In the storied (fake) history of free-form radio across these United States, one show left arguably the biggest impression of them all. “The Magnetic Media Hour” was one of the first shows to push the medium in new and interesting directions. Hosted by J. D. Warkel, “The Magnetic Media Hour” was an avant-garde hour of the most unique recordings on the planet. Interestingly, those recordings also happened to be some of the most common. This is the story of how that show came to be, thrived and ultimately faded away, told by the people who where there.
J. D. Warkel, host: I remember the first first thing I played. It was a TDK-60. Found it in a box of old coins at an estate sale in Tupolo. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite like it.
Allison Silverslaw, station manager, KOQK: J.D. was a pioneer. When he came to us and said he only wanted to play blank audio cassettes over the air, I initially called security and had him thrown out of the building. But he was persistent. After his third attempt, he threw a brick through my office window with a Maxell-120 tied to it and a note that read, “Just listen!” I’m glad that I did — he was right. The sound was incredible. Three months later, after he was released from county lock-up, I gave him a show.
Tim Gurt, warehouse manager, Electronics Bazaar: He was absolutely a regular. Always asking what kind of shipments were were getting in each week. And then every Friday he’d be at the front doors before the store opened. I’d meet him in the atrium and take him to the back room and we’d break down pallets together. In exchange for getting first dibs on all of the new cassettes, he would also help me stock the ink cartridges.
J.D. Warkel: When most people see a blank tape — at lease back in those days — they would see it as a way for them to record “other” music — songs off of the radio, their own LPs so they could listen to them in the car, mixes for that special someone in their life. But those people were all rubes and criminals. They didn’t realize what was being lost. The purity of the hiss, that’s what I was evangelizing.
Tammy T. Plop, listener KOQK: I was driving around one Saturday night testing out parking spaces — y’know, too wide, too narrow, is it angled? — anyway, I had the radio tuned to KOQK — I had my knob snap off a few weekends before, lost it in a parking lot (great lot, by the way, the striping was impeccable), so my radio was pretty much always locked in on KOQK. It’s a good station for parking, y’know? The variety of what they play really helps with the variety of parking spaces you find in most lots or public garages. Wait a minute, what was the question again?
Allison Silverslaw: I think it was after his third show when we started to get a lot of feedback from the community. A common refrain was, “I thought your signal went out, but I guess not” or “I don’t understand what is happening? I don’t hear anything but hiss.” People were really into it. “I wish this were music!” they’d say.
J.D. Warkel: I didn’t like the JVC tapes. I know some do, but they never did it for me. Look, I’m not going to criticize another person’s taste when it comes to hiss, but in my experience the only people that listen to JVCs are clowns — literal clowns.
Allison Silverslaw: At the time, our second most popular show was “Big Shoe Dance Party,” which was a two-hour show featuring clown and circus music. It was hosted by Mr. Sundrop, a prominent member of the local clowning community. One Thursday Mr. Sundrop started playing blank JVC tapes — I think he featured the A side of a 60-minute tape a friend had passed along. People really loved it. Of course, this didn’t sit well with J.D.
J.D. Warkel: Mr. Sundrop? I don’t want to talk about Mr. Sundrop.
Alan Vick (aka Mr. Sundrop), professional clown: Look, I just want to make people happy — which is harder and harder to do these days as a clown. I don’t know if you’ve read the papers, but clowns are really struggling. Everyone is afraid of us! I’m not saying we can blame J.D. entirely for that, but he wasn’t not not responsible, y’know? Wait, how many negatives is that? It was supposed to be two — but now I’m thinking it was three. Can we start over?
J.D. Warkel: All I’m saying is he ripped me off. I don’t want to talk about it. But he’s a thief and he ripped me off! Let’s change the subject. If I see Mr. Sundrop again, and I don’t care if he’s making a balloon poodle for some eight year-old, but I’m gonna take off that dumb red nose of his, and I’m gonna make him eat it. With his mouth. All of it.
Allison Silverslaw: I think we knew things were changing when J.D. started playing vinyl.
J.D. Warkel: A buddy of mine hooked me up with an unpressed 180-gram LP from a local record plant (actually, without all of the groves, it might even be 181 grams). Anyway, I wanted to broaden my horizons – thought the listeners would really appreciate it. Way more than that clown music. That’s for sure.
Allison Silverslaw: I’d never heard so many complaints. One woman came up from the parking lot screaming about her ears.
Tammy T. Plop: The sound was just horrible. There was nothing subtle about it. I was parallel parking at time — right outside the station. I couldn’t take it anymore. I just left the car running and went in to look for the station manager. My car was a solid 8 inches from the curb. I was so ashamed.
Allison Silverslaw: He locked the door to the studio so we couldn’t stop him. He played the entirety of the B-Side. When he replaced the turntable stylus for the second time, we decided to take drastic actions and pulled the station off the air. At the time KOQK had been broadcasting non-stop since 1949. It was a dark day.
J.D. Warkel: Do I wish I could do it over again? Yeah, I do. I regret playing the vinyl. I’m a magnetic tape guy. It’s in my blood. And I hated going back to county lockup. In hindsight, not all communication has to happen with a message taped to a brick.
Tim Gurt: When magnetic tape started to fade away, he stopped coming into the store. CD-Rs, that’s what we were stocking. I think he bought out the last of our Maxell stock, and then just sort of vanished. But I do remember seeing him one Saturday afternoon in the late 90s, standing in front of the shelves and quietly weeping. It was sad. But, if I’m gonna be honest with you, I’m a simple man. I prefer listening to recorded music. I never really understood the whole ‘hiss’ thing. It sounds “warmer” he would always say. What does that mean, warmer? Can I dance to it? Does it have a killer guitar solo? In the bridge does it change key? These are the questions that are important to me. Eh, what do I know.
“The Magnetic Media Hour” went off the air on August 14th, 1993. This November “Big Shoe Dance Party” will be celebrating it’s 30th year on the air.
Photo credit: stuart.childs on Flickr