Monday, December 14, 2020

INTERVIEW: Frank Boscoe

Frank Boscoe has done everything. Back in the 1980s he was helping to cook up a indie-rock renaissance in Pittsburgh. He was a DJ on WKPS, and WLVR. He was the Music Director at WRCT, and founded and/or co-founded the zines Pushcart War and  Cubist Pop Manifesto. He was also in the band Wimp Factor 14. But he also landed at WRCT at a special time.  In 1983 WRCT had received it's construction permit to increase power from 10 to 100 watts. Engineer Dom Burman's transmitter and the engineering students home-made equipment was long gone. The station had become a 100 watt station audible in Pittsburgh proper. Punk rock had exploded into a thousand sub-genres and the music landscape was changing. This week he gave me a little of his time to tell me what was happening at WRCT in Pittsburgh back then. 


 1. I think you started at WRCT around 1986. Can you tell me when and how you got involved with the station?

As a 17 year old, I was arguably more interested in college radio than college itself. Carnegie Mellon was the first college I visited, and when I passed through the Squirrel Hill tunnel on the way into Pittsburgh I was able to tune in to 88.3 for the first time. Even though I had been an obsessive college radio listener all through high school, nearly everything I heard on WRCT was unfamiliar. Later I visited the studio and got a paper copy of a recent playlist. I recognized maybe 10% of it. I was hooked. The academic reputation of the school and its cross-country team, undefeated for something like 13 straight years, also helped me make my decision. I applied early decision and was all set before any of my high school classmates. I only ended up running cross-country for one season, but I stuck with radio for all four years. 

2. Did you do anything in radio before that?

I was a DJ on the Lehigh [University] radio station, WLVR, the summer before college. In the summer the station was run by community volunteers, and as a first-time DJ aged 17, I got the not-so-great time slot of 6:00-8:30 am on Wednesdays. Of course, in terms of radio that was quite a good time slot. I delivered newspapers at the time — I would hustle to get everything delivered from 4:30-5:30 am then speed down to the station to get the transmitter turned on by 6:00. I'm sure I was a few minutes late a couple of times. Since I started doing this show in May, and high school didn't finish until late June, there were 6 or 7 days when I missed first period. I don't remember what course I had then, but I feel like it was something important like chemistry. I thank the principal at the time, Victor Lesky, for not objecting.

3. The station only converted from carrier current to a real FM station at 10 watts in 1974, and increased to 100 watts in the 1980s. What were the facilities like at the time for you?  Was it old equipment from the 1970s or was the station modernizing at that point?

It was already 100 watts when I got there, but 10 watts was within recent historical memory. We had pretty good equipment. There was always a dedicated engineering staff who liked nothing more than to tinker, and they kept everything in good working order. I was not a tinkerer, so I cannot tell you much about what we had and when. I know when I arrived there was a CD player, with a grand total of five CDs that were kept under lock and key. One was a Psychedelic Furs album, as I recall. CDs were still a very high-end novelty at that point.

4. You were both a music director and a DJ. Can you tell me if you preferred one role or the other?

Not only was I the music director (my sophomore year), I was the station manager (my junior year). Even though it seemed like a natural evolution, I much preferred being the music director. In 1987/88 it is safe to say that I listened to a pretty high percentage of all music that was released in the English-speaking world, which was a pretty remarkable experience. I can't say that I enjoyed talking to the label representatives all that much, the folks who were paid to call snobs like me and try to encourage us to play Tracy Chapman or whatever. Snobbishness aside, it was more of a time management issue. I got dozens of calls every day, and I was a full-time student in a hard program (engineering). There was no way I could return all those calls even if I wanted to. In retrospect, during those years I erred much too far in the direction of abrasiveness and obscurity. Already my 25-year old self would not have been overly interested in listening to the radio show of my 20-year old self, I don't think.

5. How much do you think fellow WRCT DJs or music promoters shaped your musical tastes at all? 

Hugely from 1986 until about 1988. Not so much after that.

6. How much did your time at WRCT overlap with the time you were in the band Wimp Factor 14?

A tiny bit. Once I discovered I could sing and play songs, college radio took lower priority. I continued doing a radio show my senior year, but I don't remember much about it. I was probably content with a 9 am-noon slot by then.

7. Can you tell me how your zine the Cubist Pop Manifesto Came to be?

I was a co-founder of the fanzine Cubist Pop Manifesto with Brian Welcker at the beginning of my junior year, when we became roommates. I was very enamored of cut-and-paste British fanzines at the time that revolved around bands like 14 Iced Bears and the Dog Faced Hermans. In one of our first weekends we threw together the first issue in a few hours, pricing it at 25 cents. The name, of course, was the name of a single by Big Flame, a single that even to this day I have not seen, let alone own. (Hold on while I go look it up on Discogs. Under $5! Ok, I will make a point of buying it. I do have a CD which I believe compiles everything Big Flame ever did, which ironically I now find unlistenable).

We put out 6 issues during our junior year, so roughly one a month. As we went along we started
writing actual articles and printing more copies, so the time and money invested went up a bit. Maybe by number 6 the cover price was up to 60 cents or even 75. Tom Hoffman, who replaced me as music director at WRCT and later would play drums in Wimp Factor 14, the Karl Hendricks Trio, and a few others, also became a contributor (and eventually, a roommate).

In the spring of 1989 our ambitions grew to releasing records by bands we liked, starting a band, and, specifically in Brian's case, opening a live venue. The venue was the Sonic Temple, a natural name for something occupying a former Masonic Temple. I can't speak for Brian, but I think it was way too much. Keep in mind we were also juniors in a tough engineering program, his (computer) harder than mine (civil). Brian also took my place as station manager of WRCT around that time. Wow.

The band comprising myself, Brian and Tom we called Hat and our first show was at the Sonic Temple opening for Galaxie 500. It was a weeknight and it was their first tour; I think they only had one 7-inch out at the time (Tugboat). There were about 10 people in attendance. Dean Wareham later described this event in his memoir Black Postcards and Cubist Pop Manifesto got a mention. Page 32, you can look it up.

8. Can you tell me about the records you released?

I don't remember the exact sequence of events, but somewhere around this time we agreed to release records by a couple of our favorite Pittsburgh bands: the Crow Flies and Special Ed. The first was a 7-inch with a simple photocopied sleeve and a run of 500 copies that sold well,. The second was a full-color album with shrink wrap and a sticker with a promotional quote and a lyric sheet insert and a run of 1,000 copies that hardly sold at all. Between that and the Sonic Temple, the fanzine suffered and after a few months I got impatient one weekend and threw together issue 7 with whatever was in the folder at the moment. That didn't go over well with Brian and before I knew it we weren't speaking. It seems weird in retrospect, but like so many creative breakups, lack of sleep was probably a primary cause. Issue 8 was kind of the flip side of issue 7 -- Brian threw it together one weekend without my involvement. Actually, "threw together" is not the right phrase because as I recall it had the best production quality of any of them.

I moved out (to a house a block away) right around the time the Special Ed bill came due. Money was definitely another part of the problem. Brian seemed to have the resources to fund these endeavors, but I did not. As I recall I had $500 to my name and I gave Brian $400 of it for Special Ed. The total cost was something like $2,800, so it was nowhere near a 50-50 split.

(As I'm writing this, I'm playing that album, for maybe the first time in 30 years. Few seemed to like it at the time, but I still think it's pretty good. It's not like anything else I ever listened to, really, so it's hard to classify. Like a more thoughtful version of the Butthole Surfers, maybe? The record cover is even like a more thoughtful version of Hairway to Steven. I don't know what became of them. Having a record that sold very few copies must have been discouraging, but they didn't bear any financial risk beyond what it cost them to record it. A rapper named Special Ed came on the scene at the exact same time, which didn't help). I pretty much stopped going to the Sonic Temple by the summer, which means I missed Nirvana on their first tour, as much as I wish I could claim otherwise.

9. You also wrote a column "Music Talk" for The Pushcart War. Have you ever considered scanning and archiving or otherwise making those available?

Brian and I each started making our own fanzines, mine called The Pushcart War and his Rear Window. We stuck with the same size (5 ½ by 8 ½) and each lasted three issues. I haven't looked at The Pushcart War in about thirty years now, so I don't know what I'd think of it. Scanning and posting them seems like a good idea, though.

Karl Hendricks died of cancer in 2017 and Brian, Tom and I were among the hundreds that attended his wake from all over the country. Among other artifacts, Brian brought the original master copies of the Cubist Pop Manifesto issues with him all the way from Seattle and we looked through them together. Even though it was something we did fairly hastily back when we were 20 or 21, I thought they weren't too bad.

10. Did you do anything else in broadcasting again after WRCT?

For two years while in graduate school at Penn State, I did a show on the student station, WKPS. I took the perennially unpopular late-morning time slot. That's been all.

11. You later wrote for the website Saltinwound.com, 2010 - 2018, are you still writing anywhere? Or doing anything else creative you want to talk about?

Right now I have a blog inspired by postcards from the 1920s-1950s called Place Stamp Here (placestamphere.blog). I also wrote a novel in 2020, a story of three strangers who find themselves competing as teammates in an adventure race. I haven't been in a band since about 2006, which I am beginning to regret. I haven't made things easy for myself along those lines as I now live on a small island off the coast of Maine that has about 50 year-round residents.

2 comments:

  1. Just a small clarification - I don't deserve credit for co-founding the Sonic Temple. That would be Brian Welcker, Manny Theiner and Mark Choi. While I was present the landlord first showed it, in the end I invested little time and no money.

    ReplyDelete