Monday, September 21, 2020

Dig Up The Roots

It was a decade ago when I first encountered Dig Up The Roots. It was a radio show on 90.3 KFAI which ran from 2004 to 2011. The name or the program was very memorable, and I wrote it in a magazine article comparing a few Triple A discovery programs of that era. (At the moment I can't remember who I wrote that for.) As the tin says "The name references research and discovery. Finding the roots of roots music and the process that leads to something unexpected and wonderful. The show jumped around in the nether regions of recorded audio history – roots music."  

My mind wandered back to the program recently. I was very pleased to find both playlists and audio online, so could experience it the same way I had over a decade ago. I reached out to Greg Carr, it's host and he was not just open to an interview but wrote thought out responses to my questions complete with source material and links. For that reason I've opted to post it unedited, with only slight reformatting. I have done a lot of interviews over the years but Greg quite literally wrote this one for me!

1. Can you tell me how you got your show Dig Up The Roots on KFAI?

Programs on KFAI are selected by a programming committee who listen to the programs submitted, and then choose which one they feel fits the available time slot best. I had developed the proposal for this program years before while working at a LITE-Country radio station, hoping to be able to get away from the awful music we had to play. Years later I reworked the idea and presented it to KFAI. They liked it and put it on the air in 2004. An overall theme of the show was to dig up the roots of the music and performers featured, in order to try and give the music played more of a context: historically, chronologically, artistically. My Dig Up the Roots blog has a small portion, 26, of these shows posted online. I have the majority of these shows recorded but not available online yet.

2.  You have posted playlists all the way back to 2004. How do you feel the program changed over it's full run from 2004 – 201? 

I’d like to think it became more focused and tighter in the production, and better informed in presenting the subject matter. Sadly, I never got any better at pronouncing names. Playing music for people is fun, at least it should be. The priority was always to create something that would be enjoyable and informative to listen to. Something that people would look forward to hearing every week, and that I looked forward to doing.

3. I get the impression from recordings of Dig Up The Roots, that this was not your first show. Can you tell me when and where your first radio show was?

 My first radio show was in college on KGLT, at Montana State U in Bozeman. I began volunteering there in 1982 and had an overnight show from 1983 through 1984 called Part of the New America.
I began volunteering at KFAI in Minneapolis in the spring of 1985 and am still somewhat involved, although I have no interest in doing a weekly show at this time. I have DJ’d and hosted three shows; served several terms on the Board of Directors; and have been involved with training, programming and digital editing / production. The three shows I had were:

  • Technological Retreat was an overnight experimental show from 1985 – 1989
  • Musica Mundana was an International music show that I co-hosted from 1990 – 1994
  • Dig Up the Roots was on from 2004 – 2011

 4. The playlists of Dig Up The Roots ranges from experimental jazz to to Brazilian roots music to archival folk music recordings. How much of this is your personal taste, and how much is the educational thematics of the program?

100% of both. At KFAI, both then and now, the volunteer programmers have complete control over the content of their programs. KFAI also has a phenomenally diverse music library and schedule; never being type-casted into any particular format, style or language. This gave me continual exposure to many styles of music I never would have heard. I enjoy music. I like listening to it. Finding out the where’s and the why’s and how’s and the who’s of music. I enjoyed talking about and sharing trivia regarding the music playing. “Useless facts from the world of wax.”. Something brief and entertaining that helps to place it into a larger context and can enhance the experience of discovery. It was also an enjoyable way of indulging my inner archivist.

5.Were there artists you encountered through the program that have still stuck with you?

Absolutely. I wouldn’t even know where or how to begin making a list. Music is experiential and only works when you listen to it, and the more you listen, the more rabbit holes you find that lead you elsewhere. For example:

  • Following the name of a session musician into unknown territory
  • Discovering the significance of a record label or recording studio
  • Focusing on one calendar year around the world
  • An unknown warm-up band or concert that leaves one sonically cleansed

This question fits well with your second question regarding the changes in the program over its tenure. While researching and putting together individual programs, I was able to hear and see a lot of music I had never heard before. On occasion I would discover a performer or a style that would just stop me in my tracks. TARRAB music from Zanzibar and the East African diaspora, for example. A style of music, a place, and lifestyles I have absolutely no connection with, yet this music makes my soul sing and feel deeply fulfilled. Go figure.

6. Do you feel you program was at all influenced by other contemporary AAA exploratory radio programs like American Routes on NPR, or Radio Heartland on 91.1 KNOW?

No, not really. I became aware of American Routes after I had begun Dig Up the Roots, and Radio Heartland didn’t exist then. American Routes has all those amazing interviews and live performances available to them through NPRs resources, which is not something I had, or could do really. I also wanted to play music from all over the world

7. I know you had another program Technological Retreat. It's tenure overlapped with Dig Up The Roots. What can you tell me about that unusual archival project?

 Actually, Technological Retreat and Dig Up the Roots were done in different centuries! Technological Retreat aired between 1985 – 1989, was a five-hour, over-night program that was on Sunday night – Monday morning from 1am – 6am.  This archival project is focusing on the sound collage portions of the show. For a much more detailed description of these, go to question 11. I have 100+ cassette tape recordings from this show, and recently spent a winter digitizing them all. As of this writing, I have posted 15, one-hour podcasts that highlight, in chronological order, these mixes. The following quote is from the online, one-sheet page for my CD that INNOVA Records (the recording label for The American Composers Forum) released in 2005. 

“Long before mash-up, Carr worked multiple turntables, tape loops, field recordings, and sundry effects into “surreal radio minced with audio minglings and mutant responses…” mixed live into free-form sound collage”
8. How did you get written up in The Mississippi Rag?

Will Shapiro wrote a column called Jazz in the Heartland, for The Mississippi Rag, a regularly published paper / magazine about jazz. He was a listener to the show, and he, like you, sent me an email asking for an interview. The show he profiled was an audio trip exploring the Mississippi River that coincided with a number of large functioning river boats stopping in St Paul during late June of 2004.

9. What can you tell me about your Frames and Grooves project? It seems to take your audio work to event spaces.

This is a collaborative project I do with my wife, who is the Frames part, where I am the Grooves part. “Thematic Video and Sound presentations – Wallpaper of the Digital Age”. A good example of this was a corporate party we did with a “Vintage Hawaiian” theme. She performs a changing live-mix video background, assembled from a large amount of public domain footage as well as still images to create what she refers to as digital wallpaper. Nice to look at but not what you put all of your attention into. While she does this, I play music. For a several year period we did this monthly for a reoccurring, live puppet, kid’s show called “Ukulele Alley” where the star of the show was a Ukulele puppet named Luke. There would be live musical guests, audience sing-alongs, bad jokes, funny dialog, old cartoons and records. I described it as a cross between Hee-Haw and Sesame Street. My wife described it as more of a cross between Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Prairie Home Companion.

10. I also see that you digitize archival audio formats as Audio Archeology. Tell me about how you got into "dead media".

I’ve always been a collector / archivist, and have a wide range of interests. Growing up, I listened to my parent’s records and watched old black & white movies on TV. We had a car with an 8-track player, and I once got a Sear’s cassette recorder for Christmas in grade school. During Jr High, I proudly pushed the AV cart around from room-to-room, and then what was even more fun, operated the equipment! This included a film strip projector and a record player-- the mid-20th century multi-media system. I got to play the record and advance the film strip when the record went BOOOP. I had been trained to edit and use Reel to Reel tape at KGLT and KFAI and always found them very fun to experiment with, and still have mountains of cassette tapes. I began collecting 78 RPM records in the early 1990s when I bought an old turntable with the motivation of making a Dreamachine. If you don’t know about Brion Gysin and The Dreamachine, well… you should look them up! Anyway, dead media. When home computers with digital media capabilities came out in the mid to late 1990’s, I realized, with the help of a good friend, that I wanted to learn how to do this and got a degree in Multi Media and Web Design. I’ve been working with digital media ever since. Audio restoration and remastering are what I enjoy doing the most.

I have always been interested in the more unique, weird things that our culture produces and by-passes. I have many recordings of music and that I know are not commercially viable and would have no chance of being remastered and bought in a store. So, I wanted to be able to do that myself. Being able to do this and have a radio show allowed me to share a lot of material with the listeners, material that most people will never have personnel access to. 

Audio Archeology is the name of the business / service I do transferring and restoring other people’s recordings. Many of the projects were recordings of family members. Did you know there were phono – recording booths, just like photo booths, in many bus stations, department stores and vacation destinations? You would sing a song, or say hello or goodbye, and then get a bad sounding waxy cardboard record. Now, these sit around with the lost sounds of dead relatives visiting the New York World’s Fair, or in a bus station in Chicago on the way to being deployed in Korea, or singing Happy Birthday to someone far away. Like old photo albums gathering dust in a forgotten drawer, these recordings sit silently until they are heard again. There is so much old, strange and wondrous material trapped in old formats.

11. What can you tell me about your sound collages and involvement with the Musical Transportation Spree cassettes. [LINK]

I know that I didn’t invent the concept of sound collage, playing more than one thing at a time, creating a layered sound, but I certainly went to town with it. I now believe that I developed my ideas through the radio DJ practice of cueing up the next record. This process involves cueing up the next record while playing a track and hearing the brief overlap of the two tracks. An essential skill for a DJ. Sometimes this overlap would sound great or be so weird that it would catch my attention. The other influence was the world itself. The following is from the liner notes of the CD that INNOVA Records released in 2005:

“That one sound. All the sounds. All those sounds at once coming and going and coming back in different ways than they came in. Or something like that. Walk down the street talking to someone and a plane goes overhead as traffic goes by and there’s different music and talking coming out of different places all at the same moment as a dog barks and a plane goes overhead. This is what the world sounded like to me, that’s what I was trying to recreate with the radio studio every week, my response to the continual mix of sounds that was the world in the mid 1980’s. One sound wasn’t enough because there was always more going on. I called them sound collage. Material taken from record and tape collections, field and bridge and building and original recordings. Like any collage, the pieces are the medium for creating a new work. I used preexisting recordings as the raw material for creating my own sound collages.

I had a Tascam Porta 1 which was a 4 Track, DBX quality, 10 – C battery powered portable tape recorder. I would take this everywhere and record as many of the sounds of the city as I could. Fill up one track, flip the tape and fill that. Do that twice more or variations. Bring these tapes into the radio station every week and play them as sound beds. So many times, the random combination of sounds would be incredible. 4 Track and a few small audio effect boxes and some cables. I’d plug my stuff into the studio patch bay and rewire the studio for a few hours every week. There is part of a magazine article about the sculptor Giacometti still pasted on my digital delay: “His best work he believes, is done after hours and hours of work, when he is so tired that his intelligence has lost control.” Who was up and listening to the radio at 2:30 in the freaking morning on a Sunday night? Normal people were sleeping because they had to go to work in the morning. Who was up? People getting out of bars, artists working in unheated studios, freaks, third-shifters, cab drivers, students, addicts and alcoholics; hospital, prison and warehouse workers among others. A perfect audience for presenting something out of the ordinary to.

It was fun. It was the most consistent and sustained fun I’ve ever had. I would mix until I was too tired to concentrate, then just play one piece of music at a time, like a regular radio show. It would also take some time to unplug and rewire the station back to its normal state. Besides, who wants to wake up to the sounds of my brain spilling out? Not the people who were waking up between 5:00AM & 6:00 AM on Monday. There were two very distinct audiences for the show, and I tried to cater to and respect both. Radio used to be a time specific medium.They could be moments or last for an hour or more. The mixes were not dance or sample-based mixes, more like soundtracks or Mood Music on the edge.”

The Musical Transportation Spree was a radio show my friend Jerry Modjeski produced. He was also a charter member of the group of late-night weird DJ’s at KFAI and collaborated with the Little City in Space series. My involvement with Jerry’s projects were nearly always to work the mixing board – the controls of the radio station. He would have very elaborately scripted shows with guests, multiple sketches, interviews, musical segments, sound effects etc. He operates very differently than I do and we always have gotten along. I will occasionally digitize and post media files for him.

12. Any future radio plans you want to tell me about?

No new radio ideas now. I would like to finish going through my old ideas first. There is still enough material left from the Technological Retreat tapes for at least ten more, one-hour podcasts, and I would like to get that project completed. I’m biased, but even after thirty plus years and critically listening and editing these recordings, I still think they sound good and surprisingly contemporary.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Smallest Radio Station in Los Angeles


Back in May of 2015 LA Weekly ran the story "L.A.'s Smallest Radio Station, 97.5 KBUU, Broadcasts Out of a Malibu Bedroom."  Station founder Hans Laetz figured prominently. Thought probably well-intended, it also described that radio station in the same terms you might describe a basement-dwelling teenager playing Minecraft.

"The KBUU-FM radio studio is in a ranch-style tract house, on a cul de sac on one of Malibu's few suburban-style streets. In what used to be Emily Laetz's bedroom, the detritus of a recently moved-out kid is everywhere. Puka shell necklaces hang near the door and a stack of Malibu High School yearbooks is piled on the desk, along with an LP (The Doors' Greatest Hits) and a wadded up clump of bathing suit. On the wall are a tide calendar from 2011 and a homemade a poster that says “Big Dume September 2007.”

In an era of tiny houses this tiny station begins to sound positive, perhaps even trendy. The article (which was actually very good) went on to to cite more tiny things about KBUU:

  1. It the only local radio station in Malibu
  2. It’s the smallest radio station in greater Los Angeles (by wattage)
  3. It's the smallest NPR affiliate in the world [here and here]

I think we should look at the merits of those claims currently and in a historical context because that's what we're here for.  So excluding repeaters below is a list of all the LPFMs in the Los Angeles area. As you can see, KBUU's 71 watts has 95% more watts than the three smallest (KFEP, KLDB, and KZUT) but in terms of pure wattage, ignoring HAAT, they still rank 10th in a field of 16 LPFMs at least nominally in the Los Angeles MSA. 

But KFEP only got their CP in 2019, that's years after that article ran. It's the same case with KLDB and KZUT was only a little earlier with a January 2018 CP. The closest was KZKA which was granted in 2016, and KQEV which was granted in November 2015, that's a mere 7 months after KBUU went on air with their original 2014 CP.

96.7 KGAP 50 Los Angeles
97.5 KHUG 100
99.1 KFEP 3 Los Angeles
99.1 KLDB 3 Los Angeles
99.1 KZUT 3 Los Angeles
99.1 KTPC 50 Venice
99.1 KWSC 100 Simi Valley
99.1 KWSV 7 Chatsworth
99.1 KLBP 100
Long Beach
101.5 KQBH 50
Los Angeles
101.5 KQSG 100
El Monte
101.5 KROJ 50
Panorama City
101.5 KZKA 25
Los Angeles
101.5 KHBG 100
104.7 KQEV 48
107.9 KQRU 100
Santa Clarita

KBUU hit the news again in 2019, when the FCC ruled cited them for operating at an unauthorized power on an unauthorized channel. That is a total no-no and can result in some big fines. Instead, the FCC lowered the fine to a more modest $6,000 and then waived it entirely stating "...we will cancel the forfeiture for inability to pay and instead admonish Zuma for the violations."  [SOURCE] That's not usually how that story ends. One gets the impression they're doing something right.They are still the only local station in Malibu.

KBUU has come leaps and bounds since it's initial CP. They were briefly the smallest radio station in Los Angeles but are no longer. Instead they led a trend of fully legal micro-broadcasters in the metro. In 2018 KBUU was granted two construction permits for boosters to further improve its signal in the Malibu area: one at 19 watts and another at a mere 2 watts. When it is constructed, the latter will be the smallest booster in the greater Los Angeles area.

Sunday, September 13, 2020


I'd like to open by quoting band leader Jack Norton, who literally wrote the book on Fisher. The 800+ page paperback Cornstars: Rube Music in Swing Time was published in 2020. More here.

"[Freddie Fisher] was a man who possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and pop music and had such a profound respect for the music that he simply had to make it his own and in doing so he inverted our understanding of jazz, of pop culture, of social taboos. Freddie Fisher made comedy into a high art and literally farted in the face of progressive jazzers and rich tourists everywhere."
Freddie "Schnickelfritz" Fisher is an anachronism today. The last popular comedic musician is probably Weird Al. Back in the 1980s there was a brief resurgence of comedic music in the tiny sub-genre of "joke-thrash" including bands like Scatterbrain, Gwar, Mr Bungle, Musky Pup, and Ugly Kid Joe. The rest of the silliness seems to have been relegated to the kids music section. Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa are already long behind us. But back in the 1920s and 1930s we were awash in "novelty orchestras" and in the 1940s comedic music continued to be big. It wasn't just Spike Jones. The culture of the era permitted artists to record silly singles alongside more romantic jingles. So it was also the Hoosier Hot Shots, Al Jolson, Fats Waller, Eddie Cantor and let's not skip Freddie "Schnickelfritz" Fisher.

The word Schnickelfritz derives from the Pennsylvania Dutch, from a cognate of the German word schnickschnack meaning chatter. It is a term of endearment meaning rascal, or scamp, but more literally something like "chatterbox." But Freddie wasn't from the Amish country. He was born and reared on a farm in Lourdes, IA. Before you Google it, that's 60 miles North East of Mason near nothing in particular.

Miggs Durrance (1957)
His father wanted him to play the piano, and somehow they compromised on a clarinet. Little did he know that Freddie would go on to record two hundred songs for Decca. When he was 21 Freddie got a job in an Orpheum Circuit band.  Starting around 1934, he led the house band at the Sugar Loaf Tavern. They began playing on KWNO. Adverts from 1934 list the band as "Schnickelfritz and his band." Their corn pone shtick included comedy and music a bit of horseplay and a lot of innovative percussion instruments. They spent over two years there.

In 1937 they began recording for Decca. They made live appearances on KSTP and WEAF. After a time they made the big move and relocated the group to St. Paul, where they played at the Midway. It was there that Rudy Vallee caught the increasingly popular show and signed them up for their first film appearance. He would go on to appear in at least 12 films between 1938 and 1949. More here.

That first film appearance too the group to Hollywood. But while they were in Hollywood, the band fell apart. There was some kind of rift between Stan Fritt and Freddie Fisher. Fisher got a little more screen time in that first film, but later Rudy Valee invited Fritt to appear on WOW without Fisher.  

The schism eventually created two bands: The Korn Kobblers, and Freddie Fisher's Schnickelfritzers. There was regarding the use of the original name. It seems that Stan wanted to call the band The Original Schnickelfritzers. Freddie sued, and they backed off,  but he still had to start over.  Freddie stayed in Hollywood a while and his new band began a residency at a jazz club called the Radio Room at 1539 Vine Street right in Hollywood. They continued to tour but some of the magic was gone. Freddie even recorded a few straight jazz tunes like Mood Indigo.

Maybe it was charisma, or maybe his business acumen, but Stan Fritt took most of the band members with him and moved to the east coast, where they formed the Korn Kobblers. They continued to record for Okeh and Decca and they were relatively successful. The Korn Kobblers probably peaked during their 1948-49 television show Kobb's Korner on CBS. It aired Wednesday evenings over 175 radio stations. More here.

In 1952 (or 1954) Fisher quit professional music and opened a fix-it shop of sorts in Aspen, Colorado.  It is a town that appreciated it's eccentrics. reputedly it was a part junkyard and part inventor’s shop. He started a less ambitious band with his son, King Fisher and played the Red Onion locally. Those that were unfamiliar with his musical career knew him from his cranky and profane letters to the editor of The Aspen Times. In 1974 many of those letters and a collection of anecdotes were collected into the now somewhat rare book Fisher the Fixer.

In 2004 Jack Norton organized a tribute to Freddie Fisher on what would have been his 100th birthday. [SOURCE] On Friday, June 11th, they appeared on KFAI in Minneapolis and played two Schnickelfritz recordings.  To top that off they also played a shows at the Arts Center Acadia Cafe and Theatre in Minneapolis and held a screening of rare films featuring Freddie Fisher and the band.

Monday, September 07, 2020

An Intermodulation Primer

Even though you probably have not heard of Intermodulation distortion, you have already heard intermodulation distortion (IMD). But this is something you might not readily recognize in all it's multifaceted forms. Engineers work to minimize IMD because people find it significant more objectionable than harmonic distortion. (Be aware that this is a somewhat contention topic but explaining why is complicated because of semantics and physics.) This gets mathy but I'm going to steer away from the graphing calculator an try to keep this human-readable.

Let's start with the cause of intermodulation distortion. There is only one direct cause: the non-linear behavior of the signal processing equipment or algorithms. But indirectly it's the nonlinear input of that equipment or algorithm causes it to output that intermodulation distortion. That troublesome input is a "nonlinearity."  That definition is unfortunately very circular.  But in that nonlinear relationship, the output is not proportional to the input. This may be phrased that change in the input signal is not proportional to change in the output signal. That's semantics.  This is literally all that defines nonlinearity. That nonlinear input can just be a time variance, or multiple signal input. This may for example create a harmonic in the output audio to be filtered away like just another spurious signal.
There are reasons why intermodulation distortion is more abrasive to the human ear than harmonic distortion. A nonlinearity (like nonlinear electrical loads) produces harmonic distortion when driven by a single sine wave with a single frequency ('pure' singe wave). That same nonlinearity produces IMD when driven by anything more complex than a single pure sine wave. But do you ever have a pure sine wave in the real world?  Nope. Pure Sine waves exist in hypothetical math to help people like me learn how to run functions on a graphing calculator. Intermodulation distortion is what harmonic distortion becomes when you leave the lab and enter the real world. In application there are many types of IMD, below are three types which you can readily identify with your car radio:

Cross Modulation
When you are listening to a distant FM station while driving past AM station's radio tower you can sometimes year both stations.  That is Cross Modulation, a fun form of IMD. An FM receiver is designed to receive one station at a time (See capture effect below). So if you get two FM signals it will only demodulate the stronger of the two. But in this example we have one AM and one FM.  The FM signal still enters the circuit through the front door. But with such close proximity the receivers RF amplifier acts as a rectifier varying its bias point. The amplifier's gain changes rapidly because of the two signals effectively modulating the distant FM station's signal at the rate of the AM signal. That mixed signal is then processed by the receivers demodulator as an FM signal having two audio messages superimposed one on the other.

Capture Effect
Remember that FM receivers are designed to receive one station at a time?  That's largely controlled with the Capture Effect In FM receivers.  When fed two FM signals, the Demodulator will only extract (capture) the strongest of competing signals. But some FM receivers have a weak point. When driving between two FM transmitters on the same frequency somewhere around the midpoint (depending on signal strength) the captured station will alternate sometimes so rapidly that it sounds as if they are both being demodulated.

Multi-Path Interference This type of IMD is most common in the downtown area. To a degree, radio signals reflect off of flat hard surfaces. So when you drive down a street and turn a corner at the intersection the Capture Effect is alternating between different reflected signals off of the buildings, changing in both amplitude and phase sometimes cancelling and sometimes combining as you navigate. This creates interesting audio artifacts, and noise.