Radio in the Time of COVID-19

A reflection on radio life mid-pandemic by Noah Fence. Images by dj brzy.

Having already made the decision to sit down and write something, I open up a new blank document, give it a vague generic title — which I will change later as the piece comes together and correct title suggests itself — and then I pause for a breath, pause for a beat of my heart , feeling my head turn to the left and look out the window. Out there is a portion of a green forest, being hit by the sunrise. The bright light presents itself in pockets between the leaves — like lens flares, as a bit of breeze stirs the foliage. I make a considered effort to keep my eyes open to the brightness. I like the sharpness of sunlight.

As I write this, the world is experiencing a global pandemic, a phrase I am sure with which we are all too familiar, but one that I did not give much thought to prior to this year. I do not feel like it was something that I was warned about in high school. My parents never told me scary stories of the overreaching global pandemic, in order for me to obey the rules and stay in my yard and not wander out into the street. I do not recall ever scoffing at a story of a man stocking up on provisions and building an airtight, germ-free home for his family, as part of a conspiracy theory. I was blindsided, as I assume were so many people, with whom I no longer make contact.

I lost my job on April 1st. Since that time I have been at home. Inside the walls of a townhouse. I have been cooking. Making sandwiches. Eating crackers with pub cheese. Drinking water. Making tea. Scrambling eggs, coupled with cheese and pepper, often paired with wheat toast, or fried potatoes. Baking banana bread. Baking chicken. Steaming broccoli. Boiling numerous pots of rice — in the morning with raisins, and plain as an addition to dinner. The days blur together, as do my functions, my place in these things. I have a sense of who I am, but I no longer have a sense of who that person may be to other people.

I have for the longest time considered myself to be a radio deejay, a person who goes on the air for a couple of hours, to share a selection of music with the public. Knowing that sometimes friends are listening, but being even more keenly aware that more likely they are not. Instead, the radio show I present is often heard by strangers, perhaps regular listeners or random people that happen to tune in, catch a song they like and stick around. Or, of course, maybe someone catches a portion of my show, dislikes it and tunes out. It is the nature of radio and I have no desire to please everyone. When I do a radio show, I try to please myself, and then focus on the fact that by pleasing myself, I am likely pleasing someone else.

With deejay being such a strong aspect of the person I believe myself to be, it was very difficult for me when Freeform Portland made the decision to shutter their studios due to the Covid-19 virus. I have been a part of Freeform Portland since 2016, and my weekly trips from my home to the studio, my time in the studio broadcasting my show, and all of the time mentally preparing my show, were the focus of my week. Once the show was over, the cycle would repeat, week after week after week. All while I would rise in the morning, go to work, make my way through a day of work, return home and repeat that cycle five days a week. Work was never my focus, it existed as a necessary component to my decided focus on my radio show. Without work, there was no money for food, rent, or cups of coffee. Without money, there were no trips on public transit, back and forth to the radio station. 

However, since the beginning of April, there has been no money. There has been no radio station to visit. April upended what I viewed as my life. I went from slow motion to deadstop. Starting in April, I sat myself down in front of my laptop, and I am still sitting there four months later. I am like a stone sitting on a windswept landscape. Dirt and debris pile up against me, sometimes threatening to bury me. 

As you may know, Freeform Portland never stopped broadcasting. Yes, the studio was shuttered, and the volunteer deejays — who present their shows and make the radio station entertaining, engaging and a vital part of the radio landscape in Portland — were no longer physically able to do live music programming. Out of necessity, the station moved to pre-recorded programming. The deejays were asked to record their shows from home and submit the sound files to be slotted into a program that would broadcast the files to the public. This change was made almost seamlessly — and I doubt that many people in the listening audience noticed the change.  One of the sacrifices the station made in this switch was the schedule; the programming utilized was set up to randomly select a music file, at the start of every hour. This had the advantage of switching up the music being offered to the public more often, making the station more interesting; however, there were some deejays who opted not to participate in the making of sound files.

When I was informed of the station’s decision to continue on in this manner until it was safe to return to the studio, I assumed my radio career, such as it is, had come to a halt. I was at a loss as to how to make a sound file. I had no idea how I might go about recording myself, speaking to the audience and informing them of the songs they had just heard, to which station they were listening, and what might be coming next. Despite now having all of my music on my computer, the music was all part of itunes. I had no idea how to access the music itself, other than to burn CD-R’s or put music onto my ipod. 

It did not take me long however to examine the program I used to join together the archived broadcasts from the radio station. The station has always been recording the broadcasts, archiving them into hourly increments. I had found a web based program that I used to join together the two hourly sound files into one two hour file. I thought, well, if I can join two things together how about three? Four? Five? And so on. Turns out, I could: easy peasy. All I needed to do a radio show in this manner were MP3 files of songs that I could put together to form a show. You can not imagine how pleased I was to discover that I already had my entire collection of music in a folder on my computer somewhere, in the form of MP3’s. I had no idea. 

There was a learning curve. Aspects of the program I used to join the files presented themselves with further use. I learned how to crossfade songs. I learned to add a fadeout to the final song of the mix, so that my show would not end with a cold stop. I learned that I could use the same program to cut out blank spaces of songs, such as there are at the end, to make better segues between songs. And after making a few of these one hour mixes without any spoken parts, I found an app I could use on my phone to record my voice. It was as easy as speaking into my phone, emailing the file to myself, and including that file into the mix I was preparing, just like I included a particular song. 

This way of putting together a radio show was new to me as well. Being at home, with my entire collection at hand, created a different challenge of what to select. And there was the aspect of perfection. Selecting one song, and finding just the right song to follow and soon on. I found at first I labored over each song, choosing and choosing again, happy with some and then changing my mind. Which led to me spending way too much time on each mix and never being completely happy with the result. It was only after forgiving myself my faults, that I was able to charge forward with this new process, knowing that none of my live radio shows had ever been perfect. Why then should my recordings be so? With that attitude, putting together a mix soon took about the same amount of time as it would to listen to the mix on the radio. 

Despite the fact that the station had deviated from having a schedule in place, I very much wanted to continue to present a weekly show. I decided to go ahead each week with a weekly episode of my show, “It’s a Nice World to Visit,” divided into two parts, the first and the second hour. I knew that once I submitted them, they would be played at random, never likely to play in tandem. But after having lost the routine of my daily life to the virus, I felt it important to impose upon myself some rules, and keep to the commitment I had made when I joined Freeform Portland, presenting a weekly show. 

With all of my new found free time, I also was able to put together a number of hour long mixes in addition to my regular show: mixes of old rock n’ roll, mixes of dub music, mixes of instrumentals, mixes intended to have a calming effect. These mixes and more were all randomly programmed and played throughout the day on Freeform Portland, along with other mixes put together by other deejays. In this way the station kept broadcasting, even though some people were unable to put together mixes, or chose not to put together mixes. 

While all of this was going on, there were a few people at the station working on a program that could be used to broadcast pre-recorded mixes at a particular time, instead of at random: a system that would allow the station to resume scheduled programming, a system that would add a little order to daily chaos, a system that would be of help to the listening audience who might be fans of particular shows, so that they could now tune in at the scheduled time and actually hear that particular show. 

This program was implemented about a month ago as I write this piece. I have returned to making a two hour mix, once a week, to be played when my show appears on the schedule, Fridays at noon. 

There are still a few gaps in the schedule I am afraid, and when there is no mix scheduled, the system selects a random mix to be played. Deejays are still encouraged to add the occasional one hour mix. With my free time, I enjoy doing so. Deviating from the self imposed rules I use to put together my own shows, these one hour mixes allow me to play a few random garage rock songs, psychedelic tracks, or put together my impression of a dance mix. 

Scheduled programming is the return of an aspect of normalcy to the radio station. Perhaps the station will also at some point be able to allow deejays to broadcast live from their homes, from their own turntables and mixers. This would allow even more of the deejays at the station to participate in bringing music to the public.

All of this, all of this goes on while I sit at home. While I become ever more familiar with the walls of my home. With the dust in the corners. With the cobwebs that appear at ceiling corners. While my wife and I make trips in the car, often just to get out of the house, to feel less trapped. I lost my job. I lost the reason to leave my house on Fridays. I have had to come to grips with the fact that I am in fact frightened of contracting the virus. Whether the fear is based on fact or fiction, the fear exists. It keeps me in my home. I look for work, and I have a fear of actually being selected for a job, knowing that would mean exposing myself more often to a chance of contracting the virus. 

So I go round and round in the rectangle that is my living room, only really getting out almost as a spirit or astral projection of myself. Using the medium of radio, I still interact and engage, I still speak and play. I turn my best cheek to the public and let them see, let them judge. Let them be. 

No one knows for certain when the Freeform studio will be open again. Not until it is safe. Safe means when there is a vaccine. It will be many months of this routine, this new way of living. And after the vaccine, some doors will open, and some will remain shuttered. The new normal we are looking down the barrel at right now is only anyone’s best guess. If we all treat each other with kindness, patience, and wear our masks, we will all be able to see what happens together. 

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