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On the Air: experimental radio hits the waves

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The June 6 premiere of Blind Spot, a radio show on WLUW, was a live, abstract "restaging" of the Allied landing at Omaha Beach on D-day, exactly 60 years earlier. Rather, it was mostly live.

"We preferred to do it all live," says John Wanzel, the show's cocreator. "Since it was being broadcast on the 60th anniversary of D-day it should be a live re-creation of D-day." Plus, an important aspect of Blind Spot's premise is that it presents experimental radio work live, with no prerecorded bits. But, much like the Allies on June 6, 1944, Wanzel ran into a snafu with his boats.

A few days earlier he'd stuck microphones in the two-by-two-foot vessels, made from scrap wood and plastic two-liter bottles, then floated them on Lake Michigan and taped the sounds they picked up. This was a practice run--his goal was to repeat the stunt on broadcast day, feeding the sound live to WLUW's studios on the Loyola campus. "The boats took a good beating on the Friday of the test," he says. "When constructing them I forgot to factor in how violent two-foot waves can be on a small boat."

There was a test run for D-day as well. General Eisenhower organized an amphibious practice assault on a British beach in April 1944. A group of German E-boats discovered the advancing ships, and 749 U.S. soldiers were killed. Eisenhower went ahead with the June 6 attack anyway, which anyone who's seen Saving Private Ryan knows led to one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. "There were a lot of things they didn't account for," says Wanzel, "like sandbars and obstacles, as well as German E-boats that came in and started sinking things. Most of these things went wrong during the practice D-day. Those soldiers died because of things like this.

"When I got home from my initial test run I was frustrated and chain-smoking," he says. "During the [D-day] practice run there was a point when the whole structure of the liberation of Europe may have been rethought because of all the casualties. Because of all my problems I had the same feeling: Do I need to rethink these boats? And then I guess like Eisenhower I thought: No. This is the way things have to go."

On the day of the radio show, Wanzel was ready to use his boats--they were set up on the lake just 50 yards across a parking lot outside the studio--but at the last minute he reconsidered. The mikes inside the beat-up crafts were getting wet, so he was forced to go with the sounds he'd already captured on tape.

He's quick to point out that the tape was only a "small aspect of a larger piece," which was driven by live sonic elements: music played on computer and cello by Jacob Christopher and Peter Rosenbloom (of Tiny Hairs), plus a script read aloud by Wanzel and sculptor Brian Taylor. The text, written by Wanzel, drew on interviews he'd conducted with his great-uncle and his grandfather, both World War II veterans.

Each week Blind Spot, spearheaded by Wanzel and Philip von Zweck, longtime host of WLUW's experimental music and radio-art showcase Something Else, will focus on a different theme, using live music, scripts, improvisation, and audience participation to varying degrees. According to Lou Mallozzi, an Art Institute prof and sound artist who's taught both von Zweck and Wanzel, it's "the only organized, consistent live-to-air experimental radio project in the Chicago area, and as far as I know the only one in the U.S."

Von Zweck took several of Mallozzi's classes as an undergrad. After getting his BFA in 1995, he launched Something Else, which broadcast the work of a slew of folks from Mallozzi's classes, including Wanzel. "John was doing work about professional wrestlers--interviews with people, sort of semidocumentary," von Zweck says. "It was lo-fi, kinda funky, but interesting as well. Very different from the usual stuff I'd been seeing."

A year ago Wanzel and von Zweck began assembling a team of artists interested in collaborating on a new show. They bounced ideas around, including options for a name. "For the first couple months we referred to it as 'the New Radio Show,' or 'Chimera,' or a number of other names," Wanzel says. "But after a long session around my kitchen table we decided that Blind Spot had the most support, the idea being that a blind spot is something you have to consciously look for--radio that you have to look for, radio that you have to turn your head to listen to."

For this Sunday's episode, "Cellphone_Scape/Chicago," about ten collaborators will walk around town with their cell phones on; the sound will be mixed and broadcast live from the studio. "It relates both to the idea of soundscape as an aural portrait of a space," von Zweck says, "and to the situationist idea of 'drifting,' coming to know a city through its psychogeography."

Blind Spot airs every Sunday from 10 to 11 PM on WLUW, 88.7 FM. For a full schedule of upcoming shows, visit stopgostop.com/blindspot or call 773-508-9589.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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