|American radio is so completely
inculcated in commercial music industry rhetoric -- statistics, playlists,
market shares, charts -- that it's almost impossible to believe that there
are any truly "alternative" airwaves being stirred, even in the non-commercial
zone of the spectrum. Radio is treated as a delivery system that dutifully
"presents" music, which is presumed to be the actual art form. But "alternative"
radio doesn't necessarily just mean radio that plays "alternative" rock;
"alternative" radio can be different in attitude, philosophy, methodology
and basic kernel of existence. Imagine a way of treating the medium as
more than a mode of distribution, but as a full-fledged artistic medium
with its own set of inherent structural, compositional, aesthetic, legal,
and political issues. Creative radio production starts here.
"The implications of defunding are obvious," says Helen Thorington, curator of New American Radio (NAR), an organization that treats radio as just that sort of creative medium. The decade-old radio series, which has commissioned and purchased a huge number of works -- ranging in orientation from pur experimental sound and spoken word to new narrative and dramatic strategies, documentary and pieces exploring the subversion of media conventions -- faces imminent peril in Newt Gingrich's vision of America. "There will be a diminished number of commissions for artists. If it continues, series like New American Radio will simply cease to exist."
The future is bleak for the public support of creative radio. Predictions vary, but what seems certain is that when the rug is pulled out, the marginal programming will be the first to go. This means that long-term experimental or creative programs will be housecleaned out of existence. "Jacki Apple has had Soundings on KPFK, Los Angeles, for years," says Thorington. "She's living proof that an audience can be developed for this work. But everybody's feeling the question in the air: "Who's going to be purged as a result of the Republican effort to get rid of public radio?"
Syndicated on between 40 and 60 stations weekly, NAR began in 1985 with a $15,000 grant from the (likely to be eliminated) National Endowment for the Arts. In 1987, it produced a series of 13 programs with assistance from the (now extinct) satellite program development fund administered by NPR. "We were picking up on the desire of artists in that period to move from the limited venue of the museum into public spaces," explains Thorington. By what she calls "sheer accident," NAR was funded in 1988 by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's new Radio Fund, which allowed it to become a weekly series.
"The irony is that at almost the same moment . . . audience research began to flex its muscle in public broadcasting, and we were put head-to-head with more traditional radio in audience research tests." Faced with NAR's challenging programming, test audiences scrambled for the security of recognizable shows. One wonders how, if the assumption is that an audience already knows what it wants, anything ever changes? And why audiences should be applauded for being afraid of anything new or different. That's what is so significant about shows like Jacki Apple's. They prove that an initially wary audience may actually grow more daring over time. Perhaps conservatism wears off. (Since the withdrawal of CPB's Radio Fund money, NAR has been sustained by grants from the Rockefeller and Jerome Foundations and other art-supporting organizations.)
Each program is different, so the audience can't expect to hear the same thing or even the same type of thing week in and week out. NAR's emphasis on diversity is evident in the range of artists who have produced for them: Charles Amirkhanian, Shelly Hirsch, David Moss, Earwax Productions, Don Joyce and Negativland, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Gregory Whitehead, Sheila Davies, William Morelock, Terry Allen, Donald Swearingen and many others (including THorington herself.). Some of the series' finest programs are available on two CDs, Radius #1 and Radius #2 (What Next? Recordings).
Will jackboots crush this small but significant bug in the radio industry into oblivion? Will those dedicated, growing audiences interested in unusual, risky programming that engages their imaginations have that nascent interest nipped in the bud? Stay tuned.