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Dr. D. with horns

Do you approach the tunes you play more as a musicologist or as a fan?

I’m definitely more of a musicologist than a fan. I’m always figuring out whether something is funny or entertaining, whether today’s audiences would like it, and whether it sounds best before or after this other song.

However, I don’t emphasize that during my show. . . . people tune in to be entertained, not lectured to. If I were in non-commercial radio, that might be different, but Doctor Demento is a creature of commercial radio, which exists purely to be entertaining enough so that people will hear the commercials.

What kind of criteria do you have for what you play? Would you play a song recorded in 1936 that seemed to have negative racial stereotypes, but not one recorded in 1996?

Nowadays, the 1936 one probably wouldn’t get on the show either. People have become more sensitive about such things, as well as to gay references. Attitudes about women have also changed considerably, though a certain amount of humor that might be considered sexist is still tolerated, in fact encouraged, on many stations that carry the show. On the other hand, standards have become more liberal about other things. Fart jokes are perfectly okay now; in 1970 they weren’t. Same with humor about condoms. In 1975 the show lost several affiliates when I played Tom Lehrer’s “Vatican Rag.” Now, no one bats an eye.

Radio has undergone a tremendous centralization of ownership in the past decade. Has that made your job harder, either by limiting the number of places that carry your show, or by narrowing the scope of listeners’ interest?

It hasn’t made it any easier. Companies like Clear Channel and Infinity do allow their local management a certain amount of discretion, and we are on quite a few of their stations. However, centralization, and the huge prices fetched by good licenses in major markets, has encouraged a culture of going by the book. My show flies in the face of much corporate thinking about radio, which dictates that programming should appeal to a particular demographic niche, such as men 18–34 or women 35–49. When I started, there were a lot more mavericks programming major stations than there are now.

Art critic Manny Farber once famously contrasted what he called White Elephant Art (big, visible, public, and, today, corporate art) with Termite Art (art that is being done away from the limelight and which eats away at the foundations of Elephant Art). In the face of global cultural homogenization, do you think Termite Art will continue to thrive? Will there always be a place for music and art that is outside the mainstream?

Yes. Thanks to the internet, the termites find it much easier to reach at least a small public than they used to. People used to put out great self-produced records and then have a terrible time trying to get even a few stores to carry them. Nowadays all they need is a website.

Have you ever gotten a song from a Reedie?

“Microsoft Word” by Paul Anderson ’92 was abig hit on my show in 1994–95—it was the #8 most requested song of the year in 1995. “Brain Toast” by Slack (supposedly inspired by non-sanctioned chemical experiments at Reed) got several spinsin 1989 and afterward. Slack was a Reed band that made a couple of indie albums that got a bit of national exposure.

Do the submissions and the requests reflect the national psyche at all? For example, did you get a lot of post-9/11 submissions?

Yes . . . since mid-September I’ve gotten three to five songs a week relating to the war. They range from totally serious to totally silly. I’ve found a few that are worth airplay . . . but my most requested war-related song is still “Kick Ass U.S.A.,” which was recorded back in 1987. It was #1 during the Gulf War.

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