Radio story: Cassette tape resurgence

A man and his Telex Copyette: Fresno musician Daniel Schultz of coattrack records.

My second freelance radio story for The California Report aired on Friday, Nov. 25. I reported on the unlikely resurgence of cassette tapes in the indie music scene, and I focused on the Fresno-based coattrack records collective as one example of do-it-yourself musicians coming together to share their work with their fans in a simple, cost-effective way via tapes.

I conducted the primary interview for the story with Daniel Schultz, the drummer for the Fresno band Achievement House and the founder and sole operator of coattrack. I first talked with Daniel way back in November 2010 as part of a FUSE Fest 2010 sampler on my old Evening Eclectic music show on 90.7 KFSR. We had a conversation off-mic that night about alternative forms of music distribution in the Internet era, and that’s when he first told me about his idea of starting coattrack to help local musicians release music digitally and on cassette tape. Later, Daniel explained that participating artists wouldn’t be “on the label,” like the industry has been operating for decades. Rather, artists would have releases through the label. “It’s like this: The band is an entity and coattrack is another,” he said, “and occasionally we work together and make a cassette.”

It was great fun to interview Daniel at the home he shares with his girlfriend, Melissa Olson. (The two collaborate as TeamTeam Creative Effort for multimedia projects, including the FUSE Fest 2011 visual campaign.) Daniel introduced me to his beloved Telex Copyette tape dubbing machine, a contraption he got for free from a friend’s grandfather, a pastor who used it to duplicate recordings of his sermons. The three of us had fun recording all the funky sounds the Copyette made throughout the dubbing process. We also recorded a bunch of sounds that didn’t make it into the final story: tape hiss, unspooling a cassette’s clingy magnetic tape, rewinding the unspooled tape back into the cassette with a pencil, the opening and closing of cassette tape boxes, etc.

Luke Giffen and his reel-to-reel tape machine.

I also interviewed Fresno musician Luke Giffen for the story. His former band, The Sleepover Disaster, released its last album on CD via the now-defunct indie label Devil In The Woods. His current band, The Quiet Americans, released its debut EP, “Medicine,” on cassette via coattrack. I reviewed the EP back in May for Fresno Famous, and I had played tracks from it on my old Evening Eclectic show. But I listened on repeat to “Medicine” on cassette tape in my car during the final week I spent working on this story, and I have to say that I absolutely fell in love with it. The warble and the wobble really intensified as I studied the record on tape, as opposed to the digital versions of the songs I had first gotten to know. Listening to “Medicine” on tape, quite simply, made it better. And that surprised me.

My little home recording experiment.

The experience of hearing and appreciating “Medicine” in a new way in my car gave me an idea. For the story, instead of using high-quality .WAV files for the music in the piece by The Quiet Americans, Achievement House, and the Fay Wrays, I went old-school instead. I first dusted off my old JVC boombox, which was buried under a pile of fabric in my wife’s craft room. I readied the cassette tape versions of the three albums I was using and carefully fast-forwarded to cue up the songs I wanted. I hooked up my Marantz 660 digital recorder and ElectroVoice RE-50/B omni microphone to capture the sound. And then I played the music out of the boombox, muddy distortion and all, right into the Marantz. The results, as you’ll hear, sounded great.

Here’s the link to the final radio story. As a bonus, here’s a link to Giffen’s beautifully affecting homemade video for The Quiet Americans song “Be Alone.”

Radio story: Hmong American writers

Fresno poet Soul Vang is believed to be the first Hmong American to earn an MFA in poetry.

My first freelance radio story for The California Report aired on Friday, Oct. 21. I reported on the Fresno-based Hmong American Writers’ Circle and their groundbreaking new collection of literature, How Do I Begin? It was a great feeling to hear myself on the radio telling a good story, and the subject matter had a lot to do with my feeling of success.

I was lucky to have long interview conversations with two HAWC members whose writing I’ve long admired: Soul Choj Vang and Burlee Vang. We talked about the book, we talked about writing, and we talked about the immigrant experience in America, which is captured so vividly throughout the book. I invited both Soul and Burlee to come into The California Report’s bureau office not only for their main interviews, but also to perform some of their work. Excerpts from Soul’s poem “Here I Am,” which inspired the anthology’s title, and Burlee’s poem “Eating Without the Poet” made it into the finished story, and I was so glad that listeners got to hear snippets of these two remarkable writers’ work in their own voices.

Burlee Vang, who teaches at Fresno City College, founded the Hmong American Writers' Circle in 2004.

In the process of reporting, I was most humbled by my time spent in Soul’s home and in Burlee’s classroom. On one day, Soul invited me into his home to observe him with his family. He has two sons with special needs who demanded a lot of his attention. He also has the hustle and bustle of a house with three generations of family under one roof, each member filling his or her duties in a graceful but clockwork fashion. On another day, Burlee invited me into his classroom at Fresno City College to observe him with his English 1A students. He has a talkative bunch of beginning writers who demanded a lot of his attention as well. He also has the chaos of a first-year composition course to orchestrate, each student workshopping his or her paper in a sprawling but organized fashion. Unfortunately, none of the sound I gathered at either location ended up making it into the final story. But my time spent with Soul and Burlee in their respective worlds was truly a gift, and it reminded me that reporters are wise to never take that kind of trust for granted.

Here’s the link to the final radio story. Please listen to the audio version first, before you read the extended text version that I wrote for the website. Then, at the bottom of the text version, listen to the full poems by Soul and Burlee.