Kind Radio–that's Kind, not KIND–occupies about a third of Joe Ptak's garage. It contains a couple of CD players, one of which hasn't been working well lately, a tape deck, a turntable, a lot of graffiti, a few empty beer cans, and a faint smell of tobacco and cannabis. Its signal covers all of San Marcos, a smallish town (population 39,000) on the edge of the Texas Hill Country. It is unlicensed, and the FCC wants to shut it down; until then, Kind continues to broadcast everything from country to metal, plus commentary that ranges from far left to far right and sometimes straddles both.
Tonight, Neva Humble (yes, that's a pseudonym) is hosting Humble Time, a showcase for Texas songwriters. From the speaker by the wall comes a series of wonderful acoustic songs, far better than the bland slop that most licensed country stations usually play. This is the only syndicated show on Kind: Eight stations broadcast it, two of them unlicensed, the others perfectly legal. Every week, Neva and her husband Ace record a four-hour open-mike session at a 100-year-old country store in Freiheit, a town of 30 or 40 souls about midway between Austin and San Antonio. (The population can vary–on show night, notes Ace, "we put about 50 more people there.") From the four-hour tape they edit a one-hour program, put it on a compact disc, and send it to participating stations.
On Kind Radio, Neva has two hours to fill, so hosting the show is more active than just sticking the CD in the CD player. The DJ must edit out the ads (Kind refuses to run commercials), then fill up the second hour with favorite tracks from past programs. The task is even trickier tonight, since one of the CD players is acting up. To fill the dead-air gap between tracks, Neva must turn on the microphone and give a play-by-play account of her struggle to cue the next song. The listeners don't seem to mind: She has a great radio voice and, one gathers from the frequent phone calls, several devoted male fans. (I can hear only her bemused side of the conversations, but it isn't hard to figure out what some of the callers are saying. "Aw," she tells one. "You're just saying that because I'm a girl.")
Most of the songwriters play country or blues, though the showcase is open to all genres of music. Some jazz acts have played there, including the Austin pianist who wrote the Stevie Ray Vaughn hit "Cold Shot." Mo Humble, owner of the Freiheit Country Store, wouldn't be fazed if someone showed up wanting to perform some acoustic funk. A few stars and semi-stars have played the showcase–country "outlaw" Ray Wylie Hubbard, for one–but most of the performers don't even have recording contracts. By and large, they come from Austin, San Antonio, or the vast rural area in between: from small towns like Wimberley, Fredericksburg, and Canyon Lake. Occasionally, they travel longer distances. One week a Canadian happened to be in town while the show was in session and decided to perform. They say he was pretty good.
Ace himself plays in a rock/funk/reggae band called Fools In Love. By day, he makes his living running a recording studio, the Sonic Deli, out of the house he shares with Neva. About half the folks who use the Deli are cutting demos, and about half are releasing their music themselves. The studio has thus far resisted the temptation to start its own label, but Ace is seriously thinking of publishing music on the Internet, as MP3 files. MP3 is a means of digitally storing and distributing music; it is popular with consumers and independent musicians, but not with the established record companies, who see it as a haven for bootleggers and competitors in general. Ace's plan is to get MP3 rights from performers at the Country Store, then sell their songs over the Web for about a buck a pop.
Thanks to the Net, Humble Time (www.humbletime.com) has a small following outside the Hill Country. Once a fellow from Great Britain, of all places, called Kind to tell them he was enjoying their webcast (www.mediadesign.net/kindmenu.htm) of the show. But for the most part, the show is invisible outside central Texas.
The most interesting cultural activity often takes place below the mass media's radar screen. But the folks who create that culture are rarely afraid to use the media's tools–radio, the Internet, CDs, MP3 files–to fashion their garage-based art.