The crushing sounds of Sunset Cobra, a metal band from God knows where (even Google shrugged), fill the climate-controlled studio as I push open a ridiculously heavy door into the grey-walled, soundproofed control room. A sentinel "On the Air" sign radiates a scarlet warning.
The long, slate desk of the studio is covered by various hunks of audio gear which are festooned with multi-colored buttons and flashing indicator lights. It's like the bridge of a ship: Macs and PCs displaying playlists and an open Facebook page for baiting live requests. A mixing board with pulsing VU meters and a staggered row of three, boom-mounted microphones hangs before the trio of men steering the vessel that is this week's High Voltage Horror Show.
Justin Edlich, head haloed by headphones pushed back casually behind his ears, is riffing with co-hosts Richard Shockey and Matt Cannizzaro. As the metal rhythms of Sunset Cobra crossfade into the more upbeat rock jams of the Atlanta-based band Drop Sonic, it doesn't take long to see -- watching them bounce funny and absurdist lines off of one another to stay loose -- that they are friends who would be doing this every night if they could.
"I'd do it for peanuts," said the 31 year-old Cannizzaro, the young one of the group.
"I'd eat more peanuts than any man alive," the 40 year-old Shockey asserted.
"If we could make money doing this and making short films, that's all I'd do," affirmed the 35 year-old Edlich. It makes a strange sense that they all look five years younger than they actually are.
While discussing the evening's playlists and the relative merits of the Wichita-based metal outfit King Shifter -- a city whose music scene figures largely in their lives -- they ask me if I have any requests. Rush is summarily dismissed by their simultaneous sidelong glances. That's not what High Voltage Horror Show is about.
The Spirit of Radio
"If somebody wants to hear 'November Rain' by Guns N' Roses, we'll give props to that song. But we won't play it," Edlich said. "If you want to hear that kind of stuff, then listen to KMOD or something."
"We're trying to out-underground the underground," said Shockey.
It wasn't long ago that everyone's means of listening to music and finding new talent was far more limited. Radio and the forms of physical media that were around 30 years ago -- vinyl being the most popular -- were pretty much it. If you were voracious, you might buy magazines like Rolling Stone or maybe Hit Parader and Circus, but chances are, if something caught on, it was largely because it got regular radio play. More rarefied musical carnivores passed around cassettes of live shows and mix tapes of obscure bands like KGB agents meeting in a solitary park, creating independent outposts of underground buzz.
The record companies liked it that way. The system of A&R and promotion -- along with the domination of album-oriented rock stations -- became a financial cash cow that had gone unchanged for decades, creating a lucrative symbiosis between the labels and radio. Discover talent, get them in rotation and put them on tour. It was a simpler model for a simpler time.
Then it became 1999. That's when the glaciers called the Internet and Napster ripped into the hull of their Titanic business model. Suddenly, bootlegger and mix-tape culture seemed like a mere itch compared to the gushing wound that was (and is) millions of people downloading the labels' lifeblood for free. The major, old-world institutions had no idea how to handle it. Instead of suing the likes of Napster out of existence and adopting their digital distribution model, they just sued.
It was a short-sighted move. Trying as hard as they could to maintain their old ways, the major labels and their lobbyists, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), cast themselves out of a seminal moment in technological history.
Instead of shifting with the times, they let other companies set themselves up as middlemen (I'm looking at you, Apple) in the digital distribution landscape, only to wait for the inevitable sound of the camel's back breaking when they realized that licensing their music was the only real way to avoid financial ruin.
While the labels even stooped to suing fans, incurring their scorn -- and counterproductively, more piracy -- the idea that consumers would generally pay for something that they could get for free if it were a legitimate product had not crossed their bean-counting minds.
The movie industry learned that lesson much more quickly when broadband became commonplace, enabling the download of whole movies in minutes. Netflix and Hulu were born.
And now, here we are: physical media is dying, and there's a shitload of streaming services from Pandora to Spotify (about which UTW music writer G.K. Hizer recently said, "It's six flavors of awesome. Imagine your iTunes just exploded. For the better.") that will let you listen to almost anything you like for free. Music can be bought quickly and cheaply through iTunes and Amazon and stored on any portable device -- which can hold thousands of albums -- and be streamed on a home network. It's amazing that Starship and The Vinyl Countdown still exist (though, thankfully, they do).
Bands bypass studios entirely by distributing directly to their fans, while the network for discovering new artists has expanded a thousand-fold. Cable subscriptions come with hundreds of music channels broken down by genre. Terrestrial radio has gone online, with thousands of streaming stations from all over the world (want to listen to local Croatian folk/pop? There's a station for you). The advent of subscriber-based satellite radio (and Howard Stern going to it) legitimized a new paradigm for radio that was as seminal a shift as cable television breaking away from the traditional networks in the late '70s. It's not Radio. It's Sirius.
And with all of that choice -- an almost crushing amount of fragmentation that either democratizes or devalues music, depending on your point of view -- something is lost. Being able to listen to a late-night radio show outside of the car, to music programmed with a sense of exclusivity, personality and vision and with songs that aren't being recycled every 20 minutes between epic commercial blocks on corporate stations is one reason that listening to alternative radio seems almost nostalgic.
The last bastion for this ideal is public, college radio.
In Tulsa, there is only one well-known college radio choice, KRSC, based out of the Rogers State College campus at Claremore. Over the years, they've been a great outlet, embodying the spirit of indie radio. I can remember hearing Modest Mouse there for the first time, long over a decade ago.
The University of Tulsa's two stations, KWTU (which plays classical music) and KWGS (the local NPR outlet), don't offer music that is generally popular amongst anyone under 40. That leaves KRSC as the lone beacon for new, indie music. At least over the air.
The Grid is Tulsa Community College's radio station (full disclosure: this author also works for the college) and is an online-only affair.
They run playlists from College Music Journal's Top 200 Chart, though they also produce specialty programming throughout the week, ranging from sports talk to Spanish cultural interests, a jazz show hosted by the station manager Ed Taylor, and "Student Voices," which deals with insights into college life. High Voltage Horror Show was the first program conceived for the station.
Edlich and his long-time friend and co-worker Scott Kendrick were already playing around with streaming radio as a nerdy hobby when TCC completed the multi-million dollar Center for Creativity, a new addition to the downtown campus meant to house the arts and broadcasting programs of the college -- and which also included a brand new radio studio.
"We had set up a super obscure station with one old streaming unit," said Edlich, explaining the inception of the show. "When the new Nine Inch Nails album that was freely downloadable came out, we started finding all the stuff we could that was royalty-free. So we were putting stuff like that on our streaming station and Ed [Taylor] decided to ask us to test out the new studio."
Insert Name Here
Edlich was already a natural for this sort of thing. A jack-of-all-trades, he had dabbled in diverse pools: performing in metal bands, rebuilding arcade games, creating Jerky Boys-inspired cassettes produced and passed amongst friends, along with copious video work. He was part of the Beef Baloney troupe whose show aired on FOX23 from 2003-4 and has been a perennial participant in the 24 Hour Video Race with his friends, Kendrick and Shockey, among an orbiting group of others. With his gravel-voiced, laid-back tone and his inherently sarcastic delivery, DJ became another obvious talent to explore.
"It [the studio] was just sitting there all day not even playing music, it was dead air for about three months," Edlich said. "So Scott and I were like, 'Why don't we go in there for a couple of hours a day, do some skits, find funny things on the Internet, things from movies that were obscure or interesting and play some tunes that nobody ever heard?' Eventually, we started having people come in on the show, like Richard."
Richard Shockey, another long-time friend and family man, was already the resident program director for Edlich's own, now defunct site, JustinEdlich.com. His "Music for the Masses" section offered an eclectic range of underground and local acts and seemed to be updated with the fierce regularity of an obsessive whose knowledge is a badge of honor.
"I used to make mix-tapes, so it's sort of the same thing. You hear something you think people might like and think, 'why not give it to them?'" Shockey said.
"He'd hear about one band and then oh there's this other band, and he'd find all this stuff and it just spins off in a hurry," Edlich said. "But he was doing that anyway. If he could, he'd probably sit around the house and play chess and listen to new stuff all day."
For the first 40 episodes, High Voltage Horror Show was just Edlich with Kendrick working as his straight man and natural sidekick, though Shockey started programming "early on."
It wasn't polished, as the would-be DJ's were learning the ins and outs of broadcast entertainment. When Kendrick had to run the show alone one night due to Edlich being ill, the results were mostly music.
"That show was entirely Scott," Shockey recalled. "He'd say, 'This is Gorillaz' and that was it." The memory sparks a chorus of laughter, including Kendrick's.
Remember That OSU Kid That Napster Took To Court? Here he is, still so broke he can’t afford a 21st-century monitor, the poor bastard.
"I'm like, 'Uh, I don't have anything to feed off of here, here's another song'", said Kendrick, sheepishly grinning.
But as they fell into their roles, the show became smoother, funnier, and more professional. With the addition of Shockey, the musical rotation became more varied, never having played the same song more than twice. And with more contributors came more ideas.
"We'd do theme shows," said Shockey, "It helps spark different sorts of music ideas. One show was just called Animals so we'd play anything involving giraffes, cats, dung beetles. That kind of thing gets the people on Facebook into it because they're like 'here's one you didn't think of.'"
Aside from the themed shows, they bring on the occasional guests, as well.
"We've got some guys with a comedy troupe called Juskiers from OKC that do some stuff with us," Edlich said. "They'll call in and do characters. There're just so many facets to the show."
Earlier this year, just as High Voltage was earning an identity and finding its stride, it all came to an abrupt end.
Ever since the beginning of streaming radio, the labels have been exerting as much of their lost leverage as possible in the realm of licensing fees -- as it turns out, very unequally.
With the passing of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998, Congress established a concept called "Willing Buyer, Willing Seller" as a standard for determining how royalties are set for Internet radio as well as other, then-burgeoning forms of digital transmission of copyrighted music.
Terrestrial radio rates remained set by the Copyright Act of 1976, and the RIAA created a new division which was later authorized by Congress in 2003. Called SoundExchange, the new division was tasked with collecting royalties from satellite, Internet radio and television channels; at rates that far exceeded those of terrestrial radio and which made getting into the streaming radio business ridiculously cost-prohibitive at best, initially killing innovation in what should be a booming, new distribution landscape.
As a result of broadcaster outcries, The Copyright Royalty and Distribution Reform Act was passed, which established a three-judge panel, appointed by the Library of Congress, who were to set royalty rates. Dubbed the CRB, they were to presumably level the playing field, but instead assigned royalties so steep that they exceeded many companies' entire yearly revenue. Further political pushback against the unequal paradigm prompted the Webcaster Settlement Act of 2009, which allowed broadcasters to directly negotiate with SoundExchange for lower rates.
Even so, today, an online radio giant like Pandora still pays out over 50 percent of its revenues in royalties, all while operating a free, ad-supported service. The Internet Radio Fairness Act of 2012 is currently languishing in Congress and not expected to go anywhere any time soon, primarily due to music industry resistance.
It was this state of affairs that knocked High Voltage off the air for months -- when their budget couldn't cover royalty costs until the start of the fiscal year.
While everyone wants artists to get paid, the industry resistance has less to do with artist compensation and more to do with their bottom line. When non-profit student radio falls victim to corporate whims, there's clearly something broken in the realm of copyright.
Is There Anybody Out There?
The four-month hiatus wasn't the only parting of ways. After 45 episodes, Scott Kendrick dropped out, owing to the break and other, more personal issues.
"The last one we did with Scott was called 'Everyone's a Dick,'" recalls Edlich. "I called it that because I kind of pissed this dude [Kendrick] off. When we were told that the show was going to be cancelled for a while because of licensing and copyright problems, I had this bad attitude and I called these dudes a dick which made him mad. I was kind of out of line. But by that point, he had other things going on."
"I weaseled in and took over," Shockey said with a laugh.
When the funding was restored, they took on Matt Cannizzaro as an intern and third, deadpan voice. Their time slot switched from a less atmosphere-friendly afternoon show to a Tuesday night, 7-9 pm slot. Rock radio always works better at night. But their audience is still limited to whomever they can reach themselves.
High Voltage was The Grid's first show. Even now that there is a wider swath of programming, theirs is still the highest-rated program, though that is relative.
"Nobody knows about it, and we don't have any way to get it out there except Facebook." Edlich lamented. On a good night, they might get 30 or 40 unique IPs that indicates live, active listeners spread out across America and Europe.
"Most people just download it later since they don't have time to listen to it live. It doesn't fit in their schedule," Shockey said. It seems defragmentation extends beyond taste and into the audience's time-shifting whims.
In the interest of promoting the show and the bands they feature, High Voltage works directly with artists to bring them to Tulsa, using the show as a springboard to spread awareness of both. To date, they've hosted six High Voltage Live shows -- with regional and local bands like Surfacer, Black Gasoline, R.L. Jones, New Imperialism, Badroot and Woebegone, among others, at venues ranging from Soundpony, Downtown Lounge, Crystal Pistol, and even Edlich's house (his wife, Amy, is very supportive, it would seem).
"The one at the house was the biggest one. It was outrageous, like 120 people," Edlich mused. "But we play tons of local bands from here, OKC and Wichita. That's kind of our area. We just want to not play what's already on the radio and expose people to new music that they might love as much as we do."
And while the college provides the bandwidth for the show, they appear to be fairly (and fortunately) hands-off about the proceedings, affording Edlich, Shockey and Cannizzaro a freeform sensibility to emphasize what gets them excited. Aside from standard FCC regulations ("It's very difficult to find music these days that's totally clean," Cannizzaro noted) the show is very much an underground sandbox for the group's musical and comedic whims.
"I personally think it's cooler to fly under the radar. You get away with more," Kendrick said.
To which Edlich states the obvious. "It's college radio, man. It should be the most liberal form of entertainment. Nothing should be too subversive."
The High Voltage Horror Show, along with Tulsa Community College's other radio programming can be found on The Grid at www.tulsacc.edu/thegrid
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