When I was a little girl, I was more often than not hunched over a clunky radio with single-cassette recorder/player, index and middle fingers tensed over the black Play and red Record buttons just in case Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, or New Edition popped on. I could barely tie my shoes but that didn’t hamper my adeptness as a music pirate.
But, unlike NPR intern Emily White (who recently confessed that she owns more than 11,000 songs but has only bought 15 CDs in her 20-year life), I actually wanted to buy albums by my favorite artists. I ached to listen to them over and over without interruption. I longed to commit the artwork and liner notes to memory.
Unfortunately for me, my parents only listened to the radio in the car and thought there were far better things to spend money on than music. (That’s not to say they didn’t enjoy music, though. At the very least, my mom loved musicals and got me hooked on showtunes, as you’ll soon see.) So the next best thing I could do to satisfy my budding musical OCD was to tape my fixations onto an Al Stewart Year of the Cat cassette I had found on a walk home from school.
Radio was my best friend. Its many voices stood in for the friends I didn’t have. Its songs lifted my mood and temporarily transported me away from “here.” Radio continued to be my best friend even after my parents consented to buying me my first cassette on my 11th birthday. (The tape, incidentally, was not Rocket to Russia or Psychocandy or even Like a Virgin. It was—wait for it—the St. Elmo’s Fire soundtrack. What? I had just begun piano lessons and yearned to play like David Foster.)
When I started earning a whopping $2 a week in junior high, I could finally save up to buy the pre-recorded tapes I’d been coveting (my first purchase: the Jesus & Mary Chain’s Darklands). But, since these gems cost around $8 each, radio sustained me between acquisitions. Sometimes I’d fill 60- and 90-minute blank tapes with songs by single artists such as the Smiths, the Ramones, and the Alarm, peppered with DJ interludes, commercial clips, and station IDs. Other times I’d mix it up with an assortment of musical styles and band interviews. I wasn’t satisfied by just having a loose collection of songs, though, and borrowing friends’ tapes only worsened my itch.
Since Pandora, Last.fm, and Spotify were at least a decade in the future, I relied on radio to inform my future purchases. My junior high existence revolved around 91X, San Diego’s “cutting edge of rock.” But my world combusted when I stumbled upon the unexpected magic that was college radio.
I don’t recall exactly how it transpired, but during a Mozart sonata piano competition held at San Diego State University, I set foot into KCR. The station was perhaps three small rooms haphazardly adorned with album posters and band stickers. Marco Collins (now at KEXP in Seattle) manned the soundboard in a tie-dye shirt; he’d soon go on to host Sunday-night specialty shows “Listen to This” (which featured new releases that wouldn’t necessarily make heavy rotation) and “Loudspeaker” (local bands) at 91X. But since KCR was cable-only at the time, I couldn’t actually listen to it. I did, however, discover that, on the darkest and rainiest of nights, I could get KXLU (in Los Angeles, 130 miles away) and KCSB (in Santa Barbara, 220 miles away), albeit staticky and tinny and with constant fiddling of the radio antenna and knobs. They played bands I wouldn’t hear on commercial radio stations, no matter how cutting edge they thought they were: Fearless Iranians from Hell, Christian Death, Diamanda Galas.
Unsurprisingly, one of the first things I did when I arrived at UC Berkeley for college was volunteer at KALX. Seven months later, they dared let me be on the air. Almost two decades on and I’m still at it, which means I have about 15 years’ worth of paper playlists. The thought is pretty overwhelming. I mean, for me they’re not just lists of songs, just like my radio mixtapes weren’t just a jumble of tunes anyone could’ve assembled. Each one’s like a diary entry, with cryptic notes and a flurry of inconsistent, sometimes pretentious handwriting. The song choices, especially in the first ten years, reflected who I was, who I thought I was, and who I thought I was going to be. But for everyone else, they’re just sets of songs that may humor, jar, inspire, appall.
In any case, here’s my very first KALX radio show and its cringe-inducing segues (hi, Muppets into Fuzzbox? Beastie Boys into Jesus & Mary Chain? Mary Poppins into Operation Ivy?). It’d probably be easy enough to gather all the songs together digitally and organize them thusly, but you’d be a braver soul than I to listen to this mess.
03/20/93: SATURDAY 9-11am (first show)
JAWBREAKER – With or Without U
CHIPMUNKS – Whip It
FUN BUG – Plimsoles
PETULA CLARK – Downtown
* AZALIA SNAIL – St. Nowhere
SPACEMEN 3 – Ecstasy Symphony/Transparent Radiation
PETER, PAUL & MARY – Puff the Magic Dragon
MUPPET MOVIE soundtrack – Rainbow Connection
FUZZBOX – Rules and Regulations
* ST. ETIENNE – You’re in a Bad Way
BEASTIE BOYS – New Style
JESUS & MARY CHAIN – Some Candy Talking
TEAR GARDEN – Great Lie
THIS MORTAL COIL – Mr. Somewhere
PHILIP GLASS – Land of the Dead
BUZZOVEN – Hate Box
GAY PUREE soundtrack – Paris Is a Lonely Town
MARY POPPINS soundtrack – Let’s Go Fly a Kite
OPERATION IVY – Plea for Peace
CRIMPSHRINE – Situation
VELVET UNDERGROUND – After Hours (live)
$ THE SLITS – Typical Girls (live in Cincinnati)
X-RAY SPEX – Warrior in Woolworth’s
* POSTER CHILDREN – Shotguns and Pickups
J-CHURCH – Kathi
SUB SOCIETY – Isolator
CANDLE – Silver
CRINGER – Corrupt
SOUND OF MUSIC soundtrack – 16 Going on 17
*$ THERAPY? – Teethgrinder
BOW WOW WOW – Do You Wanna Hold Me?
BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S soundtrack – Moon River Cha Cha
* = feature play
$ = request