[Landline] Last Night a DJ Enriched My Life
An email bulletin by Jay Babcock
“LANDLINE” — AN EMAIL BULLETIN BY JAY BABCOCK
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 17, 2021
What’s up buttercups,
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1. LAST NIGHT A DJ ENRICHED MY LIFE
It seems like last night but it was actually…1989? 1990? It was my first or second year as an undergrad at UCLA. I was finally able to tune into Santa Monica public radio station KCRW for a program I’d been hearing about for years: the legendary “Snap!,” a weeknight show hosted by an ebullient daredevil DJ named Deirdre O’Donoghue. Deirdre closed so many gaps: she played the new music you read about in the NME or Melody Maker newspapers but couldn’t afford to buy on import; she championed local acts who got no play on the local commercial radio stations; and, best of all, she did on-air, at-length interviews with thoughtful musicians. And sometimes there were live in-studio performances. I have distinct memories of life-enriching conversations Deirdre conducted with David Thomas of the reformed Pere Ubu… Robert Fripp of King Crimson, then in his League of Crafty Guitarists mode… Tom Waits… Robyn Hitchcock… R.E.M…. Nick Cave (I think?)…and, of course, Julian Cope. And so many others. All of these artists are now canonized, but at the time they were each in daring second acts, making music that had no hope of being broadcast. To hear both this music — and live interviews—for free, on a radio station with a powerful local signal, at a sane hour of the evening, with a wide community of listeners? For this young curious impressionable listener: bliss and education. I loved half of what she played, loathed the other half; sometimes her on-air enthusiasm—open astonishment, really—was a bit much. But I always wanted to know what she’d play next, and I always respected her choices.
Snap went off the air abruptly in June 1991 amidst rancor with old-brained station management. Deirdre died unexpectedly in January 2001, at age 54. (Read this moving, accurate obituary from Robert Lloyd.) I’ve always wondered what happened to this passionate purist— who was she, where did she came from, how did she pull off all she did in those KCRW years. And I’ve always wondered if the rumors were true — that she had carefully recorded all her shows, and that the archive was being digitally preserved and would eventually be made available.
Well, good news. Great news! WONDERFUL news! The Snap! archive of complete interviews and performances is being rolled out now, in tandem with the weekly unfolding of Bent by Nature, a lovingly crafted ten-part podcast series that’s part oral history of Deirdre and Snap!, part bittersweet tribute to her and a consideration of her work’s impact on artists, listeners and the larger culture, and inevitably, part lament for what we lost when she was taken off the air. Deirdre was as close as we came to having our own John Peel. She was the big sister most of us never had, the one who’d make you tapes from her ridiculously deep, varied and up-to-date record collection. In the end, Deirdre just wanted to turn us all on. No small thing, that. I’m glad to hear her voice again.
2. AMERICAN COMMUNITY RADIO, DO BETTER!
When the FCC killed the ‘90s FM pirate radio movement, it promised to meet the local cultural need addressed by these pirate stations (well, at least some of them) by granting low-power FM broadcasting licenses to community organizations. It’s 2021. Is this system working out anywhere? It must be, but geez, when I get reports like the following from a distraught community radio deejay —
“The quality of music at XXXX is dropping off considerably - Madonna! Justin Timberlake! Tim McGraw! BTS!!!! BTS is literally the biggest pop act in the world, they do deals with McDonalds, there's no rational reason to play BTS on a community radio station!”
— I gotta wonder. Is this happening at other licensed “community” radio stations around the country? Comment below —
— or email me privately.
3. RADIO INSCRUTABLE
I’m not exactly certain but it sure seems like it’s the Sun City Girls/Sublime Frequencies crew-at-large who are behind “Radio Is a Foreign Country,” an internet radio service livestreaming the best variety of non-English-language music you’ve never heard, without interruption or explanation. Fantastic! I’m a bit hazy on how RIFC works—I only discovered it yesterday (!?!)—and am trying to catch up now. Their website’s mission statement says:
RADIO IS A FOREIGN COUNTRY is a registered 501(C)3 not-for-profit radio platform and mixtape series featuring cut-ups of international radio broadcasts (AM, FM & shortwave), field recordings, ethnographic film, vintage records, and cassette tapes with a focus on obscure regional ceremonial, folk and pop music from the global hinterlands. Our mission is to explore forgotten and new ways of making radio, and to facilitate greater access and exposure to sounds and music not sufficiently documented by industrial music curation.
Amen thirty-three and a third times to that! If we’re not going to have safe live performances—and significant international travel gets further restricted—and conventional USA radio continues to be vapid and parochial (with important exceptions of course)— then the deep disruption, disorientation and inspiration of truly foreign culture is only gonna get to us through inventive methods like this. Bless RFTC. I trust these people with all my ears.
Towards richer community for all,