The first time I tuned into Transceiver Radio, it felt like I was spying on someone. The music was low, but the voices in the background were lower. I caught maybe one word a sentence. They were definitely talking about radio, but what was going on? Was it a deeply experimental show? Was I supposed to put together the puzzle pieces? If I figured out the secret code, would I get a prize? Despite the unusual set up, tuning in was fun. It felt like being let in on a secret.
It’s the surprises that keep drawing me back to Transceiver Radio. I try not to look at the schedule, because I like being taken off guard by a piece of music or a mysterious voice. In reality, Transceiver couldn’t be less of a secret. The community radio / art project / Transformer exhibition is the brainchild of Joshua Gamma, a curator and designer who has been searching for ways to marry his love of music, art and community for years. Him and his artistic collaborators have converted Transformer‘s small gallery space into a working radio station. A place where you can hear psychedelic deep cuts from South America, archival audio from the 90s or modern day odes to smooth jazz.
We caught up with Gamma to talk about his love for music, designing albums for punk bands and to find out why people are starting to care about radio again. Whether you listen online, can catch their FM broadcast or stop by for one of their free happy hours, you have one more week to tune into Transceiver’s ever changing shows. Don’t miss out.
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Why did you want to build a radio station?
My dad was in the military, I was in the military, so I kind of don’t know where I’m from. I know I’m from the United States… But my family is all from California and I grew up primarily in the south, southern Louisiana, Texas. There was this disconnect growing up. I was coming from Monterey, California, which is a beautiful resort town and had a great education system. My teachers encouraged me to do art… And then we moved to Morgan City, Louisiana when I was ten. It’s an amazing magical place in its own way…
It’s like a foreign country in comparison. I had friends whose grandparents spoke French and there’s alligators and there’s more water than land. I didn’t know who I was and how I fit into all of this and a thing that really grounded me was music and the radio. We were close enough to New Orleans that I could catch jazz stations and I could hear New Orleans funk. We’d go to Mardi Gras and see marching bands, and suddenly I was like, “This is cool. This is something I can latch onto.” I think from an early age I was obsessed with folk music, for lack of a better word, but specifically Louisiana funk and soul and jazz.
Do you remember your favorite station growing up?
There was WWOZ, which is still there. It’s like the New Orleans jazz and heritage station. There’s one called TIXFM. I don’t know if it still exists. It was an oldies station, but they were an oldies station that would do their own thing. There’s so much great old music from New Orleans that if you’re from New Orleans you’re like, “Oh these are just solid gold oldies.” But to someone who’s not from there it’s like, “Who is Allen Toussaint? Where does this come from?” And to them, it’s just what their parents listen to.
In high school I moved to Houston, which is also a place with a deep music history. A lot of hip-hop, but I also got into punk rock because I had friends that were into punk rock.
And you were of that age. It was time to get into punk rock.
Yeah. In Houston there was a punk scene and we’d go see punk bands downtown. Then I moved to Austin, Texas, which of course is the “live music capital of the world.” So I got into college radio, I was at KVRX Austin, which is the University of Texas’s college radio station. Their motto is “None of the hits, all of the time” and they were very strict. They would very much encourage you to listen to local bands. I think we had to play two local bands an hour and we had to play five genres an hour. I think there were so many newer records you had to play, you couldn’t just play old stuff.
Long story short, it just got me deeper and deeper into music, but I’m also a visual artist. I’m a graphic designer, so I feel like a lot of my work in undergrad was trying to fit a lot of that stuff together. I was also really interested in social practice movements in art and a lot of my work at that time was going into the social practice direction. And then I was in punk bands. To me it all made sense. Art as a social thing, that’s what punk rock is all about.
Would you design your album covers?
Oh yeah. That’s half the reason I started a band.
So I look at this show and think that all of the kernels of the show were there ten years ago. I just didn’t envision it existing in this way. I think coming to Baltimore… It’s kind of become my default thing where I move to a new town and I’m like, “What are the good radio stations?” There’s one community radio station in Baltimore and it’s connected to Morgan State. It’s a great radio station, but it’s very niche.
Pretty early on, the idea for doing an exhibition that was a community radio station kind of came into my head. This is a good example of my interests coming together. I can put cool music in there, I can design flyers and work with lots of people. I feel like that has become a huge part of my practice. That’s what attracted me to being a curator. How can I work with tons of cool people and do something interesting together?
So over the summer I worked for the D.C. Public Library on the Soul Tent project. I was the curatorial intern. The curatorial fellow that was in charge of it, Nick Petr, he did the same program I did at MICA. He came and spoke with a bunch of curatorial fellows and they talked about that project and I was like, “This is it. This is what I want to do.” They were talking about art, music activism and these things coming together that was seeking tangible political change.
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It hit the nail on the head.
Yes. Through that, I made a lot of connections in D.C. and saw that a lot of what I was talking about has been happening in D.C. for a long time. It became an interesting thing where I was talking to a lot of artists in Baltimore and a lot of artists in D.C. and seeing similarities and seeing ways that people would be good collaborators with each other. And that’s how I met the fine folks at Transformer. Also Joe Orzal, who is one of my classmates, he’s all friends with these folks.
Through my research I found out about Radio CPR and We Act Radio. Their missions were really resonating with each other, but also really resonating with the work I was doing with Soul Tent. I started doing research in the Punk Archive and found a lot of broadcasts from Radio CPR that are from the late 90s and early 2000s, so we’re broadcasting those every Friday. That became a historical grounding for the show and We Act became a current partner. So we’re playing some archival material from We Act and Kymone Freeman, who started We Act, is going to give me some new material as well. And then right before the opening of the show was the #DontMuteDC go-go thing, which he is super involved in. There’s all these parallels.
It was all lining up.
One thing I wanted to do from the beginning was have speakers in the street, but after that I was like, “We’re definitely having speakers in the street.” Trying not to get too many sound complaints, trying to keep it at a reasonable level, but just to be like, “Look, it’s out here.”
Have you gotten any complaints?
We have, but it’s been like, “Just keep it down.” It’s nothing aggressive.
That’s very punk rock of you!
Exactly. We’re trying to find where that line is.
How did you decide who you wanted to collaborate with?
A lot of it was really natural. The way I tend to find collaborators and artists I want to work with is by relationships, and MICA is a huge network of artists. Also just going to art shows in Baltimore and D.C. I met Amanda Huron, who is one of the founders of Radio CPR at a Fort Reno event last summer.
Kymone I had heard about. I sent him an email and he was like, “Yeah come in!” We had a really funny meeting where he programming a radio show while we were talking. I was nervous because he wasn’t making eye contact, but it was because he was pulling CD’s and flipping switches. I think at a point he realized I was nervous and he was like, “Hey man, it’s cool. I’m on board, I’m into the project.”
Anu Yadav was the artist in residence at the D.C. Public Library while I was there. She has a project called Soul Tent Stories where she was interviewing people who were there for the new Poor People’s Campaign, the 50th anniversary.
León City Sounds, I saw DJ and I was like, “I love these records.” I kept trying to Shazam the records. I talked to them and they said, “We’re obsessed with obscure South American records.” And Claudia is from Peru, so I think she grew up with a lot of the psychedelic music. Stuff that I feel like the rest of us are just catching up on.
Nikilad is a DJ in Baltimore. I went to a few of her events and she really sees herself as a community organizer. She started a program called Bollymore, which is all DJs who have a connection to the Indian diaspora. They all have unique takes on South Asian music. They’re super fun parties.
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When you were coming up with the schedule, how did you decide on the flow between music and stories and archival audio?
I wanted it to be a variety… and sequence it in a way that makes sense. The way I was thinking of it is that in the middle of the day you want to listen to some interesting conversations. You might want some interesting sound pieces. As the day goes on, you might want to jam out.
As far as radio goes, I definitely tend to be more of a music person, so it is heavy on the music, and there’s a lot of really interesting sound art.
One of the artists, Hayden Right, him and I were having a drink in Baltimore and walking home. We’re both sound people and in the distance we heard smooth jazz. We couldn’t figure out where it was coming from and then we realized it was coming from a train station platform. There was speakers playing jazz. He got kind of obsessed with it and did some research and found out the MTA owns a radio station and they use it for smooth jazz and train schedules and weather. He got really excited about doing a public art piece that’s a takeover of their radio station. He’s kind of piloting that show as part of this exhibition.
Radio is definitely having a little resurgence and people are starting to put some money into it. In D.C., it’s mostly fancy hotels. Why do you think radio is having a moment?
I think it’s a combination of we live such digital lives and there’s kind of a craving for that old analogue. For me specifically, I think the human aspect of it is huge. I think there’s something special about a group of people who come together who have a similar ethic and are grounded in a place and have concerns for each other, but then they have room to be creative and do what they want. For this show and for me, it’s crucial, and I think radio taps into that.
I also think there’s something about listening to a DJ set where somebody picked out the songs. The algorithms are getting better, but they never quite sequence it the way a human does. I find the best DJs make these connections where you’re like, “This doesn’t make any sense,” but it makes total sense when you hear it together.
And there’s something to be said for knowing someone and trusting their taste, taking their hand and following them on a musical adventure.
Absolutely. There is something about the human element. People like people and people love music. Even with the podcast thing, listening to good conversations is important. People miss that more visceral part of listening that you don’t get as much with social media.
If Transceiver Radio had a callsign, what would it be?
I played around with some ideas and nothing felt totally right. I read an interview where some pirate radio person was talking about call signs and they said, “Call signs are for corporate sell outs.” I was like, okay, fine, I won’t do it. But I was playing around with the idea of WART. You would never say wart, but it is an art radio station.
That’s great and you should still do it. It’s not too late.
Mollye Bendell, one of the artists, her broadcast is WLIX.
I know you have the schedule all planned out, but should we expect any surprises? Some weird midnight recordings you’re going to slip into the ether?
It’s a surprise! I’ve talked to some of the DJs about doing a midnight thing. One of the DJs specifically is interested in it, but we’ll see what happens. There probably will be surprises because I feel every time I talk to the artists someone is like, “I’ve got a new crazy idea.”
You’ve mentioned the events a couple of times, were those always a part of the vision?
Kind of going back to the social aspect of it, music specifically, people connect over partying and music in a way that they don’t necessarily connect over anything else. There’s something about it. Same with food. There’s something about being with someone and dancing and listening to good music or playing music where you’re just like, “I’m connecting on this deeper level.” But also we’re humans and we like to have a good time and we like to dance.
I did want to ask a little bit about the visual identity of the radio, because you designed all of it. What was the thought process?
It’s mostly my work. I collaborated with a lot of the artists for the flyers. They would be like, “Oh I like this image from this Bollywood movie,” or “I really like this typeface.” So it was collaborative, but also a big inspiration was the D.C. Punk Archive and the CPR flyers. I think that’s part of my design aesthetic anyway. Coming from a punk background, I’ve always been about, how do you make something look good on the cheap? Xerox is always a cool way to do that. Black ink is cheap, you can print it anywhere. One of the things I noticed that they did really well on the CPR flyers is that they would do this heavy black ink, but on neon pink paper. That takes it to a new level without being expensive.
The aesthetic of this show is competent DIY. You look at it and it’s like, “I can do this,” but it also looks good.
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