The Genesis of
Sex & Broadcasting
Exactly forty years ago, we published what would be the ultimate version of Sex & Broadcasting: A Handbook on Building a Radio Station for the Community. As we look back on S&B and the world it helped build, we see that it grew out of the lapidarian hope we had back then for America, plus an odd belief in our ability to change it. If nothing else, it can now be seen as a relic of a less hostile environment for idealistic, unfettered, even other-worldly communication.
What the book offered was a radio how-to-do-it, the opportunity to go beyond the impenetrable guild of broadcasters, lawyers, and engineers, those who led us to believe that the means of transmission was out of reach for those without the assets and the exotic knowledge of how to implement its mystique. It took time and considerable digging to learn what was freely available to those of us with that unbearable itch to communicate.
With this, we were able to begin the process of creating radio operations free of the drear monetary chains of commercial broadcasting, and, even more, were able to move above and beyond the limited vision of the dullards who claimed "educational" or "public" broadcasting as their own.
Recently, adherents of one of the original community stations --- WFMU, operating just outside New York City --- put together a video documentary of the history and purpose of that particular station, and those who made it were kind enough to draw on some of the history of community radio. They named their effort "Sex & Broadcasting" after the book of the same name, and asked us to give some background to and the inspiration of that now ancient volume . . . even gave us a chance to explain the source of the scandalous, misleading title.
We put together a brief essay for them, telling of the roots of our inspiration, hoping to give them some sense of our particular weird and outlandish school of radio that first appeared so long ago.
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We all know that radio is evanescent. The instant after transmission all our great sound programs are nothing but electronic vapor-trails in the aether, electrons barely able to make their way to Alpha Centauri, to furrow the brow of some odd creature waiting for us up there.
For me it was different. Each of the stations I started in the 1960s or 1970s left behind, as the engineers would have it, proof of performance. It was a smudgy, offset-printed, biweekly guide to the programs, along with an essay about what radio should or could be about, how it had failed in America, how it should change. I called American radio station owners "whores." I enjoyed regularly hectoring them because no one else would.
Not being content with that, I was constantly badgering people to go out and start their own radio stations to follow our model. Fifty years ago, frequencies were just sitting there, all over the country, giant Easter eggs, waiting to be snatched up. If we could put a ratty-looking station on the air in Seattle in a broken-down doughnut shop, with a hole poked in the side of the building for a transmitter, telephone pole outside to hold our antenna, and have it heard all the way up to Vancouver, down to Portland --- then anyone could do the same in Albuquerque, or Memphis, or Milwaukee, or Kansas City, or New Orleans.
The secret I told them: Spend as little money as possible; buy, beg, or borrow nothing but the bare-bones technical equipment required by the FCC. The hell with fancy offices or studios. All that was required by law was a transmitting site, a transmitter, an antenna, and monitoring equipment. The rest was gravy: a hole in the wall to hang control boards, turntable, tape recorder, microphone, speaker. The equipment to put KRAB on the air cost less than $10,000.
Once you're on the air, I told them, start asking, immediately, for volunteers. You'll be flooded. With good souls, too. And good programming would always flow from good people --- once you start channeling your volunteers in the right direction ("We ain't here to compete with rock or background music stations, got it?")
People did hear about us, wanted to start stations. I kept getting these calls from Atlanta or Kansas City or Austin or Fresno or Salt Lake City or Tampa: How do we do it? What's the FCC? What's a form 340? What does it mean by "Legal, technical, financial qualifications?" How do you build a transmitter?
Fielding calls from people wanting to know how to do it was fun but it was taking away from my cocktail hour, so in early 1972, I wrote up a seventy-five-page booklet on our kind of radio. We printed the first edition in an offset shop, on what looked to be grocery-store paper-bag stock, with red and green and yellow inks, like those posters they were doing in San Francisco at the time.
We stapled together five-hundred copies, and titled it "Sex & Broadcasting." As I explained in the first edition, my Great Aunt Beulah had once told me that any book with the word "sex" in the title would double its sales and quadruple its readership in no time at all. This was a baldfaced lie: my Great Aunt Beulah never said any such thing, certainly not about sex. But I was taught in school to always footnote your quotes, tie them to an important institution. Beulah in her thin-lipped Puritan slightly moustached way was as much of an institution as one could ever hope for.
S&B came out at the same time as Stuart Brand's new edition of the Whole Earth Catalogue, and he nicely wove it in and soon enough we were putting out other, fatter editions. By our last printing in 1984, we had more than a few thousand copies floating around, 350 pages, scandalous graphics. A The London Times Literary Supplement review said "It certainly provides the richest account yet published of the ways in which broadcasting is experienced, by both listener and broadcaster. For all its irrelevancies and diversions, this is a wonderful book..."
By the beginning of the 1980s, after a quarter-century of radio soul-work, I was ready to move on to other pastures. I wanted to take a powder, end up in a place where I no longer had to spend my time worrying about filling all these many holes in space and time. Radio was in my blood, but it was time for me to stop bleeding all over the place.
Oh there were temptations. Shortly after I announced my retirement, our man in Washington let me know that there was an FM station just outside New York City that just might let me run it for awhile. If I really wanted. And for a moment, I thought "Why not?" I recalled the kinds of programming we had done in the early virgin years at KRAB and KTAO. Hours of what we then called "ethnic music" --- classical music of India, whole weekends of Japanese gagaku, jibaro music of Puerto Rico, black blues from the 20's and 30s from the American South, great blocks of gamelan music from Java (for years, our sign-on theme had been a six-minute selection of gamelan water music).
Then too, the classic: six to eight hour-long wedges of Bach, or Telemann, or Caldara, Louis-Claude D'Aquin, Jean-Marie Leclair, Johann Christian Schieferdecker. Romantic chamber music out the gazoo. Five or six hours a week of classic jazz. And my favorite from the earliest days of KRAB: a three hour program of Korean Buddhist Temple Bells. Straight, no chaser.
And, as always, talk programs to curl the short hairs. Ones that we had first presented (and replayed endlessly): Tim Leary's speech telling of his going off to Mexico to set up a new acid reality. An interview with John Cage in which he just laughed at my impatient queries about those famous Four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. Weekly talks by Alan Watts, "Way Beyond the West." A couple of the most stirring radio plays --- to be repeated at least once a year --- Beckett's "All that Fall" from the British Broadcasting Corporation, and, too, "Blueberry Hill" from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, things you don't want to know about persuasion, in 1942, a man locked in a room by the Geheime Staatspolizei; his wife, seen through a plate-glass window; SS waiting there with her with their probes and pliers and fists, waiting for him to spill his secrets.
Then there was our own home-grown riff by Rev. James Bevel on the reality of black life in America, a speech that almost got us fried by the Federal Communications Commission, might have lost us forever our license to broadcast. They ignored the content; they didn't like the language. Who could fault us these diatribes to befuddle or irritate our listeners --- and piss off the feds?
Oh yes: it was a brief temptation, this chance to head up a station up there in the huge jumble of people in and around The City. It almost got me to go back and do it again. My Muse was calling, but with some fortitude I told her no, no and no. I have since faithfully kept the pledge of abstinence. No more Milam radio. Let them eat cake.
So, yes, radio is still in my blood, but now, thank god, diminuendo. At eighty-three, no one expects me to do anything more than forget people's names, complain about my sacroiliac, await the Mystery there somewhere at the end of the tunnel, and make absolutely sure every day that I have not just popped off.
I do sneak around a bit to do things when no one is looking. We just put out a dynamite anthology of poetry, The Vivisection Mambo; and (under a variety of improbable noms de plume) we continue to publish our monthly online book review magazine known simply as RALPH. (When I say "we," I am paying tribute to the schizophrenic me, for there are many alternative selves hiding out here in the brain-pan where I think we may reside.)
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So here I am, biding my time, sure that now I would never dream of doing the things I dreamed of doing back then. Like the Petition that Jeremy Lansman and I cooked up together in 1974, filed with the Federal Communications Commission, an official "Petition for Rulemaking," the one that in the years that followed garnered between some 30 to 40 million letters of bitter protest. Who would ever think that we could stir up such passion with a dry government filing about broadcasting?
One day, at the peak of this onslaught of mail, I'm hiding out there in the reading room at the Federal Communications Commission doing some research on putting together yet another broadcast station, and this big black guy looms up from downstairs.
He looks at me for a bit, unblinking, and then says, "You Milam?"
"You the one did that petition?"
"Oh. The Petition."
He says, "Look, Milam. I work in the mail room. Been there for seventeen years. You want to guess what it's like, now, after your petition?"
"Do me a favor," he said, turning. "The next time you want to do some damfool thing like that . . . Don't."