Roger Gregg of Ireland's Crazy Dog Audio Theatre talks to Tom Lopez of ZBS.
Recorded Saturday the 20 July 2002.
GREGG: How did ZBS come into being?
LOPEZ: Some of us met when I was working at a radio station in Philadelphia in the late 60s. And later after leaving the station I went to Montreal - it was a public, non-commercial station in Philadelphia and I wanted to get into commercial radio. I wanted to experience the energy of commercial radio because public radio at the time was such dead air. Energy-wise it was so dead. I always liked the aliveness of commercial radio. And it was a neat station up in Montreal, CHOM-FM.
In the meantime some one had met a journalist who had an inheritance and he always liked radio and he wanted to try to use radio to open people up or expand consciousness, raise consciousness. And so ZBS came into being. He bought some property which was mid-way between New York City and Montreal because some of us were from or working in Montreal and others were from New York City and we thought a place mid-way would be fine. And in 1970 we came into existence. It was a commercial enterprise in which he hoped to break even. Within the year that we formed, free-form radio as it was called, which was our market, was wiped out.
Actually within 6 months after we were formed. And all over the country people like Lee Abrams... they would come in and they would programme 140 stations and got rid of all their sort of slow talking FM, you know college-type D.Js that were being paid very little but are the people that brought in the new musics - which is known as 'rock-n-roll' today. So we were left without syndication. And we found other ways of surviving, doing commercials and things, but in 1973 we formed ZBS FOUNDATION - a not for profit and started getting Arts Grants and things like that.
GREGG: What does ZBS stand for?
LOPEZ: 'Zero Bull Shit'. A high ideal I'm still attempting to live up to. [laughs]. We don't normally tell people that. We couldn't really go to the National Endowment for the Arts representing ourselves from the 'Zero Bull Shit Foundation'. So we just made it 'ZBS.'.
GREGG: What happened to the guy who started it?
LOPEZ: Robert Durand. Well he's still Chairman of the Board. He's living out in Hawaii. In 1981 we disbanded. The commune, it was a media commune, started off with about 18 people and drifted down to about 8 or 10 and stabilized around there. But we never thought it would last 11 years. We felt it was quite successful lasting as long as it did.
GREGG: Do you actually mean 'Commune'?
GREGG: As in brown rice and sandals and standing in a circle holding hands in communal 'shared thought' moments?
GREGG: When I spoke to Yuri Rasovsky, he described things happening for American radio drama the 70's, and then it's demise and you and he seeing the writing on the wall.
LOPEZ: The thing was that the money wasn't there for radio drama. NPR was formed around '71 or 72 - we predate NPR by about a year. Earplay came into existence and I think they lasted about 8 years to about '79. And they literally got all the money. CPB, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, would give them whatever, big, big chunks of money, and then the National Endowment for the Arts would match it. I think Yuri would occasionally get a little money from them, but no one else was getting anything. They got everything. They just sort of wiped the slate clean. And they came up with a proposal sometime in the later 70s which was when they brought in this well-known producer from the BBC. He travelled around. He said 'What we need to do is something like STAR WARS', which had just come out. 'And we need to do that on radio'. Which they did and was quite successful.
GREGG: This was the series directed by John Madden?
LOPEZ: I think so. The thing is that they put forward a proposal. That is Earplay, NPR. The proposal was that they would have 3 centres producing radio drama. One doing classical, one doing popular, one doing serious drama, I believe. And it was starting off with 1.1. million and then it would increase to about 2 million. We looked at this proposal and were horrified. We said 'If this thing happens, we're screwed. Nobody else in this country will ever see any kind of money for producing radio drama'. And so we put up a stink. Yuri joined in and maybe a couple others. The National Endowment listened to us, CPB wouldn't listen to us. And the National Endowment agreed and that year didn't fund Earplay at all. They got zero. And they collapsed. Which surprised us because we didn't say get rid of the guys, we just said this is unfair and that the money should be distributed around. So we were quite surprised that they were just wiped out totally.
GREGG: Perhaps secretly, unbeknownst to you, the National Endowment was just looking for a pretext to pull the plug ?
LOPEZ: You're right. It wasn't secret. Their ratings had gone way down, that is, their station coverage, they didn't have ratings for public radio back then. … A lot of stations were complaining about their material. For various reasons. I think one of the things was that they kept using more and more BBC productions and less and less producing. But that's my speculation. It definitely was dwindling with less stations. So it was a good reason to spread the money around which NEA then did. Not a lot but certainly it helped some of us.
GREGG: And how was ZBS able to survive? What was the strategy?
LOPEZ: Well it wasn't because of radio drama, which we just did on our own. At first we got funding from The Jefferson Airplane. Remember them ?
GREGG: You built up a mail list. So when the funding carpet got pulled out from underneath you, and no longer had extensive national airplay, you still had a list of people. Isn't that right?
GREGG: That demonstrates the precious power of big syndication. That your mailing list can go from 500 to 3,000 because there's a media putting it out to the masses. Which doesn't happen any more.
LOPEZ: With Ruby we got funding for it. So we were able to press up 5,000 LPs (500 sets) and it went out to 500 stations and then it came out as half-hours for the satellite, about a year later. And we picked up another 100 stations and so that sucker went out to 600 stations across the country. …
GREGG: What's your method of working?
LOPEZ: I get up around 5 a.m., meditate, and make myself coffee. While the coffee's brewing… I do my morning yoga … I check the emails and then I sit down to write. After an hour or so I go outside and bicycle down our dirt road that runs along the river. And then come back and have breakfast and write some more … until about noon.
GREGG: So you are always writing?
LOPEZ: I try to. If you don't keep at it, don't you find it difficult? I mean if a couple months or so pass, to get back into it?
GREGG: I'm a guy who works really well with a gun to his head.
LOPEZ: I find if I'm not writing, I'm unbearable to be around because I start throwing puns everywhere. I think I get them out in writing.
GREGG: How many productions do you do a year?
LOPEZ: Oh not many. This year there will probably be 4 hours. It would take about a year and a half to do a 13 half hour series. Or a year anyway that's for sure. If that's all I did, but I do a lot of other things too, keeping ZBS going.
GREGG: Kind of like writing lyrics for a piece of music that already exists.
LOPEZ: I never thought in those terms, but that's true. That isn't true of everything. Like the Ruby stuff is science fiction so I'm not gathering sounds in advance. But the Jack Flanders, often happen in all sorts of different countries. So I travel around and I do remote recording and it's just for my own use. I love doing that because there's so many countries that have such rich sound environments. It's sort of like a film maker setting a scene in a visually interesting setting. In this case it's trying to do it in a similar way only with sound, so acoustically it is interesting.
GREGG: So you work on a script, you have your sounds, your sounds give you your spark, the initial conception, and then what does Tom Lopez do? How does the production happen?
LOPEZ: I'm not the world's best director. [laughs] Meaning that occasionally, but very rarely, I'll have this friend of mine direct… But since I wrote the script, directing is relatively easy. You know like ol' Himan Brown who used to do INNER SANCTUM and all that, said '90% of directing is casting'. I think he's right. You cast the right actors and they do the work for you.
GREGG: So to a large extent you're writing with certain performers in mind.
LOPEZ: I am very much so. And that really makes it much more interesting and fun. I usually record in New York City where most of the actors are. I just did something that is set in Costa Rica . But I could not find any Latino actresses up here where I live which is mid-way between Montreal and New York City. I had to record down in New York. I prefer to record in our studio up here, it's not only cheaper but it's also a great voice studio. It's really comfortable. I mean the Hudson River is right outside the door and it's quiet up here. I work alone except for the composer who lives in North Carolina. I'll send him a rough mix … he does the music listening to the rough mix. But other than that, no one else will hear it until it's out on CD and radio.
GREGG: So you have a regular pool of talent .
GREGG: And do actors send you stuff ?
LOPEZ: Yeah. Yeah. They do. [laughs]
GREGG: And you have to say 'No thanks' ?
LOPEZ: In a very nice way. Actors, and I think you feel the same way too, I think it's a really hard profession and so I have a lot of compassion for actors that are out there trying to make a living. It's tough.
GREGG: Who's work do you admire?
LOPEZ: Well I like your stuff. I really do.
GREGG: Oh ?
LOPEZ: See I'll tell you this: the thing that used to get to me in those '70s years was that everyone in Public Radio was trying to sound like the BBC. I'm talking in terms of radio theatre. And they would get these narrators that sounded so tight-assed and proper - almost English. And it really drove me batty. So I used an American D.J., and I did it just to stick it in their Public Radio face. 'This is what Americans sound like'. [laughs] And I've been using that same D.J. for many, many years. He's a big D.J. down in New York City. I just happen to know the guy from my Philadelphia years. And in fact that's why I got involved in commercial radio for about a year or so when I was up in Montreal. I like the energy of that. And ENERGY is extremely important to me.
GREGG: So to return to the question, who's work do you admire?
LOPEZ: Some of the people that I really liked though I didn't feel any influence by them was Firesign Theatre. Particularly the earlier material in the 60's and 70's that they came up with.
GREGG: Their so-called 'classic' period.
LOPEZ: They were so good. It wasn't' their wordplay that I admired. I mean I could respect that because I don't have that ability for wordplay. Which for a lot of people that's what really caught them was the Firesign's quick word play. What struck me was their sound. Their mixes were just phenomenal! I felt a great envy for what they were able to do in a studio! [laughs]. Other than that, it would be very rare that I would hear something that I can think of really admiring.
One thing about the original film was that you had the feeling the actors were having fun while they did it. And when I heard the audio production, I thought 'God why aren't these people having fun? Why are they taking this so seriously ?'. Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy, which of course knocked everyone's socks off, I liked, but to me, it was ..uh…. I preferred Monty Python. Though I think Hitch-Hiker's Guide is really a landmark. And probably the best that's been done in many, many, many years. In the 60's, I was inspired by someone at KPFA in Berkeley, Eric Bauersfeld who did a series called Black Mass , adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft and such. He helped me a lot, I consider Eric my Mentor. He also did some fine Eugene O'Neil plays for radio. But with me, I prefer film to radio drama by far, or even theatre. I'm not a theatre person. I have a theatre background but I'm not interested in the theatre. Most of the people doing radio drama came from the theatre and that's what they do, 'theatre' on the air. I want to hear radio, I don't want to hear 'theatre'.
GREGG: The Contemporary BBC and RTÉ Radio Drama stuff is coming from a different place, a different motivation and ethos entirely from that of the motivations of American OTR. The American context was never preoccupied with some Commissioner's notion of 'literary or cultural merit', it was always about entertaining, grabbing and holding the listeners attention. Above all there was fun. FUN. In American radio the premium was on entertaining the listener and maintaining interest.
LOPEZ: And it had great energy to it.
GREGG: Yes and now the scene here is largely playwrights getting their stage plays recorded on tape, or sadly, it attracts a lot of writers who are saying: 'I have this idea for a television show'. And so they test it on radio.
GREGG: So right away you are not going to have any one getting swallowed and pooped out the butt of a dragon. No body flying to different planets. You end up with 4 friends sitting on a sofa, drinking coffee, and bouncing witty repartee back and forth. Because you can shoot that easily on television. They limit themselves and castrate precisely what radio, to me, is best at.
GREGG: Did the American radio shows of the 50's influence you ?
LOPEZ: Oh definitely! In fact when I did The Fourth Tower of Inverness, it had a jukebox that played whenever an accident was about to occur. Now that device was based on and was paying homage to 'I Love A Mystery'. They used to have an organ somewhere in a basement that would play before an accident would happen. In this case the jukebox played 'Angel Baby' a 50's tune. [laughs] And I Love A Mystery also had Jack, Doc And Reggie, well I could only afford one person so I had just Jack. Using the name Jack was sort of paying homage to I Love A Mystery . I wanted to take what had existed in the 40s and 50s and update it into the present time. It seemed to me that you could still have the same energy, the same spunkiness and so on. In this case The Fourth Tower had a lot of spiritual stuff in it. There's a lot of Zen, Buddhist and all kinds of Sufi sayings. All done in a kind of slapstick kind of manner. And people loved it. The intention was paying homage to the past but not doing the past. I mean I can't believe how many scripts young writers have done that sound like Old Time Radio. And I say 'Why ?!' And they say 'Well, I really like that stuff'. And I say 'But what does that have to do with Today ?' I mean come on.
GREGG: What do you mean? That characters are picking up old-fashioned dial phones instead of modern push button ?
LOPEZ: The whole style of it. A favorite is to do satires of Old Time Radio. But the satires sounded like old time radio. These are things that people produce, not just scripts, … only they think they are being funny when they re-create it and it just sounds Ooooow! [groans]. I don't even want to think about that. It's like really a bummer.
GREGG: What's your advice for aspiring writers ? For aspiring audio theatre producers?
LOPEZ: It's a stinker because there is not the markets out there, nor the grants. So I have a lot of mixed feelings. To some extent learning to write for radio, or write for audio, that's applicable to a lot of different areas, so its not like it's learning to write for a medium for which there is no possible means of making any kind of an income from. [Laughs] Because there are so few stations that are playing the stuff. But there are still people that are interested in it. And there are elements, particularly dialogue and character development, that can be carried over to film writing. And also, it is possible that anyone can do it.
Look at the cheap professional technology that exists right now in terms of minidisk for god's sake. You can turn out broadcast quality on a 200 dollar machine and an expensive mic. And you can edit it too, on your computer. You can do it all yourself for very very little money. And so people can do productions, and get actors when they're starting off anyway, or find decent local actors that you know that will work for free just for the pleasure of doing it. And then you can burn it on CD and sell it to friends or something. So 'Do It!' Because it isn't just writing scripts, it's write it with the intention of doing it yourself. That's what I tell people. If you want to have it produced, you'll have to do it yourself. And you can do it. You can do it for very little money, out of your own pocket. That's the amazing thing right now.
GREGG: But there's no pot of gold waiting.
LOPEZ: No. Except that it may be something you can use for other purposes.
GREGG: Any comments regarding Rasovsky's observations on the market being flooded by bad amateur product which turns people off the whole area of audio theatre?
LOPEZ: It's publishing. We're not taking about broadcasting here o.k. ? We're talking about publishing. Self-publishing. And it's really true that when you enter the world of self-publishing there is LOTS of crap. I mean not just on the Internet but there are books and all kinds of things, which people self-publish that are crap. But it doesn't stop people from reading it though. And occasionally there are brilliant things that come along. And they're the ones that people say 'Oh hey, what else has this person done ?'
GREGG: Have you ever gotten near a big publishing deal with a major publisher and it's distribution network ?
GREGG: This is the frustrating thing isn't it ? The medium of Audio Theatre cannot promote itself. You can have a cast of top class professional actors, a fantastic original script, top-notch production values and still no publisher will be interested. You cannot get anywhere with audio theatre alone. You have to go elsewhere, to other medium like having famous Hollywood actors in the cast doing audio adaptations of well-established best-selling authors, before there's any interest.
LOPEZ: But Roger, we are all equally guilty in this. And I'll tell you why... On one level, Marketing, this is what we're talking about here, is the simplest thing. Just watch what your hand reaches for. Do you ever buy a CD or something or a book that you don't know anything about? How often do you do that? At least with a book you can open it and read it and then decide, 'Do I really want to take a chance?' No. We read reviews. Our friends recommend it. That's what we go for. We rarely will buy a book or a CD we know nothing about. We won't take the chance. Publishers are in it to sell the most they can. That's why none of us have the slightest opportunity unless for some reason we get a book published or something like that so people know who we are and now will take a chance, they've heard of us. That's the world. It could be worse. As I said the technology makes it possible that you can do it on your kitchen table. And do a professional sounding thing too.
GREGG: What about the state of what should be the natural home of this, American radio?
LOPEZ: Now, it's really bad. In the early 80's we had 600 stations with Ruby, now I'd be lucky to get 80 stations. And that's giving it for free of course. That's the way it's always been here. Which is o.k. The ratings people have convinced stations, and they can show it with the numbers, that radio drama does not have an audience. And so News and Information has of course become the big thing on public radio here. And commercial radio quit playing radio drama decades ago. The future of broadcasting? I don't know. Things are liable to change in the future but I don't know why they should. It may well be that as the Internet keeps improving that there will be more.
GREGG: BBC Radio 4 recently did an item on the Copyright law coming into effect in October in America regarding Internet based radio stations. It spells the impending demise of Internet based free form radio. These very small operators wanted to be able to play whatever music they wanted in return for paying an overall royality percentage of the meagre amounts of money they were taking in. But the big corporations came in with their teams of lawyers and insisted on playing hardball. These little outfits were often playing off the wall independent things, not format music. As a consequence by the end of the year they concluded, the only Internet based radio stations left will be operated and controlled by the same big corporate concerns that already own the terrestrial stations.
LOPEZ: The game is totally theirs. This goes way back to when Reagan came in and loaded the FCC and they went ahead and deregulated radio, removed any obligation to perform a public service, just make money. So today, one corporation can own god knows how many radio, tv stations and newspapers in any market. Isn't it grand? Today, 40, 50, 60 % of radio stations are owned by about 3 corporations. What I'm saying is that these big media corporations, which now own the government, can do pretty much whatever they want. Thank you Ronald McReagan.
LOPEZ: No, not really. Just about all of them come from hearing it on the radio or recommended by a friend. Occasionally they'll come across our stuff in a library. There are cases where we've spanned three generations. Where someone was a kid, you know about 4 or 5 years old when they're parents were playing the Fourth Tower - Jack Flanders early 70's stuff, and now they play it for their kids. It's quite extraordinary to think it's been around for so long. Sometimes kids come across it in a library thinking they're going to hear a book on tape, and suddenly … they hear a full cast performance and they'll go 'WOW!' We've gotten letters from kids saying: 'I never knew anything like this existed.' They've never heard radio drama. It's a whole new world to them. So that's exciting. Generally I think most of the people on our list are older. They are mainly college educated - they heard us on NPR or a college or community station. I tend to think that probably the rise or hump is getting older. I discovered years ago that somebody would hear something, like Moon Over Morocco , and they would say 'Wow This is Great!' And they would play it for a friend and say 'You've got to hear this!' And the friend would go 'Ho-humm' And they would be so disappointed because their friend didn't like it.
GREGG: That used to happen with me playing The Firesign Theatre to certain people.
LOPEZ: Yeah. It catches certain people and doesn't catch other people and that's the reality. It doesn't mean that they're a lesser person. Which I had to adjust to I must admit! [laughs]. And a lot of people love Old Time Radio, so when it comes to taste, you never know.
GREGG: How big is the OTR thing in America?
LOPEZ: It was very big. I assume it still is fairly…
GREGG: How old are you now?
LOPEZ: Ancient. Ancient. I discovered at a very early age that when I told people how old I was they would look at me differently, like once they knew my physical age, they could now see me. That is, see me through a filter. The truth of the matter is, when it comes to true age, I have no idea how old I am. I should have been snuffed years ago… in terms of making a living from this. It's extraordinary. It's sheer luck. And will the luck continue? Why not?