When you tune into WKNC on Friday nights, you’re not going to hear any !!! or Grizzly Bear or Lion Threw Me Down The Stairs, or any of the other dance punk or indie rock that makes up much of the station’s daytime line up. Instead, you’re going to hear metal, rock, and thrash, because on Friday nights Uncle Paul hosts his popular show Friday Night Request Rock. While I love the regular WKNC lineup, for me, there’s just no better way to start out a Friday night than the solid rock on Uncle Paul’s show.
However, Uncle Paul’s most loyal fans aren’t the typical station listeners, as every week prisoners from across the listening area write Uncle Paul letters requesting songs, which make up the highlight of his show – Penitentiary Rock. Recently I stopped by the studio to take a couple of photographs, and conducted an interview.
Q. How long have you been a DJ at WKNC?
A. I started working at WKNC in the Spring semester of 1990. At that time everybody started out by learning how to read the news. I had two news shifts each week, one was at 5:30 AM and the other at 6AM, on two different days each week. I became a DJ later that year doing a 2-6AM Magic 88 rap and R&B show.
Q. How did you originally become involved in the station, and in that time, what are some of the changes you’ve seen?
A. One the guys that lived on the floor of my dorm my freshman year at State wanted to be a Chainsaw Rock DJ. An upperclassman advisor that lived in my suite was already a DJ at WKNC and told him about a staff meeting where you could sign-up to start working at the station. He asked if I would go with him so I tagged along and was assigned a few news shifts that nobody else wanted. I stuck with it and he dropped out after a semester because he didn’t like reading the news. The station was still in the old student center at that time. We moved into our current location in Witherspoon the summer after I started. All of the student media at that time came under pressure from the NAACP and we had sit-ins and NAACP organized student protests at the station. I was the Program Manager and later became General Manager of the station at that time. It took quite a commitment to address the issues the students were raising. It played a role in my having to leave the University because I couldn’t keep up with my class work and put in the time required to effectively resolve the student group issues. The station made a shift to a more college rock/alternative rock format a few years after I left. Many of the specialty weekend shows have been around for a while and in my opinion offer some of the best programming on WKNC or any station in the Triangle. It has also been interesting to see some of the technology change over the years. When I first started most of the music we were playing was still on vinyl and eight-track carts. Now the station plays a lot of music directly from a computer or some kids bring up their ipods. I primarily use CDs, but also some vinyl. Most of the time I have to turn the CD players on when I’m preparing to start my shift because no one has been using them, that makes me feel like an old guy.
Q. I know you’re no longer a student at NC State, but when you were a student, what did you study?
A. I actually am still a student at NC State. I was originally studying mechanical engineering and working on a minor in business. I then transferred to the multi-disciplinary program before leaving State in the mid-nineties. I started taking classes again in 2003 and am baby-stepping my way toward finishing my degree.
Q. Who are some of your favorite metal bands? Who would you say is the greatest metal band of all time?
A. My roommate in college had “And Justice for All…” by Metallica and that is what got me started listening to metal. He was also a huge Rush fan. I quickly moved on to Black Sabbath, Testament and Megadeth. I started listening to Chainsaw Rock on WKNC and going to local shows. Some of my favorites now are Corrosion of Conformity, Jam Pain Society, KISS, Primus and Clutch. Greatest of all time…probably Black Sabbath. It’s not easy to pick. I’m not a one band type of guy. I prefer a good spectrum of styles from which to choose.
Q. Do you listen to other genres of music? If so, who are some of your favorite bands in those genres?
A. I like all types of music except most pop music. I don’t listen to a lot of new country music because I think country has become the new pop. I do like bluegrass, jazz, classical, funk, 80’s rap, techno-industrial and most types of hard rock and metal. I pretty much like anything in which the artist does a good job of communicating the feeling or inspiration behind their music. I also appreciate professionalism and technical ability with an instrument or voice. Bland, cookie-cutter offerings in any genre don’t appeal to me. Some of my favorites in the genres I mentioned are Ralph Stanley, Acoustic Alchemy, Earl Wild (playing Chopin), Lakeside, Run DMC, Chemical Brothers, Rammstein, Sepultura, Motorhead, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Danzig.
Q. I know a lot of the bands you play aren’t releasing music that’s exactly Wal-Mart compatible, and you edit a lot of them yourselves to make the radio-playable. How much time does it take you to edit a song, on average, and how much time would you you spend per show to make different requests playable?
A. It varies from week to week. I spend at least an hour each week prepping for the show. If I am doing any editing, I normally do it at home. I might spend another hour or so to edit three or four songs. I prefer not to have to edit though. You have to be careful not to miss something and another DJ might play the song thinking it is airable because they heard you play it and not realize you were playing an edited copy.
Q. How did the idea of Penitentiary Rock evolve? Did it evolve out of an earlier show organically, or did something inspire you to start doing it?
A. To my knowledge Penitentiary Rock started as a part of Friday Night Request Rock when Sam, Rich and myself were co-hosts of the show back in the early nineties. Rich started getting letters from prisoners at Central Prison who wanted to hear requests on the show. The station had already been receiving the occasional letter from prisoners, but Rich was the one that stated reading them on the air and wanted to dedicate a portion of our show to playing those requests. The show used to be five hours long and we would break it up with several different segments including Mandatory Metallica, KNC KISS and Essential Slayer. I think it was also Rich who came up with the idea to call that segment Penitentiary Rock. We would only get about one to three letters each week. If we didn’t get a letter one week, Rich would make something up. The prisoners keep writing the station after we stopped doing Friday Night Request Rock. When I started working at the station again in 2006 I started a show called School House Rock on Saturday mornings from 6-8AM. After determining that most of the kids working at the station had no idea what metal was, my goal was to “School” them a little. I started receiving letters from prisoners who remembered me from the nineties and I would play the songs they wanted to hear, but I didn’t read their letters on the air. When the Friday Night Request Rock shift became available again I asked Brian, the GM at that time, if I could have the slot and he agreed. Right away I started receiving letters and I started the Pen-Rock portion of the show again. I started reading the letters over the air just like we had done back in the nineties. The Pen-Rock portion of the show quickly went from fifteen to thirty minutes. After several months of requests from the prisoners I extended it to an hour, which is now half of the show. I receive about 16-20 letters a week and about 720-800 letters a year (the letters slow down during baseball season and woman’s basketball because some of the games pre-empt the show). The record for most letters in a week to my show is thirty-four. I get letters from many more prisons now than in the nineties because the power of the station was increased from 3000 to 25,000 watts and we now reach a much larger audience. Friends and family members of the prisoners also listen to the show online.
Q. Does your show reflect any personal or political beliefs? i.e. are you involved in any sort of prisoner activism other than the show, etc?
A. The only belief I have in regards to the show is that if you write, phone or email me a request for hard rock or metal, then I should actively try to find it (edit it if necessary) and play it for you. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you want to participate and hear a song, then I will do what I can to play it for you. Maybe that is why the show has become somewhat popular with prisoners. I am not concerned with who you are or what you have done, only what you want to hear. When I am reading a letter I consciously do my best not to edit or add color or commentary to what has been written. It is their message, their voice. The show should not be about me and I don’t think it would be popular if I tried to show how funny, entertaining or witty I could be at others expense. I think it is also important to remember that WKNC is a non-profit student run radio station and part of NC State University. To me that means the show should not serve as a soapbox for my views. I am very grateful that the University supports the radio station and allows students to run the station and its programming as they see fit. If we started getting political or became perceived as being political it might jeopardize our programming.
Q. Could you tell me about some of the more memorable letters you’ve gotten?
A. There were a few letters when I first started reading them that were a little hostile or very critical about the music I was playing. They thought that I wouldn’t read those letters over the air because they were negative about me and the show. I think once they realized that I would still read those types of letters on the air without editing them, I may have gained a little respect and they backed off the negative comments. I have received letters detailing the mental struggles that many of the inmates go through as they serve their time. Some of them tell me about things they remember doing as a teenager or what life was like for them before prison. Most of those letters are not something they want read on the air. I received a lot a letters when I announced that my father passed away last fall. I received handmade cards and also received cards they made for Christmas and my birthday. I receive artwork occasionally. They will sometimes send individual works of art, include art on their letter, put artwork on the envelope or write poems to go along with their letters. Occasionally, they will send me a picture of themselves or their friends. It is always interesting when I receive a phone call from a police officer who also wants to hear a request.
Q. Do you have any regular writers, and if so, do you ever respond with letters, or just over the air?
A. Most of the writers are regular writers although I do encourage new listeners or people that have never written to write in to the show. I get anywhere from one to four first-time writers each week. There are some who write in every week (even when they know I will be off the air due to a game broadcast) and there are others that will write every so often. I do not respond by writing back, typically because I stay so busy that I just don’t make the time to respond personally to 16-20 letters each week. I think there is a silent majority who just tune-in and enjoy the music each week. I have had requests come in from as far away as Texas and New York City from people listening in over the web.
Q. Have you ever gotten to know any of the requesters, and have you ever had anyone come visit the show after they’ve gotten released?
A. I have never met any of the requesters outside of reading their letters and the things they tell me about themselves and no one has come to visit after they’ve been released. A few have called in their requests instead of writing once they have been released. I do meet people all the time who tell me that they listen or have listened to the show. Just recently, a listener asked for a recorded copy of one of my air-breaks so they could share it with a friend.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about your show?
A. It’s just about hearing music you can’t or won’t hear on most other radio stations. It’s about carrying on a WKNC tradition of playing hard rock and metal in the Triangle and it’s about getting your requests heard no matter who you are or what your current circumstances happen to be. I encourage you to listen and participate, 8-10PM Fridays on 88.1 WKNC, FM or www.wknc.org.