Radio is dying a slow, painful death. Though it may appear to be thriving, alive, and well, the new musical stratosphere has been blown wide open in terms of delivery, accessibility to content, and changing listening patterns by end users. There is no greater victim in this change than the modern radio DJ… The guy (or girl) who spins the latest hits, hypes the newest contest, and delivers to the listener news, stories, and gossip that they once waited anxiously to hear.
If you are reading this in Syracuse or surrounding areas, you are probably familiar with a little show called “The Sound and The Fury,” brought to you every Saturday evening from Midnight until 6am on 100.9, 106.5, and 94.9 fm, better known as K-Rock. While you listen, a soft, subtle voice will occasionally fill the airwaves, giving you a dose of song titles, news about Metal happenings, and the occasional introspective quote to spark the brain. On January 28 and February 5, 2012, I sat for (2) 6-hour sessions with the one and only JRRBLL, long time voice of the show. Not only did I receive a warm welcome and musical education, but a chance to witness a master of his craft who has blessed the airwaves for an astounding 27 years (September, 1985 was his first broadcast,) longer than some of you have been alive.
At the stroke of midnight, rabid metal fans and curious parties listen in, anticipating the monologue of the night. The introductory speech, I soon would learn, is a brilliantly constructed list of famous quotes pooled from notable personalities of the past. Everyone from Richard Nixon to Peter Steele to Shakespeare gets their due time, and it concludes with a quiet greeting to The Scepter King, a dear friend who has been sick for a long time and is finally getting better.
By nature, The Sound and The Fury has nothing to do with pop trends, one-hit wonders, or commercialization. “This show isn’t a track. It’s a series of sounds… Of peaks and valleys. It’s a musical presentation… It’s a freakin’ event,” Jrrbll explains in a burst of energy, seconds before the next track is selected and thrust onto the airwaves. This presentation involves an important art form composed by proficient musicians, and is to be taken seriously. The show is more akin to NPR than MTV.
Right away, Jrrbll lets me know that while photos are allowed, I cannot take his picture straight on. I am not alone when I say that one of the show’s more intriguing traits is the illusion of the DJ… The identity of the presenter forever shrouded in a nickname and blur of distortion. While most radio personalities will whore themselves out in whatever way they can, Jrrbll prefers the anonymity the microphone allows him. “It’s never been about me, but I’m the center of it,” he says, rifling through meticulously organized compact discs.
After this, I didn’t dare ask his real name… It wasn’t necessary. When people call in, hoping to meet the man in person, he politely declines. The show is not about him… He serves as a bridge between the listener and the art form only. When I asked about what he does for a living and his personal pursuits, I get shut down. “Former career and current hobbies aside… That’s not what we were here for.” This changes slightly over the course of our meetings, but not until it was clear that the music comes first, and that it alone will be our most important bond.
As a man, Jrrbll is not what I expect. Something about his on-air demeanor brought visions of a short, bald computer geek with a quiet personality… Not the case at all. Jrrbll is a burst of energy in the studio with some amazing stories to tell, but those you will have to find out for yourselves (if you are so lucky.) What I will say is that he is a man of integrity and consistency… “A Solitary Creature of Habit,” as he so eloquently puts it. Incense burns, boots are exchanged for flip flops, and Diet Coke are clear indicators that he has a ritual in his delivery but, those creature comfort items aside, he is forced to adapt to whatever change may occur before or during his 6 hours on the airwaves each week.
Opening and closing with the same 2 songs, I owe Jrrbll a debt of gratitude for introducing me to the band Brad, who begins the musical portion of The Sound and The Fury each and every week with their song “Screen.” It took me years to catch the band name and song title, and I have company… Another person called in asking about it, as well. By complete chance, I got to see the group perform at The Bowery Ballroom in NYC while going to school, and it was the best concert of my 2010. The program closes with… Well, you can find that out for yourself.
This is definitely a live event, and I’ve been to concerts that were more scripted than The Sound and the Fury. Jrrbll has a very spontaneous method to his madness. Focusing solely on compact discs, his patent refusal to use mp3’s or other digital media means more work than necessary is required each week, especially with track selection. After a tumultuous beginning the first Saturday, he lit up the phone lines and immediately had call-ins. A guy asks for an instant request on the spot. To my amazement, Jrrbll hastily grabs the disc and puts it on the airwaves… This is unheard of in radio. A little while later, the same guy calls in for another instant request. This time, by chance, Jrrbll actually already has the track IN HIS HAND! Playing with the caller for a minute, Jrrbll grins at me and plays second instant request just like that. Again, in regular radio, this NEVER happens.
Many famous metal artists and their handlers remain in contact with Jrrbll and send him new material, He has a reputation for bringing many bands to our airwaves for the first time. “Jrrbll’s Corner” offers at least 5 brand-new tracks per week and often Jrrbll himself hasn’t even heard them before. But his method works, and he is sincere about making new fans for new artists. Let me put it another way… Have you heard of Type O Negative? Tool? Korn perhaps? Yea… Jrrbll spun them first. Korn STILL sends him stuff. They don’t need the help, but they value what he has done for them while building their current musical empire, and respect what he does.
After staggered conversation and more chaos, I learn that The Sound and The Fury also provides sanctuary for the DJ… A place to escape from elements of his past he has moved on from, but will never forget. The airwaves give Jrrbll a creative outlet to remain alcohol free, explaining that as of 2/3/12, he has been sober for 30 years.
The show does come across like a ministry of sorts, but only for those who look for it. People truly have a place to call if they need help… Jrrbll answers his phone when it rings. He explained to me that late night drunkenness is typically the case when people find themselves in trouble. If someone needs help, or just an ear to listen, The Sound and The Fury is there from 12-6am every week. During my visits, Jrrbll took several calls from people discussing their difficult situations. Cobleskill Jim, a long time fan, lost his wife 3 years ago, and asks politely to have a song played for him. The request is met with immediacy. The “Mad Man in Hannibal” calls in to explain that the show is and has been the only constant in his life, offering Jrrbll a sincere “Thank You” after so many years.
And there is “Letters From The Pen,” tapped for reactivation by my own hand. Letters come in from the incarcerated and are opened one-per-week. Jrrbll makes every effort to play whatever songs are requested in the handwritten, often grammatically incorrect writings… A bit of reprieve for those serving time and paying what they owe for criminal misdeeds.
Believe me when I say… His fan base is loyal. Characters from all over the state call in… Montezuma George, The Mad Man in Hannibal, Watkins Will, Cobleskill Jim, and Maxwell Butler are all long distance listeners who have been with Jrrbll for 20+ years. And there is “She Who Listens,” a soft-spoken woman who just seems to know exactly when a particular song should be played. She calls in at least twice on both evenings, and hits the nail on the head so precisely that Jrrbll and I can only look at each other in amazement. This happens every single time, and I have an immediate crush. When the time comes, this girl should be the next DJ of the show.
For fans of heavy music, I can’t help but feel you are missing something if you have never tuned in to Jrrbll and The Sound and The Fury before. If this is you, do yourself a service and tune in one of these days… You may find yourself a productive way to spend a late, restless night.