While growing up near Cleveland, Ohio in the late 1980s, I found few outlets for alternative culture outside of Top-40 radio and rabid sports fanaticism. Aside from a few distant used record shops and a small boho enclave on the east side with a decent coffee shop, Cleveland's area colleges had excellent free-form radio stations. Cleveland State's WCSB was my favorite, where you could reliably hear anything from rare Mirrors b-sides, interesting contemporary local garbage, or three-hour-long programs dedicated to people calling in and saying whatever they wanted. While not as strong in wattage, John Carroll's WUJC and Case Western's WRUW also filled the left side of Cleveland's dial with similar welcoming content. To me back then, it didn't seem obtuse for the sake of itself, but educated and mired in the Midwest's rich traditions of compelling original history. Things in Cleveland were obviously dire, and this was a place for the square pegs in a city full of underdogs could fit in.
All of that is why I found it so surprising when an old friend from Cleveland named Medium D recently contacted me about WRUW allegedly censoring his weekday afternoon radio show Delicious Delusions of a Discriminating Mind. He forwarded an email from WRUW's General Manager Bethany Kaufman, a bossy indictment demanding that Medium D cease playing something called "noise wall":
Laura and I are writing once again to ask you not to play any more noise wall during your show. We have discussed the situation with the executive staff, and the consensus reached was that though noise wall does not violate FCC policy, that does not mean that it is appropriate for airplay on WRUW. Our primary purpose is to provide eclectic programming that reflects the interests of the students and the Cleveland community. It is up to the program director and general manager to decide what programming best satisfies this purpose. Because noise wall can be misinterpreted as WRUW being off the air, we have decided that playing it does not align with our primary purpose. Additionally, WRUW is owned and operated by the University, and we are responsible to them for our programming. WRUW is not an appropriate platform for this genre. The executive staff has backed us on this decision.
Hm. This certainly seemed like an almost valid point, especially when I asked Medium D to explain a "noise wall" and he pointed me to a video of this hour-long "harsh noise" track by Vomir. He added that he'd usually play "around 15-30 minutes" of one of these pieces. I imagined that could possibly make a person think that the radio station was experiencing some kind of difficulties. After a few more minutes I'd decided that it doesn't matter if that's the case. The "noise wall" is a pure act of free expression and simply must be allowed to continue.
After doing more investigation, it turns out that the initial complaint allegedly came from a WRUW listener and Medium D asked why the station would choose the opinion of a listener over a show host. The response was this:
Additionally, you asked me why I was taking the side of a listener over the side of a programmer. Please be mindful of the fact that over 50% of our operating costs are provided by the generous donations of our listeners. Without them, WRUW would not be what it is. We program for the listener.
Some excellent opinions can be found on this Facebox message thread, you can read some here as well:
Robert Darkmatter: So, that ONE listener donates over 50% of operating costs? If every heckler that called in to WRUW and WCSB, complaining about a particular song choice got to decide what gets to be played, it would be a weird form of reverse-hierarchy/nonsense. I do understand the confusion over whether it's static/a transmitter down or not, but that's just how it sounds. Some of that pretentious, whiny indie rock makes me want to slit my own throat with a dull, rusty utility knife but I'd never have the audacity to ask the show's host to stop playing it.
Pauline Lombardo: Censorship on WRUW?!?! Are you kidding me? I rather enjoy HNW and I donate to WRUW. Does that mean because I don't call in or email every time I hear a song I like that it's not valid? Or that some other listeners opinion is more important than mine?
Liz Stout: As a former WRUW DJ and record librarian, I will say, that is the best thing (the most interesting thing) I have heard on 'RUW during the day in a long long time. I should edit that to be "the thing I found most interesting". Also, I hate, hate, hate reggae and Irish music, and show tunes. I do not call and complain when those types of shows are on, I just turn the radio off.
Ron Kretsch: My email to Bethany. More of us should be doing suchlike: Hello, my name's Ron Kretsch. I was a programmer at WRUW for 14 years, on exec staff for 4. I've helped organize and set up more Studio-A-Ramas than I can remember. I have also been a pretty reliable telethon donor. I will be blunt. You will not get a penny from me this year unless Dom is permitted to play whatever he wants within FCC regulations. The idea of exec staff telling a programmer what not to play is UNCONSCIONABLE and nobody in my day (*shakes cane*) would have DREAMT of such a thing. This atrocious overstep being the only thing I know about you (and maybe the only thing I need to know), you're coming off as a pretty crummy GM who fails utterly to understand or represent the spirit of the WRUW I loved. Indeed, this action runs diametrically counter to it. Seriously, who do you think you are? HOW DARE YOU?
Holly Wilson: This is shocking to me and utterly reprehensible behavior on the part of the GM. The whole beauty of WRUW is that you never know what you'll be hearing, but chances are good that you'll hear something interesting that you hadn't heard before. I recall a whole lot of crazy shit that Ron played back in the day that was just crazy and AWESOME. Would it have been played anywhere else? Probably not... Hell, I even remember calling in to one of his shows while he played tape loops and I randomly read passages of Finnegan's Wake over the air. Why? Because it was interesting and because Ron was given the freedom to create really cool shit for whoever to listen to. Same goes with all the shows - if it's not your thing, don't listen to it... But don't deprive others of the opportunity to hear particular things just because you don't like it. That's bullshit. I honestly never thought I'd be hearing about WRUW censoring DJs and it really pisses me off.
Mark Keffer: The GM that wrote the letter censoring this DJ has a minor in Art History? Her actions show a clear lack of understanding in this regard. History is replete with examples of the powers-that-be stifling serious/difficult art.
Hopefully Medium D won't back down and the "noise wall" will find a way to carry on.