Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Color Radio and 10,000 Maniacs

Twenty-five years ago, a forerunner to WRIR-FM was born. It was called “Color Radio” or “Channel 36.”

On August 26, 1982 Color Radio began beaming its signal, via Continental Cablevision’s cable TV hookups, to what its creators hoped would be a listening audience in Richmond and Henrico County. It existed as the soundtrack that could be heard when a viewer tuned his television to Channel 36, which was the channel for Continental’s color bars test pattern. Les Smith signed on with his “Music Appreciation 101,” to launch the station’s existence.

In his college days Smith had been a DJ at VCU’s radio station. Then he played the same role at WGOE, the daytime AM station that owned the hippie audience in Richmond for most of the 1970s. He probably had the most on-air experience of the original cast of characters who breathed life into the venture, which was the brainchild of Burt Blackburn.

“In June, 1982 [Burt Blackburn] conceived the idea of a ‘radio station’ utilizing one of Continental Cablevision's empty channels,” wrote Smith in a 2001 remembrance of Channel 36. “He approached Continental’s Virginia marketing manager, Matt Zoller, who liked the idea and encouraged Blackburn to proceed. Zoller himself had been involved in college radio.”

By the time your narrator came aboard as a volunteer DJ, in October of that same year, the station had situated its studio over Plan 9 in Carytown (this was Plan 9’s old location where Chop Suey Tuey is now). My show, “Number 9,” was on for three hours on Thursday afternoons. All the DJs and the staff were volunteers -- but it was really like you had to be asked.

At times Color Radio was cool. At its peak, its programming covered 96 hours a week. At times it was silly and a waste of time, or worse. Always, it danced on the edge like no other radio station it Richmond’s history. It lasted about two years.

The image above was the main element of a handbill for a 1983 fundraiser that I booked into Rockitz to benefit Color Radio. The headliner was a group out of Jamestown, N.Y. that was building a following here from appearances at Benny’s and Hard Times. They called their act 10,000 Maniacs. Lead singer Natalie Merchant was 19-years-old then. The opening act for the show was a local group -- Ten Ten.

A few weeks prior to the live show at Rockitz, I taped an interview with Merchant for my radio program. What follows is the beginning of that 24-year-old interview; she starts by answering my question about what it was she and her friends in the band were looking to gain from touring and recording their music. Was it all for fun, did they want to get rich, or what? She laughed.


Merchant: We haven’t yet assumed our adult responsibilities. We don’t have enough income to live away from our parents yet. Sure, I’d like to be independent of my parents. After that, anything ... any success that comes, I’ll accept that. I’m not intimidated by the mass media. I think it would be a great tool to reach more people.

Rea: Reach them with what?

Merchant: With what we’re saying ... with what I’m saying.

Rea: What are you saying?

Merchant: I write the words. Most of what I’m saying is that music should be instructive.

Rea: Instructive?

Merchant: It should teach you something, even if it’s just building your vocabulary and making you realize you feel good when you dance. Anything you can learn ... I don’t know (she laughs). Probably by the time we can reach more people, I’ll be more sure of what I’m trying to say.


Color Radio was part of the last gasp of the Baby Boomer-driven freewheeling underground-oriented art and music scene which had been centered in the Fan District for nearly 20 years, from the end of the beat era through the last of the punks at the party.

At Color Radio when the microphones switched on there was no filter. There was no corporate-think limit. It was wilder than WGOE-AM had been in it rather freewheeling days in the '70s, before it got busted by the FCC. Color Radio had no FCC oversight.

The programming at Color Radio was left to the DJs, many of whom were connected to the local live music scene in some way. Several were in bands. Others were Rock 'n' Roll promoters or worked at record stores.

The format, in unrelated blocks, ranged from Rock to Bach and beyond. Some shows were all talk. There were comedy programs and, yes, sometimes things got raunchy, or weird. Like an offshore station, Color Radio flew below the radar; the ride lasted two years.

Art and words by F.T. Rea

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