Chris Fici

"The Doctor" Chris Fici
DJ, Hydrogen Jukebox,
WCBN, A3Radio
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tottered on: 26 July 2006
Temperature: 86 F
Ceiling: threatening
Ground: long grass
Wind: NW at 3 mph


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TT with HD: Chris Fici


[Ed. note: As discussed below, Chris Fici's Hydrogen Jukebox on WCBN is available over the internet through WCBN or 88.3 on your FM dial. And his Hydrogen Jukebox on A3Radio is available through A3Radio. For the Doctor's more complete thoughts on radio, see Real Radio for Real People in Unreal Times. If you need another dose of Social Worker Blues, which Chris mentions below, see the end of T. Casey's Teeter Talk from back in April.]

CF: I've chosen this side.

HD: I figured as much. You were standing next to that end and I interpreted that as meaning you wanted that end. It's the most popular end, by a lot.
... ...
In an email you sent to me during your Hydrogen Jukebox show, you said you were kind of desperately looking for a new place to live?

CF: Yeah.

HD: How desperate is that getting? First of August you've gotta find a new place?

CF: No, about a month from now. But I have lots of stuff to do in the weeks coming. I've just recently discovered it's easier for me to do sublets, it's cheaper and everything. So I just kind of assumed when I started looking like last week that I was going to have like a million options, like I had when I looked a couple of months ago. But they've been kind of non-existent. And I have a very specific price range, I'm very poor. It's not desperate yet, but you know, sometimes when I am looking for apartments, a tinge of 'desperate' rolls in.

HD: Do you use CraigsList or what's your mainline strategy?

CF: CraigsList right now, because that's how I found the place I'm in. And that seems to be the most immediate way of doing it. And there's a lot of other sublet sites on the internet which are more geared towards apartments and stuff like that. But CraigsList definitely. People had been telling me about CraigsList for years, and I was like, Eehhhhhh. But I've recently discovered the joys of it, not just with apartments, but with lots of other things, too.

HD: Yeah? So have you explored the Rants and Raves section?

CF: A little bit. I do explore the Casual Encounters section some.

HD: Ever post anything in there?

CF: No, I've been thinking about it!

HD: So the Hydrogen Jukebox, you do that show not just on WCBN but also on Ann Arbor Area Radio, which is exclusively internet as best I can tell?

CF: Yes, the radio station itself is A3Radio-dot-com and it's under AnnArborAlive-dot-com, which is like the umbrella organization, a non-profit kind of community, brings the community together, gives them a chance to express themselves, promote themselves. So I've been doing the internet show for about two years now, and it's very cool. It's a very cool station. We've got different channels for music, I'm not the only one who does a show there. I think we have about five or six other DJ's. We have like a sports talk show. John Sinclair sends us some of his shows that he does in Amsterdam and around the world. He sends the shows to us and we broadcast them. It's neat doing internet radio. Same as CBN, there's a lot of freedom and that's been the best part about doing a radio show. It always breaks my heart, because a lot of people I talk to, I'm like, Do you listen to the radio? And they're like, No, I don't listen to the radio anymore, it sucks! I can agree with that, because you listen to a lot of the basic stations and it's just the same songs, commercials: three songs that you've just already heard and a commercial. I wrote something on the A3Radio website, sort of like a manifesto of what I try to do. True radio for me, the elements are: you've got to have a personality. You bring your own personality to the equation. Sometimes DJ's, they don't bring enough personality to the equation ...

HD: But you, yourself, you definitely bring a certain voice, but it's a very low-key voice, you're not like an energetic-puppy kind of voice. It's very sort of laid-back, supercool, Here's some Captain Beefheart, you'll love this.

CF: I'm a pretty low-key person as it is. People tell me I have such a radio voice. When I was first doing radio, I didn't think I had much of a radio voice and was just trying to adjust to finding my own personality within my show, not saying 'um' so much between sentences, which is kind of a litmus test for whether you are good at being in front of the microphone or not. So, yeah, you don't have to be like a shock jock like Raaaahhhr! Just think who you are on the radio and that will come across.

HD: It doesn't seem to me that your natural speaking voice that you're using right now is all that different than what you use on the radio?

CF: Yeah, I think slowly my radio voice is taking over my regular voice. It's all melding into one voice.

HD: So you actually do see a distinction between the voice you use on the radio versus when you're just talking naturally?

CF: Yeah, because my radio voice is kind of one particular mode of my voice, which I use when I'm trying to get across music and explain how I feel about music I'm playing and get my thoughts out as best I can. It is, like you said, kind of low-key. I have many other voices that I use, in my regular talk, and my everyday talk. But like I said, my radio voice has kind of taken over my regular voice. So now it's just constant radio voice all the time, which is cool.

HD: Was the WCBN gig your very first radio gig?

CF: Um hmm.

HD: And how did you go about approaching them, if you didn't have like a demo tape of your past on-air experience?

CF: Well, actually, part of the process is that you go down to one of their training intros that they have, I think every Sunday afternoon. They explain to you the history of the station and whatnot, and then you have to make a demo tape. They have a couple of different studios down there besides the main studio and your supposed to make a 45-minute demo tape ...

HD: ... of just you talking or of a sample show?

CF: A sample show, like a set. You know, grab some music and just try and make it as good as possible. They always say, you'll never get your first demo tape passed, but I've never had that problem. It's kind of intimidating, because if you mess up, you pretty much have to start over. You could be 40 minutes into your demo tape and totally flub what you're saying or play the wrong song. It's hard to go back and erase it. You have to go back to the beginning.

HD: Is it not an option to digitally edit?

CF: No, it's literally like a cassette tape. You could if you wanted to, but that was always my nervousness when I was doing mine: You can't screw up, because you'd have to go back!!

HD: So you did yours on the first take?

CF: I think so. I think it was a matter of me doing my demo tape at a time of the year when it wasn't busy and hectic and they needed DJ's. I can imagine, if it's towards the beginning of fall or something and there's a lot of DJ's trying to get into limited slots, they're not going to pick everybody on their first try. I think if I had been involved in that kind of situation, I maybe would not have passed the first time.

HD: So 45 minutes. Yesterday, basically the whole first 45 minutes of your show was all music. I mean, you did the intro to the show, you promo-ed the West Park Concert, invited people to call in and make requests, and then it was around 45 minutes of music. So can a demo tape be that music-heavy?

CF: They want more talking than that The music is definitely very important though. The music is more important than the talking, in that they want to see you presenting an eclectic mix of music to show that you can play not just jazz or not just play blues or rock, but also mix it up. Also the mixing-it up process, if you're bridging two styles of music, really kind of make a cool bridge or a cool connection. So that's important, but they definitely do want to hear you talking as well. But, you know, once you have your own show, you can do whatever you want. I listen to CBN like late at night and the DJ's won't talk for like an hour and a half. I keep waiting for them to say something. They just keep playing music!

HD: Well, on the one hand I guess it's nice to have uninterrupted music, but on the other hand, I think part of what people listen to the radio for, as opposed to just playing their own CD's, is they want to hear some voice or other, telling them something they didn't know or pointing out something you might not have noticed. So what is the broadcast range of CBN? I know it's 200 watts of power, and to me, most recently, my association with 200 watts is the amount of power that Floyd Landis was putting out on that mountain stage when he cracked in the Tour de France. So Floyd Landis on a really bad day generates 200 watts on the bicycle, so he could power CBN even ...

CF: ... on a bad day, wow!

HD: But what does that translate into as far as broadcast range?

CF: It's basically just Ann Arbor, sort of a greater Ann Arbor area. If you're anywhere within the city range, you can definitely pick it up. I think it gets a little hard getting out of the urban parts of Ann Arbor into some of the rural parts. Like on the north side, out by Pontiac Trail, it gets a little bit hard to hear it. But I've also heard people say they've gone out by Metro Airport and they can still hear it. I don't know how much it depends on whatever, but basically it's just Ann Arbor. But it's on the internet, too!

HD: So theoretically, a U of M grad goes and gets a job in California, if they fell in love with WCBN while they were here, they can still listen.

CF: That'll hopefully be me one day.

HD: You're looking for a job in California? Or are you just looking to graduate?

CF: No, I graduated. And I'm hoping to find a job in California.

HD: What was the area you majored in?

CF: Film and video. I was going to major in history and then I saw Taxi Driver by Scorsese and abruptly changed my mind. It was kind of a really a weird moment.

HD: I wanted to ask you about requests. I mean, you say that you can call in and request something. I'd guess there's some things you wouldn't play, just because you don't like the music?

CF: Um hmm, which is a small amount.

HD: So if I called up and said I wanted to hear Hurts So Good by John Mellencamp ...

CF: ... I probably wouldn't play it! [laugh] My rule is that if you can turn over to WCSX or any other station ... I've had people call in and request Steve Miller Band or The Doors, and I'll be polite and say, I'll try to find it! But then I'll just forget the request.

HD: So that's your standard dodge: I'll try to find it? [laugh]

CF: Yeah, I'm always polite. I don't know, maybe one day I'll be in a ...

HD: ... belligerent mood and just want to explain to them why?

CF: I haven't gotten to that point yet, but I can imagine it happening.

HD: So is it a matter of musical taste or is it a matter of, you can get that elsewhere?

CF: Mostly if you can get it elsewhere. I really don't want to put down anybody's musical taste, because it's like putting down your personality. You know, everybody's got their own individual taste. I've been guilty of playing songs, too, that you can easily hear on CSX and classic rock stations, because you know, I like 'em I want to hear 'em. But also sometimes people are obviously very drunk on the phone or ...

HD: ... really, you get a lot of drunk dials?

CF: During my nighttime shows, there'd be, yeah. So sometimes that's a factor in whether I want to take the request or not. If I can't understand what they're saying, you know, that's a problem.

HD: So when you say you have to go look for it, say you actually do, are you talking about physically thumbing through a bunch of CD's, is that the format?

CF: Sometimes. But I'm pretty familiar with where everything is. And it's all in alphabetical order.

HD: That's a good system.

CF: So if someone says I'd like to hear some Fela Kuti, I know exactly where that is or if someone ...

HD: ... okay, I don't even know what that is.

CF: Fela Kuti, he's a really famous Afro-beat ...

HD: ... how do you spell that? I'm just thinking ahead to transcribing this, I don't want to have to look it up!

CF: F-E-L-A, that's his first name, Fela. And then his last name is K-U-T-I. You should know him, you should listen to him, he's really good. He's kind of like the Nigerian Bob Marley in a way. Afro-beat sounds, sort of big band, big horns, long songs--like 20 minutes long--big, nice groove. He was very political, in and out of jail a lot of times, a political artist, even more so than Bob Marley was. So I know where he is! But if someone has some obscure Reggae artist, then I'll have to go and thumb through probably the records and try to find it. But it's not that hard. I mean, I'm sometimes a little proud of myself when I find something that's obscure within like seconds!

HD: So you played some Bob Marley yesterday, in addition to the long Captain Beefheart thing. Is there sort of a waiting period for playing that exact same track again? I mean do you say, Okay I played this Bob Marley this date, so now I have to wait at least a month or just at least until my next shift?

CF: Well, sometimes on my internet show, a song I played the week before, I'll play it again the next week, because the internet show, the music selection's a tad bit more limited compared to CBN. So I don't have as many options and it's kind of a different style a show to CBN. My CBN show is really kind of all over the place. My internet show is a little bit more structured and I don't have as much crazy music to play. So I'll try to play more not mainstream stuff, but just whatever is there.

HD: Those differences between shows are just a function of what you have available to play as opposed to direction from station management?

CF: Yeah, yeah. I've never had any direction from station management. CBN, they don't care. And A3, they're really happy that I'm there doing it, and they like the show, they haven't given me any complaints. As long as I don't play anything with cuss words in it, which is fine. Except when T.C. Brennan was on and I had to play his Social Worker Blues song.

HD: Yeah? Actually, my next door neighbor is a social worker and he played it for her. That was an interesting crossing of paths that wouldn't have otherwise happened. So there's no friction between CBN and A3 about your using the same name for the show: Hydrogen Jukebox?

CF: No, the A3 guys, I was just talking to the guy, Jim Griffin, who runs the place, and he was like, Let's put a link to CBN on our web page! It's non-profit, so that wouldn't be any kind of conflict of interest. I'm not even sure CBN knows that I do a show for A3 radio, and I don't think they would care, because I've never, ... , well, actually, accidentally once on my CBN show I was like, You're listening to Hydrogen Jukebox on A3 Radio.

HD: Is that stuff archived?

CF: CBN? No.

HD: So nobody could go back and find out.

CF: I make recordings, but I've even stopped doing that, because there's no point to doing that anymore. I have so many CD's of my show that I don't know what to do with them.

HD: So playing cuss words on WCBN is a way to get yourself suspended?

CF: From 6am to 10pm, yeah it is. And not only suspended, but if the FCC happened to be listening, the fine just went up to about $350,000. For example ...

HD: ... for one instance??

CF: It was $3500 until a couple of weeks ago and then ...

HD: ... $350,000. Wow.

CF: Not my show yesterday, but the week before, I played a song that I knew--I really wanted to play it, because it was kind of my anti-Art-Fair show and whatever ...

HD: ... so you're down on the Art Fair?

CF: A little bit, yeah. So I wanted to play the song and I knew that there were a couple of f-words in there. I was going to try to say like 'fudge' over them, like turn on the microphone on and say 'fudge', but I totally blanked out and missed it. In total I think if you added up those FCC violations on my show I had like a million dollars worth of fines last week. But the FCC doesn't care. They don't have people, or I hope they don't have people in their little bunkers listening to everything!

HD: They might, who knows.

CF: That's the scary part. I think for them to fine you it has to be archived and they have to have proof of it. Because if it's said on the air, but it's not recorded and no one's listening in a position of authority ...

HD: The reason I asked about suspensions is the Board of Directors of WCBN, they have their minutes posted online in blog format--it's very nice--and there was a case of someone who was suspended but then re-instated. Was that a profanity issue, do you know?

CF: I think it was. I actually have been suspended myself once, not for profanity. It was when I was doing my Sunday night show, the kid who did the show after mine would always come in like 20 minutes late and it ...

HD: ... let me guess, you just left dead air?

CF: No, I didn't leave dead air. No, what I did was put a Miles Davis record on to have something playing, and then I left! And it was just this kid, who his friends would call up five minutes beforehand and tell me to play something long, because they wanted to get this kid stoned before he came in. And I don't have a problem with that, but try and do it like a half hour beforehand, so I'm not stuck there! It's one in the morning and I gotta work the next day! So I didn't think anything of it at the time, but then I got suspended. It wasn't that big a deal.

HD: So it didn't result in dead air, it was just that there was nobody there?

CF: Yeah, you can't leave the turntables unattended. I mean you can go to the bathroom, if you have to, and get a coffee if you have to ...

HD: ... but you can't leave the premises.

CF: Yeah

HD: Do you play any music yourself?

CF: I played guitar for a long time, but I've kind of gotten away from that just for various reasons. I feel like I've been listening to so much music that I have all this music in my head and I'd like to get it out. So I'm definitely looking for people to play music with, but it's hard, you know ...

HD: ... so did you learn to play the guitar in order to play some particular song?

CF: No, just because my friend was doing it, and it was cool, and I wanted to play guitar, you know. The funny thing is, I used to be a kid who, when I first got into music, I'd never listen to anything without like distorted guitar. And if it didn't have a really heavy sound, I wasn't really into it. I mean, if I were to go back then, and look ahead to my musical taste now, I would have been really amazed. That's the great benefit of doing a radio show, doing a show on CBN and A3, it's being exposed to all this music and being able to appreciate all this music. You know, I've gone from a kid who used to just love Pearl Jam--and I still love Pearl Jam--but now I listen to Sun Ra or Albert Ayler, and I really appreciate it and enjoy it. And that's been the biggest benefit of being a radio DJ. I hope that I can continue to be able to do that, if I really make an effort to go into the radio industry. It's nice, you see a lot of the satellite radio shows and the internet radio shows, you play what you want, and you have your own personality, and you have your own show. That's what I would like to do: what I'm doing right now, just get paid for it!

HD: Well maybe we could bookend this Teeter Talk by wrapping back around to your housing search. Are you looking for a situation where you'd be willing to live with roommates?

CF: I think so, I'm pretty open-ended at the moment. A lot of my friends, and this is good, are in the exact same situation I'm in right now, where they need a cheap place to live temporarily.

HD: So you're thinking maybe as short as two-months you'd be willing to do?

CF: Yeah, I wouldn't mind doing a couple of two-month leases. Ideally, I'd like to leave Ann Arbor. I've been here for six years and I think I've accomplished, outside of financially, everything I need to accomplish here. So I wouldn't mind doing short leases until I left. That's what I'm doing right now. I think it's good for me in terms of forcing me to like get rid of my stuff and live a little bit more simply. I have way too many records, well, I wouldn't say way too many records, but I just have a lot of records.

HD: They're heavy. Vinyl is very heavy.

CF: So I have to try and get rid of some of those. And I have a lot of books I can give away. I have a lot of UFO books I can give to people.

HD: So would you like to make a case for yourself as a good roommate?

CF: Well, yeah! I'm the kind of person who really values my privacy, but at the same time, I'll share a porch and a beer with you as well. I'm not a person who's going to make a gigantic mess. I'm not a person who's going to break stuff, at least not intentionally.

HD: Are you maybe on the opposite end of the spectrum though? I mean, do you have to have things really really neat?

CF: No. Ideally I'd like to have some kind of neatness. There's always, you know, you go a few weeks and you go, Oh I need to clean up! And you do clean up. And it's good. And then it starts coming back in. I would like to be a kind of neat person, but not too neat. Neat externally, but not necessarily neat internally. Anyone who would not make me pay more than $350, I'll live in any kind of situation.

HD: 350 bucks, that's your threshold?

CF: That's the reason I haven't been able to sort get ahead financially is that I keep insisting on living in these nice places that are like $500 plus utilities, and I just can't do that anymore. I've lived all over town. I've lived in the co-ops, apartment buildings, houses.

HD: So if you could picka geographic region of the city what would you go for?

CF: I think the part I'm in right now, which is North State Street, like Catherine over by Ingalls and Lawrence, kind of the hospital area. I just love that neighborhood.

HD: So that's Old Fourth Ward.

CF: Yeah, I just love that neighborhood. It's right smack in the middle of everything. It's cool. I really don't like the South University, student-ghetto side of town. It's like night and day on those two sides of town.

HD: You spent some time there?

CF: Yeah, I lived in two co-ops over there. I lived in Joint House back when it was Joint House. They changed the name.

HD: The double entendre was, I assume, intended?

CF: I think so. I entered that house as a little naive child and I came out ... something different.

HD: So where did you come to Ann Arbor from?

CF: Harper Woods, which is about an hour up I-94 on the east side of Detroit. It's very weird. You've got 8 Mile going across the map and you've got Detroit and the suburbs above it. On the east side, over by Lake Sinclair, there's the Grosse Pointe area. Have you ever heard of the Pointes before?

HD: Yeah, there's that movie, Grosse Pointe Blank, that's my association with it.

CF: I went to high school there. I think it's like the third wealthiest community in America. Harper Woods is like this little corner right below 8 Mile and Grosse Pointe, where 8 Mile kind of curves off toward the lake. It's like a little buffer zone between Detroit and Grosse Pointe. It's a nice little town, but it's just really nondescript. The free-way runs right through the middle of it. It's just a basic suburb. It's very basic, there's nothing special about it at all.

HD: Alright. Well, listen, thanks for coming to ride the teeter totter.

CF: Thank you very much!