Dr. Demento Reminisces on Radio, Reed
This story was originally published in the 12 February 2016 issue of The Reed College Quest.
There are a few events that, here at Reed, we mark our calendars by: Renn Fayre, Spring/Fall, RKSK, and for those of us on campus during Paideia, alum Dr. Demento’s Paideia speeches. After graduating with a degree in music in 1963, Demento has been giving lectures at Paideia for 43 years now, since 1973. This year, his three-night residency spanned Jan 21 to Jan 23 and covered topics such as cultural appropriation in music, Frank Zappa, and the history of punk.
In fact, few people have seen Reed and Reedies change like Dr. Demento has — from his folk music undergraduate days to the release of the Beatles’ first album, to punks and hip hop and all the way back to the indie-folk revival of the ’00s.
“When I was a student here, rock and roll was not really favoured by a lot of the student body. [Bob] Dylan’s first album came out my senior year, and that really helped make music — Dylan and The Beatles, too, helped make rock music more respectable among Reedies. It was not much respected when I was here,” Demento said in an interview with The Quest last Saturday night.
“Soul music kind of took hold during the time that I was here, and you would hear that at parties. People would dance to it…But no, we just didn’t play a lot of rock and roll. It wasn’t considered intellectually respectable. Reedies tended to like folk music, jazz, a lot of jazz — Kind of Blue by Miles Davis came out when I was here, and certainly a lot of people were very fond of that…The first Robert Johnson album came out when I was here, and I did my best to get people to listen to that…I would play it on my show.”
Dr. Demento’s decades-long career in radio actually began at Reed — and in a move that many Reedies today would envy, actually managed to get PE credit for it, too, by “riding [his] bicycle around Portland looking for old records” for his KRRC show, “The Musical Museum.” “The Musical Museum” was a precursor to the radio shows he would later go on to host in California, where he featured musicians such as Weird Al Yankovic and provided a fine balance of music and humour to his many regular listeners across the country.
Of course, radio broadcasting has changed drastically since Dr. Demento began broadcasting across the radiowaves of Reed. “The stations owned by the big chains are into what they call ‘narrowcasting’ [now]. When I started in radio, stations pretty much just wanted to have as many listeners as they could,” Demento explained. “Then there got to be more accurate methods of determining not only how many listeners they had, but what sort of people they were. Demographics…The Top 40 used to be the top 40 — the 40 top selling singles would get played if they were somewhere near music a wide range of people would like. People right from Doris Day to Little Richard, in the 50’s [for example]. But nowadays it’s very different.”
Reed, too, has changed a great deal in the 53 years since Demento graduated with a degree in ethnomusicology. “Those were the days of the high attrition rate — a lot of students dropped out. My freshman class was 250–95 of them graduated,” Demento remembered.
“Reed was very demanding of course, as it is today, but now Reed has abundant resources, because they figure [that] if they admit somebody they might as well finish what they started. But it was different in those days. A lot of people just left — it was the sixties, of course. People left because they suddenly couldn’t hack the establishment educational model anymore. Didn’t want people to tell ’em what to do anymore. A lot of people left for that reason.”
One of the most remarkable things about Doctor Demento is how much of the persona is, in fact, not a persona at all. In person, he is warm, kind, and just as funny as he is on air or on stage. The fans who pack the lower section of Vollum Friday night seem to be just as much here for Dr. Demento the radio personality as they are for Barrett Hansen, the person.
Many of tonight’s attendees seem to have been coming out for years. They greet Dr. Demento with familiar smiles — a common part of the fan practice, for sure. But what is remarkable about Dr. Demento is that he greets them just as warmly and with just as much familiarity, calling them by their names and chatting with them about their bands, their lives, and their children.
The power of radio — to create a moment of belonging amongst the airwaves, to create a sense of community, for new artists and genres and whole worlds to spill out of a crackling speaker — is not lost on Dr. Demento, nor does he take for granted the ways in which AM or FM can change our lives, whether it’s playing Rihanna’s newest album or the works of artists who are no longer living, like David Bowie.
“I guess the best thing I could say about David Bowie is that Elvis in the 50s was a great liberating force. Above and beyond, his music — it changed people’s lives. Elvis made people realize that they didn’t have to be just like their parents. Guys could have greasy hairdos and shake their butts and do loud rock and roll music and sing ballads if they wanted to, too. But Elvis — one of the reasons that his fandom has been so enduring is that it changed so many people’s lives,” Demento explained. “His music is marvelous in many ways. He was a liberating force for a lot of people. A lot of people who were in high school and maybe thought that they might be gay or lesbian — Bowie made that more acceptable, or validated that choice for a lot of people, above and beyond that music.”
Demento’s longevity and success is due to many factors: talent, hard work, passion. But perhaps none are more important than his innate understanding that, for all radio’s music, half of the importance comes from the words that carry the music themselves — the human connection bringing wonderful and exciting and, in Demento’s case, very funny worlds to the reader.
While we sat outside the Vollum lecture hall Friday night, talking about how the first winter Demento was home from Reed in 1959 his high school friends suggested he go see a show (“They called me up and said, “Barry, you really should go hear this new folk singer in town. His name is Bob Dylan,”), Community Safety Officer Cooper Bombardier walked past on patrol.
After a quick hello, Cooper turned to Demento. “I recognize your voice,” he said. “I used to listen to you in Boston when I was a little kid. My parents would tell me it was bedtime, and it was Sunday night. I would set my alarm so I could listen to the funny five, and I had my radio under the covers. It was the highlight of my week.”
“Well, you’re like Weird Al Yankovic. He listened to me after his bedtime, too. You and little Young Al Yankovic — before he became weird,” Demento replied, with a warm smile.
Perhaps we’ve always been weird — we just needed someone else to tell us it was ok to be so.