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Uncle T's Freedom Machine Gives Boston Radio a 20,000 Watt Jolt

By Parker Donham

Boston radio stations, like those of most major U.S. cities, display minimal imagination in their programming. The two best-rated stations play a standard fare of top-forty rock, interspersed with the loud vacantminded prattle of their disc jockeys. Most of the rest divide air time between soupic housewife music (Mantovani, Perry Como) and the insufferable boring call-us-up-and-talk-about-it shows. A handful of FM stations play classical music regularly, but it still remains difficult to find good folk music or jazz--even on the FM band. The one noble exception to the dismal norm is the Educational outlet, WGBH-FM. But even WGBH confines itself to classical music, and information-education programs. In the field of musical entertainment there hasn't been a fresh creative idea on Boston's commercial radio scene in the last decade.

Until this year, when the B.U. owned but professionally-operated WBUR-FM came up with an exciting alternative to the boredom which is Boston radio. From midnight until three every morning except Tuesday they broadcast a hip combination of in-music and far-out rapping by a 26-year-old former B.U. student who goes by the name of Uncle T.

The Freedom Machine, as Uncle T calls his show, began more than a year ago when some friends at M.I.T.'s 18-watt WTBS asked him to come over and play some of his 7000 records. Soon after, the more powerful (20,000 watts) WBUR gave him a three-hour chunks of their broadcast day.

What followed has been a kind of underground happening. T Plays all kinds of music--rhythm and blues, oldie-goldies, jazz, raga-rock, and the new experimental psychdelic sounds. You can listen regularly for months and only hear a half-dozen songs you don't like. (Compare this to WBZ, where you must suffer through three dogs, five commercials and two contests to savor one good tune.) The music is supplemented by T's rambling jive-talk, interviews with underground figures (from George Reed, who is running for Caesar on the Christmas Party to Frank Zappa, leader of the Psyche-rock Mothers of Invention), and experiments with collages and montages of sound.

T is very concerned with continuity and somehow he manages to hold the diverse elements of the show together. He talks into and out of each song, plays music during the interviews, and is constantly toying with electronic gadgets: reverberation devices and echo chambers. The result is that, like the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Album, T is able to blend distinctly different moods into a single, unified performance.

Uncle T's enchantment with electronic gadgetry is evident the minute you walk into his studio. His engineer keeps a tape of electronic sounds running throughout the show, and when T is speaking, the tape channel fades in and out. A dial on the table where T sits controls the reverb chamber. A foot pedal sends his voice, or whatever is playing, underwater for "waa-waa" effect.

T already has more electronic augmentation on hand than most disc jockeys, but he wants to expand his collection. He plans to install a voice organ, with which he could eliminate certain spectra of the sound as well as a variety of custom sound making devices. "Eventually," he says proudly, "I'll have as much control of the show as the engineer does."

T owes at least a part of his success to his lust for anti-establishment humor. When the Avatar was banned in Cambridge for obscenity, its next issue contained a purposely filthy editorial, loaded with all the foul language the writer could muster. Uncle T promptly asked Avatar's editors to visit his show, and they conducted a reading of the article--with T inserting a whistled be-boop for every fourletter word.

Last Saturday, T ended his program with a 10 minute cut from a Lenny Bruce tape. The monologue described Jesus and Moses coming down to earth one Sunday morning to hear "a double billing with Sheen and Spellman at St. Pats." They enter during the sermon and sit down at the rear of the Cathedral. Spellman directs Sheen to "put on the chorus for 10 minutes" and calls up Rome for instructions. "Don't look now," Sheen interrupts, but here come the lepers." The dialogue is at once screemingly funny and extremely offensive to the Church. It ends with Spellman delivering profane punchlines.

Throughout the sequence, Uncle T listened with agitation. "The weird thing about this," he exclaimed, "is that Spellman just died. This is hitting 'em right in the face, and a lot of people really aren't going to digit. It's going to infuriate a lot of people."

One senses that infuriating people, especially square people is something T really enjoys. He predicted angry calls about the Spellman take-off, and seemed disappointed when none came.

When WBZ Station Manager Perry B. Bascom complained this week to a B.U. official that the Freedom Machine was being used to push drugs on the air, T was unmoved. He responded that the charge was ridiculous. "I've been getting people away from drugs," he said, "and into themselves."

Tuesday night T was presenting an hour-long tribute to Otis Redding, the Blues singer who died in a plane crash Sunday. A studio guest asked him to play a certain song. "No, I'm not going to play it," he said. "You could do a 16 hour show on Redding."

"Yeah, let's," the guest replied.

"I don't want to just throw it out at them," T responded, his voice approaching anger, "his is Otis Redding...CRY!" he mocked--"that's television, man."

Uncle T's warmth comes through clearly on the air. A contrast to the plastic friendliness of the top-forty stations ("ugly radio," T calls them), the genuine article is refreshing.

In person, his warmth is even more evident. He greets visitors to his show effusively. When he grins, his large mustache gives him a kind of goofy walrus look. As the show progresses, he twits about the studio, constantly worrying about how the show is going over.

T's monologues between the songs--raps, he calls them--reflect both his warmth and his tensions. He has the rare ability to babble a stream of consciousness which is meaningful to his audience. He is a Jean Shepard, with none of Shepard's cynicism.

The title of a song often sends him into his rap: "Yeeaaaaaah," he sighs at the end of one cut, twirling the reverb knob, "which was Manny Nichols. 'Throw me a little Boogie.' Just keep dancing. That was like the secret to a very peaceful life--dance!--not many people are dancing anymore... Oh yes, you'll say that people are: 'Look at this place, look at that place, look at all the people who are dancing.' But in comparison to the amount of people there are, forget it (reverb), not many people are dancing (electronic noises in background) and people are dancing a prescribed way. You know that kind of thing: you have to do it right or else you don't and you know you don't, it's like you're embarrassed when you get up on the bandstand to dance and someone will laugh at you because you're--You know the thing with dancing is the freedom. 'Throw a Little Boogie' wherever you go. Yeeaaah (reverb)."

Two minutes of rapping can lead him anywhere. He philosophizes, he confesses, he imitates commercials. But after a while he catches himself. "What?!?" he'll squeak, "What kind of rap is that for a freekie oldie show." And he's off into another song.

The intellectual content of Uncle T's monologues is often meager. His thoughts are not going to be passed on from generation to generation. But who cares? You don't want to listen to John Kenneth Galbraith rap between cuts of the Nashville Street Band playing "Baby Please Don't Go" and Richard Berry playing "Yamma Yamma Pretty Mamma."

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