From College To Media
Sac State vs. The Suck State of Mainstream Media
Chapter 9: Programming Music Instead of Computers

Introduction: A Journey Through Mass Media Education
Chapter 1: Why I Majored in Communication
Chapter 2: The Art of Radio
Chapter 3: Writing TV News
Chapter 4: Studying To Be a Rock Star
Chapter 5: Exploring the Age of Incoherence
Chapter 6: The Science of Media Persuasion
Chapter 7: How Stats Influence Perceptions
Chapter 8: Strategies for Winning a Debate
Chapter 9: Programming Music Instead of Computers
Chapter 10: My Career in Media

by Alex Cosper, December 2, 2015

Would you believe I learned some basics about computer programming before computers became part of mass culture? I took a course at Sac State called Introduction to Computer Science in 1984 and somehow got a C even though I swear I didn't learn much of anything. The class seemed very confusing and it was never clear why I should ever know anything about programming a computer at that time. It was exactly around the time home computers were starting to escalate into a revolution.

At that time computers still weren't everywhere you turned. They were used in business, schools and government, but the common person didn't know or talk much about computers in 1984. Video games were surging in popularity, but that was more associated with hooking devices up to your television. I had not heard of the internet at all throughout my whole time in college from 1980 through 1984, even though it was gradually developing in universities in that era.

The computer science class at least taught me that computer programs are nothing more than a set of instructions written in a certain language. I didn't find it interesting because the instructor put absolutely no emphasis on what this knowledge could be used for. How was I to know that the 21st century's income champs would be tech platform designers?

Had I known what Steve Jobs was up to at that time, I probably would have been very interested because his vision was to empower artsy outsiders like myself. Jobs gave consumers the tools to become multimedia professionals, starting with desktop publishing and graphic arts. He was more of a marketing visionary and not so much a computer programmer, but I would have still been inspired by his Beatle-like vision that pushed creative boundaries further.

In retrospect, it's kind of hilarious that I was already considered a "programmer" before I entered the class and went on to have a career in "programming," but not computer programming. Through college I was a "roller rink session programmer" and after college I was a "radio/music programmer." In both cases I programmed music instead of computers. The rink didn't like the term "DJ" and neither did the radio industry. My job was to run a program, which like a computer program, involved a series of events.

At the roller rink the program consisted of events like "all skate," "limbo," "couple's skate" and "crazy trios." I talked on the mic between songs and picked all the music, based on what I learned worked best for crowd excitement. In radio I started off scheduling music, then wound up doing shows on the air and eventually got to manage all the on-air content. That's the kind of programming I enjoyed.

Most of what I learned in the computer class became a blur, but I barely remember terms such as "go to commands" and "subroutines." I don't recall ever even touching a computer in that class, as we worked out code on paper. You would think that since Sacramento isn't that far from Silicon Valley, the epicenter of the computer revolution - that a university only three hours away would have wanted to put its fingerprints on what would become the industry that changed the world. Maybe there were plenty of opportunities to explore computers at Sac State then, but the way it was presented to me was extremely boring and didn't seem to involve culture.

Future Shockwaves

Computers had a serious connotation prior to 1984. They were mainly used for computing and not so much for the fun stuff they are now known for. I saw the film Revenge of the Nerds in the summer of 1984 and it stood out as meaningful to me, but more for its social message. The movie portrayed college kids who loved computers as social outcasts, which seemed to reflect the view of mainstreamers. Ultimately, nerds won the respect of the cheerleaders, upstaging the jocks.

If you told me back in 1984 that someday everybody would have their own computer I would've thought you were brainwashed by George Orwell. To me, cool culture was all about music. Yet, during that very same era digital technology was just beginning to infiltrate pop music. I didn't think electronic drums were that amazing, except in certain recordings that were creatively arranged.

To show what I thought about computerized music in my college years, I wrote a song called "Tomorrow's Rock," which was meant to ridicule the direction pop and rock were moving. Only a year earlier Styx had a hit called "Mr. Roboto," which warned about the future of technology, that someday robots would take over. It was an Orwellian period in which the computer revolution was widely greeted with skepticism and paranoia from the party crowd. I admit I was one of those skeptics, as the first verse of my song "Tomorrow's Rock" proclaimed:

Tomorrow's rock will be a shock to today's boys and girls
computer noise and synthesizers will rule the world
so you better watch out for tomorrow's rock
it'll knock you out of your heads
it'll knock you out of your beds

In the mid-2000s I rewrote the song because I realized that synthesizers were not the culprit. After all, the Beatles were one of the first groups to use the synthesizer and they remain my favorite group. I've always been blown away by the synthesizer when it has had a futuristic sound, as in "Autobahn" by Kraftwerk or "Cars" by Gary Numan.

I really despised the poser who only had limited knowledge about music but could sound like a genius just by holding down a few keys or "programming" tracks just by hitting a few buttons. Anyone who could afford expensive synthesizers could sound like a modern superstar while people like me who mostly played acoustic guitar sounded stuck in the sixties. Many artists were shifting to electronic instruments just because it was the trend and it was becoming easy to program monotonous electronic drum and keyboard sounds.

So I replaced the word "synthesizers" with "simulators," to ridicule the synthetic phoniness that the music industry kept embracing. Clearly, it became much easier for someone like me who cares more about melodic artistry and lyrical brilliance to see through the music that over-emphasized expensive studio tricks while treating lyrics and melody as shallow after thoughts.

The revised version of "Tomorrow's Rock" became more of a novelty song than any kind of warning song about the future. It mixed imagery of the past, present and future of music, with a touch of humor as a reminder it was only a silly fun song. Here are the revised lyrics circa 2005:

Tomorrow's rock will be a shock for today's boys are girls
computer noise and simulators will rule the world
everything that you'll ever do will be recorded to a disc
archived in some monitored files, you'll agree to take the risk

So you better watch out for tomorrow's rock
it'll knock you out of your head
it'll knock you out of your bed

Tomorrow's rock will be the same kind of rock that's rocked us all these years
distorted noise from mean guitars will keep ringing in our ears
the DJs and their compromise will take a backseat in the news
to menus of all musical styles from classical to the blues

Yeah, you're gonna rock out to tomorrow's rock
it'll knock you out of your head
it'll knock you out of your bed

(flute solo)

Yeah, you're gonna rock out to tomorrow's rock
it'll knock you out of your head
it'll knock you out of your bed

Tomorrow's rock waits for the clock as sand falls through the glass
DNA and the video patrol will catch you in the act
the birds and the bees will hide in the trees but they'll end up in the past
test tube babies and A.I. guys will rock tomorrow's class

Yeah, you're gonna rock out to tomorrow's rock
it'll knock you out of your head
it'll knock you out of your bed

The State of 1980s Tech

It seemed to me that the positive purpose of introducing computers to music was to faciliate multi-talented musicians like Prince, who could play several instruments. The all-in-one producer/musician was beginning to replace the band. That idea did appeal to me in the sense I could see myself working with a producer to record my music, but I still enjoyed the band concept for my listening pleasure. I did not think that I was going to become a techie who understood how to produce music or play synthesizers, although I eventually dabbled in it enough to learn the broad vocabulary of recording technology.

My friend Jeff Songster, who later worked with me at KWOD, attended Sac State from 1983 through 1986 and got deeper into the tech scene. He was one of the few people I knew who dove into it and understood it. I asked him for his memories of Sac State in 2015 and here was his recollection:

"I really liked Sac State ... Really fond memories. Discovered those when I was moving my son in as an incoming freshman (the past year). The tech scene there at the time was terminals from mainframes. Not bad systems ... but limited access and very primitive by today's standards. I recall being asked to critique their PLATO courseware system. It had a digitizer pad to draw pictures or trace them in. That was the extent of graphics. Monochrome monitors was as good as it got.

"At home I had an Atari 800 color computer system that was a lot more sophisticated and useful. I had a 300 baud modem and called various mainframes around town to chat and such. 300 bits per second roughly. At the time we joked: who can type faster than that? Nowadays no one would stand for that speed on their slowest devices."

Space Age Whiz Kids

From what I could see in 1984, the year the masses feared since George Owill's novel was released in 1948, most people I knew at college or at the rink had no interest in computer programming. On the other hand, at least half of the young people I knew were into video games, which of course, are computer-based, but that still wasn't the same as a decade later when almost everybody had developed a tech vocabulary and knowledge how to utilize computer programs.

One of the songs that was popular at the rink in the mid-80s was "Space Age Whiz Kids" by Joe Walsh. The song was a satire on how young people were becoming fascinated with video games while old school pinball champs were falling out of date.

The idea that someday we'd all be on computers for more than just playing video games never occurred to me in 1984. It was hard to take the future seriously at that time because it seemed like such a sci-fi cartoon. All those years of Orwellian paranoia growing up finally culminated in 1984 with the realization that a lot of the fear was based on fantasy. I do wish that college had treated computer science more enthusiastically back then, because it could have influenced me to take a path with a more solid future than radio, which reached its apex in the mid-nineties before a long industry-wide decline in jobs and pay.

Deregulation mainly by the Reagan through Clinton administrations planted the seeds to radio's eventual self-destruction. As corporations bought out much of the radio industry due to deregulation, it became less local, less special and ultimately less relevant. At one time the radio industry was bigger than the computer industry, but by the nineties the computer industry was much bigger and more important to people's daily lives.

Still, I don't regret how Sac State led me into the radio industry while treating the computer industry as a boring waste of time. I had plenty of fun in radio the next decade until it was overshadowed by the internet. The fall of radio didn't destroy me. In fact, it made me finally take an interest in tech. Thanks to search engines like Google and information sites like Wikipedia, I was inspired to become a much more devoted researcher of a wide range of topics beyond music and radio.

As much as the computer revolution seemed non-existent at Sac State, the college experience still taught me to educate myself, making it an important part of my life. The other component became the internet, which I have to admit made me feel like a space age whiz kid. But until the internet became the new media, I enjoyed working on a computer with radio programming software. My radio career began in the Spring of 1984 thanks to an internship through Sac State.

Continue to Chapter 10: My Career in Media

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