defense of New Things
Last edited - 2018/04/19

I don't trust myself to be a strong enough writer to be able to condense my emotions and experiences with old technology into a single essay, but instead I will explore my relationship with it through a set of technologically categorized posts. These will assuredly be updated over time

  1. Broadcast Radio: Freedom Isn't Free
  2. Aging Sound: The Modern Appeal of Cassette Tapes

Future topics:

Broadcast Radio: Freedom Isn't Free

The golden era of independent radio was well before my adolescence. Since there was never a pirate radio scene around my hometown, I grew up with an airspace dominated almost entirely by commmercial conglomerates hell-bent on playing the same top 50 songs per genre on alternating frequencies up and down the FM dial. I grew up with the as-seen-on-TV compilation hard rock anthems and cringe-worthy sound effects of WTUE and WEBN as well as the never changing song selection of classic rock channels that my parents kept on. It wasn't until I reached my teen years and could drive to locations that weren't all static and gospel music in the non-commercial domain segment of the FM band. Probably the first station that caught my ear as I bounded around the hills of my hometown was 89.9 WLHS out of Lakota High School. The station has long-since been sold to a local retirement community where to this day it reads announcements and plays eerie big band music from what seems to be a Victrola a room away from the microphone. It could well be that WLHS was dead before I first heard its broadcast because after hours of listening, I found out that the station was an automated recording of several tracks and PSA's interspersed. It may be ironic that I found an escape of the monotony of commercial radio with even more monotony, but WLHS was something I hadn't known before. It wasn't about selling ads and blasting pop music. The imperfect announcers were teenagers, and the music was, well, different. Hearing Beach House's "Zebra", the Arctic Monkey's "Flourescent Adolescent", and the Modern Lover's "Road Runner" in a gentle, fuzzy repeat as I went to school and loitered around town showed me what a different form of media could be.

Independent radio is different from the dominant forms of media that had been in my life. It wasn't action films, dramatic television, or ear-shattering radio personality sound boards on terrestrial and sattelite airwaves. It was the call of community-oriented, artistic sharing of music, news, and stories. While I would hardly say the music of WLHS was obscure, it really was for me at the time. Later, as I dove through Neutral Milk Hotel, krautrock, hardcore punk, and headlong into the Dayton harsh noise scene, I would still listen fondly to the mysterious indie tunes of the station. I never met the DJ's or knew where they went in life, but I certainly want to thank them. Furthermore, I would like to give a shout out to Case Western's Black Squirrel Radio even though they aren't technically FM.

When I entered high school myself, I was given a fantastic opportunity. One of my classmate's had a father who happened to be an engineer at Harris (shoutout to the radio surveillance state) and he had a ton of old equipment on hand. He started a radio club. I had some interest, so I joined on doing programming. The station got rolling. We got a callsign WFXR and a broadcast frequency of 89.7. The racks went up in the IT room and the antenna got hooked on the roof. I was excited, but I totally squandered my opportunity to make this station something amazing by getting involved in girls. Anyway, I still managed to help out at the station. I collected CDs from friends and I went on long digging campaigns at Goodwills and second-hand shops for music that we could broadcast. I censored hundreds of tracks by hand. Even then, our library was decidedly puny. There were three genres-- edgy classic rock from the radio club mentor, scene kid music from his daughter and her friends, and punk and indie rock from me. When loaded into the queueing software, Modest Mouse's We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank and 30 Seconds to Mars's This Is War came up the most often. As time wore on, the rigid planning of shows developed at the onset of the club slowly dissintegrated into me setting up autoqueue. I was unfortunately scared by the lua scripting that ran most of the programming of the station, but I managed to put in my favorite contribution fairly easily. Every morning from 2am to 6am, I set a collection of backmasked whale noises to play. Which was amusing to me, who was pretty much the only listener at our station.

So we didn't have a lot of traction building a radio station, especially since our legal broadcasting range was about to the town limits. The station's purpose was shifted to sports broadcasting since anyone who wanted to listen to music had an iPod at this point. The station served the sports teams well via Internet streaming and I even tried my hand at announcing. I do hope no one made recordings of my squeaky banter with my junior-year history teacher during the broadcast of that season of football games.

My personal experience with radio wasn't that successful, but that didn't bug me from continuing to use FM broadcasts as my source of new leads to music as I moved to Cincinnati. I found NPR to be eye-opening (thank you, WVXU) and 88.3 to be my new fascination. WAIF, Cincinnati's community run radio station was weird. I would turn it on sometimes to hear an opera, othertimes reggae. Most surprisingly, I would sometimes tune in to a noise hour or a free-jazz ensemble. WAIF had a ton of shows and probably the most diverse group of supporters of any station I have known. However, the one shoutout I wish to send is to whoever ran the The Metal Connection, a death metal hour bookended by two gospel shows. The only real college radio in the area broadcasted from Northern Kentucky University (WNKU). They played a ton of local and national rock music which, while it wasn't my taste exactly, inspired a lot of the musicians that I jammed with. Furthermore, WNKU bumper stickers became about as ubiquitous as Sublime decals on cars around Clifton. When the frequency was sold to a local megachurch, there were months of fundraising to try to bring it back to no avail.

My university surrendered its wavelength to a classical broadcaster long before I had enrolled and thus limited itself to an Internet-only and highly regulated station. That didn't mean I didn't find a way to involve myself. One of my best friends had a radio show for about a year and the one time I went on as a guest, I managed to cue up a Michael Cera track that started out with an extremely explicit sample that I had totally forgotten about. Luckily, I don't think anyone was listening besides our girlfriends.

I think the dearth of available airspace in FM, made the medium powerful. While the availability of Internet radio and podcasts has greatly increased the sound quality and decentralization of content creation, the disappearance of the local FM stations has taken a hit on the mentoring, recruitment, and community-building that builds music scenes. To this day, some of the coolest events I have been to were organized or promoted by independent radio stations. When I first visited the Bay Area, I was blown away by the sheer number of stations in the non-commercial spectrum. I was used to a couple college stations or NPR being in range throughout the central US, but from my office in Mountain View I could pick up a half dozen stations and often had to pick between two or more stations that were playing something appealing to me. KFJC out of Los Altos, KZSU out of Stanford, KSJS out of San Jose State, and the reliable KQED with unique local reporting and roundtables (City Arts and Lectures) that mirror the level of interesting content I can only find in podcasts. I got as involved as I could. I called in, I stopped into the stations, I got to know the DJs by name and would say hey when I found them at underground shows in Oakland. I donated to every station I listened to and bought the coolest merch they sold.

The ready availability of podcasts made FM irrelevant for me. The deeply customizable, individual experience of podcasts has allowed me to find the content that I want to listen to at the appropriate time of day and the content creators I listen to have the same personalities as the DJs I used to listen to on the radio. The difference is control. I'm no longer at the whims of the stations for better or worse. My consumption has tilted aggressively away from music and toward lectures. Around the same time, I quit social media. I fell out of the music scene.

Nowadays, I rediscover the beauty of FM radio only when I travel. I spin the dial through Dayton and bask in 2am new age tracks from WYSO, the same WYSO that littered fantastically obscure records throughout the bargin bins of the region, or find weird covers of Oliver Mtukudzi's "Help Me Lord I'm Feeling Low" coming from stations in West Virginia. The radio reflects the area that one travels through. Even if it's less and less impactful on local culture, there is a certain flare in the Christian stations, the NPR repeaters, and genre-styled independent stations that matches the changes in scenary.

While this post comes from a place of remorse for not spending more time with radio stations, it is one of thanks. FM radio eventually spurred my interest in underground music, HAM radio, and film (thanks KFJC Psychotronic Film Fest). As the FCC pushes into FM bands and stations slowly run out of operating money, I can't help but think about the importance that radio had on spreading musical, political, and religious ideas. FM radio is federated rather than distributed. It links communities around a central feed, listenable even on a quartz radio. Stations are schools and hangouts and their influence is theoretically uncensorable. I still haven't put together my pirate radio station, but I swear that one day I will. I will spin 90s house tracks and midwestern emo and backmasked whale noises and it will be on the FM dial somewhere. Plenty of projects have sprung up in Cincinnati and elsewhere to fill the void where college radio once was and I applaud them.But Internet radio is not enough. As long as I have a radio in my car, I will have a need for independent FM broadcasting.

Aging Sound: The Modern Appeal of Cassette Tapes

I grew up during the first wave of the vinyl record resurgence. Much has been written about the fight between digital and analog sound, the quality, the aesthetics, the masochistic and wallet-ravaging trend of modern artists and labels releasing on vinyl en-masse. As an Ohioan who couldn't turn a turntable if his life depended on it or even get Berhain's Sven to notice him, I can't really comment on this medium. Instead, I'd rather talk about the arguably less popular, but still growing revival of cassette tapes.

My first contact with cassette tapes was scrounging through my father's sun-baked recordings of 80's WTUE broadcasts. It was just a novelty to me until I reached the ripe age every Midwestern kid and used car salesman awaits. My first set of wheels was a 1997 Ford Windstar minivan equiped with that rare functioning tape deck, the kind you can only find anymore with a tape-to-aux adapter stuffed into it. I spent days of my adolescence scouring through thrift store bins of gospel and soft rock casettes to find prized possessions of my high school years: Destruction's "Cracked Brain" and The Cure's "Distintegration". Finding a medium that was fully out of vogue in 2011 at a Goodwill made sense, but as I began attending shows in Cincinnati and Dayton I was surprised to find that modern musicians were releasing on tape too. PC Worship's "Live at WFMU" and Medical Mechanica's "Cyber Death Pop" have ended up thoroughly destroyed by overuse.

Tapes are dangerous. While the vinyl market was inflated when I was coming of age, tapes were at an arguable nadir. Any touring musician sold their cassette release at $5 and locals would generally hand them out for free. Second-hand shops couldn't get rid of them quick enough so they ended up selling them for quarters or just throwing them out. Despite their compact size, my collection began to overwhelm all of the storage devices. I wasn't the only one to fall into this spiral. Visiting the homes of noise musicians in Dayton, I often found their entertainment stands repurposed to hold stacks of cassettes that reached the ceiling and went several layers deep-- mostly black-packaged releases of harsh noise wall with scattered 90s hip hop. I inevitably had to kick off conversations about why the tape medium was popular. A couple reasons I picked up:

  1. Individualism - With tape, there is no need to cut grooves in wax. The machines needed to record and copy tapes is readily available to the general populace and can be purchased for $5-20 at your local second-hand shop. This creates fantastic opportunities for people without much technical knowledge or connections with major record producers to create and distribute their music.
  2. Price - Aside from the recording equipment, tapes are dirt cheap and elastic. They can be written and rewritten until they are barely recognizable. Two pieces of scotch tape can turn any cassette into a data store of anything you can find to record.
  3. Impermanence - It's generally recognized that cassettes have the lowest fidelity of any music format with their lifespan estimated to be 10-30 years and audio quality dropping every time the tape is played. But this has actually been adopted as an artistic statement. Modern musicians aren't particularly concerned about archiving their music. It's trivial to record anything to a digital format. Instead, the cassette makes a sort of memento mori for their art and pushes the artist to keep their focus forward-looking, raw, and imperfect.
  4. Aesthetics - The hiss of the tape and the physical feeling of a release is perhaps the most intangible appeal of cassettes. It could be that the warm sound of warped tape triggers some feeling of nostalgia from our collective unconscious or that the uniqueness of the medium has been preserved in artificial reproductions added to crisp digital production. The term mixtape is forever intertwined with the rectangle with two holes and a sharpied label. Even as online platforms offer digital mixtapes, they generally keep the name, hoping to capture the truly personal experience of exchanging hand-curated mixes in the real world.

In recent times, the mix of Bandcamp/MEGA and a limited tape release have become a DIY musician's powercombo. The use of Internet technology allows for instantaneous, free dissemination of music while the cassette provides for a more visceral experience of the art. As our society steps away from physical ownership and on to service-oriented consumption, there are still holdouts who appreciate the tangibility of music and are more than capable of dubbing for years over the recycled mass-produced cassettes of bygone years.