By Wade Millward
The heyday of freeform radio was during the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The term refers to radio stations whose programming is solely controlled by the DJ. Bax, as DJ, producer, mixer, and arranger, is operating true to the classic freeform aesthetic.
“Being a podcaster has that DJ-aspect, but combined with the producing role—which is crucial,” says Bax. “For my show, it appeals to people and they dig it because of the production—it is the crux of what my shows are about. If you just look at it on paper, the show is me playing songs on the internet. But the finished show is more important than any one song. The stuff I play is not standard fare; I often play stuff like alternate tracks and covers. The key is to find a way to make all that work, to make sure there’s fluidity.”
Looking at a typical Bax playlist, accomplishing such fluidity, is astonishing. The latest episode, Bookend Goodbyes, takes listeners through 40 years of musical history. It opens with a song from Lovely Goodbye’s upcoming debut album. Later we hear a live duet of Head Like A Hole by Trent Reznor and goth godfather Peter Murphy. After the entirety of the epic title track from Yes’s latest album, Fly from Here, the episode closes with a live performance of 4th of July by Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band. Filling the gaps are prog rock instrumentals, David Essex’s Rock On as covered by Garland Jeffreys, live renditions from Carole King and Harry Manx, and more surprises.
“I compare my program to 70s freeform FM in vibe, not material,” says Bax. “I have Death Cab for Cutie and Jeff Beck on one podcast. I can have genres and eras mesh together and still sound fine, because it’s all about the mixing and the context. There are supposed to be rules to making mixtapes, so says John Cusack in High Fidelity. But artists today are not flipping the finger to say ‘fuck you’ enough. So I say a small band from Chicago can get played next to Beck and Death Cab—there are no rules.”
Bax’s disdain for rules does not mean his show is pirate radio. Unlike some his competitors, Bax is licensed by SESAC, BMI, and ASCAP, meaning his playlists are legal. And while there are no rules to what Bax plays, he still creates his meticulously crafted playlists with a sense of balance.
“For each episode I have to mix music with comfortable material for the listener as well as new stuff, including songs you’ve never heard before and artists you’ve never heard before,” says Bax. “I’m not always forthcoming with what I’m playing. I’ll mix in artists you know, but play different songs by them, and I’ll play songs you know, but different versions.”
“Does everyone get what I’m doing? Not necessarily.” says Bax. “Sometimes I’m not good at playing that end out. But subconsciously the listeners pick it up; the playlist is only one-dimensional compared to the show. When you hear it, you are just drawn in. Why is Richard Dreyfus stacking a mountain of mashed potatoes [in Close Encounters of the Third Kind]. He doesn’t know why, he just knows he has to meet up with that spaceship. Likewise, I am cryptic.”
Since the Chicago-based podcast started in 2004, Best Radio boasts 150 80-minute-long episodes with only 15 songs repeated. Bax says that this is his program’s major advantage over modern radio.
“The thing with traditional radio that people hate is fatigue; they’re tired of hearing the same track played over and over again,” says Bax. “Often people download our entire back-catalog. They can listen back and not hear the same song. That says something to the show’s longevity. But it’s not like, ‘well I played this in ’06 so I can’t play it again.’ It’s just that I haven’t had to.”
Bax landed his hosting job during the early, Wild West days of podcasting. He credits his fortune to very internet-worthy practice of networking.
“I had just wrapped up a director gig at db Sound in Chicago,” says Bax, “Working with groups like The Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers Band, Metallica, Riverdance, and even a Barney the Dinosaur tour. I sat down for lunch with a guy I knew who came in with a plan. He said, ‘podcasting—that is you. This is what you need to do.’
“In 2004, podcasting was just getting off the ground,” he continues. “It was making strides, but it was still scary to some. The idea of subscriptions, and the commitment—it’s ubiquitous now, but they were adamant about it then. So I said to them, ‘who would listen to my shit?’ Months later they asked when the shirts were coming out, and my clever, belated punch-line was ‘who would buy my shirts?’”
Even in the beginning, Bax largely controlled the program, but he soon felt the need to move beyond his boundaries.
“They weren’t in control in terms of regulating the program, but eventually they put on the brakes and said ‘use your 5 GBs,’” says Bax. “After that I started becoming my own person. I got my own URL. We were originally hosted on Yahoo, and I needed my uploading speed raised to 2.5k.”
Best Radio is branching out its online availability. Along with the program’s website, a Best Radio subscription is available on iTunes, where it was once a part of their “New and Noteworthy” items. Also, Bax networks with the fans on the program’s Facebook page.
“Obviously, [that] is a place where I can post new shows,” says Bax. “People can listen to them right on the Facebook page. I want to make the path of resistance as small as possible. On the Facebook page, people who click play maybe won’t listen to the whole show, but they’ll listen to 10 minutes worth and then download it for later.”
And the Best Radio Facebook page doesn’t just feature podcast episodes. It hosts discussions on the songs Bax picks, YouTube clips, and general music news.
“I want the program to be a real full service—it’s not just about the show, it’s about the music,” says Bax. “The page is essentially an extension of the show.”
Still looking to expand, Bax is trying to understand the podcasting game, and figure out how to translate that understanding into growth. Bax is asking the question that all internet businesses ask; where do we go from here?
“There are lots of listeners that send Facebook messages asking, ‘why don’t you do the show every day,’” says Bax. “I want to tell them, ‘then buy a T-shirt.’ If we were to create a special membership with extra content, that would change the show’s format; I would have to hold back some content. Some suggest I broadcast in better quality, but given what I have, you show me a better sounding podcast. Making a video version has been suggested, but I’m sure the viewers would rather watch paint dry.
“The listeners have urged me to get more into social media,” he continues. “They’ve asked, ‘when are you going to have an app?’ But that’s really cache, since I don’t know what I’d do with it. What functionality of an app would make the show more finger-friendly; that’s the kind of stuff we’re thinking about all the time. We want to keep the growth and get people listening and talking about it.”
Bax’s unique production stems from his lengthy experience in mixing.
“I was a club DJ for a long time. They have to do all their sets live and there are no second chances. It was a train wreck,” says Bax. “And I was a sound mixer for decades, ever since the seventh grade. All that comes together with podcasting and you’re looking at a more advanced medium. Now, I’m mixing with my eyes as much as my ears.”
There is a visual element to Best Radio and Bax himself. For a man so encased in the music industry, Bax layers conversation with classic movies references--Best Radio’s motto, “Accept No Substitute,” is a line taken from Risky Business. Each episode has a picture or illustration that goes with it and the frequent appearance of live tracks remind the listener how seeing the real thing is irreplaceable. Bax’s preference for live tracks makes sense, given his start as a wunderkind concert producer.
“I look back to that time and think, what balls on this kid,” Bax reminisces. “When Almost Famous came out, everyone said, ‘dude, this is you!’”
Bax became enamored with music as a kid growing up in the sixties.
“I played drums for this garage band when I was young, maybe in 5th or 6th grade,” says Bax. “I walked in for practice one day, and they gave me a strange look. ‘You’ve got to hear this,’ they said to me, and they were playing Are You Experienced, which had just been released. We tried to play Purple Haze the whole afternoon. We were playing some Rolling Stones and Doors stuff before. Like so many others, I just turned a corner one day watching Ed Sullivan in 1964.”
His thirst for music insatiable, Bax fell for concerts, going above and beyond the call of duty for any fan wanting to see his favorite act live. Too young to attend, he’d negotiate with the roadies to move their equipment before and after shows in exchange for admittance.
“I was so into music, and I knew the crews would be there before the show,” says Bax. “I was a big guy, so I’d be there hours before the show to help move the equipment. The crew was always blown away by me not weaseling out at the end of the show, and they’d give me a ride home. I’d hate to be the neighbor who, at 2 AM, saw some truck pull up in the neighborhood.”
He progressed from pseudo-roadie to concert producer, putting on his own shows and booking some major acts.
“The shows I used to put on were called ‘PB Productions,’ so people still call me PB,” Bax says. “I did shows with bands I wanted. The Park District in Chicago is good for shows; it has a natural amphitheater, so organizers used to put the bands on the top of this hill. But I was intolerant, and I thought that was stupid. I did the shows differently and they were like, ‘oh, cool.’ I was 16 when I was doing all these crazy things. I borrowed pieces of staging from my school. I would just ask a janitor and he just gave it to me. I even staged a Styx show; that was bizarre! But it bought me credibility.
“I look back on those days and cringe; I was a jerk,” Bax continues. “But I was blindly following what I wanted to do.”
The backbone of Bax’s program are older songs and artists, but operating with modern methods. Bax suggests the industry modernize as well.
“The music business is crazy,” says Bax. “They are trying to retain an old model that doesn’t work in current times. They need to stop thinking of selling CDs with 14 tracks each.
“On the other hand, the movie business has gone out of its way to adapt,” he continues. “Some people make the case that music is free, that people consume it and then want more. So money can be made from selling other merchandise, like concert tickets. The music business is killing itself: the old model no longer works, and if there were no file-sharing, the business wouldn’t last, so it’s a tough call. Spotify is crazy in Europe, because nobody stays with the free product. People pay for the full service.”
Bax’s unique program has earned him an expansive audience that can be broken up into two groups.
“The majority of my audience is older and does not pay attention to new stuff, since they’re busy with their kids and work,” says Bax. “Having an influence on what they do get a chance to listen to is cool. The best thing I hear from listeners is that I get them to buy music from bands they hate. That is, these are bands they think they hate, but they hear those bands in a new context and think, ‘hm, I like that.’
“The other group listening to my show is the 16-19 year olds that are just discovering new music, but are still curious about music from the past,” he continues. “I’m in a good place to discover new artists; I play music from the past 40 years. Why paint with some colors when you can use the whole palette? The younger someone is, the more adventurous they are in their music listening. My hope is that there are still 13-year-olds today sitting around with a Stratocaster trying to learn ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ If there are, then all is right in the world.”
Bax is forever a free-formist, comfortable in his role in controlling his program and his destiny. In fact, it is Bax who ends our interview.
“Now that sounds like a perfect ending.”