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You'd think any radio show capable of attracting fans from avant-garde musical acts such as the Olivia Tremor Control, Built to Spill, Friends of Dean Martinez, Negativland and Pere Ubu would have to be mighty hip, right? And yet Alternative Radio, the Boulder-based program intended to profit from Keep Left, Vol. 1, a forthcoming benefit CD on Hoboken, New Jersey's Ace Fu Records that features the aforementioned artists plus the Kronos Quartet and more, is, in many respects, utterly old-fashioned. After all, most offerings on AR, as its aficionados refer to it, consist of little more than two people talking. For an hour.
So what's the appeal of host David Barsamian's baby, which is heard on Boulder's KGNU and over a hundred other public-radio outlets around the globe? Simple. In a talk-radio environment whose conservatism is on par with Dick Cheney's, AR is unrepentantly liberal, providing a rare forum for such old-school political southpaws as A People's History of the United States author Howard Zinn, who penned Keep Left's liner notes, and messiah of progressivism Noam Chomsky, himself a contributor to the package's jacket: His mini-monograph salutes AR as "a fundamental component of authentic democracy and individual self-realization."
Obviously, this ain't Howard Stern, but Barsamian attracts more than his fair share of the under-25 demographic anyway -- and he thinks he knows why. "Public radio is fossilized," he intones, his voice sounding scratchy and lived-in. "It's on a very tight leash, and its audience is old and getting older -- and I think what accounts for that is its heavy dependence on predictable voices with status-quo ideas. And that turns off young people."
On the surface, Barsamian's fare would seem to have no more appeal for today's youth: The first episode of his new season, which debuts on KGNU (88.5 on your FM dial) at 6 p.m. Wednesday, August 30, spotlights Frances Fox Piven, labor expert and co-author of The Breaking of the American Social Compact, which CBS has no current plans to turn into a Survivors-type reality show. Still, Barsamian has a genuine following among brainy collegiates around the country, many of whom send him letters and e-mail absolutely dripping with gratitude. The irony isn't lost on Marty Durlin, station manager of KGNU.
"Alternative Radio really flies in the face of all the research that the marketers and focus groups in Washington have done," she says. "They talk about how people have such a short attention span that you have to measure audiences in increments of fifteen minutes. What David does couldn't be more opposite of that, but he's got an awful lot of people out there, of all ages, who really appreciate what he's doing."
Although he goes toe-to-toe with academic heavyweights on a weekly basis, Barsamian has zippo background in broadcasting or journalism and precious few traditional educational credentials: A native New Yorker born of immigrants from the Middle East, he attended classes at San Francisco State University for just one year before dropping out because "I was so bored out of my mind." He subsequently headed overseas, spending three of the next five years studying music in India before returning to New York in 1970. For the next eight years, he subsisted by whatever means necessary: He gave sitar lessons, taught English to immigrants and even put in a year working in the Indian government's tourist office before relocating to Boulder, where his sister was living. His arrival coincided with the launch of KGNU, and because "they were looking for people to do programs and I had a lot of free time on my hands," he pitched an international music show dubbed Ganges to the Nile.
Within a matter of months, the exotic sounds Barsamian spotlighted throughout Ganges were swept aside by current events. "Right at that time, the Iranian hostage crisis broke out, and there was an enormous amount of distortion and misinformation about Muslims, Islam and the Middle East," he recalls. "So I started to introduce political information trying to counter the kind of carpet-bombing of propaganda that was feeding Islamophobia in the country."
Such attempts to move beyond chest-pounding nationalism might not have gone over well in some other communities, but they hit the spot in Boulder, where a sizable part of the populace was dissatisfied with the party line. (Indeed, Durlin says overseas conflicts tend to bring out the philanthropist in KGNU boosters: During the Gulf War, she remembers people spontaneously dropping donations by the studio simply because the station was providing something other than all-rah-rah-all-the-time coverage of the clash.) Emboldened, Barsamian began branching out to encompass a wide range of topics -- and he soon discovered that his access to the sort of reformist thinkers whose viewpoints most often mirrored his own was practically unlimited.
"I'd call Noam Chomsky, and he'd pick up the phone himself, and within a short time I could set up an interview -- because nobody was calling him," Barsamian says. "The U.S. is not lacking in people with a diversity of opinion, but the mainstream media have a golden Rolodex that they go to time and time again. And most of these authorities are people who haven't had an original idea in fifty years. They're unthinking rubber-stampers of official policy, whereas people like Chomsky don't mind challenging conventional wisdom."