Waking Up in Berkeley

DJ, West Berkeley Graffiti

DJ, West Berkeley Graffiti

This post first appeared on the Berkeley Afoot blog on January 2, 2012

It’s a typical weekday morning and, at 5:30, the clock radio kicks in. Disoriented, foggy with sleep, I have yet to realize what I’m hearing. Will I be tazed by a screeching Sun Ra freestyle romp that will jangle me out of bed? Repeatedly nudged by Native American chants that go on just a little too long? Irritated but then charmed by a beatified bebop bongo ballad? Tugged gently from Morpheus’ grasp by a sweet Bach sonata for oboe and strings? Hammered by some funky low down and dirty blues? Challenged by Mumia Abu-Jamal delivering one of his Prison Radio commentaries? Called to action by an old-school, guitar-strumming folkie in search of a better world? Or unceremoniously yanked to the dance floor by some sizzling Nigerian R&B?

I never know what it will be; I’m in the hands of KPFA morning radio.

I’m not a KPFA groupie. I don’t tune in at any other time of day. Years ago, I was a loyal listener, before the Pacifica drama, before the infighting and struggle for power. The few times when I listen to radio these days, it’s KCSM jazz, or news, or a ballgame. It was only by accident that I set the clock radio to KPFA one night. I thought it was a different station.

After the first disorienting morning, I meant to change it to something else. But days passed. Then weeks. I gradually became addicted to the randomness of the programming—the occasional dead air, those transitions when one track ended abruptly and another began in the middle, the occasionally amateurish chatter, announcements with background music cranked up so loud, I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Some of the volunteer hosts were smooth and professional. Others were so clueless, you wondered how they made it through their show…or why they were asked to return.

The format was always the same…or wasn’t. There were the programs and their hosts that rotated every day but observed a rough sort of consistency. Then the local news brief. Then Al Jazeera English. Except when, inexplicably, there was no local news or instead of Al Jazeera, there was Democracy Now. Or live local coverage of a Native American occupation of a park in Vallejo.

Where else on the airways could I be so surprised, so unsure of what would happen in the next moment?

So the clock radio remains set to KPFA. It isn’t going to change any time soon. I crave the randomness now. The chaos somehow helps me prepare for my day, for routine life out there among my Berkeley neighbors. As I realize this, I’m forced to admit how disingenuous I’ve been in claiming to be something other than the typical Berkeleyan. Because the typical Berkeleyan is not much different than KPFA early morning radio: unpredictable, a bit random, brilliant at times and stone cold stupid at others, perfectly charming one moment and all too abrasive the next. Out on the street or in the local cafe, I’m Sun Ra, he’s Balkan folk songs, and she’s experimental ambient sound. We’re supposedly grouped and sorted, arranged into some logical sequence, some coherent presentation, but the waking world often can’t figure us out. We’re noticeably different from each other and often incompatible. Yet we somehow produce a synthesized, mesmerizing pastiche.

If you were seeking neat and orderly, waking world, you’ve tuned to the wrong station. But you may want to leave that dial alone a moment. You might just find that we grow on you.

Thoughts, questions, or comments?