Tim O'Brien at WKZE
Saturday, November 22 2003
The other day on our drive up to Albany, WKZE was giving away free tickets to one of their parlour studio sessions, so Gretchen called in on her cellphone and won a ticket for herself and a friend. WKZE is an independent radio station serving a small area, so a caller stands a chance of winning one of their giveaways. By contrast, when a Clear Channel affiliate is giving something away, you're usually in competition with a nation-wide pool of callers and you have as much chance of winning that case of Pepsi as a shittohead has of getting on the Rush Limbaugh Show.
Today was the day of the WKZE parlour session for which Gretchen had won tickets, so we drove the hour and fifteen minutes of twisty-turny rural roads to get to the WKZE studio facilities in Sharon, Connecticut. Sharon is only a mile or so inside the Connecticut border in a region of steeply rolling hills.
Sharon itself is a tiny hamlet, most of whose real estate seems to be occupied by a large village green. The WKZE studios are located in an unexceptional Victorian house in what passes for Sharon's downtown. We parked in the back and went inside. It was a bustle of activity, with other people who had won tickets arriving and various DJs milling around, all of them as famous as celebrities for those who listen to the station. I don't listen to WKZE anywhere near as much as Gretchen does. For her, all the advertisers on WKZE are also celebrities, like the businesses in the Simpsons, and with none of the ill-will that advertising, monopoly, name-changing arena sponsorship, and seal killing oil spills bring.
One of these advertisers was Little Brick House Pizza, one of the few businesses in Sharon, and they supplied the food for today's parlour session. It took the form of numerous large gourmet pies.
The parlour session itself took place in, well, the parlour, a smallish room that had no room left over once the audience took their seats and the musician, Tim O'Brien, found his way behind a thicket of microphone stands. O'Brien is veteran bluegrass/folk musician who once played with an outfit named Hot Rize. Gretchen and I had the best seats in the house, sitting in the front row only a couple feet from the O'Brien, who played without amplification.
I hadn't expected to like O'Brien's music as much as I did. He has a beautiful voice that meshes perfectly with the sounds he extracts from his instruments - this was particularly clear in a song during which he sang and played a fiddle at the same time. O'Brien's genius was such that he would take an unexpected melodic turn and I'd think, "Wow - I can't imagine anything better or more emotionally powerful at that moment." It was so powerful, in fact, that it put tears in my eyes.
O'Brien has the voice of an authentic bluegrass icon, but (as Gretchen observed) he looks like an English professor. His personality was refreshingly understated and self-effacing. He told the woman taking pictures of him that she ought to worry about the camera breaking. He also compared the tuning of a mandolin to world peace: it's worth working towards but impossible to achieve.
After the 45 minute performance, which went directly out on the airwaves live, the audience and staffers posed with the O'Brien out in front of the studios for photographs. It was a beautiful sunny day and unseasonably warm.
Later Gretchen initiated a process that took us upstairs to talk with a guy about advertising possibilities on WKZE. It was amazing how inexpensive the options were. I've always scratched my head about the usefulness of advertising, but in certain situations, such as when the demographic is like that of the listeners of WKZE and the product is as immediately relevent as my computer services, it can easily be a win-win situation for both ends of the transaction that brings it to being broadcast.
On our way out of town, Gretchen and I drove through the rest of Sharon to get a sense of a place that was itself a celebrity in Gretchen's mind. There were only a handful of businesses besides WKZE: Little Brick House Pizza, a florist, and a few others who don't advertise on WKZE (evidently because they cater to a market not attracted by WKZE's eclectic music programming). The thing that lingered in our minds about Sharon, Connecticut, its businesses, its environs, and WKZE was the scale of it all. The town is tiny, mostly devoid of franchises from the large multinational companies seeking to dominate the world. It harkens back to a day when capitalism was human-scale and small enough to drown in a bathtub. In this form of capitalism, shopkeepers know their customers and their suppliers, and everyone can respond to each other's needs. In this form of capitalism, things are too personal for the absolute triumph of the bottom line. People watch each other's backs in a way that is meaningless to a Subway franchise or a Clear Channel affiliate. Indeed, a station as small and independent as WKZE makes public radio look like a Burger King. At WKZE a few good (but quirky) people are running the station. They play from a vast (but quirky) library of music. They broadcast to a small geographic area reaching from Sharon to the Catskills. Their listeners are a small (and quirky) group of enthusiasts. The station is commercial, but for advertising revenue it depends on only a small number of small businesses. This is a policy that results in inoffensive commericials that avoid repelling a certain kind of listener, ones who tend to be politically liberal, highly educated, media-savvy, and culturally sophisticated. It's a desirable crowd for marketers, but it's also an easy one to alienate. The manager of WKZE must forever be weighing the lucrative offers of suspiciously-large companies against the need to avoid alienating the listeners. Many a fine radio station has slid down the wrong side of that slippery peak, but WKZE still commands its high ground. (They aren't always on its summit, however; on the ride to Sharon we'd heard them broadcasting a suspiciously mainstream automobile advertisement.)
On the way home we stopped for a time in the similarly humble town of Millerton, New York. Like Sharon, it's has a beautiful setting and must be some sort of living testament to the strict enforcement of zoning ordinances. While there, we checked out the larger of two Oblong Books stores, both owned by Dick Hermans, the owner and visionary of WKZE. While there, Gretchen bought a number of books, including Paul Krugman's The Great Unraveling. Paul Krugman is a genius - if his predictions should prove wrong, then history is at fault, not Paul. He's the only living person I will say that about.
Most of the drive up Dug Hill Road from the Esopus Valley passes through land belonging to Catskill State Park, and on this unseasonably warm Saturday in hunting season, it lined with the parked cars of hunters. The sun was going down as we passed and the hunters had begun stumbling out of the woods. I'm sure more than few Budweiser cans had accumulated today in the hunters' nests along the Stick Trail. Warm weather in hunting season is a curse disguised as a blessing.
Tim O'Brien in WKZE's parlour.
Dick Hermans interviews Tim O'Brien.
Roadside on the way home from Sharon.
The road home.
A different part of the road home.
things I found online:
A poorly-researched New York Times article about the adware and spyware increasingly infecting Windows computers - This article does the RIAA a service by spreading uncertainty and fear with its failure to mention Gnucleus and KaZaA Lite as crapware-free file sharing software, or the fact that one can download music without fear of RIAA trouble by simply not sharing files from your own computer. (It's as simple as a checkbox in the preferences, people!) As long as there are people with internet connections in Canada (where it's perfectly legal to share files), we'll always have access to free music. Furthermore, any article about crapware and Internet Explorer vulnerabilities that fails to mention Mozilla is worthy of an existential moan and a trip to the liquor cabinet.
A website allowing people to send messages supporting the troops in Iraq - This page doesn't give us the option of saying anything except "Thank you for defending our freedom." - a task those troops aren't necessarily performing as their legs are blown off in RPG attacks. So I did a view-source on the page hoping to find the generic message within a HIDDEN INPUT tag in the page's HTML form. If it had been, I would have provided a form allowing people to tell troops what they really want to say, but the form processor only allows people to vary their statement by saying where they're from. It's a code-enforced version of United We Stand. Love this form or get the hell out.
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