Wednesday, March 24, 2010

KCRW's Music Library Tragedy

In the 90's when I was a dj at krazy-RW there was a weird thing happening which didn't get me all worked up because I was walking in a dream then. The politics at the place were such a sticky thicket that no one could see the forest for the trees, least of all me. So when the music library started overflowing, alarms didn't go off in my head (or anyone's, apparently). Here's the thing. That music library was a resource unlike any other I have seen in my life. Wall to wall music, a whole wall of world music, from every country and corner of the world. Himalayan bell choirs to French hip-hop. Then a wall of soundtracks. A Hallway of Jazz. A Classical Library. All stuffed into this ridiculously tiny space underground at Santa Monica College. And overstuffed. Teetering stepladders barely reaching the fourteen-foot ceilings, space-saving drawers, they did the best they could with the space, and another little nook was for the tabulating and quantifying of tunes, plastered with posters off to the side. But just not enough room. And not a priority to make more room for the ever-growing collection of phenomenal music that streamed in via special delivery from hopeful bands and promoters.

I'm sure CD did his best, but there was no convincing management to make expanding the library a priority then. And so music started to be given away. We got to pick our picks. Then, in a seizure of tragic insanity, they just started throwing the music out. Don't ask me who decided this--I only know it happened. There just wasn't enough room. And for years-----and years-----and years-----out went the music like a neverending tide, boxes and boxes and boxes and boxes, for years and years and years.

Here's the tragedy of that, OK. A music library unlike any other, a station renowned for pulling in cash from its wealthy Santa Monica surroundings, and the physical riches of the music library did not glow in the minds of management. If ever there was a reason KCRW knocked the socks off other radio stations in the world, it was the music.

It was nice to have the studios redone. Nice to be in shiny new studios, sure. But the old ones, despite being oiled with 20-year-old sweat and bedbugs, worked just fine. It sounded fine. We did not need new studios as desperately as we needed more room to store music. More physical space. But the new studios and the state-of-the art equipment were what happened. Regardless of the fact that the personnel and the unique resource of the place was the actual beating heart of the station. That which is not living has little value in the world of music, and those cds and records were like oil---life's energy compressed into coded form, bursting to life at the drop of the needle or laser. WE NEEDED TO KEEP THAT STUFF. But what to keep and what to throw away is not a distinction KCRW management has understood well over the years.

So, finally, a few years back, KCRW began to realize what a treasure it was sitting on. But the fact of the matter is that Ruth didn't much care about the music. She had her own picks that she promoted during pledge drives, and they were usually great. But I don't think she really ever listened to, or engaged herself in, the music aspect of the station. She just didn't seem all that interested. Will Lewis, on the other hand (you notice I'm naming names here, and I don't care anymore, someone should)was completely into all the station's programming. He would listen driving home after working a 16-hour day, and on the way to the Antelope Valley, he'd have the music on and turned up. He would compliment me on shows the following day, and I would go, "You were listening?" It's Will Lewis who pulled Chris's cassette tape out of a box of discards, when Chris sent in for the Morning Becomes Eclectic opening back in the early 90's. That was something Ruth told me herself. Why, I don't know, because she rarely told me anything. Will Lewis never took credit for anything, never was recognized, and kept a low profile. Now Ruth's retired and the woman who replaced her was basically her hatchet-woman. Because the music was cool, the hatchet-woman, who is hypersensitive to coolness, is supportive of the music, I think. But I don't know, because I mentally disconnected from the place sometime after 9/11. The world got weird then, and KCRW got weirder. In the years before I left I just drifted further and further from the political core of the place. I met Tim and my friends had all long since quit. The friends who hadn't quit became embittered and it was hard to talk to them because of the high resentment-level in the discourse there. There was too little oxygen in the basement, and too many things that were not as they seemed. Extreme stratification of power in a physically small and cramped space---which meant that there were too many conversations in hushed tones with darting eyes, too many lies, and too much energy into turf wars. As much as I miss the job I cringe when I think of the poisoned atmosphere and am amazed when people complain about the place I work now (because people will always complain) because this is a much, much nicer place to work.

The best way to be involved at krazy-RW is to do a show on the weekend, come in, bring your stuff, or come in late at night and turn the lights down low and crank the music and bring a roomful of friends. But even that was frowned on after a while. There was a great vibe for a while after hours, but then people got all wigged out about the idea of strange intruders (music people) coming in off the street. Some CD's went missing, but since it wasn't management throwing them out, that wasn't OK. So policies tightened and there was less spillover from the outside world into the studios. I remember when I was working on Chris's show (for about a year) an artist would come in and he'd be like, sure, come on down, just sit and be quiet but bring friends, whatever, and the whole room would be full of people watching and listening to the live performances. Or he would bring his kids in, sit them in front of the microphone and have them say something in their widdle baby voices, and jiggle them on his knee, Mieke would be sitting there hanging out, I'd get out the magic markers and we'd all make a big mess on the floor. That's a radio station with music---that's what radio should look like.

There's still hope for KCRW, because it still kicks other music stations all six ways to Sunday and back. But I hope like almighty god they understand that they're sitting on a Smithsonian of Sound.

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