The Board

Radio days.

The WALF mixing board before 1993, now in the possession of a private collector.

When I started as a DJ at WALF, at Alfred University, the radio station was in a decrepit castle at the top of the campus, covered in graffiti and band posters. Meat Beat Manifesto, Jonathan Richman. Later, the campus decided to become a mall, and the station was moved into the new, polished campus center. A freshman, my show was between 2AM and 4AM.

Ian, Steve, & were each friends, and each of had our own show. All three of us used the same approach: mix as many different sources as possible, at once. Techno and spoken word, samples galore. A lot of effort was spent creating posters for these shows and posting them by the cafeterias. We also promoted them on the amber-screened digital bulletin board, called NOTES, which ran on the VAX terminals scattered around campus. My first show was called "Pappy's Love In," and Steve's was "Arise, Futons," or maybe that was "The Stealth Hairweave." I don't know if Ian named his shows. So once a week, I went up to the castle in the evenings with a pack of albums, cassettes, and things to read.

Someone sent me copies of these shows, archived in MP3 a few years ago, and while it is agony to hear my immature voice, just as it is to read old prose, the shows hold up as good efforts by a few 20 year olds trying to swim through their media environs, using old-fashioned tape players, reel-to-reels, and beautiful vinyl. My voice is higher, and I am full of myself, barely not a virgin, but I am full of energy. Innocent, I guess, although I still am innocent.

Ian was the best mixer, all these disparate sources swirling together. Steve manufactured non-sequitur, and made custom equipment, record players with two heads and suchlike. He once discovered two albums made by the same company, both educational discs about animals. They featured the exact same backing music, a slow disco brass arrangement, but the content was different: one was about fish, the other about horses. By cueing them at the same time and flipping the channels, someone would tune in and hear: “Horses have four hooves and swim upstream to mate. Their fins need to be brushed regularly. People own fish so that they can ride them and compete in horse races.”

So Ian was mixer, Steve the interpretive archivist, and I was the idiot. Sometimes we collaborated. One night I locked myself into the spare studio for an hour or so, and created a set of carts—maybe a dozen—containing me retelling fairy tales, but purely in nonsense syllables. You could then cut to those in the middle of anything else; just break a song in the middle and hear me repeat the story of the frog prince with ribbits and squeals. It was annoying to anyone listening, but sheer pleasure to me.

Another of my favorite things to do was parody NPR's All Things Considered, performing as a serious-sounding news reporter, coming to you from states like Ioho and countries like Uzbekya. These parodies were multi-tracked, complete with trumpet intro, impersonated by my mouth-trumpet and reverbed, and with translators for the non-English interviews by foreign correspondents. For some reason, I had a passion for mocking NPR. This was my first thought when an editor there got in touch to see if I'd be right for commentaries: but I used to make fun of you in college.




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


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