MAX BOWEN’S CITYWIDE BLACKOUT
by Ryan Bray
If you told Max Bowen one year ago
today that he’d be a radio personality, he would have laughed. Now
it appears the joke is on him. These days, Bowen is a man who wears
many hats. He’s a newspaperman by day, a radio show host by night,
and, if that’s not enough, a show promoter when he finds the precious
spare time. Since May, he’s helmed Citywide Blackout, an Internet
radio show on Cyberstation USA geared toward breaking down the Boston
music scene with the kind of journalistic precision that cuts deeper
than the standard interview questions. The Noise caught up with
Bowen to talk about the show, taking a journalistic approach to discussing
music and how radio, the thing he once feared most, surprisingly and
unexpectedly became his second career.
Noise: Being on the radio requires
a certain personality. You’ve got to be personable and outgoing. Does
that accurately describe you, and was radio always something you were
Max: I never used to be that
kind of person. I was almost pathologically shy, even into my 20s. If
you had put a gun to my head and said, “Max, get on the radio,”
I would have told you to aim for dead center.
Noise: What changed?
Max: Last February I spent a
month in the Philippines as part of a cultural exchange program. The
whole point was to look at your life, your job and see how those things
compare to life over there. Me, I worked with the cable TV and radio
stations, and I got into it. I thought, “Wow, I really want to do
this.” I was actually encouraged to do radio back in college, but
it never happened. I was in that really shy stage. But I came back to
the States and really wanted to do it. And I kid you not, two weeks
after being back I get an email from the folks at WCAP in Lowell. They
wanted me to do a couple of spots for a local election. I did it and
approached them about doing my own local news show, which ultimately
became Spotlight on Billerica.
Noise: And Citywide Blackout?
Max: At the same time I looked
up other radio jobs on Craigslist, and saw that Cyberstation USA was
looking for DJs. I went down there, auditioned and passed, and I’ve
been doing it for the past nine months.
Noise: You’re now doing two
radio shows, in addition to your role as a newspaper editor. How do
those roles overlap? Citywide Blackout seems to approach local
music from a journalistic standpoint.
Max: They do overlap. Immensely.
I’m always going through bands’ websites and MySpace pages looking
for guests and preparing for interviews. I just don’t want to ask
the usual questions. If I’m sitting here and all I have to ask you
is, “What are your biggest influences?”, I’m not doing a good
enough job. The whole purpose of the show is to introduce these bands
to my listeners, and if all I’ve got is these surface level questions,
that’s no good. I want to delve into it and get into their music.
I want to know how the band got formed. I want to know their history
and where they came from.
Noise: Did you always have an
idea of the direction you wanted to take the show in?
Max: Yeah. I think my journalistic
skills really help to make it a much better show. I’ve had people
come up to me and say, “Hey Max, thanks for not asking all the standard
Noise: Anyone who does interviews
with any sort of regularity has to really welcome a different approach
to an interview.
Max: Exactly. It seems to be
working. I’ve gotten a lot of compliments about asking the good questions
and not asking the stock questions.
Noise: What about your background
in music? How did you come to decide you wanted to pursue a local rock-based
Max: I don’t have any musical
experience whatsoever [laughs]. I can only get up and sing after a few
beers. But I think that’s okay because the purpose of the show is
to look at local music and how it comes together. I don’t want to
just talk to bands, but also club owners, promoters and these other
people who help to make the bands what they are.
Noise: You’re looking at the
scene and not just the music.
Max: Yeah, because where would
these bands be without the owners who let them play, or without the
promoters who book their shows? Where would they be without the producers
who help make their records?
Noise: In addition to hosting,
you’re also the producer. It’s your show frontwards and backwards.
What are you looking for when you put together a show from week to week?
Max: First and foremost, I’m
looking at any and all bands, not just the ones that I like. It’s
up to the listeners to decide who they like and don’t like. I’ve
had bands on where I’m not always a fan of their music, but I never
turn away anyone because of my own preferences.
Noise: Because there could still
be an audience for the band out there.
Max: I may not like it, but
someone else might. It’s up to the listeners to decide. But in terms
of putting together a show, MySpace is incredibly useful. I hate it
as a social networking site, but I love it as a music site because all
the bands are on there.
Noise: It feels like fewer and
fewer people are using it for social networking, but it still has serious
legs as a means of promoting new music.
Max: Sure, and that’s a big
part of putting the show together. I scour the Net looking for local
Noise: Do you ever find it hard
to be neutral at times, to take yourself out of the equation?
Max: I don’t think so. I guess
that comes back to being a journalist for the past seven years. You
just get used to keeping enough distance. But beyond that I’ve really
never had a problem with anyone I’ve had on because I’m pretty generous
in my tastes. It’s a good thing and a bad thing. If I were more critical,
some might say I’d be doing a better job. But I kind of made up my
mind from the beginning not to turn anyone away because I don’t like
their music. I’m just trying to learn as much about the bands and
the music as possible.
Noise: What’s your impression
of the show so far? These shows are marathons not sprints, but are you
happy with the way things have been going?
Max: My opinion so far? I think
it’s going pretty good. I’m becoming a better broadcaster, whereas
in the beginning I was learning as I went and I sucked. I think my on-air
skill has developed considerably in the past couple months. I’m not
perfect, far from it. But I feel I’ve gotten a lot better.
Noise: How do you like working
with Cyberstation USA? Is it exciting to work in a wide-open medium
like Internet radio, where it seems there’s very little you can’t
Max: It’s been really, really
good. But the truth of the matter is in terms of talk radio, I don’t
feel any more restricted on AM radio than I do on the Internet. The
experience has been pretty similar. But I really enjoy working with
Cyberstation USA. They took the time in the beginning to work with you
and develop the skills and work with the board, and then they just let
Noise: They don’t try to micromanage
Max: Yeah. They’re pretty
hands off. One of the things I like most about Cyberstation is the variety
of programming. There’s music shows like mine, there’s politics,
and it’s just a good variety. They just let people do their thing.
Noise: Is it crazy to think
how much things have changed in the past year? With two radio shows
and your full time job as an editor, do you worry about burning out?
Max: There are days where it
can be overwhelming. The trick is to stay organized. When I’m at the
office, it’s got to be about the paper. That’s what pays the bills,
and that’s what I’ve got to focus on. When I get home, I’ll jump
on MySpace, listen to some music, shoot an email and try and pull something
together. I only go to shows on Fridays and the weekend. But yeah, right
now I think I’ve taken on about as much as I can take on. If I picked
up one more thing, I might pop. Sometimes I just have to put everything
aside and just chill.
Noise: But you’ve also gotten
into promoting shows now too, right?
Max: One of the things I try
to do is network. I’m meeting and talking to people all the time as
part of getting people together to do the show. And I was talking to
the owner of the All Asia bar in Cambridge and he said, “You know,
you should try and book a show.” I thought well OK, how hard could
it be? I found out pretty quick that it’s very hard. It’s a lot
of phone calls, a lot of emails and you’ve got to get just the right
bands. And when it works out, it’s just a great feeling of self-satisfaction.
But when it doesn’t, it’s all on you.
It’s just such a learning curve.
I’ve done three shows so far, two at All Asia and one at Church, and
I’ve got two more coming in March and April. But really, it’s just
a huge learning curve.
Noise: Have you gotten any feedback
from listeners? Is there a sense that the show is finding its audience?
Max: The reaction so far has
been pretty good. I haven’t gotten a slew of emails, but the one’s
I get have all been positive. The best thing I’ve heard back from
anyone was from a band called the Stereo Flys, who said, “[the show]
is just what Boston needs.” And I thought, wow—thank you, guys.
It’s the small things that keep you going.
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