Going Over the Edge
Radio is a form of technological high magic. There is something inherent about the radio medium itself that by way of its magic stimulates the imagination; whether it’s a bit of long distance DX captured on the ham bands, tuning in to a remote shortwave station via another remote web SDR, a weekly net on 2 meters, or a broadcast transmission on a community FM station doesn’t matter. All these different ways of using radio share in the mystery.
For broadcast radio itself, it is a literal theater of the imagination. Voices, sounds, and music edited together in a pleasing or thought provoking way have transport the listener to a region accessible no other way. Thinking of all the possibilities radio has it is a real shame that broadcasting in its commercial aspect long ago fell into such a well-worn, predictable and boring rut. The songs heard on the air when tuning across the dial have been played so many times there are almost no grooves left on the records. Talk radio is also not exempt. No matter what a person’s political persuasion may be, pundits on both sides of the aisle trot out the same plodding talking points time and again, no matter the issue at hand. It often makes me wonder what the heck the point of all the uninspired and placid propaganda blasted across the spectrum actually is; maybe it’s just a form of anti-thought to occupy the minds of hungry commuters and consumers.
Broadcast radio can be so much more than what it has become. And to be fair, there is a lot out there in the ether that breaks the mold and stranglehold put on the medium by commercial interests and market forces. To find these programs, you have to dig them out of the mud, and tune around to alternate frequencies. You have to search out the community stations, the low-power stations, and even the pirate stations, namely those stations not beholden to mammon, to find programs that are willing to break the self-inflicted format categories typical of commercial radio and take you over the edge into territories that have remained largely unexplored on the air.
These outlier shows are able to take risks that move the form forward without fear of reprisal. No one is paying them to be taste shapers by playing particular songs and they have no one to offend when exercising their freedom of speech because there are no image sensitive sponsors paying the bills at these stations. The next several articles in the Rad Lab will be concerned with the arts of transmission and the way innovators in broadcast radio have advanced the medium to show what it is really capable of moving beyond the narrow bandwidth imposed by advertising.
OVER THE EDGE
One such show holds the record for being the longest running block of free-form audio collage in the history of radio. The show is Over the Edge (OTE) on KPFA in Berkely, California. It was hosted by Don Joyce, a member of the experimental group Negativland, from 1981 until his death in 2015. The radio show and the band had close ties and there was a lot of overlap between the show, and the band, with many of the members frequently participating in the program making it hard to talk about the show without delving into the band.
Negativland started in 1979 and though Joyce was a full performer and credited member he started OTE before he had met or been asked to join the band. The group was not the show and the show was not the group. It was however a match made in Contra Costa County due to the passion the original line-up had for found sound, collage and experimental music. Joyce’s own enthusiasm in those areas made the fusion of Joyce with Negativland a force multiplier for their many activities and gave them regular access to the very media they sought to rearrange.
Since its beginning in 1981 OTE and Don Joyce stood far from the maddening crowd. It was a time when TV had killed the radio star. The glass teat had reached a point of ascendancy as the main cultural medium and influencer. Cable TV upended this even further and soon MTV positioned itself as the primary pusher of music and youth culture.
It didn’t stop Don Joyce however (his initials are DJ after all). Though trained as a painter with a Masters degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, he loved the radio medium, from old time radio to offshore pirates. His favorite radio show was Bob and Ray and he was also inspired and influenced by the work Firesign Theater. Out of this love he was able to create such a large body of work that other radio producers, DJs and programmers, have long been left in the dust. Many can only hope to catch up with his prowess and acumen.
Over the Edge is a live mix of collaged audio material sourced from all across recorded media: records, tapes, and CDs and not just music but audiobooks, lectures, self-help cassettes, recordings of other radio shows, sound bites from film and TV, homemade recordings and everything and anything else imaginable. Alongside these Don Joyce and Negativland made many specially prepared recordings for the program, wrote scripts and performed skits on the air.
It could have all been just a mess of noise if not for the guiding hands of Don Joyce at the helm. Each week to guide the course of the three-to-five hour over-night show Don would have a theme. The audio samples were all related to and congealed and coalesced around the subject matter. This sometimes makes listening to an episode of the show like attending a lecture with many alternating viewpoints approaching the same subject from different angles. The source material itself was edited and mixed in such a way that it often sounded as if it was commenting on the other source material in the mix.
Alongside the themes Don would play a variety of different characters as hosts of the show with many Negativland members also playing or being recurring characters. Part of this aspect came from the strong influence of Bob and Ray and Firesign Theater. These included cultural critic and director of stylistic premonitions Crosley Bendix, Dr. Oslo Norway, the media and radio historian Izzy Isn’t, and the tycoon founder of the Universal Media Netweb C. Elliot Friday. Other characters played by other Negativland members included the used car salesman Dick Goodbody, Dick Vaughn, a fan of underappreciated 1970’s music, the Weatherman and the Clorox Cowboy, among a slew of others.
Here is how Don described the show himself. "OTE's weekly themed mixes are made live and spontaneously on the air from a variety of formats and equipment used to do live sound cut ups and collage while mixing, including the frequent use of the now long dead analog technology of radio broadcast cart machines. On each themed episode of OTE there is a plan and there is no plan. Existing within the parallel universe of the Universal Media Netweb, the OTE mix consists of found sounds of many kinds from many sources put together on the run as the continuous audio collage progresses, along with live electronics (often from our Boopers [a homemade sound device built by the Weatherman from repurposed transitor radios and oscillators, ed.]), live sound processing, and all sorts of reccuring themes, topics and characters. Some of the shows involve all of Negativland, while some involve others outside of our group who participate semi-regularly. Beyond those, there are regular solo show broadcasts by Negativland member Don Joyce, who is the FCC license holder and responsible for filling the radio slot each week. All in all, if you like Negativland, you will like these shows, no matter who is involved, as they all maintain a ‘Negativ’ touch based on our live mixing techniques. OTE often employs ‘Receptacle Programming,’ which means you. Phone callers are punched into our mix with no warning. Call 510-848-4425 to deposit your programming. When your phone stops ringing, you’re on the air. Don’t say 'hello'."
The receptacle aspect of the show added to the interest level of the listeners and made it a participatory program. Regular listeners became regular participants helping to co-create the show. They called in to and play their own samples and music into the receptacle of the radio. This level of audience participation in radio had never been done in quite that way on the air anywhere else. The phone calls into the studio gave the show an element that was unpredictable even to Don. With multiple lines coming in several callers could be on the air together at once. Don would add echo effects to their voices and otherwise mess with their sound, panning some to left and others to the right. If he didn’t like what a caller was adding to the mix he just hung up on them. This aspect of the show created a real sense of community around OTE.
In some ways the receptacle radio aspect was like a weekly ham radio net, albeit with different FCC regulations and a totally different feel, but similar in that it was a group of people communicating over the air, just using phones. In that respect it was also similar to the chat rooms or party lines phone phreaks used to hang out and talk to each other on, yet different. Being in Berkeley, it should come as no surprise that it took on some of the character of the California counterculture as well as some of the character of the kind of people who stayed up real late at night to listen to free form radio. One word characterizes this motley crew radio freaks: creativity.
All of this might sound just a tad chaotic, and it was. Yet students of chaos theory have long known that there is an underlying pattern, a blueprint of order within what might otherwise appear to be random. The untrained ear may hear the swirling debris and detritus culled and recycled from the mediasphere as unconnected, but careful listening reveals a constellation carefully stitched together across the duration of the broadcast. Perceiving this pattern requires a kind of relaxed concentration. The reward for engaging with OTE at this level goes beyond its inherent entertainment value and into the realm of an education on whatever theme or topic Don Joyce had picked for the particular episode. He was the conductor and directed the flow and course of the mix, all the while allowing others to interact with it by dialing into the receptacle.
Don Joyce was a master of the combinatorial art. He had a unique talent for teasing out permutations from a wide variety of sources, arriving at an eventual synthesis and amalgamation. His canvas was the radio and his vast pallet was a gargantuan library of all the media he collected over his life. On OTE he showed again and again that all media concepts are nothing but combinations of a relatively small number of simple sound bites, just as words are combinations of letters. He was able to express both truth and absurdity, and the absurdity in truth, via the appropriate recombination of sounds and words, which he in turn decomposed into strange ideas and new ways of thinking by their unusual juxtapositions. Through the use of artistic intuition his combinations exposed hidden logics.
Some of the themes he tackled over the years spanned more than one show and included long series of shows on How Radio Was Done (a history of broadcasting from its first days into the 90’s), How Radio Isn’t Done (all the things we could do but mostly don’t), UFOs, the Universe, All Art Radio, the Time Zones Exchange Project, Advertising Secrets, Music Is…, the Fake Bacon Breakfast Loop… and many, many others.
Don Joyce lived a simplified life. He had a minimal income and spent his time creating a free radio show that was on a non-commercial station for which he did not get paid in financial dividends. The band Negativland had never been something that earned a lot of money either. Both were labors of love and gave back other rewards.
Joyce died of heart failure in Oakland, California on July 22, 2015 at the age of 71. He was cremated, and the band packaged two grams of his remains with the first 1000 CD copies of Negativland's 2016 album The Cutting Edge Vol. 9: The Chopping Channel. 750 of his O.T.E. and live show Fidelipac audio carts were also sent along with those ashes. Don's remains became a viral story on the internet. It was the way he would have wanted to be remembered.
Don Joyce left behind 941 three-to-five-hour-long episodes of OTE from his own personal air checks. That's over 3200 hours of live radio he recorded. Some of the early shows of OTE are still missing, but exist out there somewhere, in the memory of the eternal ether. The Internet Archive has graciously hosted all of the extant recordings of the program. These are available to listen to here: https://archive.org/details/ote
And even though Don is gone Over The Edge and Receptacle Programming continues to exist, evolve, and is still broadcasting each week on KPFA FM. Musician and latter day Negativland member Wobbly (John Leidecker) took over the reign of the program after Don’s death. Wobbly had been a frequent guest and participant on so many OTE shows it was a natural fit. OTE lives on in a new era.
At the end of each show Don would play a sample of a woman reading a quote attributed to surrealist artist Man Ray, "To create is divine. To reproduce is human." The quote sums up Joyce’s approach to making radio art. He reproduced, retouched, reexamined, retransmitted the mass produced material our media saturated society threw by the wayside. It may not have been divine, but in doing so he touched and humored our humanity.
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.