Wednesday, August 19, 2015

no static at all

My son E. is employed at a local Philadelphia radio station. In addition to his various on-air shifts, he is a producer, engineer and a host of other titles that fall in to the category of "multi-tasking." On Saturday afternoons, he hosts an "all-request" show. That is exactly what is sounds like and it hearkens back to the simple days of my youth when you could call in your request to your favorite radio station to hear the latest hit single by your favorite band-of-the-moment. If you were lucky enough to get through to your favorite "boss jock," he would tell you what pre-selected song to request, if you'd like to hear your voice on the air. However, things have gotten a bit more involved in the age of rapidly-advancing technology. Requests are now delivered via Facebook, Twitter and email, in addition to the old-fashioned telephone. And, the requests, at least on my son's radio station, are legitimate requests from the listeners. The station, an NPR affiliate, prides itself on its eclectic mix of off-the-beaten-path singer-songwriters, classic and stalwart rock, local artists and the occasional surprise, maybe a 60s bubble gum nugget, a funky hip-hop groove or an out-of-left-field, indescribable something... or sometimes a strange combination of the above. Noticeably absent from their unwritten playlist is Top 40 mainstream artists of the American Idol and The Voice ilk (although they may slip in every once in a while just to shake things up, depending on who is manning the proverbial turntable).

Earlier in the month, E. made plans to record a session with self-described internet pop music "cult" Hussalonia for a later feature on his Friday evening showcase of independent artists, The Indie Rock Hit Parade (listen at you will not be sorry). Since I am a fan of the enigmatic Hussalonia, I invited myself to witness the session. I also planned to arrive early and sit in the studio to observe my boy at work as he spun the dials and slid the levers for his weekly Saturday afternoon request show.

I stood at the building's entrance on Walnut Street and waited for E. to arrive. In the bright noon sun, I could see someone turn the corner at 30th Street that I thought was him. When I realized they were wearing shorts (he doesn't own a pair), and were approaching a car parked at a meter (he doesn't drive), I knew it wasn't him. Also when I realized it was a girl, my inkling was again confirmed. Soon, a cab pulled up and E. bounded out and greeted me.

"You think you could answer the phones today?," he asked. Then he said "Hi" and hugged me. He's still my boy! I couldn't refuse.

We headed into the studio, E. toting his professional-looking headphones and me tagging behind like an eager-to-learn intern (or a puppy). E. got himself situated behind the imposing console. Then, he explained the simple process of answering the studio request line. He showed which buttons to press and how to advance to the next call. He supplied me with a stack of paper and a pen and I was on my own in my new employment in whirlwind fashion.

What would you like to hear?
Suddenly, we were live on the air. E., with headphones perched in position and lips pressed to the huge microphone, slid a lever with his left hand and spoke to his unseen audience. He welcomed listeners to the show and recited the various options of contact for requests. Upon delivery of the phone number, the phone lit up like a little Christmas tree (if Christmas trees were dark gray and decorated only on one side with small green lights). With pen poised at the ready, I sprung into action.

I furiously punched the phone buttons and scribbled the requests as fast as I could, only able to pause to remain silent during E.'s live breaks every twenty or so minutes. At those points, he would announce the titles of the previously-played songs and give out the contact information, upon which the whole frantic process would start up again.

With each call I answered, I clearly stated the stations call letters and asked, "What would you like to hear?"

"Hey! I love your show" most of the calls began, followed by a hesitant and unsure "could you play..." and everyone from Frank Zappa and Isaac Hayes to NOFX and Something Corporate were suggested. As I feverishly jotted down artist's names and song titles in my best legible shorthand, E. scanned the Twitter feed and posts to the station's Facebook page. The dozens and dozens of titles are then assessed by E. and assembled in some sort of pleasing — or even jarring — playback. E. takes pride in crafting an on-the-fly playlist under such pressing constraints. During a three-hour show, he gets at least five hours of requests, so creating a cohesive sound is a pretty daunting task. It was a treat to watch him work. He even acknowledged me by telling listeners that "internet celebrity Josh Pincus" was answering the phones. To my surprise, a few callers recognized my name by my association with E. and my incoherent Twitter rants. He never let on that I am his dad.

The calm before the storm.
Three hours flew by. Hussalonia, whose traveling incarnation includes drums, guitar and bass, arrived for their session. "Can you give me a hand with the session?," E. asked. I was only too happy to help. We met the band at their car which they parked on the street adjacent to the building. E. loaded a rolling garden cart with as much of their equipment as he could, piling bass drums on top of amplifiers. I hefted a canvas bag of cymbals in my left hand and gripped a guitar case in my right. Once in the studio, E. directed me to plug a dozen cables into a multi-outlet electric box and snake them individually to any number of microphones and instruments. E. had a plan in his head and instructed me — his roadie du jour — to help bring that plan to reality. He was a blur as he connected power jacks and arranged mic stands, then ran back to the control room to set levels and check sound feeds. Then, he scaled a ladder to fire up lighting for clearly capturing the moment in photographs (which he would be taking). It was like watching five people at once.

Hussalonia warms up in the studio while E. (far right)
does something "producer-ish."
The band ran out to grab something to eat before the session started, but E. never stopped. He checked and rechecked connections, lighting and sound levels, angles of microphones and a host of other things with which I am not familiar. Situated behind a control board bigger and more imposing than the one in the broadcast studio, E. now directed the band as they tuned up and segued into their first song. They sounded great, but everyone decided on a second take. As a matter of fact, a second take was performed for each of the band's four selections. Afterwards, E. got them to record a few station ID promos and they began packing up their stuff. Over the next half hour, we broke down what we had just set up — meticulously coiling cables, tucking mics back into their protective pouches and setting equipment stands back in their proper storage spaces. Then, we helped the band with transporting their equipment back out to their car. They graciously posed for some pictures on the sidewalk, then we said our 'goodbyes' and they were off to Hussanlonia Land.

E. and I went back into the studio for a final survey of the place, making certain everything was put away properly and anything that needed to be turned off or shut down was turned off and shut down. E. walked with me to the train station where he grabbed a Philly Bike Share bike for his ride back to his South Philly home. He thanked me for my help and hugged me 'goodbye.' I got the feeling I was officially relived of my position in the radio business.

At least I have that graphic design gig to fall back on.

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like a great day. I'm glad you got to experience it with your son.