Monday, June 30, 2008

Is Radio Still Controversial?

George Carlin's passing last week has forced me to reflect on radio's controversial history, in particular with respect to free speech. For those that don't know, George Carlin recorded a now legendary stand-up piece on what you cannot say on the radio. Seven Dirty Words poked fun at our uptight and puritanical values. This bit was played by WBAI (a Pacifica Foudation member station), and led to a formal complaint to the FCC by John Douglas who was unhappy his son had heard it. What are these seven dirty words? They are:

  1. Shit
  2. Piss
  3. Fuck
  4. Cunt
  5. Cocksucker
  6. Motherfucker
  7. Tits
To this day you cannot say these words on radio air in the USA. To be fair, a big part of the reasoning for this argument (on the government's side) is that there is a scarce supply of frequencies, and sooner or later children would tune into a station and hear this foul language. Keep in mind that the crux of this argument is frequency scarcity. Since satellite and Internet radio don't have this limitation, all bets are off, and these media are not restricted in the same way. In fact, when it comes to television, this argument is all but meaningless since most Americans watch television through satellite and cable now. This point was raised again during Janet Jackson's famous wardrobe malfunction at the Superbowl. And let us not forget about Howard Stern's standing fine for having said the word "masturbation" on air.

But are dirty words and nudity still controversial, even though it's still illegal to say them on the air? Maybe, but it's basically a resolved issue. We know there's an arbitrary rule that prevents it on public airwaves and that's that.

But here's the good news: Foul language is nothing more than a distraction. The really really dangerous ideas and controversial topics are not only still out there, and legal to discuss, but they are just heating up. Some may think I'm referring to Don Imus' "colour" comments. Actually, I'm thinking more along the lines of Rafe Mair who recently prevailed in a 9-0 Supreme Court of Canada decision to uphold his right to use hyperbole when criticizing Kari Sampson and her decision to uphold the banning of three books depicting same-sex parents (the books were banned within a Surrey school-board's purview). This decision is good news for free speech and radio!

For those of you who remember the 80s, Talk Radio was at the time a relatively new format. In Toronto, I used to listen to Pat Burns. Like most Talk Radio personalities at the time, he was pretty right-wing and loved to talk about the death penalty. Back then, Talk Radio was exhilirating. Some of you might even remember Oliver Stone's film Talk Radio (IMO one of Stone's best movies), whose protaginast Barry Champlain (played by Eric Bogosion) was inspired by the late Alan Berg, who was brutally murdered by an angry caller. Berg never used any of Carlin's seven words. His style was provocative for sure, but the topics themselves were even more provactive.

I pray that nothing like this ever happens again (and to my knowledge it has only happened once), but I do hope radio continues to push boundaries and remain controversial. Carlin's seven words are just hand grenades. Current and future hosts are still building up their stockpiles of ICBMs in the battle of ideas. We ain't seen nothing yet.

Stay TUN3D.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Media Guru, Paul Levinson talks radio, media, and his new book

About 10 years ago my sister gave me a book for my birthday entitled The Soft Edge, by Paul Levinson. My head was deep in the "dot com" boom, and at the time, I was living in Copenhagen working for a large Yahoo-esque portal called Jubii. Those were heady days indeed. The current Web 2.0 push - while still exciting - cannot compare to the confusion and optimism I was experiencing in 1998. I had my own instincts, but was hearing crazy stuff like "profits are no longer relevant", and major companies like NBC were already proclaiming that television was a thing of the past (anyone remember the original It felt like all the rules had gone out the window, and we were rapidly heading towards some kind informational singularity utopia, but with little or no direction beyond "The Internet".

The Soft Edge was the closest thing I had to a compass. For those that have never heard of it, "Edge" is a history of media, and media revolutions. Recommended.

While I can't recall everything in the book, here are a few things that really stuck with me that I never knew before reading it:

  1. The printing press was invented in China, hundreds of years before Gutenberg was even born. It never took off in the same way as Gutenberg's, mainly due to the inherent complexity of Chinese script.
  2. Levison argued that Gutenberg's printing press filled a necessary pre-requisite for the European settlement of The Americas. Namely, it would not have been possible to convince the greater masses of the existence and opportunities in The Americas without a means of direct and reliable communication coming from the Kings and Queens of the time. In other words, a key piece of the "broken telephone" puzzle had been solved. A problem that hindered the Vikings from settling North America, even though they had discovered it earlier.
  3. Black and White photography, while thought to be doomed after the invention of colour photography, found a respectable niche after it was recognized that colour could obscure an image's essence. As a side bar, you might say that Mr. Levinson indirectly helped shape TUN3R and bolster our own convictions that a B&W Dial is more usable than a colour Dial.
  4. Radio's eventual popularity was almost accidental. Levinson points out that Marconi invented radio communication as an improvement over Bell's invention of the wireline telephone. Marconi set out to create a wireless telephone, but the radio technology quickly took on an unintended life of its own as a one-to-many broadcast medium. How's that for serendipity!

After reading this, you might take Mr. Levinson as a full time media researcher/theorist, kind of like Marshall McLuhan. Far from it. Paul has one of those epic careers that would make anyone green with envy. He started out as both a singer and songwriter, then moved into radio production. He has since spent a great amount of time in academia, earning all manner of degrees and distinctions, and is now the Chair of the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. During this period, Paul has published several books both non-fiction and fiction (mainly science fiction). He has also served as President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

I believe that Paul is one of those rare guys you actually want to be sitting next to on an eleven hour Greyhound bus ride from Toronto to Wawa. So by that key measure, I feel incredibly fortunate that he has agreed to this interview.

Q1 Neil: Thank you so very much for giving me some of your time and insights. You write about media, but you're also a part of it. I want to first learn more about your radio background. What did you mainly focus on as a radio producer, and how has that experience factored into your writing and teaching?

A1 Paul: I put together "sets" for Murray the K and Wolfman Jack - groups of records around a similar theme. For example, for Murray, one of my favorites was a "law and order" set, consisting of "Take a Message to Mary," "I Fought the Law," "Indiana Wants Me," "Gotta Get a Message to You," "Tom Dooley," etc. The "set" idea originated with Murray, when he pioneered FM progressive radio on WOR-FM radio in NYC in the mid-1960s. Murray and Wolfman were attempting to make Top 40 radio more sophisticated when I worked with them at NBC Radio in NYC in the early 1970s.

This behind-the-scenes work in radio gave me keen insight into all that goes into a seemingly live, unscripted medium such as radio - I often make that point to my students. As for my writing, no disk jockeys have yet appeared in my fiction, but music from that era populates most of my science fiction novels - music recordings make good markers for time travel stories.

Q2 Neil: You worked with "Murray the K" and "Wolfman Jack". What were these guys like to work with? What do these DJs have in common? Are there contemporary DJs you've seen that compare?

A2 Paul: Both were egomaniacs, but I'm more or less one too, so we got along fine. Murray and I had more in common - I'd been a fan of his since I'd first heard him on WINS radio in the late 1950s (I was 12 years old, then). In fact, Murray invited me to work with him after reading my "Murray the K in Nostalgia's Noose" (not my title, just a line in an article I had published in the Village Voice in 1972). It was my second published article. (My first was in defence of Paul McCartney.) Wolfman Jack was a tough-as-nails businessman - behind that big hug lurked a lot of industry know-how. Bob Shannon, long on WCBS-FM Radio in NYC, is about the closest to Murray and Wolfman nowadays. Shannon has a lot of Murray and Wolfman's historical savvy, maybe even more.

Q3 Neil:
Changing lanes now. There is clearly a trend towards on-demand, and personalization (think iPod, YouTube, PVRs). The trade-off (as I see it), is a loss of The Shared Experience (i.e. many people having the same experience at the same time). Television and Radio defined the mass Shared Experience, but it is less common with the PVR (I love my PVR btw). I reckon that radio will survive for some time as a primarily live medium, but for how much longer I can't say. Do you believe that we are indeed giving up on The Shared Experience and living in our own media cocoons. Is the Shared Experience going through transition, or will history see it as a 20th century fossil?

A3 Paul: I don't know that radio - at least insofar as a rock 'n' roll medium - was ever primarily a completely shared experience. Of course, when a record is played on the radio, all listeners hear it at the same time. But almost all of them are not in the same place. So is that a shared experience? In the non-mediated pre-technological world, a shared experience entailed seeing the faces of those in the sharing, hearing their voices.

Nowadays, listening to a CD or mp3 or radio station in my car is pretty much the same experience as listening to radio - except that I have no control over what's on the radio, which can be pleasantly surprising. (The iPod shuffle is a limited form of this surprise - because I'm the one who programmed it in the first place.)

I think this exhilarating lack of control over live radio will keep it kicking for a long time - maybe even forever. It's part of what I call the "media ecological niche" - radio can do something we enjoy, that no other medium can. The other parts of the niche, for radio, come from the fact that we can listen to radio while doing other things - this makes radio different from reading a book, jumping around online, or even watching television. Indeed, this is part of what enabled radio to survive the ascent of television in 1950s (the other part was rock 'n' roll). But it's true of all acoustic media - CDs and mp3s as well as radio. I therefore think it is the lack of control we have over radio that will keep it viable in an age of mp3s.

Q4 Neil: This is a similar question. In The Soft Edge you discuss how after the invention of colour photography, Black and White photography repurposed itself. Given radio's small decline in numbers (although it is still one of the most popular mass mediums), do you see radio going through a repurposing of its own? If so, where do you see broadcast radio's strengths? What do you think radio broadcasters should be focusing on to stay relevant to younger audiences in the 21st century?

Well, adding to what I said in Q3 above: Radio's been wrongly counted out at least twice. First, when television came on strong in the 1950s, and co-opted radio's serial, sitcom, soap opera, and news programming. Radio defied all expectations, and became more profitable than ever was a medium of rock 'n' roll. Second, contrary to "Video Killed the Radio Star," radio survived MTV quite well - the Buggles had it wrong. Broadcast radio's main, enduring strength is that you can turn it on, and then do whatever else you like, and be pleasantly surprised by what the radio gives to you. It is a multi-tasking medium par excellence - you can drive to it, wake up to it, etc. Radio broadcasters in the 21st century should just keep surprising its listeners with great mixes of music. A good DJ can help, too.

Meanwhile, talk radio adds the additional factor of listening to other listeners speak. And, of course, the DJ in talk radio is essential to that use of the medium.

Q5 Neil: A topic that's near and dear to my heart is Custom Radio vs. Human DJ mixed radio. While I believe the current spate of Custom Radio (e.g., is a far cry from what a decent human DJ can pull off, I wonder more about Custom Radio's potential. Do you think that the Human DJ's days are numbered, and by extension do you think that within the next 25 years we'll see chart toppers composed entirely by computer algorithms?

A5 Paul: Much as I love a good DJ, they're hard to find. The upshot for your question: I think a good DJ is always better than what any kind of computer mix can put together. But a good computer mix is better than the average DJ. What makes a DJ good: a combination of incredible savvy about the music, and a good sense of humor - Bob Shannon, as I mentioned above, is a good current example. My guess is that human DJs will continue, but as more of a specialty item than is the case today. I would therefore expect that, 25 years from now, we'll definitely have some humans beating along with the algorithms.

Q6 Neil: You're both a media commentator/theorist/futurist and a sci-fi writer. Do you approach the two as one-and-the-same? I'm guessing there's a lot of entanglement here. Do you have any examples of how a sci-fi idea influenced your non-fiction writing/teaching and vice versa?

A6 Paul: My critics often say that my non-fiction reads like science fiction, and my science fiction deals with important media issues - I take that as compliment, though it often isn't meant that way (hey, wringing compliments from insult is a fine art, and, I think, essential to anyone in the creative arts). I started writing my doctoral dissertation, "Human Replay: A Theory of the Evolution of Media" (1979) at the same time as a time travel novel, back in the 1970s. I soon found I was enjoying the novel so much, I didn't want to write the dissertation. So I put the novel aside. (The first part was published as "Loose Ends," an award nominated novella, in the 1990s.) By the late 1990s, I was able to write Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium and my first science fiction novel, The Silk Code at the same time - and both were indeed published in 1999. Much of The Plot to Save Socrates (2006 science fiction) and Cellphone: The Story of the World's Most Moble Medium (2004) were written at the same time. Right now I'm writing my next nonfiction book, New New Media, and two science fiction novels - Unburning Alexandria (sequel to The Plot to Save Socrates), and a new Phil D'Amato novel. I'm also working on a television script (science fiction).

So, yeah, all of my writing comes from the same source, and sometimes it comes out as science fiction and sometimes scholarly non-fiction. In The Consciousness Plague, science fiction from 2002, I pick up on the question of why the Norse discovery of America in 1000 AD had so little world impact - an issue I explore at length in The Soft Edge in 1997. And I explored questions of physical v. cyberpresence in The Pixel Eye, science fiction from 2003, and Realspace: The Fate of Physical Presence in the Digital Age, also published in 2003.

Writing fiction, in general, is like daydreaming. Writing nonfiction is more like just thinking, or hearing myself talk. I enjoy doing both, and having each spill over into the other is entirely natural (at least, to me).

Q7 Neil: This is a variation of a stock question I like to ask: Let's say a director like Darren Aronofsky or Shane Carruth came to you to make a movie based one of your books (published or imagined), and asked for your input to select a piece of music that would set the tone for the movie. What would you choose to suggest, and in what context?

A7 Paul: First, I'd be thrilled. But in answer to your question: John Lennon's "Across the Universe" is one of my all-time favorite songs, and performances. It always brings tears to my eyes and heart. It would work in movies from any of my novels - not just Borrowed Tides, (2001) about the first starship to Alpha Centauri. It would probably work best in a movie made of my "Loose Ends" saga - since Lennon's murder may well play a role in its ending (which I have not yet completely written - so far, three parts of four have been published of the saga - all as long short fiction). A character in an earlier segment is already talking about "Real Love," which also breaks my heart every time I hear it.

Q8 Neil: I started using the Internet in 1991. I was a big Usenet junkie, and remember a time before SPAM and AOLers. There was a sense of optimism that lasted well into 2001. I naïvely thought that the Internet would lead to a greater enlightenment, and that most bullcrap would be weeded out through trust networks. But Fox News seems to do just fine. Are we better informed than before the Internet, or do we just think we are?

A8 Paul: Fox News is largely irrelevant - the Internet, not television (broadcast and cable), and certainly not newspapers any longer, is where people are increasingly getting their news. Obama's getting the Democratic nomination, and Hillary Clinton coming close to it, are examples of the enlightening effect of the Internet - an African-American and a woman would not have done that well even a decade ago. Wikipedia, YouTube, Digg, hundreds of blogs in different ways are getting out the truth. I think these "new new media" - in which readers and viewers are writers and producers - are fulfilling some of the optimism that was felt about the Web in 2000. It was just a little early. In fact, I'm flatly predicting that the neo-con Republican party will go the way of the Federalists and the Whigs in the US, in the next 20 years. How's that for optimism?

Q9 Neil: You're working on a new book called "New New Media" scheduled for a 2009 publication. Can you briefly describe what the book is about? Do you have any plans beyond this horizon?

A9 Paul: New New Media is about the revolution in user-driven media that I mentioned in my answer to Question 8. For the first time in history, experts are being replaced by everyone as sources of information and knowledge. Blogging, YouTube, Wikipedia, Digg, MySpace, Facebook, Second Life, these and other leaders of the new new media revolution will be the subject of my book - which will explore what is gained by this overthrow of gatekeeping, but also what may be risked (there is no such thing as a 100% beneficial technology).

Other projects:


The Flouting of the First Amendment, about how Congress and the FCC have systematically spat in the face of John Milton and Thomas Jefferson, and endangered the freedom of all Americans with unconstitutional fining and bullying of broadcasters, The New Golden Age of Television, how The Sopranos, The Wire, Lost, 24, Dexter, Rome, The Tudors, to name a few, have made current television the best it's ever been, and every bit as good or better than current theater and movies.


Unburning Alexandria (sequel to The Plot to Save Socrates), new Phil D'Amato novel (Phil has appeared in three novels and three short stories so far), and a sequel to Borrowed Tides. And a pilot for a television series that I'm co-writing, but can't say anything more about, without risking being kidnapped and never heard from again.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Interview: James Kent sheds new light on music and psychedelics

Hi folks, this interview blog is a bit different. It's on the topic of music, but from a completely different angle that may take you by surprise. As such, you'll find my introduction a bit longer than normal.

I have a confession to make. I've been looking for an excuse to interview James Kent for some time now. Most people have never heard of Mr. Kent, which is a shame since he is one of the most intelligent, articulate, and daring individuals I've come across in a very long time. I would describe James as cross between Leonardo Da Vinci, James Randi, and Gordon Wasson.

James started his career as journalist. During the early days he set out to get to the bottom of the mysteries surrounding psychedelic experiences (which is a bit like starting off your mathematical career by trying to prove Fermat's Last Theorem). After some research and spending time with key members of the psychedelic community, the answers James was getting were more mystical than scientific. People like Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna - while insightful and articulate - were beginning to seem more like modern-day Shaman, rather than critical thinkers.

On the flipside, the scientific community hadn't produced much insight either. The reasons for this are mainly twofold: Firstly, publicly funded research into psychedelics has been all but completely suspended in most Western countries since the late 1960s, mainly due to the legal restrictions of substances like LSD and psylociban/mushrooms. However Britain has recently re-legalized psylociban, and research has now resumed in earnest there. There are also pockets of privately funded research like at the Hefter Institute which has shown evidence of psychiatric benefits. However, most research comes short of explaining HOW psychedelics actually produce the effects and experiences they do. This is mainly because the scientific method is predicated on publicly observable data. In order to observe the various phenomena produced by psychedelics, one must be on psychedelics. So any results obtained under the influence would be considered suspect. Furthermore, the experiences tend to push the limits of what we can describe in words, images, or even video.

All that notwithstanding, psychedelics are not for the faint of heart. Embarking on subjective psychedelic research can quickly lead the curious astray. When you're experiencing things like ecstatic trances, delusions of grandeur, spiritual awe, altered states of consciousness, and oneness with the universe, it's pretty hard to keep your eye on the ball and record your observations with a critical eye. But somehow James Kent has kept his hat on and done this and a lot more. This is a guy that has ramped himself up to a graduate level understanding of optics theory, and a post-graduate level understanding of neuroscience. As a result, James has for the first time connected the psychedelic experience to the brain's systems level, down to the synaptic level.

Most recently, James published a sure-to-be seminal paper entitled "Multi-State Theory of Psychedelic Action". The paper accurately describes the effects of tryptamine psychedelics on perception and consciousness. However, what caught my eye while reading the paper (and hence the reason for this interview), concerns the relationship between music and psychedelics. Something, which I hope to learn more about here.

Q1 Neil: First off, thanks for giving me your time for this interview. I want to talk a bit about your current involvement in the psychedelic community. You started Trip Magazine, then went on to found Can you explain the history and mission of Dosenation?

A1 James: After I stopped publishing Trip Magazine there was always the intention that there would be some kind of extension of that project online. I began publishing back-content on, some of which morphed into the structure for "Psychedelic Information Theory". At that time I was also coding a multi-user blogging engine and headline filter for tracking drug-related news. This idea floundered for a while until Trip's former Editor, Scotto, approached me about the idea of doing a collaborative drug blog, and then the pieces for DoseNation just fell into place a few months later. We've been going for about a year and half now. It's blogging. It's mostly for fun. Anyone can join in.

Q2 Neil: I found out about you through your yet-to-be published book "Psychedelic Information Theory [PIT]: Shamanism in the Age of Reason". Can you describe to readers what this book covers, and why it's so unique.

A2 James: The impetus for PIT was creating a comprehensive resource for people who want to know "how" psychedelics work, mostly because I was so frustrated with the lack of good information available. With PIT I wanted to stay away from mythology, spirituality, and psychology and go right to hard brain process; neuroanatomy, network structure and function, mechanics of perception and cognition, pharmacology, hallucinogen and visual rendering theory, all of that inside-the-machine stuff. It gives people who want to study psychedelics a more reality-based direction to go than alternate dimensions and spirit allies. Not that there's anything wrong with the shamanic model, but there's plenty of information on the spirit model of psychedelics out there already.

Q3 Neil: Your most recent paper, "Multi-State Theory...", ties together much of what you've written in PIT, but it is also the culmination of most of your research. What is the paper's thesis?

A3 James: The Multi-State Theory provides a pharmacological model for how psychedelic tryptamines act at specific neural routing sites to increase network feedback and tip the brain into excited multi-stable states. This feedback-induced excitation produces what we would typically call altered states, or states of "expanded consciousness" that begin with heightened perception, grow into hallucination, and eventually lead to complete sensory overload and out-of-body experiences at high enough doses. What I am attempting to do with the Multi-State Model is demonstrate the precise mechanics by which network excitation and feedback destabilizes normal perception, knocks the brain offline for a bit, and then re-tunes the brain at a high-focus, high-energy state that is subjectively mystical, hyper-cognitive, and transpersonal in nature. In a sense it is a neurological deconstruction of the method behind the psychedelic madness of insanity and enlightenment that seem to go hand-in-hand.

Q4 Neil: You argue that the reason traditional shamanic rituals use tribal music is to mediate or smooth the transitions between the changing phases of a trip. How does music improve the trip?

A4 James: Music doesn't improve the trip so much as guide the trip. In the shamanic model rhythm is used to bind tribal energy to a common ground; everyone grooves on the same vibe, everyone shares the same vision. One of the shaman's most important jobs is to store the tribal songs and reproduce them spontaneously when needed. These songs carry the weight of cultural memory and identity, and reproducing them sets the tone for the ritual experience. This is as true today as it was two thousand years ago, which is why the DJ or the rock band is elevated to such mystical god-like status. In the context of guiding a psychedelic trip, there is no more powerful vehicle for locking minds together than music. The shaman instinctively knows this and can use his or her own voice to soothe or excite people, bending them to his or her will and vision. Producing shamanic songs and linking group minds in a psychedelic context is one of the purest true magics that exist in this world. In a very Christ-like way, the shaman literally opens his or her heart and soul to the universe, channels the will of the world, and through their "pure vibe" alone can unite an entire tribe under one vision. I could be talking about Maria Sabina or Metallica here, the metaphor applies universally.

Q5 Neil: Are there still tribes which perform these rituals, and is it possible to find real samples of this Shamanistic tribal music?

A5 James: You can find CDs of the icaros of the Amazonian ayahuasceros or the throat signing of the Tuvan monks, and though these two cultures are displaced by vast spans of space they produce similar tones and themes in their music that are easily confused. Both of these styles at times sound like aboriginal didgeridoo, Mid-Eastern reed-pipes, and Tibetan Om chanters all combined. Some of it is much less complex, simple chanting and repetition of tones and themes that are not musically interesting but have tribal meaning. There's traditional shamanic medicine drumming, and most of it is quite monotonous because it's literally a form of hypnotic trance music. Generally there is a great deal of authenticity and preciousness ascribed to traditional shamanic music, but traditional authenticity is not really that important for good shamanism. All passionate music is shamanic in that it transports you immediately into the world of that song while your listening to it. Pearl Jam's "Evenflow" is just as shamanic as anything you can pull out of the Amazonian rainforest, it just speaks to a slightly different tribal archetype. But the key to maximizing this shamanic principal is being able to share these songs spontaneously for any occasion in a live environment, which is where music has its truest power to unite people. The ability to master the basic ritual skills and use them to channel group synchronicity in the psychedelic space is a core aspect of the shamanic archetype.

Q6 Neil: In your recent paper, you go on to say that different types of music can produce different types of trips. Can you give some examples of the different types of music you have in mind, and what kinds of trips this produces?

A6 James: Well, Tool will obviously give you a different trip than Enya, both of them will probably be bad. All music evokes a particular mood or living energy, and the mood and energy of the music will infect you at vastly deeper levels when you're tripping. You need to be careful what you ingest when you're taking psychedelics, and that applies to music too. Gangster rap will make you paranoid and fear for your life, Pink Floyd will make you have suicidal out-of-body experiences, Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk will light up your brain with a never-ending loop of cartoony sci-fi electronic fart noises and mechanical drum-fills. Electric genres of beat-timed groove music like trip-hop, downtempo, breakbeat, house, trance, jungle, and ambient were all mapped out along the BPM spectrum because they're all the different cognitive territories you can evoke with same basic 808 drum-machine and 303 bass machine setup. The BPM genres top out at super-hardcore where the beats are so fast they literally become tones, thus deconstructing the semantic illusion separating rhythm and tone. The mind can bend all the way around the spectrum. Rhythm sets the foundation for the trip, the melody sets the mood. Set the BPM and punch in your pattern, instant shamanic space. It all depends on what you're shooting for.

Q7 Neil: I've heard stories of people "seeing music" and "hearing visuals". Can this really happen, and if so, has anyone painted a song, or composed a picture, or anything like that? What's going on there?

A7 James: Seeing music is the classic description of synesthesia, the mixing of senses for absurd or concrete outcomes; absurd would be "tasting seven" and concrete would be "seeing a bell chime". Some people are naturally synesthetic in very particular ways, and will always see the color five as red, for instance, even when they look it on a piece of paper, simply because the concepts are somehow fused in their mind. Psychedelic synesthesia is usually direct audio-to-visual transforms, in which the rhythmic and melodic elements of music and environment are reproduced in your imaginary visual field, typically with eyes closed. A drum beat may appear as a simple strobe of light, or perhaps the literal vision of a drum, but it can also be a warped interference pattern that represents the drum tone, which can give way to all sorts of tangential subjectivity. This is basically caused by a network echo effect that allows audio signal to become excited and bleed-over into the visual processing circuits. At higher doses this synesthesia can become all consuming, so you need to be careful what kind of music you listen to. Metal music can make you feel like you're on a roller coaster being pulled through the depths of hell and destruction, and then after your soul has been whipped bare by a blistering guitar solo the song just ends because it was only three minutes to begin with, and your mind shatters because nothing's holding the roller-coaster together anymore; it all just vanishes into free fall. That whole angry world of noise and metal riffs collapses into a CD or some other piece of mechanical trickery that shatters the music's authenticity and reduces it to some form of electro-plastic mind control transmission. This is why DJ culture and live jam sets that last a few hours or longer are preferred for most psychedelic sessions. There's plenty of time to go up, have a little journey, and come back down again all in one go. Live DJs or musicians programming the show makes for better musical continuity, and smoother transitions makes for an easier ride.

Q8 Neil: In the PIT table of contents, you refer to an archetypal trip known as "The Heroes Journey". Can you briefly describe what The Heroes Journey is, and is there any music which can be used to help facilitate it?

A8 James: The classic Hero's Journey (typically singular) is a quest to defy the gods, travel across the bridge of life and death, find some hidden power or lost wisdom, and then return to the world of the living with your new found power to better the condition of your tribe. This story plays out in mythology and lore and stories of human struggle all the time. In the personal context it is a journey to transcend the self, see the world from a removed perspective, and return to the self with a greater appreciation for one's own part to play in the bigger picture. Of course the Hero's Journey goes bad all the time, there's many wrong turns and hard lessons to be learned. It is a three act saga to be sure, not something you do in a single evening with a list of track names on your iPod. But if I had to pick a single soundtrack for the Hero's journey, I'll go with... um... Mr. Lif's "I Phantom"? Word up Lif. Have Edan's "Beauty and the Beat" in the pocket for coming down. I know I could pick some epic trance here, but the Hero's Journey is all about aiming high while keeping your feet on the ground. The Hero's Journey tends to go messianic if you don't keep it grounded in the real, that's why I choose Lif.

Q9 Neil: In your opinion, what music best captures the essence of a psychedelics? A theme song for the psychedelics if you will.

A9 James: There's so many good "psychedelic" bands and producers making insane music, I suppose everyone has a different idea of what that psychedelic sound should be. I mean, I always preferred the Dead's "Shakedown Street" style funk strutting to their spacey jams, but which is more psychedelic? I prefer psychedelic hip-hop like Edan and Mr. Lif to jam band music, I prefer filtered house, turntablism, and frenetic breakbeat to Goa trance; I like classic rock like Sabbath and heavy riff music more than spacey dub music. I think about this question a lot actually, what is the most psychedelic song? I suppose it's different for everyone, for me it is probably something like the remix of Bomb the Bass "Bug Powder Dust" grafting into Aphrodelics "Rollin' on Chrome" wild motherfucker dub version on the K&D Sessions. It's not the trippiest in terms of production effects, but it has a nice mix of hip-hop, dub, underground references, good natured boasting, and illed-out vibe that always makes me smile, and that's key for any good psychedelic set. If that's too obscure for some people then how about "Little Fluffy Clouds" from the Orb?

Q10 Neil: Many people who have done psychedelics come away with the feeling that they have been exposed to an ancient secret. What is behind this secret, and why can't anybody seem to remember it?

A10 James: The ancient secret is that it's a miracle we're even alive, we take this for granted. When we're reminded of how fleeting and how fragile life is in the larger picture, the whole thing seems like a joke that we even made it this far, and that we spend so much energy making such a big fuss about ourselves. The ancient secret is constantly unfolding in real time, and the answer is you. Live it up, it's your turn now.

Q11 Neil: What does the future of your research look like? Are there any unresolved mysteries for you when it comes to psychedelics?

A11 James: When it comes to psychedelic action there's not too much mystery left, it's all about nailing down detail, which may be years in coming since research is so slow in getting funded and approved. The real mystery is what do we do with these things? How do we adapt their use to modern culture in a way that allows people to explore without going insane or winding up in trouble with the law. In a world where you can casually pick and eat a mushroom and have visions that make you question the very fabric of reality, there will always be backlash and the desire to control that power. My hope is that people on both sides of pro/con psychedelic argument trend away from granting these substances the power of gods and demons. Psychedelics are tools. We are the gods. We are the demons.

Monday, June 9, 2008

George 'Loki' Williams of Radio2020 talks to me about Music, Radio, and New Orleans

Another interview blog folks! This time, I'm honoured to be talking to George 'Loki' Williams, who heads up the Radio2020 blog. For those of you who don't know it, Radio2020 is the official blog of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB), and the HD Alliance (HDA). While I don't know everything about these organizations, I would have assumed that any communication these organizations have with a schmo like me would have been vetted through a 100 or more lawyers.

And this is why I was pleasantly taken aback by George's candour and effusive love of radio when he first contacted me a few weeks ago to syndicate a blog entry I'd written.

George has made the Radio2020 blog (and by extension the blogging voice of the radio giants [NAB, RAB, HDA]) into something that I feel captures the essence of radio. Namely, something - like George, and like radio - that has real personality. But George also has some real pedigree worth noting: He lives and works in New Orleans - a place that as most of you know went through one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory, and where radio was instrumental in saving lives. George has also DJed for (KLSU, Baton Rouge, LA) and has worked to help modernize the community station WWOZ 90.7 FM New Orleans. In fact, New Orleans was our second choice after Nashville, TN for a US City Dial, mainly due to its important musical heritage (especially jazz). So I find it most apropos that Mr. Williams holds the post that he does.

UPDATE: George is a busy man, and has just written to tell me that over this past weekend he has begun working with the Soros Foundation's pen Society Institute as the online organizer and content producer for His new blog will be kicking off within a few days to a week from now. The site recently won a 2008 Webby Award, and is one of the most powerful reactions to Hurricane Katrina, with its mission:
"... to spark a national debate around poverty and racism in America beyond the Katrina anniversary. The site is devoted exclusively to the aftermath of the hurricanes as documented by investigative reporters. Very few news outlets have the resources to do this."

Q1 Neil: Hi George. First off, thanks for taking this time for an interview! I want to first talk about New Orleans the city. You've mentioned before that it played a major role for you after the storm when you returned. This topic deserves more space. But for now, briefly tell me your story, and what part radio played.

A1 George: Hey Neil, thanks for having an interest in what we are doing. It's odd to think back on those days, the weeks following the levee failure were a blur of emotions for all of us. My wife, then my fiancée, and I were exiled with our five cats and little else comparatively close to your location. We ended up in my home away from home: New York City. I had a broken hand and was unable to do any real work for the six weeks of our "exile." It was at about this point that we discovered that the BBC had written an article about our blogging of the evacuation and the aftermath on my New Orleans team blog HumidCity.

Its amazing how time's passing can feel like broken glass in your brain when you have no idea where or how your friends and family are. Think about that for a moment, everyone you know and all of your family members missing with no way to verify if any of them are alive or dead. It took almost three weeks to find my immediate family. Being a native New Orleanian the lack of "home cooking," and strong creole coffee just aggravated the situation. Then, one evening while I was blogging away on a borrowed laptop I did my nightly check to see if WWOZ was back up. As the stream connected and the sounds of Dr. Michael White's horn came wafting out of the tinny little speakers I felt as though a sixteen ton weight had been suddenly lifted from my shoulders. Immediately I emailed the webmaster, who i knew on a personal level having worked with his band The Zydepunks in the past. After a few quick exchanges I had found a focus for all of my frantic emotional energy. For the next few weeks until our return I scoured the Internet for reports of missing musicians and music industry people from NOLA as the station attempted to find the missing members of our music community. This gave me purpose while in a limbo of red tape and conflicting news reports. Enforced idleness and, quite frankly, fear had been a wicked combination for me until then. I cannot properly express how much it helped to hear "our music" again.

Q2 Neil: On a lighter note, tell me about the musical history of New Orleans, and how radio has played a part of that.

A2 George: New Orleans musical history impacts almost every aspect of modern music. It was in Congo Square that the percussive backbeat met the European style melody lines creating a contemporary sound. Everyone thinks of Jazz and Blues in relation to the Crescent City, but without the union of those two factors we would not have Rock 'n Roll, Punk, Swing, or almost any other genre. I know it sounds egotistical, but if you do a bit of research you'll find that I am right.

As to radio's place in that history i must confess that I am rather ignorant of details that fall before my own memories growing up. My parents had little interest in the local sound so I grew up around a lot of Classic Rock and Prog Rock. (Yes, I am in my 40s. Lets move on.)

Once I hit high school age I began to notice a difference in sound between the homegrown musc and the records my parents played at home. Soon I was listening to The Meters and Dr. John as well as local underground acts like The Normals (New Orleans first ever punk band).

It was about this time that WWOZ started up. Between their Jazz and Heritage programming, the indie sounds of college station WTUL, and the Classic Rock offerings of WRNO (which has now switched formats to talk radio). I immersed myself in a muti-genre program of self education. Being a kid I could not just run out and buy a record album at whim, so radio was my introduction to music of all kinds.

Q3 Neil: You were instrumental in bringing WWOZ into the digital age. Most people don't know what it takes to accomplish this. Is this just a matter of buying new equipment, or does it also demand a change in the way the station is being managed and operated?

A3 George: I don't know that instrumental is quite the right word. The station was already streaming online before I ever entered the equation, a step that is hugely important in today's age. I have worked for them in several capacities since then including providing social networking consultations and acting as web producer for their main site. Thanks in great part to the efforts of Arianna Hall, who was my superior, each year has seen more advances into the digital frontier. Unfortunately she would have to be the one answering questions about how it impacts the management level of the station. I do know that there are consistently a number of projects in the pipe geared towards using the technology. Non profits are by nature slow moving creatures, I think 'OZ has managed to stay ahead of the curve in that regard.

Q4 Neil: You've told me in a past conversation that you've worked in a collaborative fashion with both commercial and non-commercial stations as a music and art promoter. I take it you've met a lot of DJs, and been to a lot of stations. You've got a broad perspective, and I'm curious about this. Were there any DJs that really stood out, and how did they stand out?

A4 George: Well, like other people most DJs stand out due to force of personality. Back in the late '90s there was one guy on KKND named Wolfgang. He impressed me with his constant efforts to bring the local rock scene to the mainstream airwaves. In New Orleans that is often harder to do than other places because the Jazz / Blues / Funk scene tends to overshadow everything else. Gina Forsyth, probably my favorite Cajun fiddle player and songwriter, had a long running show on WTUL that introduced me to an array of folk sounds that blew my mind. Her down to earth perspective and vast knowledge of acoustic music created the atmosphere of sitting in someone's living room playing one single after the other.

The great thing about New Orleans is it has always been full of characters. As a result we have better than average luck in the DJ department because character is what makes a show.

Q5 Neil: On that note, how would you describe the station/DJ sub-culture in general?

A5 George: In the immortal words of Mark Twain, "No generalities are true, including this one." Among the DJs I have know over the years the one unifying factor has been individualism. A stupendous array of personalities united by a love of music and a love of sharing it over the airwaves.

Q6 Neil: As a former DJ yourself how did you approach putting together sets and shows? What was your proudest achievement?

A6 George: I would often agonize over what to play for hours if not days beforehand. I ran a Thursday night show in the late '80s that ran from 3am till 6am and absolutely loved it. At that hour of the evening I could get as peculiar as I wanted in my choice of music, and if anyone called in they were usually drunk or entertaining or both.

I would have to say my proudest show was a memorial for Snakefinger. I was running from the control booth to the stacks (at that time way down the hall) and back frantically trying not to miss a segue. I pulled off a solid three hours of obscure music from his various efforts both as a solo performer and with The Residents bookended by all the trivia about him I already knew (and more that I swiped from the liner notes). It was manic, and crazy and born of an inspiration that his death from another DJ.

Q7 Neil: During your DJ days, have you had any weird or crazy callers. Did you ever put them on the air? How about guests?

A7 George: I had guests frequently. Mostly other DJs stopping by after the bars had closed, but sometimes local musicians would come by at random. I did get some pretty funny calls over the three years I did the show. Women asking me out, people so drunk they could hardly speak, and a few bizarre late night philosophers. On a few occasions I put people on the air, particularly if they were sharing some trivia about the artist playing. I had to stop doing that though after one guy dropped an F bomb on tha air. No digital delay back in 1988.

Q8 Neil: Tell me about the Radio2020 blog and what your mission is.

A8 George: The blog is one facet of a campaign to reawaken people to radio. I know that you and I are of similar mindset when it comes to this issue, but there are those who are not. It is not that radio's importance has diminished, rather it is the ubiquity of radio that has led people to take it for granted. I got lucky, when this contract came our way my boss knew of my passion for the medium and dropped it on my desk. There is a huge future for the medium, and that is inclusive of efforts like your own as well as other undreamed of permutations. Broadcast radio is important. In Africa they are using it to educate farmers on better growing techniques. This is something that computer driven media could not do, but for nations lacking literacy but based on oral tradition it is the perfect delivery mechanism. In New Orleans when we returned it was radio that kept us up to date on the little things, like where the water was safe to drink. All over the world are musicians whose careers were built off of the free air play they received at stations all over the nation. The love affair is not over. It's just in need of a "date night."

Q9 Neil: I'm sorry to have to ask this boilerplate question, but if there was a theme song or music for the Radio2020 blog, what would it be?

A9 George: Understand I am speaking only for myself here (as I have been throughout this interview), but I would have to fall back to the early days of Freddy Mercury and Queen: "We Will Rock You."

Q10 Neil: What does the future of radio look like to you?

A10 George: It looks like a string of adjectives: turbulent, exhilarating, innovative, growing, singing, dancing, toe-taping, and lasting!

Thanks lot for having me on, Neil. If you're ever in New Orleans the
first drink is on me. -George "Loki"Williams

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Interview with Matt Gunter from All Comedy RadioNET

For those of you who don't know, TUN3R (all two of us), is based out of Toronto, and Toronto is a serious comedy town. This is an underappreciated fact (and something the Toronto tourism board has woefully under-marketed), but if you come here to visit, be sure to check out The Laugh Resort, Yuk Yuks, and Second City - all of which are a 5-10 minute walk from each other downtown.

I myself have always had a love of comedy, and radio-wise one of my favourite shows growing up was the Sunday Funnies on CHUM-FM (which sadly no longer plays on this station). This was my introduction to stand-up comedy, and what introduced me to such greats as Richard Pryor, Rodney Dangerfield, Bill Cosby, Steven Wright, and Jerry Seinfeld.

I routinely attended the local clubs (mainly the uptown Yuk Yuks), and always had a great admiration for the comic. There is something so incredibly raw and egalitarian about this form of live performance that I just love. The vernacular says it all "kill on stage" or "die on stage". I was even inspired by a friend [Jon Ezer who did a lot of stand-up himself], to prepare my own routine for amateur night (there were some horrible jokes about a threesome between The Mighty Hercules, Helena, and Newton, which I won't get into here). I also spent enough time seeing amateur comics failing to realize just how damn hard of a profession stand-up is. But like I said before, there's an honesty to the audiences reaction that can be addictive.

I could go on and on about some of the greats I've seen (like Billy Connolly's 3 hour unrehearsed act at Massey Hall, or the first time I saw Mitch Hedberg live on the Mike Bullard Show, or the weird club I went to in Joburg South Africa), but these days I'm out of the loop, and I want to catch up with Matt Gunter - the man behind "Comedy & Talk RadioNET" (a.k.a. Comedy104) - one of the Internet's best comedy radio stations.

Q1 Neil: Matt - thanks for indulging me on this one. I'm going start this interview on a more serious note. Every now and then I'll see a heckler who gets offended, and tries to take the club down with him. Are you ever worried that a listener might get offended and take it out on your station - or worse, threaten a Fatwah or something like that? Have you had any complaints?

A1 Matt: Glad to be here :) Hate mail is one of the frequent types that I get. Some hate the old comedy like Bill Cosby or Lily Tomlin, others love it (although people never complain about the new stuff for the most part). I'm always fine-tuning the mix so that things stay "fresh".

Q2 Neil: Is there a particular focus for your station. I've heard a lot of contemporary material. Do you play older stuff like Woody Allen's stand-up, or Lenny Bruce?

A2 Matt: Whatever I can get my hands on, there's no such thing as "bad" material. The biggest obstacle for me is many older comedy albums have never found their way to CD. I am always looking for new stuff and the listeners even send me some, in addition to the unsigned comics that e-mail me as well. Right now my format focuses on playing more new material with older stuff mixed in (sort of how a Top40 station will play mostly newer music).

Q3 Neil: How about sketch comedy (like Monty Python or The Frantics), do you play any of that stuff?

A3 Matt: I really enjoy the Frantics' "Boot to the head" but that is the extent of that. Problem with some of that type of humor is there are a lot of visual jokes that wouldn't be understood over the radio.

Q4 Neil: What original material do you have on the station?

A4 Matt: Not as much as I'd like to have. I just assumed everyone sends their CDs to my competitor :) I've been running promos lately to get more sent to me. To date the only original material I've been sent is from the Reverend Tim McIntire out of Boston. I had an idea for visiting comedy clubs and broadcasting live but that's still in development, many people are skittish about live broadcasts.

Q5 Neil: I'm so out of the loop these days. Apparently Dane Cook is where it's at, but I have to wonder if there are more risque guys out there than him? Who do you see as being on the cutting edge of stand-up these days? Can you describe what sets them apart?

A5 Matt: I think the popularity of the "Blue Collar" style comedy from Jeff, Bill, Larry and Ron has made some comics rethink how far they want to go, seeing as how a clean comedy tour made big bucks selling out large venues. However, on the other scale, if you are interested in dirty Blue Collar comedy I would suggest Rodney Carrington who is hilarious! He might actually be one of the more cutting edge comics, its too bad his TV sitcom didn't work out, having to tone down his humor for a family show didn't work out too well.

Q6 Neil: You're based out of Topeka, Kansas. What is the local comedy scene like? Does anyone bother to make jokes about Dorothy or The Wizard of Oz, or is that always a big groaner?

A6 Matt: Yes I think they wore that one out :) Most of our comedy comes from the Kansas City area though there is a small club here with some traffic...

Q7 Neil: Have you done any stand-up or sketch comedy yourself, or is your background more in DJing?

A7 Matt: Although I think that I can identify what is good comedy and what is funny, people probably wouldn't find me all that hilarious (plus stage fright wouldn't help :). Our sister station (big sister) is Oldies104 It's the one that actually pays the bills because believe it or not the comedy station doesn't make any yet :( That's where I can be found occasionally on the air.

Q8 Neil: I subscribe to the notion that comedians are actually philosophers in disguise as entertainers. I've got two young kids, and every now and then when I'm at my breaking point I think of Bill Cosby saying "All children have brain damage!", which somehow calms me down. Are there any comedy bits that help you make sense out of this crazy world we live in?

A8 Matt: Bill Hicks is one that comes to mind, he brings up a lot of good points during his comedy bits: the meaning of life, religion, and drug legalization. Of course Carlin and the Cos and many other have their own hidden commentary but I think Hicks' is very profound.

Q9 Neil: Who are your all time favourite comics? Why do you like them?

A9 Matt: Oddly enough I like comedy that is very "blue", Dom Imus' early standup from the 70s is great alone with Rodney Carrington and Bill Hicks. People that are basically frank with you during their set, no hidden agenda, just laying it right there on the line.

Q10 Neil: I normally ask what the theme song for your station would be. Instead, is there a bit or joke that best exemplifies your station? Or is it a song?

A10 Matt: Wow, I don't know which one to pick :D I'd say though George Carlin's famous 7 words you can't say on TV would fit though!

Q11 Neil: What does the future Comedy & Talk RadioNET look like?

A11 Matt: As I write this we're in a transition (just a new name change) but at the request of a lot of listeners I'm changing the format to play fewer of the old comedy bits and hopefully add some more new material in the weeks to come. I'd like to someday be the one stop outlet for new and exciting comedy plus new acts and even that live broadcast I mentioned earlier.