Airtime
Sergio Messina
oct. 2007

This is my contribution to the book RE-INVENTING RADIO - Aspects of radio as art, AA VV, curated by Heidi Grundmann, Elisabeth Zimmermann, Reinhard Braun, Dieter Daniels, Andreas Hirsch, Anne Thurmann-Jajes. Revolver, 2008.

When it comes to radio, I’ve been a very lucky man. I often found myself in the right place at the right time, in the right company. Of course then you help luck along, but timing in these matters in essential—and that’s mostly chance. Since the age of nine I was the kid with the tape recorder: it was, along with a portable turntable, my most precious possession: I spent my afternoons recording from the radio. Italian sixties public broadcasting was very formal, and even when the shows for young people had cool music, it was presented the old way. The late sixties and early seventies were very restless, and the distance between young people and the State radio and TV (the only ones available at the time) became immense. This is why, when pirate broadcasting began in 1975, the success was huge—and by the end of the year there were already 150 Radio Libere—free radios, as they came to be called. I was fifteen when, in June 1975, I walked into the one-room studio of Radio Roma 103 (one of the seven or eight stations of the city) and declared: “I have a 90 LP record collection: can I work here?” I have to thank forever Enzo Buscemi, owner, manager, and star of the station, for his reply: “You have the 3 to 5 pm slot, every day (including Sundays).” In the subsequent three years, I failed one at school, but I learned a job I still do. It was an amazing time, when anything on the radio was possible. The most radical differences were about music (now you could play, and hear, just about anything), language that became much closer to how young people spoke, and the relationship with the listeners that was really different: they could call and ask for songs or to be put on the air (something unheard of in the media at the time, but very frequent today). I remember whole shows spent chatting with listeners on the air and playing wild, new music with an eye on the door, in fear of a Postal Police bust.

By 1980, the Italian broadcasting scenario had changed for good; there were several thousands of FM radios: commercial stations, who mocked American radio and played chart music, and local radios (still numerous today), who retained some of the original free radio spirit (local ads, music dedications, open phone, etc.) but mostly played Italian melodic stuff. Then there were a few more political stations that featured information, had little or no advertising, and played the coolest music available. It was at that time (early eighties), and through Radio Città Futura (a left-wing station in Rome), that I started DJing live. We had a very popular daily music show, and we simply moved it to a club; the success was quite large, and I supported myself DJing for a few years. But I was growing restless, and while I loved to play dance music in clubs, I felt that perhaps on the radio I could experiment, I could dare more. I started to mix sound effects to music, to create sonic ambients where the radio show would take place, to create pre-recorded clips where music wasn’t the main ingredient, to “open the window” to the sounds of the world (a few times literally speaking with my head outside, to catch the traffic).

In 1984 I came across another very important person in my life (and quite relevant to this story), Pinotto Fava. He was the curator of AudioBox, the radio art program of Rai, the Italian public broadcasting company. AudioBox broadcasted stuff that made my “extravagant radio” sound tame: it was learning time again for me. I’ve collaborated on and off with AudioBox for over seven years, producing other people’s works and doing my own things. Through AudioBox I met three generations of artists, performers, and radio people, and I’ve had the chance to hear unbelievable stuff. Pinotto Fava (who comes from theater and has a very special sensibility for narrative radio and a healthy skepticism about the word “art”) had an intensely “public service” mentality—very rare in experimental/art radio. But this attitude (and his nose for talent) created variety, provoked healthy generation clashes, and made AudioBox very adventurous for listeners. At one point, in 1988, I had the honor of hosting the first AudioBox live broadcasts (one-hour shows, four per week, for six months). My format was simple: I’d spend countless hours listening to the immense AudioBox archive, sampling fragments (sometimes several minutes long) and mixing them live, with scattered comments—but full credit for each sample. Plus occasional live performances and bits of other media (cinema, TV, etc.). The result was a vortex of radio, sometimes quite solid, often light and diverse. I still meet people that remember these shows, and I know some artists (very few) hated me: I destroyed the integrity of their pieces.

In 1990 I was called again by Pinotto Fava, this time to work on a new, impossible project. Besides being a radio program, since the early eighties AudioBox had also been an international conference on radio and art. It was held at various universities in the south of Italy. But this time Pinotto had something slightly different in mind: he planned to take over Matera (an amazing, timeless city in the heart of southern Italy) and turn it into an immense sound installation. We held over forty different performances, some technically quite challenging, in a town whose historic center (the Sassi) is mostly reachable on foot (or by donkey) but not by car. The program covered a very wide spectrum, from improvised music to performance theater, with a common matrix: Matera, its churches (over 120, carved in the stone mountain), courtyards, and public spaces. I’ve heard important radio art experts say that we had produced the most perfect amalgam of landscape and sound art so far. I’m not sure, but I guess we came pretty close. Rai didn’t feel the same way, and the AudioBox festival has never happened again. The end of the festival somehow marked the beginning of the decline for AudioBox. Year after year the budget cuts, shorter airtime, the move to another channel, the standardization of Rai’s broadcast standards, and finally Pinotto Fava’s pensioning (without a replacement) created the conditions for the end of Audiobox in 1998—after nineteen groundbreaking years.

Meanwhile, in the fall of 1989, I had made RadioGladio. This is an odd story: an Italian judge had discovered Gladio (or “Operation Stay Behind”), a secret organization created in Italy in the late forties by the American intelligence, to prevent a communist revolution and make sure the left stayed at the opposition. They had money, weapons, explosives (as well as close contact with some dangerous right-wing extremists), all apparently financed by the U.S. I asked an American friend if they knew anything about this, having also paid for it, and he said it wasn’t in their news. So I made a little reggae beat and, in DJ style, I told the Gladio story: RadioGladio. I handmade 300 cassettes and sent them to random Americans, from radio stations to magazines, political organizations—I even sent one to Howard Stern (little did I know). The cover said “RadioGladio, a radio message from Italy to USA” and “No Copyright.” It also said “duplication is encouraged,” and it spread very fast: people made copies (it was only four minutes long) and sent them to American friends. Since there were no names on it, people started calling me RadioGladio (and some still do). Thanks to a common friend, Frank Zappa also received a copy, and praised it in an interview. Unfortunately, RadioGladio got me banned from Rai: “It’s too easy to write a political manifesto and sing it,” was one remark I received. But lots of people picked it up; I have to thank Andy Caploe for helping me spread it in the U.S., and Heidi Grundmann for having me play it live on stage at the Funkhaus in Vienna.

I met Heidi in 1991 at the Matera festival and gave her a music/radio cassette demo of what I was doing at the time. She invited me to play in Vienna in 1991, and it was the first of many visits to Austria, and of many great sonic (and human) adventures with Kunstradio. I have done some solo work for Kunstradio over the past fifteen years (including a Marinetti tribute in 1991, and an operetta in 1999), but the best part for me is having been on some of the teams Heidi Grundmann put together over the years, culminating with the amazing “Kustradio All Stars” for Recycling the Future, in 1997. It was a difficult number: take many different electronic solo performers, from different backgrounds and generations, and have them do collective work, and radio improvisations. The results were extraordinary and, as I have written before, show a possible path that—still to this day—is seldom beaten but full of potential. Kunstradio has been a very crucial crossroad for many people besides me: imagine clever acoustic and radio curatorship, combined with a sharp political perception of art. Mix it with a tireless curiosity about the future and top it with Austrian technical excellence (showcased in endless Kura productions): that’s hard to beat.

Meanwhile, in Italy I made over 150 concerts between 1992 and 1996 (besides making two albums, producing a few with other bands and scoring a hit single). These shows were basically live radio on stage, where I was the speaker but also made the music. And the more it went on, the less music I had: it was going towards a digital version of Lenny Bruce, with lots of talk and samples of voices, odd music, television, and so on. All very radiophonic, but quite untouchable by most Italian stations. So I figured I’d have my own private radio. I had found out about web streaming in 1995, thanks to Horizontal Radio (and Kunstradio). Then I played with it again in 1997 during Recycling the Future, and this time I was sold. Not only that summer I put a whole album in MP3 online (one of the first legally on the web, and still there), but I started developing an idea that combined a certain AudioBox spirit with webcasting. In 1999, Radio Lilliput was born. It had two simple missions: to provide free counseling for Italian musicians on copyright, contracts, publishing, management, and so forth, and to offer public access web airtime to anyone. All you had to do was choose a free slot, and you’d get a login and password: that slot was yours every week, forever. Slowly, quite an interesting community of webcasters developed around this (now defunct) website, that had also become a music/tech webzine. The success of Radio Lilliput was also its poison: for broadcasting, we “borrowed” bandwidth from a large commercial webfarm, thanks to their simpatico webmaster. One evening in 2000 we simply used it all, blacking out the whole server for a night. We got kicked out; but by that time, there were commercial services that offered the same type of access, so Radio Lilliput was no longer necessary.

Much of my work today is still closely related to radio. I run a Sound Design course in Milano; we teach students how to use sounds, music, and technology to make soundtracks for many occasions, from fashion shows to installations, from music selection to video soundtrack mixing, commercial or otherwise (the techniques are the same). While teaching, I realize I have an edge over pure musicians, an additional perspective: tempo for me can be both musical time, the metronome, and radio time, the clock. It’s known that radio can twist your perception of time, making the clock seem wrong (both ways: ten minutes can become one, but also thirty). This is also true for music, but it’s very difficult for music authors to become their own audience, while for me is natural: when you do live radio you have to do it all the time, as listeners take no prisoners. Also, I haven’t stopped to put music in acoustic locations. I use soundscapes to place my tracks somewhere: in a park, in a large cave, or on the beach. And finally, last year went back on stage after a long time. I picked it up from where I left: talk and digital. I’m touring with Realcore, a one-hour, stand-up anthropology show, an infotainment talk (with one hundred slides) on the digital porno revolution and its peculiarities. People say that two of the effective elements of this performance are the rhythm of the presentation and my voice. I’m glad to hear that, and I have to thank radio for both. So, I might have made some of it, but—as you can see—when it comes to radio, I’ve been quite a lucky man.

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