Wednesday, January 3, 2007

A Better Best Show

I have been listening to "The Best Show" on WFMU for close to a year or more now. When I came back from Kazakhstan and moved to Jersey City, I decided to start listening to WFMU as a way to get more culture, of which I had sadly been lacking. I came across Tom Sharpling's show one night, quite accidentally, and I was hoodwinked and hooked ever since. I will be first to admit that the show's humor is hard to pin down. I still can not quite tell when the joke has started, if ever, and when I am supposed to cringe in horror, or laugh out loud to certain callers (one's I can't identify as Wurster). Yet, despite being a three hour show, I listen every week, and enjoy it all. Some nights, Tom fails miserably, and still manages to entertain, other nights, he is a rousing success. While there is a perceptible pattern to his shows, there is no such pattern to the success or failure. It really all depends on how he is feeling that night and whose calling in.

"The Best Show on WFMU," as well as the many of shows that I listen to on WFMU, are examples of an artist doing what an artist does and only a free form, listener supported station like WFMU can pull shows like "The Best Show" off. Most radio today is pre-packaged garbage that has about as much creativity as a street sign, and I almost as appealing. Talk radio has been more appealing simply because there is a sense of breaking out of the absolutely boring music radio mold, but most talk radio ends up sounding like a weird parody of itself: the same loud punctuating, get your attention sounds, uninformed chatter about the topic of the day, usually related to whatever celebrity the media wants to promote at that time, and generally lowest common denominator jokes that will ensure that the show appeals to the vast majority of listeners. When I listen to those shows, I get the feeling of listening to a well hidden, multi-layered advertisement made up of people pretending to be loose and spontaneous in a totally controlled way. These shows are entertaining, and their appeal is obvious, but the need for constant shock tends to make them less and less impacting over time. Scream at someone constantly, and eventually they will stop perceiving you as actually screaming. Plus, creators of these shows may find themselves restricted over time, I am sure, as the search for greater profit tends to push them down the same paths, as many business minded people never quite understand the value of pure experimentation.

Only on WFMU could a show like "The Best Show" or "The Speakeasy" or Dave Emory's anti-fascist research screed, take place. Those shows, including an exhaustive list of others, would simply not be allowed on a for profit station, while many 'non-profit' stations which garner their money from different sources (like corporate underwriting, or the government) would also put restrictions on them. When "The Best Show" goes off the rails, a bit fails, or some disaster strikes the host and co., while there is no safety net, there is no real fall. Sure, I bet Mr. Sharpling gets a bit of humble pie handed to him, but he does not worry that his ratings are going to bite the dust, advertisers will be upset, and the show will be cancelled. From my perspective, that makes for a rawer, realer radio show. Statistical ratings are not what effect WFMU's future, instead, its the collective interest of the listeners who make the donations, are the people who decide if WFMU will continue on or not. The station can support whatever artists it chooses. The listeners will tell them otherwise. Goddamnit, that is free-freakin'-market capitalism in its purest form.

Art is essentially about creative failure. A famous painter once described them as "Happy mistakes." A real artists goes up on stage, starts a drawing, or plucks a few chords with only a rough idea of what will come out on the other end, which is the root of all great art: playful experimentation. This Tuesday, "The Best Show" ended with a resounding 'W' (as agreed by all parties who decided to comment). What was different? Nothing really straying from the formula that I have been listening to for the past year. Yet, at the same time, all the chords hit right, all the shading was what it was supposed to be, and the line were said just right. No formula could have made sure that would work, and only a place that lacks any real formula could let that happen.

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