Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Eulogy For A Living Thing

As I write this, KTRU-FM - 91.7 FM, Houston, Texas, USA - is 70 minutes away from going off the airwaves, after 40 years online.

I DJ'd at KTRU regularly from 1992 to 1995, and then intermittently afterwards until I moved from Houston in 1998. It was the student radio station at Rice University, and in a peculiar twist of fate, it had one of the most powerful transmitters around - 50,000 watts - despite not having a broadcasting school. (Basically, it was toddling along at 600 watts, until a neighboring frequency wanted to up to 50,000 watts; in order not to drown KTRU off the air, they were required to up KTRU to 50,000 as well.)

The "not having a broadcasting school" meant that nobody, absolutely nobody, volunteered at KTRU for anything resembling professional reasons. It instead attracted a group of people who were in love with the spirit of the station - a freeform, eclectic, unprofessional mess of noise and beauty, where smooth segues were rarer than the sound of a record being played at the wrong speed for 20 seconds, and the most common word uttered by DJs, by far, was "um".

What the 50,000 watts meant was something else entirely.

One example: in 1992, for some kids at the edge of Houston, it meant a lifeline. In the post-Pandora era, the idea that a radio station would be literally the only way you could hear a band that you were curious about is as quaint as a rotary phone, but it was true and it was real and I took the calls to prove it. Many of those listeners later became students at Rice, solely because they wanted to DJ there.

Another example: radio stations get given free music in proportion to their strength, because college music charts weight things on the basis of how many listeners. And as such, KTRU was in a prime position to build an amazing collection of music from virtually all the significant labels at the time, and share them with people and ourselves.

Another another example: One night, some of us drove to Austin for South By Southwest, back when a "big show" at SXSW meant Helmet or Cracker. I remember getting in the car at the end of the night, and through some magic, we received KTRU quite clearly, three hours away, driving home in the wee hours and feeling somehow the world was big and small and magical all at once.

There were the interviews we were able to get. I talked to G. Love, Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, Sooyoung Park of Seam, Trenchmouth ... I'm sure I'm forgetting lots.

I'm just going to free associate for a bit here, so bear with me. (Or don't. It's a free country.) Here are some things I got from KTRU.

- Lifetime friends. I recently got back from Japan, where I saw fellow DJ Trent, who lives there. I got an email this morning from a DJ who is coming to visit New Zealand in December. I'm catching up with another DJ in June in Australia. These are three examples; I could go on and on. I'm being semi-deliberately vague here, but I have no qualms about saying the bonds I made via KTRU were by far my strongest during my university years and have been the most enduring in the years since.

- New Zealand. I had never really thought one way or another about New Zealand until coming to KTRU, and it was hearing artists like Alastair Galbraith and This Kind of Punishment and compilations like KILLING CAPITALISM WITH KINDNESS and MAKING LOSERS HAPPY that woke me up to the place. It seemed interesting, and led to my first visit in 1997, which in turn led to me moving here in 2004.

- My career. It was through a fellow DJ that I did my very first editing project - Spike of Astrogenic Hallucinauting, who I met through the station (we had back-to-back shifts) decided he wanted a video for every song on his album, and so I decided to give it a go, not knowing the first thing about anything. Now, it's what I do for a living, and without that experience, I don't know if it would have occurred to me to give it a try.

- Confidence. One of the wonderful things about KTRU is you can fail, and it doesn't really matter, other than being slightly embarrassed. You play things at the wrong speed, you stumble and say stupid things on the air, and it's radio, and you move on, and it's forgotten, there's a next week. I was a pretty shy guy at the time, and 3 1/2 years of talking on the air certainly helped get me over that.

- Bands. My first band, Dyn@mutt, was with fellow DJs. As was my second, Ultra Hummus. I also did a stint in Buddha on the Moon (and its short-lived alter-ego, Sailplane), again a KTRU connection.

But then, there's something more. KTRU is where my somewhat vague passion for music turned into a set of tastes that I feel comfortable calling my musical DNA. It opened my ears. In the last hour or two of listening I've heard Husker Du, Beirut, The Mountain Goats, Talking Heads, Old 97's, Mission of Burma, Yo La Tengo, Dinosaur jr, Otis Redding, Roky Erickson & the 13th Floor Elevators, Johnny Cash: this is what I mean. And more. There's a long psych track playing right now that's fucking gorgeous and I have no idea what it is. But it fits the mold, and even if I'm less likely to listen to, say, Japanese noise bands than I used to, I still feel at home with this kind of music.

Because, I really think, music says a lot about who we are. There's so many things in life we can't choose. We can't choose who our parents were, or where we grew up, or where we went to school, or how much money our parents made, or who we grow up next to, and these things shape us for life. But music is one of the first things we can choose, and that choice in turn shapes us. I can't talk to much about it without getting incoherent, but I can say this: when I hear a song I love, or see a band I love, there are few things in the world that make me feel more alive, more happy, more connected to the world.

Ultimately, I believe that quite a lot of who I am as a human being was shaped by my time at KTRU. It could have happened elsewhere, but it didn't. It's part of my blood, my neurological programming, my heart. And my first act every time I visit Houston is to turn on KTRU.

Well, until now.

For those of you that don't know, the reason that KTRU is going off the air is that Rice University, without consultation with the students, decided to sell the frequency and transmitter under the veil of secrecy.

Whether this was a wise decision, and whether radio has a future, is beside the point. The student organization may well have reached the decision in the not-too-distant future that its place was no longer on the standard broadcast frequency, and that would have been its choice to make. But the university decided otherwise.

And that is why I say, in no uncertain terms, that Rice University is dead to me, and will never get a cent of my money, or even the faintest endorsement, and if you have come here through a random Googling and are a prospective student, let me make it absolutely crystal clear that this school has no interest in you as a human being and you should attend somewhere that does.

But then, there's the station. The station will continue broadcasting at 90.1 HD-2, for the dozens with HD radios. And you can stream it on the Internet. And hopefully it will keep alive.

KTRU, in eighteen minutes now, is dead. Long live KTRU.

My sincere and heartfelt gratitude to the students, fellow alumni, and other parties who have spent the last eight months fighting for the future of the station. You have done amazing work, and I hope the silver lining to this particularly ghastly cloud is that the bonds that have been formed through this fighting last a lifetime.

Outgoing station manager Joey Yang dedicated this song to the alumni, who requested it, and it's both perfect and appropriate. Thanks, Joey.