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Zen and the Art of Solar Broadcasting

We are delighted to offer this personal essay from Trent Wolbe, one of the finalists in the pilot round of MQ2. It’s part of a series of guest blog posts featuring some of the talented innovators among independent public media makers, people who are pushing and testing the limits of traditional broadcasting while creating new ways to tell stories, build community and engage audiences. Last month, the MQ2 blog featured Canadian animatrix Rose Bianchini. In this column, Trent tells the honest truth about his creative process, and shares his discovery that listenership is a form of friendship. ~JD

When I found out I wasn’t going to get that delicious MQ2 grant money I applied for, I went to some really dark places in my mind. But soon I realized that it wasn’t all over for me.

Although my dream of doing a series of solar-powered WFMU radio shows from exotic locales wasn’t going to shape up as I had hoped via MQ2, I did have a good head start on doing something kind of like it: a blueprint. Actually, a couple of google docs that specified how much money I’d need to fulfill my dream, and a razor-sharp written vision of what I wanted to do with that money.

So I scaled back, re-tooled, and figured out how best to utilize what I already had at my disposal: a lot of time, some cool friends, and a brief bout of good old-fashioned depression. Here is a little bit about how I maximized my ROI on each of those things.


GOOD OLD-FASHIONED DEPRESSION

The week before January 26th, 2009, I was having severe girl trouble, and spiraled into a place that I never want to visit again. I didn’t eat, didn’t sleep, didn’t leave the house; all I did was sit at my computer and listen to Fleetwood Mac all day long. That Monday, I put together a playlist of the most emotional songs I could gather, and to my surprise, it became my most popular radio show to date. I realized, hey, I am a pretty good DJ, people are sad sometimes, and I really know how to tease emotions out of a DJ set, and my audience! From that moment forward, I abandoned all other programming concepts and decided to chase one thing: pure emotion. I never looked back.

Although it seems like kind of a simple idea, it’s an angle I don’t think any other DJ on the radio has. When you listen to my show, you’ll hear from lots of different kinds of musicians, but you will never ever hear from someone who doesn’t really mean what they are saying. So, that particular show was a form of therapy for me and others, but it wasn’t enough. I still had to deal with the sleeplessness. I decided to pour every resource I had into my WFMU shows by making fun, weird events out of them.

TIME:

The world’s most valuable and under-valued resource. Depression-induced sleeplessness led to a certain type of creativity and boldness that I hadn’t experienced before. I work from home, so I did most of my venting in chat windows, or to my cat, which, while interesting, isn’t very fulfilling or cathartic. In the dead of the crappiest winter I have ever experienced, my mind was going stir-crazy with ideas for how to do fun things on my show, and it turns out that 4:30 AM is the time that my brain exhibits frighteningly little inhibition, especially in the Gmail department. I acted on nearly every impulse that came to my mind. A cooking show. We cook on air, things get wacky. OK. Game Boy Music, needs to be more of that around. Yup, whatever. Solar panels, love those things, gotta find out more about them. Need to figure out how to put those into play for the show, definitely. Good idea, but not like it will ever happen. Listeners, need to appreciate them more. Love music in Barcelona and Berlin, don’t have any money but gotta get over there, do a show. I love the beach. I love music videos...I had time to spend on this stupid stuff, and I started thinking about my great friends, and hitting “send” on weird emails to them at 5 in the morning.

COOL FRIENDS

To connect those ideas to reality, I needed to rely heavily on people with time and resources, people who shared my reckless commitment to strange projects. Luckily, I had great friends I could turn to for just these things.

I had already experimented with doing my show in remote locations: a garden in the East Village, a backyard in Austin, a crazy art space in Brooklyn.

These were great experiences, but they were first and foremost parties for the people in attendance. I wanted these events to address the listening-at-home audience as much (if not more) than the people who were there in person; I needed a script, a narrative, something to draw listeners in other than a party atmosphere. So I thought about my favorite reality broadcast entertainment outlet, The Food Network, and decided that a cooking show was in order.

FOOD TIME ON WFMU

Luckily I had an adventurous, trusting friend with a big kitchen with an island, and who also happened to be a great photographer. I also had friends who loved to cook, some of whom even had radio experience. I called them all and scripted out a broadcast around their culinary talents. I called yet another friend, Andrea Silenzi, to help me set up microphones around the frying pans and engineer the show, and things came together. It was a little rough around the edges, but it was the first live remote broadcast I had built with some sort of script – with the help of an army of friends.

A few months later, I used WFMU’s broadcast-trip to the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona to organize a broadcast from the home of some Game Boy musician-friends there.

meneo in their apartment

I also reached out to some artsy-DJ friends in Berlin who I knew loved to do things for free, and my favorite mini-celebrity-expat Momus, to see if a second European side trip might be feasible. It was; they offered up their studio for a live broadcast at 3am their time, in a disused Nazi horse stable, no less. I was able to get in two shows while across the pond, for close to no money – shows that weren’t parties so much as exposés of the music happening in each of those places.

I realized some of my most important friends were my radio listeners who contributed to WFMU’s annual fundraising marathon, so I offered them the chance to win a live remote broadcast from their homes in exchange for pledges. Loyal Listener Dave in Morristown, NJ won, became an instant friend, and offered me the very fulfilling experience of bringing audience to the airwaves in a way I hadn’t explored before.

The most important 5 am email I sent was to a friend of a friend, Chris Neidl, outreach coordinator at renewable energy arts space Solar 1. He agreed to meet with me and was super-patient as I dumped all of my MQ2 ideas and data on him. To my surprise, he thought that my idea of creating a portable solar power plant to power radio programs was a feasible idea and in line with a project he had already planned on tackling. A few months later, the Portable Solar Broadcast unit was born, and I started taking my show to new places:

wfmu's first solar-powered wireless broadcast!!!!!!!

We started off at a beach in Queens,

Went to, among other places, a self-contained ecosystem on a boat called the Waterpod with the band YACHT,

WFMU @ The Waterpod with YACHT

And ended up at the High Line Park in Manhattan, with 8-bit video game musician Minusbaby and WFMU comrade DJ/rupture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So friends: they are important, they are useful, and they are all you really have in the end.

THE HIGH EMOTIONAL REWARDS OF RADIO BROADCASTING

Throughout all of these weird travels, I’ve learned a lot about radio, but I learned even more about emotions and the relationships I have with my friends. Broadcast art is cool, but you have to keep it in perspective: it’s only useful if it makes people happy, or at least keeps them informed. Those of us involved with non-commercial radio, AIR and MQ2 often have unique perspectives on how to reach people effectively; we owe it to ourselves and our current and future audiences to do the most awesome things we can with our media, especially in the ever-weirder media landscape we inhabit today.

As makers in a field that is constantly decried as dying or dead, we also have to continue to redefine what we do as lovers of radio and expanding our definition of what radio really is. Everyone you reach with your aural message is a friend, in a way, and you’ve got to serve them as deeply as you can. They’ll pay you back in ways you never even imagined.

PS – Extra special thanks to Sue Schardt for being the best.

~by Trent Wolbe