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[whitespace] 'Midnight Voicejail'
Late-Nighters: After midnight, the Voicejailers take over the airwaves.

A Broadband Apart

The sonic geeks of KFJC's 'Midnight Voicejail' bring you 'that Sept. 11 show'

By Richard von Busack

YOU MAY START your message now. On midnight, Sept. 11, the least-reverent memorial to that immemorial day will be broadcast on KFJC-FM (89.7). The show begins with the voice of an Important TV Newscaster, wrongly totaling the day's death toll as 50,000 over a drum track. It's the season opener of Midnight Voicejail on the National Cynical Network. The radio show is the work of Phineas Narco, pseudonym of James Scianna, who, with Al Newport, Joe Sledgehammer and Ronald Redball, has been broadcasting since 1998.

"Would people be pissed at us for setting the broadcast to a techno drum beat?" Scianna asks. "Well, it's interesting how well suited it is to a dramatic techno drum beat it is, isn't it?" This 9/11 dance mix follows a treated version of the 2002 State of the Union address: the Midnight Voicejailer redoubles G.W. Bush's double talk through electronic ellipsis: "Our military has put ... the United States of America ... out of business. We must act together not as Republicans, not as Democrats ... but as a terrorist underground. ... The final priority of our budget ... is sorrow and pain for the American people" (thunderous applause by the Congress and Senate).

Midnight Voicejail originated out of Metro's early experiment with free voicemail in 1986. Personal ads by one Ed Note requested messages be sent to the "World Suicide Club." The ad lured in a bored Scianna. He and others like him turned the system into a circuit, with Scianna's own "Club Manic Depression" box, drawing in commentators like "Mr. 1:15," "Mr. Chemist," "Angel D. Monique," and "Father Luke" (the latter coined the term "Voicejail" to describe the inmates of the voicemail system). Like students forcing themselves into a phone booth, a few fellow pranksters recorded greetings for each other and forwarded them to other boxes.

The early Midnight Voicejail recordings are like a radio bubble--a jabber of dislocated, unidentified voices bounced off the ionosphere. There are one-way conversations that make Dennis Hopper sound like Noam Chomsky, usually introduced by the robot voice chiming, "You may start your message now."

Here's a warning about why you should never aggravate a dog by looking into its eyes "You're staring into the windows of their soul, man!" Other phrases rise out of the mix: "I feel like vomiting all over myself"; "My spleen was hurting because of this weird weather"; "I'm gonna be a Hell's Angels, what can I say? Ya hit one, you're hitting them all!"

The musical accompaniment: An extemporized song titled "Asshole Joe," set to the tune of "Jingle Bells" and performed by some guy upset that his friend Joe didn't invite him to a party. Someone moaning like a muezzin. A creepy little synthesizer version of "Love Roller Coaster." Repeated, sometimes distorted renditions of Midnight Voicejail's theme song, Penguin Café Orchestra's "Telephone and Rubber Band."

The Voicejail communiqués peaked in 1990. As a Foothill College Student, Scianna went to KFJC, the campus radio station, with his tapes in 1998. "I did a lot of spot work for them to kind of prove myself to them for about a year." Spots are the in-house commercials and promotional messages every station uses.

"The spot work was so good that they were very keen for me to do a show of my own," he continues. "But I was too self-conscious on mic to be a DJ. I couldn't think in real time; I was too nervous and too emotionally unstable because of my bipolar condition. And then Ronald and Al and Joe had all this material they had collected in their 20s for me to work on. And they wanted to do a show too, so it all just fell into place."

The Puzzling Evidence show on KPFA served as a precedent for Midnight Voicejail. So did various broadcasts and recordings by Negativland. Redball has done 40 shows with Negativland's Don Joyce. Scianna himself appears on the Negativland CD Dead Dog Records.

One particularly Negativlandish piece in Midnight Voicejail's archives is "Dr. Laura's Rap," which scrambles the pontificating old trout with Stevie Wonder-style keyboards. The radio psychiatrist solos with a berserk story of some homosexual hazing incident she read about once: a direct result of our failure to educate children in Old Testament morality.

"She should have her mouth washed out with soap, that woman!" Scianna comments. "One of the things we do is to caricaturize certain media targets by digitally enhancing flaws that people around us gloss over or aren't noticing cuz they've just become numb to them."

Scianna was frankly nervous about an interview. "I wonder if we could do it over the phone," he wrote, "unless you're really needing the physical description. I tend to be very sensitive and susceptible to impressions on some days and tend to get my senses 'jammed' in person. ... Email would be even better. I can be very eloquent in email. In person, I might get overwhelmed by impressions that set off chains of distressing thoughts, or it might be a day when I'm perfectly all right. There's no way to tell. "

Email seemed perfectly fine. After all, Midnight Voicejail is founded on anonymity and disembodied voices. The show is a full-time vocation for Scianna, who is on total disability. "Being bipolar has been a double-edged sword, kind of a blessing and a curse," he notes. "It hasn't afforded me the emotional stability to work a 9-to-5 job, which has led to all sorts of problems in my life. But by it's nature given me a kind of 'emotional broadband' that, as an artist, lets me 'download' a lot more, if that makes sense. I still go through hideous symptoms, but Voicejail has been the result of my trying to turn the bipolar 'weakness' into a strength."

The show's 9/11 broadcast, titled 2001, revisits his feelings on that day: "I was excited, then saddened, then scared, then depressed for a long time. I almost erased the word 'excited' because it sounds perverted and sadistic. But excitement was definitely part of the equation that day. Television creates excitement at the news of other people dying--for ratings--and then makes people ashamed to admit they ARE excited: that makes for a neurotic culture.

"So no, I don't feel any guilt in parodying that sort of thing or making people more aware of it through caricature. When 9/11 happened, the TV media coverage was like salt in the wound. They played those buildings going down on every channel on unending loops for days until people begged them to stop. In the midst of it, I turned my TV off, and I have literally not turned it back on since."

Certainly, this commemorative broadcast finds the humor in the horror. A made-up psychiatrist on the show intones that the best treatment for Sept. 11 trauma is "Slap therapy, a.k.a. the 'Corleone technique.'" He means the method of calming taken from old movies: the palm to the skull causing "a moment of synergistic imperative."

Somehow, Scianna, late-night owl that he is, neglected the line that the hysteric on the late-night movie always utters, right after he's had the hysteria slapped out of him: "Thanks, I needed that." Thanks, Voicejail, we needed that.

You may start your message now.


Midnight Voicejail airs every Wednesday night at midnight on KFJC 89.7 FM. See www.nationalcynical.com for more information.


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From the September 5-11, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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