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Cover Story

What's the frequency?

Twenty years of on-air action with Jon Moshier

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WDET interviews Travis R. Wright about this story (MP3)
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Published 8/18/2010

When he was a kid of around 6 or 8 years old, as it's recalled, Jon Moshier roved around in ways children that age tend to: curiously and without preset destination. Often armed with a portable tape recorder, his preferred pastime was documenting the sounds of the late '70s world around him. You'd find young Jon with his prized RealTone cassette recorder next to the family radio, taping songs he knew. He'd fade the volume down a bit and say something into the deck about the music or musicians, then fade the music back in. For the past two decades, this radio warrior has been doing practically the exact same thing, for a living.

Jon Moshier grew up the youngest of five in the Motor City suburb of Bloomfield Hills; music was unavoidable in his home. Twelve years his elder, sister Libbie was on the classic rock kick, namely Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens and the Beatles. Brothers Dan and Tim ventured through the new wave and punk rock thing. Tim had records from B-52s, the Talking Heads and the Clash, and Dan was into all sorts of stuff: the Velvet Underground, Bob Marley, Hüsker Dü and Black Flag. Mother Moshier listened to daytime classical on WQRS and Pops tuned into jazz at night, when you'd likely hear WDET's Ed Love Show through a Moshier home window.

Jon's brother Chris was the biggest influence, and he was in a serious funk phase, spinning Rick James, the Time, and other stuff he'd hear from legendary local DJ Electrifying Mojo. Jon's fascination with radio soon became a full-on obsession.

Mojo set Moshier on a path, one that explored radio's boundaries, one he's still very much on. Mojo's show infected his head with psych-radio funk theater set to otherworldly sounds — from Afrika Bambaataa, P-Funk and New Order to Detroit's Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. By age 12, while other kids boasted Boy Scout badges, Moshier was a card-carrying member of Mojo's Midnight Funk Association. By 19, he was a program director on a small local station. By 29, he juggled shows on four different radio stations and gave it all up for a future with WDET, only to be fired in that station's locally storied 2006 shake-up, one still clouded in conspiracy. Moshier continued on with weekly radio shows on various local public stations. Now 40, he's back on 101.9 WDET, spinning fresh and deep tracks from contemporary music's cutting edge every Friday night. It's a welcome return to a once beloved, then befuddling station. Under new management, however, WDET has gained significant traction in its journey of redefinition. The process includes bringing back music and bringing in new listeners. Hence, Moshier, a dude who was "indie" before Win Butler could grip his microphone. It's true, he disdains commercial radio — his Journey soft spot notwithstanding — even if he's paid to place music (like Gomez!) in TV commercials.

Here's the story of one radioman and music junkie whose 20-year career is a testament to his craft:

Metro Times: For those who missed out on the Electrifying Mojo, could you bring us back there?

Jon Moshier: In the early '80s, when he was on WJLB, it was a big popular show on a big commercial radio station, but the way he presented the show was insane. He'd open it by landing the mothership on the top of the Penobscot Building and then there was that whole ... "tie a knot and don't let go, if you're in the house shine your porchlight, if you're in the car then honk the horn" thing. It was a theater of the mind experience and was more engaging than anything on TV. Sir Graves Ghastly, and Thriller Double Feature were awesome, but there was something about radio that sparked magic.

MT: What was it about Mojo, though? His technique, his personality, his playlist?

Moshier: With radio, you have to work a little harder on the imagination side of things to complete the experience. When I listened to Electrifying Mojo, I could see the mothership landing on the Penobscot. His voice came through my stereo speakers with that slightly hissy sonic quality of FM radio. The fact that I was pulling these sounds out of the air just fascinated me. Still does. It was an experience. Then there was the music to consider: Kraftwerk, B-52s, Inner City, Afrika Bambaataa, Gang of Four, P-Funk. The "Star Wars" competitions that pitted Rick James against Prince in a radio battle with the listeners calling in to decide the winner. Sometimes Mojo read excerpts from his book, The Mental Machine. Incredible stuff for a white kid in the suburbs.

MT: So it was a cultural experience on a deeper level?

Moshier: I was exposed to black culture in a way that I otherwise wouldn't, but he was cross-cultural. Kraftwek's music blew everyone away, no matter age or race. That was the most revolutionary thing anyone had ever heard.

MT: His identity is sort of top secret, right. I'm not asking you to out him, but did you get the chance to meet him?

Moshier: Charles Johnson — a lot of people know that now. Years ago, WDET tried to get him on the air but it didn't work out. I never did get to meet him. I know people who have, though. I'd love to, still. He was the catalyst for me, a symbol of how creative and powerful radio can be.

MT: Do you remember your first real radio experience?

Moshier: I took radio speech classes in high school and did a five-minute morning show on the P.A. system. That was sort of real. After graduation, I was at WORB, a tiny, Class-D, 10-watt station out of Oakland Community College's Orchard Ridge campus in Farmington Hills. We used to call it "the 10-watt blowtorch."

MT: When were you there?

Moshier: This is '89 or '90. I was 19 and I became program director. There was a motley crew of some 30 on-air hosts, a few in their 30s or so. I was eager, but it was challenging. I archive almost everything from those days. The console we used was literally World War II era — and mono! On a good day we'd get 20 miles out. I ended up as station manager and worked there until 1993.

MT: What records were you spinning?

Moshier: I'm playing Pixies, the Replacements, Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, New Order and stuff like that.

MT: And what did you discover during those days?

Moshier: To not accept the way that radio is typically presented as being the only way to present it. We experimented with radio. It was liberating, it became a space without walls. Around time I was at WORB, I started getting involved in what was then and still is one of the best free form college radio stations in the country, WCBN out of Ann Arbor. I started doing shows there as well as at CJAM, in Windsor. At one point I was actually doing shows on four college radio stations at once, which was nuts. Near the end of my tenure at WORB, the station was shut down by the school administration due to complaints arising from an interview with punk rocker G.G. Allin, live from prison, featuring some of his music. We pushed it — maybe a little too far.

MT: Where do you go after managing a 10-watt station?

Moshier: Oakland University received a permit to build an FM station on campus, and the person running the communications department recruited me and the chief engineer from WORB to help get it up and running. We set up the format, wrote the manuals, and physically engineered the whole thing. I worked on the station every free minute I had and got some tuition reimbursement on the student payroll; ended up getting my undergraduate degree. The station was tested and went on-air just after I graduated, in December of '95. It's still on-air today. I was still kind of consumed by radio in these days.

MT: What kind of shows did you host then?

Moshier: Freeform, jazz, 20th century classical — everything. I was working with somewhat legendary audio collage artist Ed Special. We'd do live, five-hour programs. One time we did a 27-hour marathon. I'm talking complete improvisation, similar in approach to audio collage groups like Negativland. That experience opened my eyes in terms of what is possible with radio.

MT: Opened your eyes how?

Moshier: We were using tape loops, old records, instructional recordings, TV and movie snippets, found sounds, shortwave radio and effect processors. This was experimental broadcast art. We'd target a song on multiple records all in the same key, then we'd take a reel-to-reel tape that ran at 15 inches-per-second and cut and loop it at, like, 27 inches and it would loop at the exact same time a 33 and a 1/3 rpm record skips, which creates bizarre and unique new songs.

MT: Sounds like you should've been a hip-hop producer or something.

Moshier: The funny thing is, I never got into that. I don't know why. We were doing this sound collage stuff at the same time I was exposed to the techno and hip hop. It was about experimenting with turntables and sounds in a similar art form, but in a different style.

MT: Do you still get down experimentally? 

Moshier: Definitely. Last December, Ed Special and I did an improvisational performance at MOCAD with Christian Marclay using several spoken word records from Christian's Christmas record collection. We alternated the records, playing one line off each record at a time in random sequence. One record was Bible stories for kids, there was the Night Before Christmas and Six Million Dollar Man records too. I think we had a Batman record in there. Sometimes it's nonsensical, other times it works magically.

MT: Moving into the '90s, what radio were you doing?

Moshier: Mostly freeform — all over the map. I might play John Coltrane and follow it with the Residents, then Pere Ubu, and start another set with Ernest Tubb or Magic Sam. It was whatever I wanted it to be. But that's when I learned the difference between free form for free form's sake and what makes good radio.

MT: What do you think makes good music radio?

Moshier: I'm concerned with creating a logical journey — a beginning, middle, and an end. But it's tricky. Sometimes it's translated through a shared energy, sometimes you can use the actual notes, like if one song ends on one note and the song right after picks up on that same note. Sometimes it's just a similar production style or song structure. One of the things I loved to do on WDET when I was on in the mid-'90s was play 1960s rocksteady and ska from Jamaica and back it up with some early R&B from the States. There are a lot of similarities in tonality, even though the styling of the music is completely different and they're coming from completely different parts of the world. It's a feel.

MT: We're getting ahead of ourselves. What was your post-college plan?

Moshier: I was in the real world and radio was all I knew. That was a bit frightening. Options? Well, I've always abhorred commercial radio. That's not the world I exist in. It doesn't do what I need it to do. That's not where I was going. I knew some people in Seattle at KCMU, which became KEXP. I was interested in the city and the station and had a brother and sister out there. But then I thought, because I listened to WDET all the time, that I'd apply there, even though the word around town was no one ever got hired at WDET. Surprise, I got hired. This is 1996.

MT: You were once the insomniac overnight guy, right?

Moshier: First I was hired for 20 hours a week as musical librarian and substitute host. I ended up with my own show in 1997 — 2 a.m. to at 7 a.m. Soon it was midnight to five in the morning. I had Saturday nights and on Friday nights Willy Wilson was on. He was right on the cusp of the so-called Detroit Garage Rock sound and scene, playing Rocket 455, the Hentchmen, the White Stripes, and all those great Detroit bands. I was doing more of a freeform show with a wider mix of genres. I made a living working in the music department Monday thru Friday, and came in on Saturday to do the midnight to five show, which eventually changed to 9 p.m. to midnight.

MT: How'd you keep it fresh for yourself and listeners?

Moshier: At one point, I started airing an hour of radio theatre at three in the morning: When Radio Was King. I rebroadcasted shows like X-1Inner Sanctum, Dimension X, and The Shadow. When I heard the War of the Worlds broadcast for the first time it killed me; the genius killed me. Anyway, people loved it — listener response was awesome and I couldn't get enough of it. I would look out the window and see the Maccabees building when I was broadcasting stuff like The Hermit's Cave, thinking about how that show and so many others were born at WXYZ on the 14th floor of the Maccabees building in the '40s. The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet came from there too. I felt elated bringing back to these shows to the airwaves, even though I was struggling with management.

MT: Right, all wouldn't remain so dreamy at WDET. What was the issue you had with them or that they had with you?

Moshier: I saw what was happening with stations like KEXP in Seattle and shows like Morning Becomes Eclectic at KCRW in Los Angeles. I thought there was an opportunity for the station to nurture a younger audience and to venture past what was the core demographic of baby boomers and bring in some new listeners, younger listeners, listeners who maybe grew up with early influences like the Police or The Clash or Devo, as opposed to Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. Essentially, I wanted to do a show like the one I'm doing today. I was told I was reaching too young an audience, and that it was too esoteric. Here I thought that I was in a time slot where it made perfect sense to be a little more adventurous.

MT: Some people call that the "golden era" of WDET.

Moshier: I mean look at the entire broadcast crew — from Chuck Horn to Judy Adams to Liz Copeland — everyone was unique in what they brought to programming their show and to radio in general. Each show had its own flavor. I was proud to be on air with every damn one of 'em. We had a well-oiled machine going in music and promotion with great shows, legendary live performances, CD releases and a whole bunch of great news journalists too. It was pretty amazing to be a part of that, even as it was going down.

MT: How'd the ship sink, man?

Moshier: What happened was a perfect storm. Caryn Mathis was WDET's general manager for many years and was very effective and successful in running a dual-format music and news station, which is very hard to do. Generally, public stations are either all news or jazz, blues and news. We were a jazz, blues, bluegrass, folk, electronic, modern rock, pop, world music and news station. Mathias took a job at a flagship NPR station in Washington. It was a great opportunity. So a new general manager came in. This being Michael Coleman.

MT: Strike up the "Imperial March" Darth Vader theme ...

Moshier: Well, I think he certainly had intentions of doing the best job he could — but I think his vision was not the right one for WDET. Actually, it was a big mistake. There were very ugly circumstances, completely unrelated to any of Coleman's programming changes, that saw a couple of key people within the station and music department no longer employed. Anyone who could have stood a chance fighting for the validity of music programming was gone. Those who were left didn't have the muscle to throw around.

MT: So people like Martin Bandyke and Judy Adams were fired or left under various shady circumstances, and the tower came crumbling?

Moshier: They told us music would still play an important role with the new WDET. Those of us who were still there — Horn, Copeland, Ralph Valdez, Ed Love, Larry McDaniels, Robert Jones, Matt Watroba — felt we had an opportunity to take what Mathis, Adams and Martin Bandyke had built, and up the game. We were excited. Unfortunately, we never had the chance to do anything. Music was not going to continue to play a role at the station. The community reacted strongly to the changes and the station's financial base dropped significantly, but the management held their position and the rest of the music staff and most of the hosts got laid off within the year. The only people who survived the whole thing are Ed Love and Michael Julian.

MT: You were obviously one of those who were let go. How'd it go down?

Moshier: I'd just moved into my first office and I was obviously very excited. At that time, I was producing two shows: In Sound on Saturday nights brought me more creative freedom than I had ever had and Live From Studio A, was a show I had an insane amount of fun with. I was more excited about radio than I had ever been. I had a sexy new title — senior music producer — two shows, an office and a promise that music was going to be vital to the future of the station. Things were looking great. Then I get called into Michael Coleman's office and, just like that, he let me go. I was devastated. I had spent nine-and-a-half years there and had no idea of where to go next. It was scary. I thought I was screwed.

MT: Off to Seattle?

Moshier: The next thing I knew, I got a call from a friend at Doner [a nationally recognized ad agency based in Southfield], asking if I'd ever consider pitching music ideas for advertising. I knew that some people at KCRW in Santa Monica had done some music supervision for advertising and I had chatted with them to find out a bit about what they do. So I did a few jobs for them that summer; they worked out pretty well.

MT: What do you do in advertising exactly?

Moshier: I get to work with basically every client they have, helping find the perfect music track for a particular project. We're talking about radio and TV spots, videos, rich media — pretty much anything that might involve music. Sometimes I'm searching for a known hit song to license with a six figure budget, and sometimes I'm looking to license an underground track from an unsigned band or an obscure oldie for a fraction of that big-hit budget. I'll also work with a music house or an artist to have custom scores written, or wrangle songs from music libraries to find a simple needle-drop track.

MT: What do you get out of the ad gig?

Moshier: Well, for years my job was to play artists on the radio that nobody else was playing, musicians who, at the time, would've been labeled as sell-outs if a song of theirs appeared in an ad. But at the tail end of my tenure at WDET, I remember watching TV and, "Whoa, there's Four Tet on a Nike commercial, there's Modest Mouse on a minivan commercial — what the hell is going on here?" It was bizarre. Then came the Apple iPod ads and Volkswagen came out with the Nick Drake ad. I mean, all of us were playing Nick Drake at WDET. I read his entire catalogue sold more records after that commercial came out than had been sold in the 30 years prior. That sparked something in me. I could see how things were changing both within the art of advertising and within the music industry. After all, MP3s were now huge and artists weren't making money selling CDs anymore, but they could make money licensing their music. I saw that I could take my skills and apply them to this world. Everyone in advertising was saying, "We want to find some cool band like Apple uses." I know a million of those bands!

MT: What are some of your favorite musical placements?

Moshier: I've been able to place music from the Cars, Gomez, Her Space Holiday, there's a song from one of the guys from Walter Meego that I think is really great, and there's another one with a Jim Noir song that is really cool. I don't know if I can mention clients. I just lined up Zach Curd of the Pop Project and Tim Monger of the Great Lakes Myth Society to write a song for a cool local spot.

MT: Did you continue to do radio after the WDET shake-up?

Moshier: I was thinking, "Hey, I've been doing a weekly radio show since I was 18 years old. Do I want to stop?" Part of me did really want to. Part of me didn't want to care about music or radio. It was overwhelming. Radio had left a pretty bad taste in my mouth. I felt defeated.

MT: But you're obsessed. ...

Moshier: That might be true. I went back on CJAM and moved to a late-night spot where I had complete creative freedom. I started embracing that old, abstract sound stuff that I hadn't done in years. I started to rebroadcast some of the Ed Special stuff, creating my own collages, and playing radio theatre.

MT: You were doing that right up until January of 2010 when you got a call from, who else, WDET?

Moshier: I had known Ann Delisi for years. She left WDET before I got there in 1996 but we knew each other and crossed paths over the years. She's a supportive person of the creative arts in Detroit and my return is due in no small part to Ann. Old co-workers and current staffers like Alex Trajano, Craig Fahle and Jerome Vaughn talked me up a little too, I guess. Then one day I got a call from Mikel Ellcessor, the new general manager of the station.

MT: What's changed in the music industry since your first foray into radio?

Moshier: Everything. I used to get music from the record label, and it didn't leak before the release date. As a radio DJ, you got it first and it came with an add date, and they only wanted you to play it on or after the add date. All of that's been totally blown to pieces. Now you have Bit Torrent and all the illegal downloads. Also, there's a massive influx of new music and the way it's released and the rate at which it's released is overwhelming. I can't rely on the ways I used to get music. I have to have multiple sources: labels, publishers, promoters publicists, blogs, websites, friends and so on.

MT: It's a full-time job trying to sift through it all.

Moshier: It's ridiculous. I spend more time trying to find music and research about these bands than I do putting the actual show together. We used to have multiple full-time people running a music department, people who were there to get music in, catalogue it, research the artists, and supply information for the host. Now, you have to be a one-man operation.

MT: What did MP3s do to music culture?

Moshier: Sure, it's great to be able to walk around with thousands of songs on our iPods, but MP3 culture has lessened the listening experience. I have a 1967 tube-driven hi-fi set that I love listening to vinyl records on, and there's a reason for that: It's a tactile listening experience. It's like the slow food movement — we should start the slow listening movement. A lot of people are into vinyl again, but MP3 is still king, even though they sound horrible. Same with satellite radio — the compression just ruins music. We're overwhelmed, we've dumbed ourselves down.

MT: When you put a show together, do you plan to take a listener through a two hour trip or appease the casual tuners-in?

Moshier: The two-hour musical trip. There's a flow based upon sets. If you tuned into my show at the top of the hour and listened to only 20 minutes, you'd essentially get a mini radio show right there. Every radio show should be a musical journey: It has a starting point, there are a couple of rest stops along the way where you can kind of take in what you've heard and cleanse the palate, then you continue on, like a road trip.

MT: What do you want people to get out of your new show?

Moshier: A trusted source for new music. I hope it's a fun show that they can claim as their own, a one-of-a-kind that's part of the cultural landscape of a great city that has an incredible history of adventurous music and radio.

MT: What's your radio nightmare?

Moshier: I get self-conscious about how people are going to perceive me or what I'm trying to do with the show. I don't want people to think I'm trying to pass myself off as the purveyor of cool. That would be devastating.

MT: Detroit is a musical anomaly in that there's a sizable population who boast deep musical knowledge and generally good taste. Does that make your job harder?

Moshier: Only if I was trying to do a show that explored obscure Brazilian psych-prog bands from the 1960s or something. If I was trying to approach it like a musicologist, I'd get uncomfortable because there are people out there that could probably do it better than I could. But that's not what I'm here for. I don't want you to have to work at listening. I don't need to prove anything either. Hopefully you can tap your foot to it.

MT: How do you approach "modern music," as your show's title suggests?

Moshier: Right. Well, I might pepper in classic underground tracks because I'm showing a newer band's musical pedigree or simply for no other reason than because I haven't hard that song in forever. There's a lot of stuff I hear coming out right now that makes me want to pull out New Order's first and second records or Gary Numan's Pleasure Principal album. So what's modern? Some parts of me would love to make way deeper connections. I would love to play Flying Lotus and back it with some John Coltrane. Now, that would be great.

MT: And what would happen if you did?

Moshier: Oh, I don't know, people might enjoy it or something!

MT: When you're not pitching music for ads or tweaking sets for your radio show, what do you listen to, like when you come home from work, crack a beer and crash on the couch?

Moshier: Seriously, what I listen to are a lot of old crackly vinyl records — Cha-Cha in hi-fi, Martin Denney, Earl Hines, Tex Williams, old jazz 78s, weird belly dancing records, old Hawaiian organ records made by white guys in the 1950s; I listen to Roy Lanham, the Mills Brothers, Nat Cole Trio. To really relax, I pull out the oddball stuff. I love anything that has "Living Stereo" or "Hi-Fidelity Sound" on the record cover. I'll always love a perfectly crafted rock or pop song, something that's really catchy, but, like anything, especially if you do it for a job, you tend to escape with something else. An art director in advertising doesn't go home and mock-up magazine ads just for fun, but they might go home and express themselves with some radical abstract painting. The same thing goes for me musically. When I come home after a day of electronic, rock and pop inundation, I might throw on a Sun Ra record.

MT: What about a musical guilty pleasure?

Moshier: Journey. I grew up hating bands like Journey and REO Speedwagon, but some years ago a publisher sent me Journey's double-CD disc. I never go up into the wilds of northern Michigan without it. You can't be on the west side of the state, you have to be on the east side, where it's a little more hillbilly. When you're cruising up some country road thinking about the bonfire and cold can of beer waiting for you there, there's nothing like firing up "Don't Stop Believing" or "Anyway You Want It." I love to hate to love Journey.

MT: Finally Jon, it's 2010 — wasn't terrestrial radio, as they dubbed it, supposed to be dead by now?

Moshier: I never believed that, not even for a second. This goes back to the beginning of our conversation and to the hum of that old 10-watt mono transmitter you could barely tune in; it goes back to memories of hearing the call to prayer live from Damascus at three in morning at a campground in northern Michigan on a shortwave radio; it's about tuning into Captain Jones landing his ship on some distant planet and there you are with your ear to the receiver; it's goes back to tuning into a nice FM signal and just for a moment there's no music or talking and you hear that white noise that tells you that it's live. It goes back to Mojo captivating and blowing minds. Satellite radio has no magic. Internet radio has no magic. I'm seeing kids who didn't even grow up with records going out and buying them. Vinyl is far from dead. And that's why we will always love FM radio. We just have to re-remember how magic this medium can be, continue to expand its horizons, and, by all means, keep good music on the air.

Modern Music with Jon Moshier airs Friday nights 9 to 11 p.m. on 101.9 WDET.

Jon Moshier's 10 essential discs of 2010

Beach House Teen Dream (Sub Pop)
Best Coast Crazy For You (Mexican Summer)
The Books The Way Out (Temporary Residence)
Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr Horse Power (Quite Scientific)
I, Crime Spread Like Water, Block the Sun (Woodbridge Records)
LCD Sound System This is Happening (DFA)
The National High Violet (4AD)
Surfer Blood Astro Coast (Kanine)
Wavves King of the Beach (Fat Possum)
Yeasayer Odd Blood (Secretly Canadian)

Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to twright@metrotimes.com.

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