Bo Jones talked with J.J. Syrja in the spring of 2008 about the 14th anniversary of his weekly Retroactive roots rock radio show (Saturdays, 10am to noon/Pacific time [U.S.] at www.kaosradio.org). Also covered: How the host fell in love with the rock'n'roll airwaves, became heartbroken over today's messed up terrestrial radio, and why Olympia Community Radio's KAOS is such a grand station. (J.J.'s 2011 note: For the sake of clarity, I've fleshed out a couple of answers, but most of what's here is as it originally appeared on my previous website.)
Bo: Congratulations on 14 years of Retroactive. How have you kept your enthusiasm over the years?
J.J.: People need to express themselves in some way, and I'm so lucky to have radio to convey my passion for music. I get to comment occasionally about this insane planet, too. There has never been a shortage of great music or hateful idiots in the media or politics, so there's inspiration every week. The freedom we have at KAOS radio is so uplifting; no one tells us what music to play, or what we should or shouldn't say.
Bo: How do you compare today's show with your initial weekly programs on KAOS?
J.J.: The show is tighter and less indulgent now. I don't play any artist two weeks in-a-row, which keeps me from overplaying a new release or one of those old fogies I love. You might hear something from a new album off and on for three months instead of every week, which used to happen. My intent is to develop a familiar sound for the show without making listeners sick of it.
Bo: Early on, you played a lot of Elvis Costello.
J.J.: Well, that had to do with the artist getting control of his catalog from a major label and putting it out on what was then a small company, Rykodisc. At KAOS, we play no more than 20 percent of music originating from the big labels, so Elvis Costello had a green light at the time. And in his case, it never hurts when the songwriter is of such high caliber.
Bo: What is the best song ever written?
J.J.: I'd have to say "You Don't Know What Love Is" by Don Raye and Gene DePaul from the 1940s--a fabulous pairing of a haunting melody and a despairing lyric. My favorite versions are by Chet Baker, June Tabor, Sonny Rollins, and Dinah Washington.
Bo: And the worst song ever written?
J.J.: As far as something well-known, Alan O'Day's "Undercover Angel" from the '70s is absolutely witless. It's a really awful song and an annoying record. Steve Miller's "The Joker" is close. Wait..."The Joker" is a decent sounding record--it's just that the words are dumb. It's like the Doobie Brothers telling me to "Listen to the music." Geez...I had been thinking about eating the music, so I'm glad you set me straight, Doobs.
Bo: When your show is clicking, you've got classy stuff colliding with inspired trash.
J.J.: That's rock'n'roll--contradictions. A classic Little Richard record is partly a crazed novelty and at the same time extremely skillful. I don't think many radio programmers get that. They want "tasteful," I guess. I've really grown tired of Triple A--you know, the Adult Album format. One of those "A"s is supposed to stand for "Alternative," but it might as well be "Anemic." Yes, a song is not a hit unless you repeat it, put it in some sort of rotation. But playing older material in a similar rotation to that of new music is short-sighted and unimaginative. There's a Seattle station that plays "Black Magic Woman" three times a day.
Bo: So many veteran artists are represented by only one song on the radio.
J.J.: You're not kidding! There are all these fantastic and accessible old songs but few radio programmers with the insight to share them with a new generation of listeners. You know those stations that do a week or two of "A to Z" titles to show off their library? They should be honest and call it "Songs We Play Once a Year." Radio used to unite people of different backgrounds but it's become so narrow.
Bo: Give me an example of what you mean by "narrow."
J.J.: Take adult pop radio, which I've worked in since the 1980s. It used to reflect where we are as a society, with overly light but still gender balanced, racially diverse music. Remember the Latin pop boom of the 1990s? Radio was falling all over itself in self-congratulation then. Now, the radio industry is pushing a series of less-than-compelling crossover artists from country and Christian genres who have no business in pop music, let alone rock'n'roll. And whatever happened to genuine soul music? After Luther Vandross died, lots of so-called "variety" stations stopped playing current R&B. That's backwards thinking--that's insulting. Someone in power obviously thinks the airwaves need to be "cleaned up," but radio as we know it is going to bland itself off the map. Don't we want another artist with the impact of Bob Dylan or James Brown or Nirvana to make radio matter again and revive music sales? It's not going to happen with the current industry mindset--they want "safe" artists and subject matter. Perhaps the worst thing about radio corporations is outright censorship. Edwin Starr's "War" was the Number One song in the U.S. for three weeks in 1970. That could never happen with those awful radio chains running the game--even though the majority of the world in 2008 is thinking the same thing Edwin Starr was singing about then. As far as connecting with what people are really feeling, radio is in the worst shape I can ever remember; big media has sold us down the river.
Bo: We know that KAOS, like WFMU in Jersey City, is a non-commercial antidote to the creative rut you speak of. Are there any good commercial radio stations left?
J.J.: I check playlists a lot and what Susan Castle and Jody Denberg do at KGSR/Austin and Dave Herold at KTHX/Reno is fantastic, although they're subject to commercial demands. And while syndication is way too prevalent now, look at Little Steven's Underground Garage. That show combines new stuff with--dare I say it--ancient rock, and I'll bet a lot of radio heavies told Steven Van Zandt that it wouldn't work. But his great show and my smaller scale program share two basic principles: Oldtimers will still respond to exciting new bands, and that the negative phrase, "That was before my time," is a crock of crap. Heck, everything before 1964 is quote-unquote "before my time," and yet the best of it is incredibly moving.
Bo: Speaking about less repetition, is it true that you don't play the same version of a song until ten years have passed?
J.J.: Sounds ridiculous, huh? No one would care but me, but I try to avoid repeats--it forces me to keep searching for accessible tracks by a particular artist rather than only airing my favorites. Of course, I'll honor requests even if I've played the song lately. If my show feels completely fresh to me, the listener might feel the same.
Bo: What inspired the idea to wait a decade before repeating something?
J.J.: The best records are meant to be played again and again, but your personal jukebox should be at home and not on the radio. During the first period I ever listened to KAOS, someone played a song by (Van Morrison's band) Them that I'd never heard on the radio before--it was heavenly. A week later, I heard the same tune on the same radio show, and the sense of surprise was gone. I'm thinking, "What's so special about that? When I get a show, I'm not doing that."
Bo: Let's go back. How did you discover rock'n'roll radio?
J.J.: I was trying to find a baseball game on my transistor radio in 1964. I knew a bit about rock'n'roll from records, but for some reason, not from the airwaves. So that little radio suddenly opened up a big world to me. I was nine years old. Not that I liked Frank Sinatra then--I sure do now--but he was on the same AM station as the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, the Motown and Stax artists, the Shangri-las, Zombies, Beach Boys, Wilson Pickett. How about that group of performers? Those artists were popular then and their music still holds up. Contrast them with today's "Oldies" radio: Chicago, Journey...sorry, that cheap ear candy isn't the best music of the '70s--not even close.
Bo: Did you emulate any of those AM DJs?
J.J.: Not at all. That rapid fire Top 40 delivery was entertaining, but it wasn't something I thought I could do. It wasn't until I was fifteen and heard FM jocks and their more conversational style that I really got interested in doing radio.
Bo: As a listener, how did you "convert" to FM?
J.J.: I was growing up just like the music was, although I must stress that FM radio gets too much credit for the rock boom of the 1960s. I discovered FM as early as 1968, but it wasn't until 1970 that some of those hollow pop records on AM like "My Baby Loves Lovin' " by White Plains pushed me over to FM. At its best, AM radio had real kinetic power, yet I wasn't hearing that forcefulness as much.
Bo: You had a favorite FM station?
J.J.: Thankfully, we had WABX-FM in Detroit--just incredible. They played artists I'd only read about, like early Traffic, the Stooges, Captain Beefheart--and early Ray Charles and John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. I was bowled over because I didn't know any of those records. At the same time, my favorite ABX music didn't dwell on the cerebral--those DJs would mix in steamy, half-forgotten hits by Aretha Franklin or Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels. And they played all those amazing early singles by Bob Seger that were being ignored, for some bizarre reason, in New York, L.A. and San Francisco. I could barely turn off the radio at night! If ABX played something astounding, you'd better go out and get a copy, because it wasn't likely that you'd ever hear it again. It's like those DJs had tapped into a bottomless reservoir.
Bo: And you wanted to get into radio.
J.J.: I did, but only a couple of my friends knew. I mean, I was a lazy teenager--tell someone you want to do radio, and they might call you on it. It finally happened when I was in my 20s. I worked at a little station in Texas that was much like KAOS as far as variety goes: from rock to gospel to polka. I learned a lot there. Michigan was my next stop--this was the 1980s. Luckily, my program director there encouraged me to follow my instincts, which prepared me for moving out west and coming to KAOS in April 1994. I owe KAOS a tremendous debt because for years, all I could find was commercial radio work. I'd saved up all these ideas but couldn't get on public or community radio. So I don't take my KAOS gig for granted one bit.
Bo: Are you in favor of keeping the KAOS music policy (80 percent from independent sources) as is?
J.J.: Absolutely--thank you John Foster for your great idea! Although I've got one leg on each side of the fence--I love free form and what was classic 1960s AM radio--the 80 percent rule would be abused if we became lax about it. KAOS would then become just another station. This policy matches many of my discoveries over the years; don't forget that rock'n'roll was created by musicians recording for small labels in the 1940s and '50s--certainly not by Decca, RCA Victor and Columbia.
Bo: So KAOS' independent music policy didn't shock you when you arrived?
J.J.: Yes and no. In the '60s I was too young to notice, but a lot of the Detroit radio hits of my youth were on tiny labels, so I was actually buying some of them without thinking about it. That sound stayed with me. Later, in the '70s, I was reviewing records for a newspaper in Texas and listened to a lot of indie records--I'd make tapes for friends, where they'd get hits mixed with material from small labels like Flying Fish out of Chicago. Not long before arriving in the Pacific Northwest, I was learning about their incredible pre-punk bands like the Sonics and Wailers. The Sonics blew me away--they fit in with my Detroit rock bias completely. I found lots of indie music in the KAOS library of that persuasion and my show was somewhat solid right from the start.
Bo: Your Retroactive show leans more historical than anything. Is that where you are personally with music?
J.J.: Nowadays, yes. As a teenager, I bought older music to supplement the new stuff I was so excited about. I have different priorities now, but in my 30s I was still purchasing innovative sounds: Jesus & Mary Chain, Lacy J. Dalton, Arthur Blythe, King Sunny Ade, Grandmaster Flash. Around 1975, at age 20, I bought Bob Marley & the Wailers' Live! (at the Lyceum, London) when it was only an import. That and Toots & the Maytals' Funky Kingston are still two of my many favorites.
Bo: You usually pick two artists and play music to celebrate their birthday, or birth anniversary. When did you start compiling that list?
J.J.: It didn't have anything to do with radio. It started in 1983 when I was playing drums in a band; I was in charge of our newsletter and didn't want to only show the dates we were gigging. I wanted a full calendar, so I used music birthdays and other rock'n'roll facts to fill it in.
Bo: Have you got at least one birthday notation for all 365 days of the year?
J.J.: Actually, 366--Gretchen Christopher of Olympia's Fleetwoods was one of those leap year babies born February 29th. So that makes her much younger than the other Fleetwoods!
Bo: Anything you want to say about your fellow KAOS volunteers?
J.J.: The way they've taught themselves to improve at radio is remarkable. In most cases, they work out the bugs and get better at it. When I came to KAOS, I was nearly 40 years old and there were all these kids half my age who not only knew about the Velvet Underground and MC5--they knew what was important about them. That's something I can't say about the majority of people in my age group.
Bo: How do you rate Retroactive among other KAOS programs?
J.J.: It's an excellent show, although not our best one.
Bo: Care to name a few?
J.J.: Not if I want to avoid slighting any of my KAOS pals! I'll name some programs no longer on the air. Diana Arens just put Free Things Are Cool to rest--that was one of KAOS' greatest shows. What an interviewer; she made her guests feel comfortable but still asked surprising questions. I can't tell you how much I learned about true free form radio via Ricardo Wang's What's This Called? (now heard on KPSU/Portland), and I really miss Brooks Martin's Artichoke. Michelle Noel's Color Outside the Lines went through the roof once she began to clue listeners into the fact that there were 1950s punks as well as those from the '90s. I loved Shannon Wiberg's Soul Kitchen and Keith Eisner's The Baseball Mystery Hour, too; that one was actually two hours long. Those are just some of KAOS' finest shows--wish I could have heard the station in the 1970s and '80s--and there are a ton of them nowadays, too.
Bo: Share a proud moment at KAOS.
J.J.: I think it was around 1995 when the most played album on KAOS was a collection of radio broadcasts by the Carter Family in the 1930s. It wasn't just the folk and country programmers airing that disc--it was the weeknight rock shows, the morning programs. Everybody was playing it! I mean, my KAOS brothers and sisters get it. _______________________________________________________________