The Assembly of Gavin Frederick’s “Radio Bomb” by Daniel Makagon

Nov 14, 2019

Part of The Sound Salvation series

Gavin Frederick began hosting a punk rock radio show on WREK in Atlanta at an interesting time in the history of college radio and alternative music. The show began as punk was breaking (according to mainstream narratives), and ended amidst massive changes in the recording and distribution of music across all genres. Throughout the eleven years that Gavin hosted “Radio Bomb,” he negotiated the challenges and opportunities that came with doing a show in a city rich with alternative music programming. Finding the cracks and gaps where punk could be an alternative to this indie/alternative music programming was both challenging and energizing.

Daniel: How did you get into punk?

Gavin: I just didn’t fit in and I felt like punk rock is where I belonged. I got into it in eighth grade, around ’87. And I guess I never left. I was in southeastern Pennsylvania, west of Philly, and got into a scene where I was accepted. At the time, it was about changing the world with this music. I think we won, but I don’t think it turned out the way we thought it would. [Laughs] The University of Delaware had a college station. They would play punk stuff, but they basically played everything from My Bloody Valentine to Naked City. It was a pretty good source. And then there was the, “I’ll mail three dollars to this address listed in Maximum Rock’n’roll and hopefully I’ll get my record.” [Laughs]

Daniel: You’re the first person I’m interviewing for this series who did a show at a station where there was an appreciation for punk. The other interviews focused on first-wave DJs, who tended to do the only punk show at their respective stations or in their cities. How did you get started and when did the show air?

Gavin: Yeah, they were doing shows when nobody wanted to acknowledge that punk existed—you were stupid for liking it. Really, I didn’t start the show until after Nirvana blew up and about a year before Green Day, so it was a different media environment. I went to school at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. And honestly, WREK is pretty much the number one reason why I went to Tech. At the time, it was a 40,000-watt station that had Bikini Kill and Fugazi in regular rotation. That was in 1992. I walked into the station and they were going to have GG Allin playing live the next week, and I thought, “Ah, this is where I belong.” I didn’t know at the time that GG Allin lived at the Clermont Hotel in Atlanta; he was kind of a local artist.

When I did the training process, there was already a punk show that I think was called “Came Without a Warning.” REK was pretty liberal; they would let people who graduated, or who weren’t students, do a show. This guy was never a student but somehow he got into a show. There was a bunch of drama. His show was okay, but he mostly played a lot of Lookout!/Screeching Weasel/Jawbreaker kind of stuff, which at that time was kind of like the MTV of the underground. A lot of people thought what I was doing was more of a metal show. I was coming in with stuff like Rorschach and Assück, and they were like, “This is metal.” Except the general manager—she got it. “No, that’s punk.” So I was there for eleven years; I started in late March or April of ’93 and it ran until 2004. The original name was “Innerface,” which is a pretty emo name. And then my friend Mike Mowery (now the president of Outerloop Management), who was going to Tech at the time, was down there one time and said, “I’m going to send a radio bomb out and blow up everyone’s radio.” We decided that “Radio Bomb” was a much better name. [Laughs]

I started out on Thursday nights at 8:00. But nobody wanted the hour before “Live at REK” (a show that featured bands playing live in the studio), which was Tuesday nights at 10:00. So, there was that open hour and then the 8:00-9:00 slot came open on Tuesday night, so I was like, “How about I take the 8:00-10:00 slot?” I was able to angle myself into a two-hour slot, which is a pretty long time for a radio show. It’s all short songs and it’s not easy to do a bathroom break. [Laughs] That’s when you threw on Man Is The Bastard.

There was one other thing about the show being on Tuesday nights that was unique. A friend of mine who went to Tech, this guy Brennan T. Price, was really into politics. So, every election night, not just the presidential elections, he would want to do election updates. The show would be interesting on election nights— it would be Brennan coming in, “Clinton up by five points in Pennsylvania.” And then me cracking jokes about politics. [Laughs]

Daniel: How did the show fit into the context of the station and the Atlanta radio spectrum?

Gavin: There was REK and then there was WRAS, which was a 100,000-watt station and played a lot of indie/alternative music. And then there was 99X, which was the commercial alternative station: Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and Green Day. WRAS is still going, but there was a hostile takeover. Georgia Public Radio is now on there during the day. WRAS is on twenty-four hours on the internet, but I think you hear the students from 7:00PM to 5:00AM. REK is still going strong; it’s now 100,000 watts.

If you were a local band, it wasn’t hard getting on the radio in Atlanta. REK or WRAS, if they liked you, they would program you in the regular rotation. So my show never really had much of a local focus; it was always about playing the stuff you would never hear anywhere else. REK also had a noise/experimental music show, so I didn’t go the full noise route. And I would have guest DJs —like, I had some friends who were really into Scandinavian thrash, and so it was two hours of Scandinavian thrash. The show never really focused on one thing; I would always try to play something different. Another big reason for having guest DJs join me is that I realized, “Hey, wait a minute, they’ve got all those records.”

Daniel: The general timeframe that you started doing the show is really important. Music that was labeled “alternative” had become mainstream, but there were also major shifts in the sounds and politics of punk and hardcore. How were these changes in punk impacting the sound of your show?

Gavin: I ran a small distro (StickFigure) to sell records, so I would get promos and always felt like, “Oh, you need to hear this.” And we would have house shows in my house (I Defy) and later on the Georgia Tech Campus (Under the Couch). That combination helped me get a lot of access to stuff. But then after a while, it became this thing where you never really knew what was going to be played that week. Some weeks, it would be a total Gravity/emo show and the next week, like I said, it would be nothing but Swedish thrash. There was no other way to hear this stuff. If it was in regular rotation at one of the two colleges, I would probably never touch it. Otherwise, it’s fair game.

Again, there was a show called “Live at REK” that was after my show. We didn’t really go out of our way to do a lot of interviews, but there would always be bands in there that would be sound checking, literally in front of me, to play the next hour. So we would have quick interviews if it was a local punk band I knew. And I had a lot of friends who would come down. One favorite was this guy Marty Rioux (bass player in Inkwell)—he would do Sing Along with Marty. He would sing along to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” but would do a total screamo style, a karaoke, but you could hear both. [Laughs] The phones would light up. People really loved that. Or I would have friends guest DJ and we’d do stuff like split the channels, so I would be on the left channel and they would be on the right channel, each playing different stuff. I did some ridiculous things. [Laughs]

By the aughties, I don’t even know if you could call the show a punk show anymore. It basically just turned into whatever underground music that I knew about that the local radio stations weren’t playing. Near the end, I’d come in and play something on Anticon or Mush. You could argue that that kind of has a punk attitude, but it doesn’t fit into what you’d think is a punk rock show. But at the time, none of that stuff was being played on a local radio station.

Daniel: If WREK was playing indie, noise rock, and other weird stuff during the day, then that pushed you or opened up opportunities for you to play music that wouldn’t normally be heard on college radio at that time.

Gavin: I enjoyed it. I don’t have to play that stuff, cool.

Daniel: What influenced your decision to stop doing the show?

Gavin: It was in ’04 and I had been out of school for six years. A lot of it was just burnout. I loved it, but you’re responsible for it every week. And you’re not getting paid for it. Also, there was a changing media environment. In ’04, the internet wasn’t going away. I wondered if people were still listening to this. If I gave away tickets, I’d get calls but it just kind of petered off. The changed media environment for people meant they didn’t need the show as much.

I personally feel there’s still a need for a well curated show on the radio, but the problem is convincing people to listen to it. Now you have things like Pandora that have all these artificial intelligence algorithms that generate music. That’s cool, but all it does is pretty much generate the same thing over and over. You don’t know if you’re missing out on the next big thing, and you probably are, because it’s not smart enough to understand that this listener might want to know about this really cool new thing going on wherever. There’s still a need for a really good source, but with the internet, everybody is a source. It’s kind of like punk rock more generally—if everybody’s in a band, then nobody’s left to be a fan. The same is true for the media—if everybody’s a journalist or a DJ, then who’s listening to this?

Daniel: It seems like you had a good understanding throughout the show about the ways that you could and should fill a gap in the radio programming spectrum.

Gavin: Yeah, but at the same time we were kids, so we didn’t know as much as we thought we did. It was definitely “‘A’ for effort,” which, back then, for that kind of stuff, was all you needed. Hopefully you didn’t piss off the FCC.

Daniel: How were you dealing with music that included profanity, since your show wasn’t during safe harbor hours (midnight to 6:00AM)?

Gavin: I’d get creative. At first, I would put effort into cleaning the songs that I knew I was going to play a lot and I’d record it to an 8-track cart and clean it. But after a while I realized it was really easy with records and CDs to turn it off at the board and turn it back on. You know people at home were just laughing.

Daniel: Thinking about you running a distro, selling music locally and also through mail order, did you have a sense that college radio affected your sales (both positively during the years when various forms of punk were getting a lot of attention and negatively after punk drifted from the mainstream attention)? And if something new came out, that you played a few weeks in a row, would kids come looking for those records?

Gavin: I didn’t really do mail order at first; I just sold stuff at shows. It was amazing that a lot of people knew what they wanted. There was stuff that I would think, “Oh, that record’s coming out, I gotta get copies of that.” And then there’s stuff that I would stock because I wanted to check it out. So there’s definitely some overlap there, because Atlanta was a pretty progressive media environment for college radio. There might be some correlation between what was played, but I wouldn’t play the same thing two weeks in a row. Maybe once a month. I did a really good job mixing it up.

And I didn’t want people to think I was doing a show to sell records. The show was intentionally all over the place. In some sense, I think the show didn’t have as many listeners as there could have been, because I wouldn’t stick to any one thing. But the listeners who really loved it probably did because, “We don’t know what we’re gonna get,” you know. Between having a distro and also having access to all this stuff they had in the REK record library, I was trying to stay away from stuff that was in regular rotation at REK. You had to put some work into it, but you could make it happen.

Daniel: What about now? Does college radio impact how people seek out music in Atlanta or people who buy music from you through mail order?

Gavin: I think college radio still has a role. A lot of stations are now on the internet. Granted, Pandora and Spotify are behemoths, but there’s a lot of room for college radio. A lot of people on college radio are doing it for the love of music and they aren’t getting paid, so that makes it easy to have a lot of options for DJs, when nobody’s worried about paying anybody. The thing about the aughties was it looked like nobody was ever gonna buy music anymore. It got really dire. Now the vinyl resurgence has impacted sales. But it isn’t just vinyl; people still buy lots of cheap CDs and cassettes. College radio still has an influence in there. Granted, it doesn’t have the impact that it did in the ’90s. But a lot of people still prefer college radio over AIs telling them what to listen to.

For me as a distro, what really happened is that with the rise of MP3s, music sales went down and so the record stores started stocking more edgy stuff that they didn’t have to stock in the past. This really took away the market of selling at shows. For a while in the ’90s it seemed like some people would go to shows just to see what the local record distro had. Not even to see the show. It was like, “Oh, do you have these records I’m looking for?,” because the local record store wouldn’t stock it. But now you can find anything anywhere, so distros are pretty niche. I haven’t sold stuff at shows in a long time, because it’s a lot of work loading all that stuff in. [Laughs]

Daniel: Thanks for taking the time to talk about your show and how that experience linked to other punk-related projects.

Gavin: It was a while ago, so it was good to get these memories refreshed. I’m sure there will be people who will read this interview and be like, “That’s not what happened!” Hopefully Razorcake will open a comments page and we can get a good old-fashioned flame war going. Or, as we call it now, “discussion.” [Laughs] But I hadn’t thought about the show for a while, so thanks for doing the interview.