The beauty of radio is its off-switch. No matter what comes across the airwaves—no matter how annoying, absurd, or incongruous—you can always turn it off. The off-switch is a tool of empowerment for both broadcaster and listener. It allows the broadcaster to take chances; it allows the listener to opt-out.
Sitting alone in a studio broadcasting to 10,000 people, one must maintain the illusion that no one is listening.
You can never know exactly to whom you’re broadcasting, so it is useless trying to pander to an audience. At the same moment, one listener may be manacled at work while another may be manacled to a bedpost.
There are certain ruts and habits a DJ gets into. Automatic segues. One tends to repeat these again and again. The secret: the audience never notices.
Radio is background, not foreground. You are always doing something while listening—with one ear— to the radio. Nobody sits by the radio and just listens—with the exception of people driving. Along with artists, drivers are the best listeners. Artists’ hands and eyes are busy, but their ears are wide open. As a result, visual artists know more about music than anyone else on the planet.
When I first began broadcasting, I tried to make perfect segues from other people’s music. When I became good at that, presenting other people’s music became tedious. So I began to sing on the radio. I have a lousy voice. I would sing in front of generic karaoke tracks, enhancing my voice with the studio tools. Soon, I began putting on long instrumental tracks like John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” and singing Roland Barthes’ texts on top of them. I would do this sometimes for three hours at a time. Of course, it drove the listeners crazy.
Bertolt Brecht said, “I wish that they would graft an additional device onto the radio—one that would make it possible to record and archive for all time, everything that can be communicated by radio. Later generations would then have the chance of seeing with amazement how an entire population—by making it possible to say what they had to say to the whole world—simultaneously made it possible for the whole world to see that they had absolutely nothing to say.”
When I first got on the air at WFMU, the hippest radio station in the world, I took the on-air name, Kenny G, which is, in fact, my real name. It drove the listeners crazy at first, but over time, I became their Kenny G as opposed to the sax player.
When I first arrived at the station in 1995, I set up a primitive homepage that said “Welcome to Kenny G’s homepage” with a link to email me. It being the early days of the web, many people thought that they had found the “real” Kenny G’s secret homepage, made even more convincing by the fact that it was hosted by a radio station. I soon began getting fan mail intended for the sax-playing Kenny G, lots of it. I never wrote the fans back, fearing that word would get out that I was not him, and then the emails would stop. Each week, I would take the strangest, most obsessive letters and read them aloud on my show as if they were addressed to me. My bed music was always the Kenny G Christmas record.
One evening in an Italian restaurant in Chelsea, I got up to go to the bathroom. On the way, I overheard two traditionally dressed gentlemen mention the name “Kenny G.” Tispy as I was, I marched right up to the table and said, “Did I hear you say the name Kenny G? Well, I’m Kenny G!” They looked at me askance. I repeated my statement: “I’m Kenny G.” One of the gentlemen said, “Nice to meet you, but I’m Kenny G’s agent.” And it was true. This guy was the other Kenny G’s agent. I told him about my radio show and asked if it was possible for Kenny G to be on the Kenny G show. He smiled, said “Of course!” and I gave him my business card. We shook hands and he said he’d call me. I never heard from him again.
In 2003, I was on the radio Thursday evenings from 8-11pm. It just so happened that just as I went on the air on Thursday, March 20, 2003, the deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq had passed. For the next two hours, the country—and the world—was on edge, knowing that we were on the brink of war. It was just a matter of time until the invasion was to begin. I knew I couldn’t do a normal show, so instead, from 8 pm on, I only played eerie recordings of shortwave numbers stations, mostly created during the cold war, which were numbers repeated amidst bursts of feedback, static, and odd electronic sounds. At 10 pm, we invaded Iraq. I continued to play these numbers stations, but had my computer read out, in computer voice, short announcements like “The invasion has begun” and “We will destroy the enemy.” I never spoke—and so it went on for three hours, a creepy hazy ambience, which I thought was the only way to mark such an event.
The World Trade Center attacks happened right across the river from the WFMU studio. They occurred on a Tuesday, I went on the air that Thursday. During my shift, I played Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” in its entirety and Gorecki’s “Symphony No. 3: Sorrowful Songs.” I didn’t speak on the show.
I was on the air on the morning after Obama was elected, from 9 am to noon. I played Parliament’s 1976 five-minute long “Chocolate City” over and over again for an entire three hours without interruption.
Each week, I had three hours to kill. That’s the way I saw it. How to fill up three hours?
In 2007, J.K. Rowling released the seventh and final Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Prior to the book’s release the day I went on the air, someone had leaked a copy to the internet, enraging Scholastic Books, who threatened anybody distributing it with a heavy lawsuit. I printed out and sang in my horrible voice the very last chapter of the book on the air, thereby spoiling the finale of the series for anyone listening. During my show, the station received an angry call from Scholastic Books. It appears that their whole office was listening to WFMU that afternoon. Nothing ever came of it.
In the mid-90s, it was made illegal to distribute the DECSS code that was used to crack DVDs for replication. With this in mind, I read the entire code over the air and played songs that used the code as lyrics. I faked my arrest on air, leaving my shift a half-hour early, the air dead, the studio empty.
When I began doing radio, I was told by the station manager that my on-air voice was too smooth, too professional sounding. He suggested that I add some “ums” and “uhs” during my mic breaks to sound more like an average person.
On the air, not having anything to say, I began reading blogs that had nothing to do with me. For one show I’d read from blogs written by obese people trying desperately to lose weight. For another, I’d read from anorexic blogs written by skeletal people trying to gain weight. The following week, I’d read from depressive people trying to get happy. Because radio
is not a visual medium, people had no idea what I really looked like. And because I read so convincingly so as to sound like I was talking naturally, listeners thought I was, one week, wildly overweight or terribly emaciated. They had no idea that I was an average man, of average size and average weight.
Radio is best heard, not seen. Whenever you see an image of your favorite radio personality, you are inevitably disappointed.
One week, Gregory Whitehead came on my show and we had people call in and scream as loudly as they could for three hours.
My show was technologically determined. There was a time when, in the finder window, you could play several MP3s simultaneously, each with their own volume control and each able to be fast-forwarded and reversed. In essence, the computer’s finder became a mixer. But then Apple changed their OS and deleted that feature. When that happened, I was no longer able to do my show the way I used to.It lead to the end of my involvement in radio.
With Vicki Bennett, we did a show for three hours where we were bound and gagged to each other. We kept the mics on the entire time. Each half-hour, one rope was cut. The show started out silent. By the end, it was full on noise.
For three hours, I whispered the entirety of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto whilst dressed in an expensive suit.
For three hours, I played a tape of two men sleeping. The silence was punctured by snores.
For three hours I played the sounds of farts.
It is said that a baby’s cry is the most attention-getting sound in the human catalog of sounds. I once looped a piercing baby’s cry for an hour.
At first, listeners would call and complain. But after a decade or so, the complaints stopped. Those who didn’t wish to listen, left. The rest learned to either listen or else tolerate my weekly intrusion.
My show started off being called “Unpopular Music,” so you knew what you were getting into beforehand. If there were complaints, I would say, you were warned.
My idea was to get the listener to turn the radio off.
When you challenge someone not to listen, they listen harder.
My initial inspiration: the Mothers of Invention’s Absolutely Free, a collage which fused pop, noise, sound poetry, and classical music.
For a short time, the FCC allowed us to say swear words on air.
I seem to recall that you could say them ten minutes apart and that you were allowed to use them in a political way (“The government is fucked”) but not in a sexual way (“I want to fuck Laura Bush”). This lasted for a month or two and was then predictably rescinded.
My own work was informed by my years in radio. I learned how to speak publicly and consciously. I learned how to lie convincingly. I learned how the pitch and timbre of the voice can juice a situation.
For weeks, I would play the sources for my books on the air. For instance, for three weeks straight, I broadcast nothing but 1010 WINS traffic reports, which came to be my book Traffic. Then for the three weeks following that, I would read my transcripts of those traffic reports live on the air. That killed six weeks, 18 hours.
I did the same for weather reports and baseball games.
I had the idea to bring a radio into the studio and simply rebroadcast another station for three hours. I would just pull the mic down to the radio and walk away. I was told that this was highly illegal.
As long as you didn’t violate FCC codes, you could do anything you like for three hours. I always wondered why DJs would bother to play it safe when they were given all the freedom in the world. Why would they bother to pander to an audience, to be loved? (We weren’t paid, so it couldn’t have been about money or ratings.)
“Every once in a while,” said station manager Ken Freedman when fending off listener complaints about my show, “you’re just going to have to turn your radio off.”
Oftentimes I would back announce song titles for songs I didn’t play. Other times, I would back announce song titles from another DJ’s sets and shows for the entire three hours. Nobody seemed to notice.
I would transcribe my fellow DJ’s mic breaks and then read them as my own during my show. Nobody seemed to notice.
During a fundraiser once, I played musical sets from a popular rock ‘n’ roll DJ’s show and faithfully back announced them as my own. I didn’t raise any more money than I normally did.
In the end, each week on the air was three hours of performance art. I couldn’t keep that up forever.
I organized sets by keyword. Pick a topic, say, “dog,” and search an MP3 library containing hundreds of thousands of files for ID3 tags that had “dog” in it (which, naturally, had “god” in it). I’d come up with a beautiful freeform set, not based on how songs sound, but by what they’re about. The more MP3s on one’s hard drive, the more possibilities there are. Oftentimes, I never heard the song I was to play in the set, but because it had a keyword I was looking for, it conceptually worked.
iTunes allows you to sort songs according to their length. One week, I programmed three hours of audio that was all under thirty seconds long. The next week, I repeated the concept, this time with songs lasting exactly one minute.
When I ran out of ideas for a new show, I would just play one of my old shows in the public MP3 archive. Nobody ever knew the difference.
It was a delight to do back-to-back shows with Irwin Chusid—for years people have said that we are the same person because our voices are almost identical. Many weeks, we switched and pretended we were the other DJ. The listenership couldn’t tell the difference.
Why, in this age when everybody can download all the MP3s they want from the web, do we still listen to radio? Because we need someone to make sense of it all, someone with a sensibility to put it together for us, someone to narrate this mass of information.