Why I pulled out my college radio mixtapes

Earlier this week, Caitlin at Dark Room posted a couple of mixes from her college radio days on Facebook and asked for her friends to contribute some of their playlists. This seemed like an interesting project with findings worthy of disclosure here, especially since I often make casual reference to my tenure as a deejay at KVRX

I started in the fall of 2002 at the beginning of my sophomore year. A fan of Allan Moyle’s Pump Up the Volume, the urge to have my own radio show was planted during my freshman year of college. My friend Brooke had a show at KANM called “Weakdays” and knowing she could program a show inspired me to give it a go. We both liked The Dismemberment Plan, we both could read PSAs aloud, and I felt confident that I could master the switchboard too.

A few days before the semester began, I filled out an application and secured a timeslot for Saturday mornings at 9 a.m. As KVRX shares its frequency with KOOP and switched over from FM to RealAudio, I felt better knowing I had the entire first semester to iron out any kinks my show may have without being able to get picked up in someone else’s car. The Internet still felt very private at the time, even though RealAudio could get picked up in another part of the world instead of inside the condensed hub of Central Austin.   

I named my show “Hang the DJ,” a reference to The Smiths’ “Panic.” As the song was a modern rock radio staple, the program title should be an indication that I was half-hearted in my attempt at becoming a fan. A year later, I’d acknowledge that I just couldn’t get into them as I was developing my show. Come spring 2003, I changed the name of my show to “Cheesecake or Fugu,” a title that came to me in the shower when I was remembering a review I’d read in high school of Cibo Matto’s Viva! La Woman! that compared their sound to the Japanese delicacy.  

Listening to tapes from that time, apart from their lo-fi charm and developing fluency with related technology, two things strike me: 1) I wasn’t yet comfortable talking into a microphone and 2) I don’t listen to a lot of that stuff anymore. Listening to a November 2002 broadcast, it’s surprising to me how many dude singer-songwriters and indie bands I played. Clem Snide, Death Cab for Cutie, and Richard Buckner? Pass. Belle and Sebastian and Okkervil River? Not against it, but wouldn’t fight someone to defend their merits. Some of these acts were indicative of the buzz they generated, as well as the mercurial nature of being of-the-moment. Remember when we were supposed to care about Ben Kweller and The Warlocks? You don’t? Me either.

Of course, that these broadcasts seem foreign to me now is largely the point. During the first six months at KVRX, I hadn’t locked into what I liked yet. I was trying to fit in, catching up to just how much music I now had at my disposal. In all candor, the first six months at KVRX were terrifying to me. The office itself was scary, as it was usually peopled with oft-bespectacled dudes huddled together and volleying well-considered, often incendiary opinions about obscure music. It was full-on High Fidelity. Several of these guys would later become my friends. But at the time I was 19 and not ready to share that I had just heard of the Mountain Goats. So I kept quiet.

Incidentally, KVRX was something of a meet market that seemed particularly inclined toward heterosexual activity. Lots of hook-ups, some of which resulted in marriages or at least amicable splits. It makes sense, as obsessive, esoteric types tend to gravitate toward one another. Young girls can be especially vulnerable and I was no exception. I dated two deejays during my first year at KVRX. Looking back on that time with a more nuanced understanding of feminist politics, I feel weird and more than a little embarrassed about the gendered power dynamics of romantic pursuit. But I also found my partner there, who I formed a relationship with on more egalitarian terms.   

I’d like to think that dating fellow deejays had less to do with setting me apart than the talent I developed during my time at KVRX: writing reviews. As deejays needed to log four hours of volunteer time each month in order to keep their shows, drafting reviews for new releases was a great opportunity, especially since the station would receive hundreds of new albums each month. A review for one full-length album translated into a volunteer hour. I averaged about three reviews a week, thus gaining awareness of several artists as well as the output of the labels they were signed to. Through this, I fell in love with artists like Broadcast and Electrelane. As a journalism major, this acclimated me to a constant writing schedule. Through reviews, I developed my musical preferences and found my voice as a writer. And people started noticing my reviews, even occasionally printing them in The Call Letter, KVRX’s ‘zine.

But nothing got me better acquainted with music than putting together a weekly show. And while many deejays had specialty shows where they focused on particular genres like death metal, hardcore, or the blues, my show was decidedly free-form. At KVRX, free-form shows abided by the following requirements: each hour of free-form programming had to feature artists from five genres, two Texas artists, and five selections from the new bin, where the most recent reviewed offerings were kept. In addition, KVRX maintains a strict “none of the hits” policy. During my time, that meant that any artist who received even moderate success on any mainstream music network or radio station within the past ten years could not be played. Some deejays found these sanctions to be restrictive, but having these limitations motivated me to dig deeper and listen more broadly.     

I also learned how I wanted my show to be perceived conceptually. I made sure the music was continuous, even going so far as to select instrumentals to talk over while I ran through my playlist, which I’d update after a three-song set. I also tried to vary songs from genre to genre, pairing Tom Zé’s “To” with Deerhoof’s “Milkman.”

I was also fond of layering songs into one another, overlapping the final moments of Sack and Blumm’s “Baby Bass Buss” with the intro to Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic.” I made sure that song selection went with the time of day, which once I got on FM was always in the evenings, particularly during safe harbor so I could play hip hop and Gravy Train!!!!. I also tried to bridge the content of my show with promos, tags, and the programs that bookended mine. Before I got to Raymond Williams in graduate school, I was familiar with the concept of flow.

I also became aware of my voice as an on-air talent. Though some deejays mumble or try to take focus away from themselves, hearing my voice bandy words about (often to myself) made me cognizant of articulation, elocution, and tone. There was also a performative quality to presenting an on-air persona as I intoned an idealized version of my natural speaking voice. It also skeeved me out when some dudes would call in to inform me of the supposed sexiness of my voice. I got really good at telling strangers to fuck off and hanging up on people mid-conversation. Unfortunately, these instances were fairly common amongst my female peers and some endured more serious harassment.  

BTW, kudos to the dude callers who were supportive and respectful. Thanks to the nice lady callers as well.

Oddly enough, this awareness did not lead me toward doing a female-only show. I dabbled in it occasionally. I did a women’s issue news program one summer with a girl named Kelly I met when we were cast in The Vagina Monologues. I briefly took over a friend’s female-only show when she quit during her first semester in the UT American Studies master’s program. At the time, I found doing a female-only show limiting. Now I think I’d have to do a free-form female-only show. Why not pair Umm Kulthum with Dessa?

I started graduate school in fall 2006. I thought about returning to KVRX after about a year off from undergrad. But I felt like it was another group of kids’ turn. Also, I simply didn’t have the time to devote to a weekly show and its related responsibilities. When I applied to PhD programs, the schools’ radio stations were a determining factor and will continue to be when I reapply.

In the meantime, a podcast series is appealing to me, especially after I started listening to Veronica Ortuño‘s “Cease to Exist“. Rest assured that when I do start another radio program, all broadcasts will be well archived so I can dig ‘em up and tune in again.

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6 comments

  1. Curran

    Lovely post, with some of my favorites referenced. At some point, we’ll have to talk Pump Up The Volume. Or, better yet, let’s have a screening (I haven’t seen it in more than a decade). It was your entry into the world of DJing and it was my entry into homosexuality (specifically via the suicidal, gay caller). The day after I saw it I came out to my parents and friends.

    • Alyx Vesey

      I know! I love that this movie motivated you to come out and we do need to rewatch it. Whenever, wherever. I have a copy on DVD. Mayhaps we can watch it on a laptop post-drunken outing at a certain conference in the Pacific Northwest, if not sooner. :)

      • Alyx Vesey

        (Of course, you always have an open invitation to write about Pump Up the Volume here too.)

    • Alyx Vesey

      I thought I might have some old lists saved somewhere but couldn’t find any. I transcribed one from November 2002 and have some more tapes to get through and then I’ll post a note of FB. It’s been interesting revisiting all of this again. Thank you for putting the idea in my head! :)

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