An extensive underground radio culture exists in Amsterdam, beyond the reach of art or commerce, a culture which strives to make idiosyncratic media connections. Geert Lovink surveys the free ether.
Since the early 80s, Amsterdam has boasted an extensive collection of free radio stations. These pirates work out of squatted buildings, are non-commercial and are grudgingly tolerated by the authorities. They operate in the margins of the squat movement. Now and then a station is raided, but they return to the air as quickly as they left. Involved in the beginning in squatting and other radical movements, in the mid-80s the stations went their own way and began to experiment with the medium itself. After the squat movement vanished from the city scene, the radio culture continued to develop.
After countless mergers, closings, name changes, and secessions in the direction of legal local radio, three stations were finally left. The smallest is activist radio De Vrije Keijzer (The Free Kaiser), which delivers exclusively political information. Radio 100 broadcasts seven days a week, from 5pm until deep in the night, and encompasses the whole spectrum from African and industrial music to doo-wop, house and reggae. The punk and hardcore station Radio Dood (Radio Death) was the predecessor of Radio Patapoe (Radio Patapoe), a younger and wilder sister of Radio 100, which with its 100 different programs has grown into a genuine multicultural institution.
The stations are associations of programmers, each with his/her own hour or more. There is no central editorial or direction. Those who dedicate themselves have all the say. The free radio stations run on financial contributions by the programmers themselves, benefit concerts and profits from their own bars.
The information content is notably low; very little paper is involved. Commentaries and documentaries are conspicuous by their absence. The strength lies in the ‘live’ aspect, not in professional equipment or journalistic technique. Homemade fm transmitters are used along with run-of-the-mill consumer electronics. In contrast to tv or video, radio need cost virtually nothing. It’s all done according to the maxim: They have all the money, but no time. We have all the time in the world, but no money. Carefree experimentation with sound is made possible by all this.
Next to independent labels and world music, radio plays and shows with drop-in guests, the mix shows provide the most distinctive sound of the Amsterdam stations. They represent nothing and no one. Mixers create their own sound universes, which stretch infinitely far in both length and breadth. They bob about in a sea of free time. Duration is the essence of their concoctions. If the mix is subjected to the time diktat, then it turns into a live scratch or rap, making do without the glamour of a performing artist. These live performances have traces of genius. A fleeting masterwork is born there and then and evaporates into the ether afterwards. A careless attitude to copyright is a not unimportant precondition. Rummaging in the world media archive is not compatible with the constitutional state. But the latter excludes free radio.
As opposed to the spirit of the times, which zooms in so as to distill a trend out of the musical arsenal, the mix chooses the maximum aperture. Any sound, any musical current can serve as material. The mixture is not a specialized genre, dished up for a small group of fans. It is an expedition to the innermost recesses of radio. The penchant for mixing represents the transition from alternative media, which are still trying to fill a lacuna in the existing supply, to sovereign media, which have detached themselves from the potential listening audience. They do not see themselves as part of bourgeois (anti)openness or the range of media choices; at the most they observe them from outside. The things others broadcast are nothing more than usable material. News is one archive among many. Sovereign media are fallout from the ‘emancipation of the media’, and they abandon the communication model. Vendex from Radio Patapoe: I believe in the chance listener; I’m one too. Patapoe doesn’t have an audience that has to be supplied with the truth. We never act like we’re the only ones providing the listener with information. Patapoe'' is not a forum or an alternative; it’s a goal in itself.
''Amsterdam’s sound blenders don’t see themselves as part of a techno-avant-garde. Playing around with expensive toys for the sake of form is seen as elitist. The point is not a rejuvenation cure for art, but airwave pollution that makes use of the overproduction of the normal media. Unlike the dandy, who likes to suck up to the ruling class or the underworld and whose eccentric decadence becomes a question of identity, the sovereign dedicates his tribute to all things current, to the wallpaper which determines the decor in our media space.
They are not warming up samba, soul or schmaltz as the latest cult item or golden oldie for the purpose of playing on the collective memory, which so likes to be refreshed. They are not practicing audio history, trotting out near-extinct musical styles to get them interred in pop history. Material is collected and examined for its alienation potential. Trash is taken along on a trip, and treated with a certain respect, like a foreigner one passes the time with during travel. The processing is not an act of violence. It’s not about ritually driving out some demon thought to reside in the media. The mix shows us that we must travel through an immense empty space before we arrive at a new meaning. Sovereign media, in their hard- as well as software, are hybrids through and through. Old and new, popular and obscure, trivial and heavy, everything is forged together into a stunning total mix. It is the mixmasters who connect discarded tape recorders to high-tech samplers and lace a cut-up Bush speech with a language course, barks and a dance orchestra. Arjan from the ok Show: ''I play long pieces of mind-broadening music from the 60s, mixed with psychedelic records from the the 30s, like Cab Calloway. Those might have been hits then, but they’re really strangely made.
This ironic use of media knows no subcultural equivalent spreading in the street or in the pub. Sovereign media build on a parallel universe that no longer intersects with the classic space of the polis. The junk collectors move unobtrusively through the unofficial reality of shopping centres, flea markets and garbage boats. These European style otaku'' are no longer wandering through the readable city; they’re moving in a new space, where the imaginary mixed cargo of the 20th century is piled up. Culture carriers once tossed into the trash for their oddity are nimbly assessed at a glance for singularity, and one assembles one’s own program in movie theatres, video shops, used record stores and antiquariats.
Mixers are the vultures and parasites of audio-visual society. Their recycling has nothing to do with economic considerations, but comes from an obsession with recordings that have escaped real-time mode. They lose themselves in the galaxy of everything that has ever been recorded. Hammond organs, animal noises, fairy tales, non-stop hits a-go-go, speeches by John F. Kennedy, Dutch cowboy music. Arjan:// I almost never buy new records. I find them on the street or in little out-of-the-way shops and get them from people that would otherwise throw them away. I never pay more than Dfl.3 for a record. I also make music myself and get demo tapes. It’s like being an archeologist or an archivist. You find tape recorders on the street, and answering machines with the tapes still in them, and it won’t be long before you find cd players too.//
Listen or Die
Vendex is glad Patapoe doesn’t get any attention in the media. If we want to say something, we have our transmitter for that. We don’t hand out compliments to other media and we’re not dying to. Patapoe’s slogan is Stand up Better to a Young World. Although the official media are reporting more and more frequently on ‘the media’, their own equipment is not allowed to be seen or heard. In those circles engineering is still a hindrance which needs to be surmounted. The promise implied by high-tech is that one day static and noise will be banished. Vendex: If you put a signal through 40 km of copper wire, I think you should be able to hear that. That expensive equipment that normal stations use only produces more silence. The vu meters on real equipment work down to -50 db while a regular deck only goes to -20 db. They’re quieter than quiet. The loud and soft sounds are pulled further apart. Why should you have a right to so much silence? Media don’t become any more credible the more they show of how they work. I think it’s very healthy to doubt the images being administered. Showing the cameraman really doesn’t make it any more convincing.
Patapoe calls itself ‘multirational’. It wants to be more than multicultural and multiracial. ''Those words don’t indicate a solution; they don’t go any further than toleration of others. But that still doesn’t work, because everyone thinks they know best, and blame others for their narrowmindedness. Like, they have some kind of flaw so they don’t have the same enlightened insights as I do. Multirationality goes against this attitude and aims for the acceptance of various rational conclusions, which can all exist at once.
The emancipation of the listener has until now been the clearest articulation by the defunct punk station Radio Dood, with the credo, Listen or Die. Vendex: At Dood they’d scream into the microphone. Turn your radio off nowww! I wish my voice could kill. The average listener with his bourgeois norms could just go jump out the window. Throw all your records away! But those slaves in their one-family residences with their sofa sets didn’t listen anyway, because punk seems to be unlistenable for the non-initiated. It was just a wink, because the punks that listened didn’t feel it was directed at them. If someone bellowed Turn your radio off now that made it extra cool. You only turned the radio off when they shut up. Are you a listener? Get lost! Some people thought it was sick. You’re not supposed to abuse the luxury of being able to do radio. But it attests to a realistic view of the medium to say that if you don’t like it, you should just turn it off. We’re playing our music here and I couldn’t care less what you think of it. And doing the greatest shows meanwhile; that was the art.
At Dood the mess had a system. The programmers as well as the many guests hanging around the studio were usually stoned and drunk. Punk’s characteristic indifference was unleashed on the medium itself. There was none of the respect for engineering or fear of spreading out over the airwaves which still characterizes alternative radio. Vendex: People liked to do a sloppy job. You’d always hear them messing up. I have a tape of the ‘Overplayed Top 20’, the most overplayed punk and hardcore records of 1986, presented by Tuft. By number five people were already leaving the studio. By number three Tuft got so sick that he left the studio and a chance bystander had to take over the Top 20. Other stations would go crazy if people blew things off like that. We could never become real radio, that bunch of wayward punks.
Dood consistently took place in the red. Overmodulation and feedback were part of the show. Crackling faders, broken-down microphones, decks that ate cassettes and awful cuing capability weren’t a flaw that needed covering up, they were a property of the final signal.
Doing a hardcore show is hard work since the songs are so short. Vendex: If you work by the book, song-talk-song, to keep it interesting, you’ll go crazy. So it’s better to make a compilation right away and come back in after five songs with 'Now that was punk!', 'What a great slam!', 'Now throw your chairs out the window'.Radio Dood ’s achievement was that it gave thorough depth to a musical genre like no other.
Radio Dood introduced a unique media connection: radio broadcasts of complete feature films. Vendex: To keep the transmitter stable, we kept it on 24 hours a day, but we only broadcast four days a week. To pass the night it’s fun to play a horror film, because they’re grisly and they have such good sound. I find the pictures superfluous. The special effects are laid on so thick that they’re fake. Most of the pictures are ugly and fake and don’t convince me. It’s such a waste to depict something as so-called realistic; it’ll never work anyway. You believe your ears, but you distrust the picture.
''The strength of listening to film and watching radio is in the suggestion. As far as sound goes, Evil Dead is one of the best. Or take one of those bad sci-fis where a woman is screaming all through the film – really disgusting. Or the Japanese Inframan, a cross between science fiction and a martial arts film. Every monster in that makes a different sound. Every movement Inframan makes has its own special quality. German cop shows like Derrick and Tatort are good too. Film and tv sound more natural on the radio; they’re less artificial than a radio play. You can fantasize what pictures go with them, just like when you read a book. That’s strengthened more by all the details you hear, a cup, shuffling, rustling. Films can capture that in a very refined way.
Wallow in Media Mire
The group stort (Dump), who besides radio also do performances, video and music, had a program called Vox Christiana (the Pope’s record label) on Radio Dood. They were in favor of ‘uncoordinated radio terror’. ''We said things we didn’t believe. We posed as converted Christians. Everything we got hold of we smashed, pulverized, dried out. An orgy of sounds, wonderful to bathe in. It can be served raw or be pre-treated. The cutting-up we do is a ton of work, 20 minutes for two minutes of sound. Our shows have no feedback capability, but when we play our music in public, all hell breaks loose. It’s a riot. It’s very easy to translate universal feelings into a laughing fit. But just radio is less crude and shocking; the audience isn’t at the broadcast and can’t react directly. People don’t know where the station is, so attacks don’t enter into it.
Stort get most of their material from tv. We isolate the text from the picture. On the tv news the ideology is often in the text. The idea about what the pictures mean comes out more then. When you hear the tv, that instantly evokes images. tv is a better source than radio, because they often present things very simply. A familiar fragment carries a whole context with it. Some broadcasts are so bad, they’re just screaming to be misused.''
Stort now do a late-night show on Radio 100. One of the sources they use is their own music, made on synthesizers, samplers and computers. Dark, apocalyptic tones are alternated with Doris Day and Frankie Lane. stort does not like to be lumped in with industrial music. That would be opposed to the ideas behind it. Soundscaping offers space and refuses to be reduced to a genre just like that. The history of mixing is quickly written: the detournement techniques of the situationists, musique concrète, Burroughs’ cut-up, John Cage... stort: Of course we’re surrealists. Even the futurists were already conducting similar experiments. As soon as the tape recorder was there, people started cutting sound into pieces. The first montage record is from ‘48, by Pierre Henri, who you could easily put next to an industrial band like Etant Donnés. We practice the same grotesque exaggerations as the surrealists, and even more the carnivalesque, which we evoke in our orgies. The avant-gardes have become an integral part of culture, and you can freely draw on them. So you don’t have to explicitly acknowledge you belong to any of these movements, or even know anything about them.You won’t be a victim of the media as long as you use them. That’s why we revel in the media, in a Rabelaisian way. To us the signals aren’t immaterial, but tactile. We wallow with great pleasure in the media mire.
Their own history also remains unknown, so there is no baggage to carry. The grandfather of the Amsterdam mix, Radio Rabotnik, which designed audio landscapes with the help of tape loops, has disappeared behind the horizon of the twilight of the gods.
For Arjan from the ok Show the mix is not an attack on the listener, as declaimed by punk. To him, it’s about creating an atmosphere: I have no musical preference whatsoever. My only criterion is that it does something for me. Making a program is such a strange experience; maybe a thousand people are listening to you and maybe not even one dog. The listener becomes an abstract concept. You’re a listener yourself too. So you hear if something’s well put together. If it’s going good for me, it will be received well by the listener too. In the philosophy of the ok Show, the art of mixing is noiselessly breaking up an atmosphere that’s been constructed. Arjan:// My mixing consists of music, spoken word and background noises. I always walk down the street with my walkman and tape things. Or you use the sound from the person before you, and maybe you play it backwards. The last groove of an lp can be really nice if you let it play for five minutes. I’m not asking you to understand how I jump from one thing to another. Radio should give your ears a massage. However kitschy a record might be, there has to be feeling in it. I’d rather rape the accessible music. Over muzak I play a guitar solo or a trashy story.//
The ok Show uses techniques like playing with the speed control on the cassette deck, spinning an lp with the fingers, or two identical records on two turntables with a slight delay between them. Arjan: In the beginning we cut up commercials, the weather and the news. A recurring item was ‘Uncle Bob’s Stories’, where the entire history of the world was mixed together – Jimi Hendrix in Holland during World War II is something that’s totally impossible, but you tried to make it as plausible as you could.
For a while Arjan worked with Miss Akira and Dr. Videodisk. He records voices and always has his walkman with him and makes tapes in the grocery store. When he likes a sentence he writes it down on a piece of paper with the exact time. His whole room is full of them. When he wants to make a story he sets them all in order, which is a very labor-intensive way of working. He puts the background music on a tape loop and then sticks the voice fragments together. With Miss Akira I did spontaneous plays. You just put your brain in neutral and everything flaps out by itself.
Arjan learned a lot of techniques at dfm Radio-Television, who made live mixes at Radio 100 for years and now do performances under the name artburo. dfm was critical towards established radio, and created disorder inside Radio 100 as well. They’d crash the studio, hijack a program or go to the transmitter and directly interfere with the signal coming from the studio. dfm went all Saturday night starting at midnight and then presented a breakfast show out of Radio 100’s cafe. For other djs it was unreal.
dfm combined the mix with a show element. The group members were continually assuming different identities. When it got boring, they invented a new name and a different formula. That immediately created the impression that a whole media mafia was at work. Chris from dfm: We had to have a network orchestra. It consisted of a handful of tapes. A lack of guests? No problem, there are always several alter egos around. Radio is the most intimate of all media and this is especially true in the nocturnal hours. With a couple of friends and a nice atmosphere in the studio you can easily fill a couple of hours. If there’s a telephone response from listeners, you get to hear their interpretation of what you’ve made. Those reactions were taped and broadcast again, but first cut or mixed to preserve the deformative aspect.
Deformation doesn’t just mean reusing fragments made by yourself or others. It also indicates the degree to which the listener is carried along by the new product that comes into being. Only when that happens has that person been deformed. For dfm, deformation is not a reformation of the current information. The two are equal. Chris: Information is representing things as sharply and clearly as possible. Deformation is a broader consciousness. But when consciousness expands it gets vaguer and can no longer be placed in the Here and Now; it becomes more general. One deformative technique is the remix principle, in which parts of what was previously made are used as raw materials for deformation. These are extracted from all media.
Despite all the chaos that was permitted, there was a certain underlying structure to dfm night. Otherwise a 14-hour broadcast couldn’t be pulled off. The ‘total program’ opened with a wildly varied content. After that came a mix (‘mysterious monuments’) which seamlessly segued into the end mix. This consisted of a 20-minute basic tape. Once this was underway and all channels were open, it could last four or five hours. Each part was made up of an intro and outro, which offered the opportunity of putting together the program as you went. The lcd Show was a ‘super spatial stereo program’ and was known at dfm as the most extreme example of media dislocation. Chris: It was produced on two separate channels. M. Different and his group of friends took the right channel and Chris van Willigenburg and his took charge of the left. Two independent programs were presented on the two channels. It could be enjoyed in various ways: mono, only the left, only the right, stereo or not at all. But van Willigenburg did something he wasn’t supposed to. He listened in on the other channel.
Mixing is not just running the meatgrinder in order to crush everything down to noise; rather, it is a synthesis of elements which lose their separate identities through the mix. Yet the mood is retained. Toek from dfm: A tendency comes forth out of the mix and you can read it. Just like scanning with the remote control. Once you’re used to zapping you end up in the other state of mind. Hey, there’s a lot of war on tv today. Or it’s sports day. The sound we put on top of it contrasts with it. Once chaos has been made you can never repeat it. We also remove terror and blackness. That only feeds people’s fears. It’s not difficult to shock people. For example, you accidentally see some horror pictures. But that material makes up your dreams! That information is then deforming you. I fight negative information; we have about a thousand censoring buttons. So we too manipulate with media. With us most information is subliminal.
translation LAURA MARTZ
Radio 100 (100 fm), P.O. Box 10096, 1001 EB Amsterdam, tel. 020 6163421.
Radio Patapoe (101.5 fm), P.O. Box 3369, 1001 AD Amsterdam.
An extensive interview with dfm/artburo can be found in Arcade #2 1990, Ravijn, Amsterdam.
An extended version of this article, together with the Manifesto for the Sovereign Media and the dfm/artburo interview, are published in German under the title Hör zu oder Stirb, Edition id-Archiv, Berlin 1992.