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Eclectic Outpost

Today is the first day of the fall membership drive at the little radio station where I direct most of my time and energy these days.

KFAI Fresh Air Radio is in its 37th year and has, over the decades, been home to some of the most unusual, creative, soulful, earnest, nonsensical, transcendent and impractical radio programs ever made. There is a history buried under the worn-out carpet and hidden behind the dusty racks of obsolete technology, fondly recalled by old-timers when they sift through a program names graveyard that includes provocative titles like Little City in Space, Ideal Cafe Jukebox, Frogucci, Root of All Evil, Radio Rumpus Room, Musica Mundana, One Bubble Off Plumb and Indian Uprising. And lest you think those out-of-the-mainstream days are gone, consider some of the current programs like Strictly Butter, Fubar Omniverse, Rocket Ship Ska Trip, and Crap From The Past.

Experts say the radio business is personality-driven but there are only a few personality types permitted in commercial broadcasting, all fitting a certain vocal quality standard and each of them turning out to be a slightly different flavor of loudmouth. On KFAI you can hear shouters, sweet talkers, mumblers, whisperers and people who sit quietly in front of the microphone waiting for the sound of a needle to drop. Yes, there are still turntables. And people who walk in off the street can wind up with a show someday if they demonstrate persistence and creativity. Try that at KSTP and let me know how it works out. Twelve languages are heard on the station, and no, there are no translations. When there is an Oromo, Somali, Eritrean or Hmong program on the air you either already get it, or you sit back and enjoy the sound of the words as a form of music, which, of course, it is.

Every show host works for love and freedom of expression. Even staff members who do shows are “off the clock” when they’re on the air. The rest of the time staff supports the volunteers, who struggle mightily against the tendency of all things electronic to eventually short out, break down or freeze up. In this way the place continues to run in spite of all odds and completely against the accepted theories of what radio stations should do. Among programmers there is a passionate devotion to that oddball listener who can’t find what she wants anywhere else and doesn’t even know what that is until she hears it. And because there is very little money for traditional marketing, the audience recruitment strategy relies heavily on chance. We fill the bird feeder with seed and hope customers will wander past and have their heads turned by an exotic flavor.

As you might imagine, that approach requires a zen-like patience interspersed with moments of panic..

So I invite you to tune in, stream the audio at your desk or download the app for your smart phone and give us a chance. Fair warning, though – with most radio stations, you’ll be able to get the gist of what they’re trying to do in about ten minutes. Commercial formats are designed to transparent and easily digested. But if you really want to figure out what’s going on at KFAI, it would help to set aside a few years.

When has investing extra time in a project proven to be worth it?

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Inversion of the Burger Pods

How delightful that the perennial American fast-food also-ran, Burger King, is courting a financial inversion strategy that would make it technically Canadian.

This is one I will file under the heading Things I Already Thought Were True. Because there was always a slight Canadian tinge to BK, starting with the fake royalist vibe and including its cheese-smothered, can’t-be-good-for-you ham sandwich of the ’80’s, called the Yumbo, which sounds like something a starving Manitoba lumberjack would murmur when he hears the dinner bell.

I loved the Yumbo so much, I did not see how the bottom line of other junk food chains could compete with its obvious appeal. This is just another example of how completely out of step I am with what most Americans think. Back in the middle of the last half of the last century, when fast food was still a novel idea, a kid could imagine Burger King and McDonald’s competing for total control of our culture. The notion, back then, that one or the other might consume another entity that dispenses massive quantities of coffee and donuts would have been breathtaking and possibly the End of History. To have been able to get french fries and a chocolate old-fashioned at the very same counter would have kept me from reaching adulthood.

My other favorite thing about Burger King was that by wrapping its sandwiches in paper, the company stood in stark contrast to McDonald’s reliance on wasteful styrofoam clamshell containers, otherwise known as Burger Pods. When governments started to ban this kind of packaging and forced McDonald’s to re-configure, I thought Burger King had finally triumphed.

Alas, it was just one skirmish in a forgotten battle.

Today, in realm of trendy things that are taking over our lives and that cannot be stopped or ignored, fast food has fallen far behind the Internet and being drenched by Ice Water from Buckets. But there was a time when we even thought the future would be shaped by the containers our food came in – as frighteningly depicted in this trailer for a film by my friend Jeff Strate of Timid Video:

I did believe that I would never again live in a world without burger pods, though it has been years since I’ve seen one. And I have finally accepted that the Yumbo, like the Triceratops, will never again drip globs of cheese on a thirsty earth.

What did you used to eat that you don’t eat anymore?


Make Serious $$ In Your Pajamas!

Federal regulators have busted a work-from-home-scam that did not actually help anyone work from home.  The people who signed up received no gainful employment except perhaps the unpleasant job of trying to figure out where their money went.  This is the type of business you used to see touted on flyers stuck to telephone poles – back before the internet became a worldwide staple-ready blank space.

The notices usually said something like this:

Work Without Leaving Home!
Earn Unlimited Dollars In Your Pajamas!

This idea of making a living without having to leave the house has always carried a special allure for me because I am a natural introvert and a lifetime member of Persons Anonymous – a social support group for the low and no profiled.  We attract and retain members by having it as a defining article in our charter that we never actually meet.   But if we ever did get together, I’m certain the Persons Anonymous membership would discover that we, as a group, have been disappointed by “work from home” scams at a much higher rate than members of the general (sociable) population.   And chief among those disappointments would be the realization that “work from home” is not the same thing as “work alone” or “work without having to interact with other people”.  Some of these “work from home” scenarios involve making cold sales calls, or answering the phone, or dropping your pajamas on the floor and picking up your money on the dresser.

In fact, this past weekend’s arrests may confirm that the only way to truly make money in your pajamas is as a sleepwear model.   The sole requirement – that you look fetching in drawstring pants,  appealing in a terrycloth bathrobe and ravishing in adult onesies – an easy reach for Baboons, especially when they do your hair, apply the make up, and turn on the fans.

But of course you’d have to leave the house to go to the shoot.


What business have you (or would you) run out of your home?


Still Hanging Around

More unfortunate news for England’s Richard III – a year after he suffered the indignity of having his bones excavated from underneath a parking lot, researchers have received the green light to map his genome.

This means Richard III’s genetic secrets will be laid bare, including any serious medical conditions he was predisposed towards. Scoliosis, anyone? That’s the prevailing reason to resist having one’s DNA decoded – to avoid potential discrimination based on the likelihood that you will develop an expensive malady down the road.

Fortunately for Richard III, he doesn’t have to worry about such things because Obamacare is now the law of the land, so he can’t be denied coverage based on a pre-existing condition! He is also protected by the fact that he’s not from around here, and is already disintegrating.

Yet Richard III is still alive as a cultural figure even though his reputation remains dark. It’s bad enough to have great artists (Shakespeare!) interpret your legacy. They don’t really care about you – just their form of expression. And now the great scientists will have a go at telling Richard III’s story their own way. These test-tube shakers and number crunchers have no reason to be kind either – it’s all a collection of data points to them. So you could say Richard has an endless literary shelf life and will soon gain a timeless scientific stature too, but immortality of any sort is wasted on the dead.

Would you rather live forever as a dramatic villain, or a museum exhibit?


Crocodiles In Trees

I really don’t know much about alligators and crocodiles, including which is which. Whenever I wonder about their various differences I take a moment and look it up, (alligator – freshwater, “u” shaped snout / crocodile – salt water, “v” shaped snout) but when I’m face-to-face with one or the other, I always forget what I learned and panic in exactly the same way, regardless.


Because I have so much idle time, I often daydream about what I would do if a giant reptile decided I was worth the effort to chase down and, perhaps, eat. My first thought is that I would outrun the beast, though I’ve been informed that they are surprisingly fast – a bit of information that becomes more alarming as I age and become surprisingly slow.

I have always assumed that another convenient escape route for any potential human morsel would be to climb a nearby tree, since the only images I’ve seen of crocodiles and alligators depict them at ground level, or partially submerged. I climbed many a tree when I was a boy, and only fell out of one once. So I figured with the help of adrenaline I could probably get off the ground once again and cling to a higher branch until a sick goat happened to wander by to distract my frustrated reptilian pursuer.

But now comes the troubling information that alligators and crocodiles can climb. Obviously this puts a kink in my plans. Before this I had never considered the possibility that the words “… he was pulled out of a tree by an alligator” could someday appear in my obituary.

There’s nothing about that experience that sounds even remotely pleasant, although it would be a pretty remarkable thing to have as your official C.O.D. (cause of demise). The scenario does have me wondering where a treed human would try to kick an upwardly mobile crocodile or alligator, since they are pretty much all mouth on the front end. Surely there must be a strategy that would work!

A crocodilian has you up a tree. Now what?

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‘Till There Was You

Happy Valentine’s Day, Dear Baboons.

Of course there are love songs galore. I’ve heard it said that every song is a love song.

That’s the sort of thing that sounds at first like it could be true, but it would take some deft explaining to convince me that the current #1 song, “Dark Horse“, belongs in the love song category alongside Meredith Willson’s “Till’ There Was You”. When it comes to romance, I’m not one for flowery language, but even I can see the difference between …

There were birds in the sky But I never saw them winging No, I never saw them at all Till there was you.

… and …

She’s a beast I call her Karma (come back) She eats your heart out Like Jeffrey Dahmer (woo) Be careful Try not to lead her on Shorty’s heart is on steroids Cause her love is so strong You may fall in love When you meet her

Call me a crabby old man, but I’ll stick with Willson.

Not only was this economical ode part of a major Broadway hit, the song was good enough for an upstart superstar to sing in front of the Queen of England.

Meredith Willson was an interesting character, by the way. He was once a member of John Philip Sousa’s band, and “The Music Man” was his first attempt at creating a Broadway show. His previous claim to fame was as an announcer on Tallulah Bankhead’s radio program in the early 1950’s.

It took eight years to get the thing written and produced, and he got credit for all of it – music, lyrics and book. The innovation he brought to the stage is displayed in the opening number, when a crew of traveling salesmen mimic a train while reciting an unrhymed poem that entertains while it elegantly takes care of one of a playwright’s most difficult chores – exposition.

And even though it’s all about marketing and deception, that boisterous opening sequence is still more romantic than “Dark Horse.” By far.

What’s your favorite love song?


Inspiration, To A Point

I’m a fan of skyscrapers but not of heights. Gravity is always cause for concern.

I’ll go to the observation deck with you, but only for that giddy survivor’s high that comes when we return to the ground floor alive. And that’s where I can best admire a tall building – at street level or an even safer distance, like two miles away where it’s impossible for a rogue ice chunk or a clumsy, un-tethered window washer to fall on me.

Yes, skyscrapers activate my imagination, though not always in the best way. That’s why I’m concerned to see that the slow economic recovery has re-invigorated efforts to build the Chicago Spire.

Frankly, the project sets off multiple personal alarms.

When construction halted in 2008 because the world economy collapsed, Chicagoans were left with an enormous open pit on a prime piece of waterfront real estate. In my universe, open pits are bad. Gravity runs rampant there, and I consider it a miracle that the hole has remained in place for six years without becoming the scene of a terrible Timmy-in-the-well scenario. Construction keeps the hole open rather than filled up with pulverized rubber chunks, recycled packing envelopes, and other soft-landing material, which is what I would prefer.

Turning Torso in Malmo
Turning Torso in Malmo

I also find it unsettling that the building’s shape twists so severely from top to bottom. A similar building by the same architect in Malmo, Sweden, is said to look like it is tilting at an odd angle when viewed from certain perspectives. That’s an understatement for this Escher-like structure, which comes with the feeling of vertigo built in. Boxy may be boring, but I like my skyscrapers to be nice and grounded-looking. Once we start twisting around the shape of acceptable living spaces, I’m afraid stability will go out of fashion. It’s a slippery slope.

And by the way, a slippery slope is also very troubling for the gravity-obsessed. That’s why I’m focusing on skyscraper news rather than watching the Winter Olympics.

Finally, I worry that the addition of The Spire to Chicago’s skyline will suddenly make it OK for new buildings to mimic the shape and design of power tools, which are unsettling devices especially in the hands of amateurs like me. Sure, this one is an innocent drill bit. But what’s to prevent other designers from framing up towers that appear to be lathes, table saws and orbital sanders? I could not feel comfortable in a city that featured, say, a Pneumatic Torque Wrench as part of its skyline. The urban environment is noisy and dusty enough!

What’s your favorite (or least favorite) skyscraper?