When email was young..
Early 1990's, I had just come to work at KERA 90.1, in Dallas, Texas. Out under that big southern sky, one radio station out of all of them was gentle on the ears, playing the salt of the earth and the wailing winds and the African blues and Jaco Pistorius and the ringing bells of the Roches' voices and wandering esoterica late at night, while the commercial stations blasted away with their big mixes and most music and the same fifty songs that get killed over and over again on the radio today, as they did then. One station had the Kronos Quartet, quiet between the voices, unpracticed jocks without scripted liners, and even some French bluegrass. A room wall-to-wall with vinyl, rattling sliding walls of compact discs, and decades-old carpet and equipment was the source of the sound. It was part of the shack that once stood where now the impressive public broadcasting cellblock houses sleek studios with blondwood floors.
Back in the days of the shack was when I came to work for One of A Kind,
KERA, 90.1; And it really was one of a kind. Everyone dutifully repeated those words, but they weren't really needed. KERA needed no slogans.
I found KERA because the "creatives" at the ad agency would blast it at full volume in the back room when Sam Phillips or Lyle Lovett played. It was the little radio station that commanded wide respect in the boring wilds of cosmo Dallas. When it was on, you had the feeling that while you were listening, others in the city were listening too, others you might want to meet or hang out with one day. The lame attempt at branding did not harm the coolness, and the station reminded any and all lonely artists that other artists were out there, creating; and they were creating outside of the primary colors and primary-school ideas that saturated other media.
That such a station existed was the end of the line for me. There was no more job search.
I ended up fired from the ad agency. I only had one friend there anyway, a guy named Jim Branstedder who had a cool loft downtown where we one night sat on the roof and looked at the city. He had the craggiest, most impossible face ever on a guy, and for that I liked him. His teeth were crooked, but he had a cute smile. He was the nicest one of all of them.
I worked on a letter to KERA's PD, Craig Allen. I drew a pencil rendering of my own hand in light, fine lines, and filled the edges with a soft bright yellow from an old colored pencil. Upon this I laid down black words with my electric typewriter explaining why I had to come work with ya'll. I know you had your issues with Allen (but I can barely remember why, except that it had to do with pointy-headed middle managementism) but he liked my letter and it hung up on his wall for some time.
He didn't mind that I also worked on Saturday nights deejaying at a commercial classic rock station. It was besides the point. Or maybe it wasn't.
Because I learned later that there was a push to sound more "commercial," which was actually what I was escaping from, when I came to KERA. I vaguely remember something about wanting to sound smooth and incorporate little slogans and stuff into the announcing. Whatever. I was a trained robot and took all that for granted. What was interesting to me was the music. KERA had no formal playlist.
It was one of the last stations in the country without one. Radio programmers had jumped into computer-generated song machines as if they were the absolute only possible way to pick music. Most people never knew their radios were being taken over by computers. Visions of disc jockeys a la' WKRP happily filled the heads of those whose listening was invisibly invaded by the grind of payola and perks and market research jerks. If at some point people began to realize that they were hearing the same songs over and over and over again, they never mentioned it. And who would they tell, anyway? Maybe they changed the channel to where a slightly different tightly-wound playlist circulated according to a different clock, wearing out the almost-invisible hairs on the inside of the inner ear that, when triggered, catch on something in the heart and cause an explosion of awareness and awe.
The unexpected was no longer to be found on our airwaves. The sensibilities were silently flattened and if life seemed a little more pedestrian and forlorn, who could blame a program director at a radio station? His boss said it wasn't about the music, it was about the money. And his boss was The boss. And so forth. And so the day the music died was more than just one day. It was decades of death to music, without a goodbye, without a drop of sentimentality.
The computer decided what songs went where. It was all done for you. The disc jockey didn't even man the turntables. He or she plugged in carts, like 8-tracks, and then pulled them out. They re-cued themselves...save us the trouble..isn't that nice? Let the machines do what we once did. An artificial arm, a little less trouble, and they were set to fire off automatically, too.
So being a dj in the early 90's meant, first and foremost, you followed rules. Make your arm go back and forth. Make your arm go back and forth. All day long.
I came to KERA to get away from that.
But you guys didn't know that, either. So you were pretty surly to me for a while. I remember you even called me "conservative" once. I think it was because I had gone to Baylor and didn't wear birkenstocks. And we had that new computer installed in master control and we could type emails to each other on the in-house system. Remember MS DOS? That was my very first email account--the in-house account at KERA. And I'll never forget the email I got from Abby.
I hadn't been at the station all that long and had met everyone, thought everyone was cool, and was just discovering that though there was a computer-generated playlist, nobody used it. It was there to make the suits happy, but in actual fact each and every song got crossed off from where the computer put it, and the actually chosen song was hand-written and squeezed into the spaces that were left. The playlists were filed at the end of the day, dense with scribbles and doodles, and that was it. The software churned out dismal bloopers like the same artist and song every evening at 8pm several times a week. I was just discovering (from you, probably) that it didn't matter. As long as I played four of the new records an hour, the rest was up to me. My gig was to engineer Karen Dennard's talk show at 7 and put callers on the air, and then I had four great hours to play music for Dallas/Fort Worth/Denton.
The email was sort of shy, sly and sweet at the same time. It was a couple of paragraphs long and chatted about how nice it was to have met me and how she liked my show so far. I didn't know Abby well and thought she was funny. She was sitting in master control one day with her feet up on the console, sitting across from whoever was on the air. She had sneakers on with no socks. "I like those socks," someone said. "They're the same color as my underwear," she replied without a blink.
She said she liked the songs I was picking and thought the station sounded good with my show and would I like to get together and maybe have coffee sometime? I thought that was a nice, neighborly offer. Let's welcome the new kid in town. Maybe we could go for spinach enchiladas with sour-cream sauce down at the mex joint, near the ad agency over by the Crescent building. Or we could catch a show together sometime. She hoped it was OK to let me know that she really liked the way I dressed. However I picked out my clothes it somehow seemed to work.
OK, maybe she should just come right out and say it, and please don't be mad at her or feel awkward or whatever. It's just that she really thought I was cool and liked me so much and hoped it was OK if she took the direct approach: she was really attracted to me. Please don't get upset! This might not be the right thing to do, but she just had to let me know she had thought about kissing me already, and if I wasn't interested, pleaassse just tell her to shut up and she would go away. Could she get in trouble for writing this? Maybe, so please keep it to myself, she just felt I was a really special person and had to take a chance to tell me.
I printed out the email on the dot matrix printer, folded it, and tucked it into my purse, where it burned a hole all night. The letter came on a Friday evening and on Saturday I pulled it out again at home and examined it. She had included her phone number. She wanted me to call so we could have a conversation so things were less awkward, because I might feel weird after getting her email, so please, please call her so she could be sure I wasn't all freaked out, because it was NO big deal, she just liked me and thought we could be friends, or more.
My hand hovered over the phone. I picked it up, I put it down. I put the letter back in my purse. Later that afternoon, with the shadows growing longer and my boyfriend over at his parent's house watching golf, I took it out again. I put it on the table. I poured a glass of wine. I thought about joining my boyfriend and his parents and rejected it out of hand. I called Abby.
She seemed delighted to hear from me. I asked her how she was doing, what she was up to. Everything she said sounded like blah, blah, blah, to me. I was nervous. I cared more about how I sounded than what she was actually saying. Through layers of self-consciousness I realized she had asked me a question. "What email?"
"You know, the email," I said. "The one you wrote me."
"Did I send you an email?" she pondered.
Then she said, "Shit!"
And she said, "Read me the email!!"
And you, Kim Corbet, were busted.
"I left myself logged in at my desk the other night!!!" She told me. "I didn't write that love note. Kim Corbet wrote that love note, during the overnight, when he was wandering around and found my computer still logged in. That's how it looked like it came from me, son of a bitch. But look, it's all true. I still think you're really cool and all, but I'm not a lesbian."
"That's good, because I'm not either," I said. "But it's one of the nicest letters I ever got."