A bout (possibly of malaria)

Portrait of the author as a young(ish) artwork by David Seaver (who also designed two of Nora's tattoos).

Nora Maki joined KFJC-FM, Foothill College’s award-winning alternative radio station*, in the late 1980s.  She loved to play in the studio because she could fiddle with recordings until every nanosecond was freaking PERFECT.  She made lots of spots including one that crammed 50 samples into 30 seconds and one that, quite unintentionally, inspired pre-Internet listeners in a distant town to try running an antenna up a redwood to get KFJC without driving for three hours AND IT WORKED.

Dan Gunning joined the station a bit later and wanted to produce a news show.  KFJC hadn’t had a news show in 5 years.  The perception was that the staff and listeners generally didn’t give a crap.  The more accurate interpretation was that conventional news shows at the time, mostly droning on about royal weddings and Capitol Hill sex scandals, failed to effectively solicit a crap from the KFJC demographic.  Meanwhile there were elected officials financing bloodshed in Nicaragua and El Salvador by selling advanced weapons to Iranian jihadists who hoped to point them at us pretty soon, the “war on drugs” was becoming an excuse for creeping martial law at home (ironic given that the CIA used cocaine as its domestic fund-raising “band candy”), and some followers of a religion founded on tolerance and forgiveness were working really hard to END THE WORLD.  In brief, things were happening that merited more of a crap than was being given.  Dan asked Nora if she wanted to do a news show.  Nora said sure, she’d write and anchor if she didn’t have to be the one in charge of it.  Sez-Who News was born.  One of its alumni went on to change the world through elaborate balloon hats; another stayed and figured out how to keep the station’s fourth-hand, spit-and-baling-wire equipment running.

Almost everybody who joined KFJC wanted to be a DJ.  Nora was reluctant.  When you go on the air live, you might make a mistake, and on the airwaves EVERYONE can hear you scream.  Apprenticing with the redoubtable Robert Emmett on the Norman Bates Memorial Soundtrack Show was edifying but hardly a cure for Nora’s crippling perfectionism. Robert had been on the air for decades, and once thought he might have made a mistake but it turned out he was wrong.  It was another noob, the irrepressible and highly intelligent Pixydoodle, that finally became Nora’s beacon.  Just as all the equipment in Max Planck’s lab went sproing when theoretician Niels Bohr came to visit, the venerable, battle-scarred hardware in KFJC’s on-air studio seemed to take against poor Pix – but she didn’t CARE!  She had FUN!  And she was FUN to listen to, occasional technical wibbles and all.  That, Nora resolved, would be her approach too.

Now all Nora needed was a gimmick for her show; something special she could “bring to the party.” Most of the best DJs were walking musical encyclopedias, virtuoso ad-libbers, or sometimes both.  Nora, not so much of either.  She could, however, read cold copy from hell to breakfast and had an active (often overactive) imagination.  She also passionately believed that, while radio stations were still steeped in drama, some of it should get back in front of the microphone where it could amuse the listeners.  Her dad had been a big Jean Shepherd fan when she was a kid.  Nora liked Shepherd, who was edgier than his successor Garrison Keillor (to be fair, so was Captain Kangaroo; Keillor’s fanbase generally felt there were way too many edges in the world already).

While reading Keillor on a Midwestern vacation, Nora also read a series of articles on warehouse squatters in San Francisco.  Forever feeling that her day job and financial solvency hung by a thread, Nora decided to convert her fear to entertainment by writing a “Lake Wobe-gone-to-hell.”  She thought for sure by the time she went on the air, she’d come up with a better #$%*(% title than “Hades HAM Journal” – I mean what IS that?! – but over 300 episodes later it still hasn’t happened.

These days Nora is starting to think a lot of modern comedy is more mean and gross than it is funny.  That probably means she’s going to die soon, after which everyone will suddenly realize what an incredible creative genius she was and all her stuff will be worth a fortune.  So the time to donate and buy merch is now!  That she still hasn’t really got the prosperity-manifestation thing down pat is completely beside the point.

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*This was back when “alternative” meant “NOT mainstream.”  The mid-90’s rise of mainstream “alternative-music” stations^ kind of sucked all the meaning out of the word.

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^Generally, a former fossil-rock station would one day just up and quit playing the same Zeppelin song every two hours, start playing the same Nirvana song every two hours, and proclaim “Hey!  Look!  We’re ALTERNATIVE!”

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