Influential radio dramatist Tom Lopez began his career in the analog age cutting reel-to-reel audiotape with a razor blade at KPFA in Berkeley.
Lopez was an aspiring playwright who had dropped out of grad school when he began volunteering in the Pacifica station’s drama and literature department. His first radio drama, Ha! Fat Chance, ran in excess of 40 minutes and aired in 1963, back when only commercial radio stations adhered to clock-driven formats. Yet his formative experience at the listener-sponsored station may have planted the seeds for the direct-to-listener revenue model he adopted 10 years later almost by accident.
His Zelig-like career includes stints in commercial as well as public radio and trips abroad snaring interviews with rock stars and recording ambient sound for his productions. Radio listeners of a certain age may know him by a character he invented as host of a freeform show on the Philadelphia’s public airwaves in the late 1960s.
Despite his propensity to wander, years ago Lopez put down roots in a 33-acre compound in rural upstate New York, which was originally a radio commune but later became the headquarters of the nonprofit ZBS Foundation. (True to its counter-culture roots, ZBS stands for “Zero Bull Shit.”)
The Zeebers, as members of the commune were known, soon turned to producing radio dramas; at ZBS’s peak in radio distribution in the 1980s, their serialized stories aired on several hundred public stations. When public radio carriage diminished, Lopez sought out alternative avenues of distribution that were consistent with his adventurous nature.
To Lopez the message was loud and clear: “They don’t want what I do anymore. So I said, ‘OK, time to look someplace else.’”
Now all but a handful of public radio stations have stopped airing radio drama, and Lopez has migrated to the web. In July he launched a website that allows subscribers to stream a total of 218 hours of radio drama for $5 a month.
A soft-spoken man with a thick white mustache who laughs easily, Lopez looks much younger than his years, which are considerable. Asked his age in a 2002 interview, he simply responded, “Ancient.”
He works in a recording studio housed on the same property where ZBS began, located on a small island nestled between the Hudson River and a canal leading to Lake Champlain in Fort Edward, N.Y. The grounds include a yurt with pictures of Indian gurus on the wall, a huge old barn that once served as a sound stage and a rambling colonial farmhouse that he occupies with his fashion-designer wife, Marika Contompasis.
Over the years Lopez has kept ZBS going with government grants and commissions for audio books. Fans have played a critical role by donating money and buying his finished radio dramas online.
“People actually give us money to continue to produce,” Lopez told Current. “These are all public radio listeners. They understand that you have to support not-for-profit arts organizations.”
Fred Greenhalgh, a Maine-based radio drama producer who considers Lopez an inspiration, says the ZBS producer “was podcasting before podcasting existed. … He basically gave his content away for free to radio stations, then he realized his strategy was to build this catalog and build a listener base. That’s very much what we have rediscovered in podcasting.”
“Tom really has taken the patron model to quite a level,” said Sue Zizza, a Long Island-based audiobooks producer who is also active in what is now referred to as “audio drama.” “He gets fans to give him a little of the production money up front and then, once the [radio drama] is made, the same individuals will purchase it.”
‘Wait a minute, kid’
The business of selling finished dramas to listeners began by accident. After The Fourth Tower of Inverness, ZBS’s first serial, debuted on college radio stations in 1972, a listener called and said he wanted a copy.
“We said, ‘We don’t sell copies.’” Lopez recalls. “It was like, ‘Go away, kid.’ And then he said the magic words, ‘I’ll pay anything.’ So we said, ‘Wait a minute, kid. Come back here.’”
Sales to fans commenced forthwith, first on reel-to-reel tape, followed by cassettes and CDs. These days ZBS sells digital downloads of its dramas, but collectors who want physical media can buy a thumb drive containing 44 hours of its most popular radio drama, Ruby, for $195.
A substantial portion of the ZBS fan base is in the Los Angeles area, thanks to KCRW’s broadcast of ZBS productions until the mid-1990s.
Hollywood movie deals have been a source of income, though so far none of the ZBS characters have made it to the silver screen. ZBS sold film rights to Ruby in the early 1980s, shortly after it came out. The series, which chronicled the adventures of an intergalactic gumshoe, was distributed as LPs to nearly 500 public radio stations.
In 2012 a production company attached to a major Hollywood star acquired movie rights to stories about the ZBS character Jack Flanders, a drifter who has a series of metaphysical adventures. Flanders has been portrayed as a bumbling fool but also as an adept investigator who travels to exotic countries and other dimensions where he tries to solve spiritual mysteries.
“Just being here has been a series of little miracles,” said Lopez, reflecting on how he kept ZBS going. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of mystical economics that science hasn’t quite acknowledged or figured out yet.”
‘This shiver went through me’
Lopez arrived at Pacifica Radio’s KPFA as an aspiring dramatist looking for a new outlet. When he learned how to cut tape, he was given a recording of a children’s story and instructed to remove every other word. The second word was “elephants.”
“So I cut out ‘elephants’ and I held this tape up and it was maybe a couple inches long. And this shiver went through me,” Lopez recalls with a shudder. “I realized instantly that most of my life would be spent working with something like this.”
Lopez left Berkeley in 1966 for London where, claiming to be a correspondent for the popular San Francisco rock station KSAN, he interviewed Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and other major rockers. He produced his pieces on an Uher portable reel-to-reel tape recorder and sent them back to KPFA.
While in England, Lopez fell into Yoko Ono’s orbit and did sound for her film Bottoms, which featured 365 bare bums. The soundtrack consisted of interviews with the people who agreed to be filmed.
When Lopez returned to the U.S., he took a job in 1968 as a public affairs producer at WUHY in Philadelphia, which later changed its call letters to WHYY. The audience of his Sunday-night freeform show Feed, Lopez jokes, consisted of about a hundred hip high school students. On the air he referred to himself as Meatball Fulton, a pseudonym he uses to this day, including on the ZBS podcast Meatball’s Meatballs. One night he fielded a call from an irate listener who complained about a guest who was producing fart sounds on a theremin.
“The thing that bothered me about public radio back then, it was so boring,” Lopez says. “The energy in the programs was so low! And I loved the energy in commercial radio. That’s why I decided to do mock commercials [for Feed].”
In 1969 Lopez moved to Montreal, where he made real commercials at rock station CKGM before moving to the ZBS commune in upstate New York. During his first 18 months there, he produced more commercials. Writing and mixing 60-second spots, Lopez insists, made him a better radio producer.
“You could tell a story in 60 seconds, and I liked that a lot,” he says. “It was good discipline. Say what you have to say and get out.”
The Zeebers produced commercials for Warner Brothers Records. One spot promoting two new LPs by Captain Beefheart and Ry Cooder had the playfulness and pacing of a Firesign Theater bit.
Another commercial client was Grunt Records, the label owned by Jefferson Airplane that funded the first of the Jack Flanders dramas, The Fourth Tower of Inverness. The serial, which aired in 7-minute daily and half-hour weekend episodes, debuted on close to 400 college radio stations.
After the Zeebers reorganized as a nonprofit foundation, ZBS received funding from the New York State Council on the Arts to provide recording residencies. Artists who came to ZBS to record from 1974 until 1982 included Amiri Baraka, Meredith Monk, William Wegman, Phillip Glass and Laurie Anderson.
It was at ZBS that Anderson began using the Eventide Harmonizer, a device that changed her voice in real time. She later borrowed a portable four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder from ZBS and used it at home to record her 1980 hit “O Superman.” The performance artist became romantically involved with Bob Bielecki, an engineer who had worked with Lopez at WHYY and built the ZBS studio. Bielecki left ZBS to work with Anderson, which forced Lopez to do his own mixing.
“I learned a hell of a lot about mixing working with Tom,” said Karen Michel, a veteran NPR freelancer based in the mid–Hudson Valley of New York.
Michel first met Lopez when she won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to produce a radio drama. Told by her advisor to hire the best mixing engineer she could find, she tapped Lopez for the project. She later worked as his production assistant on a dramatization of Stephen King’s novella The Mist.
“He’s very generous with what he knows,” Michel says of Lopez.
It’s an assessment shared by Barrett Golding, a Montana-based producer who dabbled in radio drama at the beginning of his career. Golding admired the “deep, dreamy moments” in ZBS mixes and sent Lopez a letter with questions about how he created the ZBS sound. In his lengthy reply, Lopez alerted Golding to the existence of CPB’s Satellite Program Development Fund, which provided funding to independent producers. Golding applied to the fund and in 1983 received his first grant to produce radio.
“I wouldn’t be in this business if it weren’t for Jack Flanders and Ruby,” Golding told Current. “That’s when I realized the potential of radio.”
Music for planetariums
The secret sauce of the ZBS mix includes performances by a stable of talented actors from the worlds of Broadway, television and avant-garde theater; original music by composer Tim Clark; and real-world ambient sound Lopez has recorded around the globe.
In 1987 Lopez and Clark lugged one of the first portable digital audio recorders around Brazil recording nature sounds in the Amazon jungle. KCRW staffers arranged support for the trip.
When the two began working together, Clark was composing music for planetarium shows. Initially, he let Lopez use the planetarium music in his radio dramas. But soon Clark was composing the planetarium soundtracks with an ear to how they would work in Lopez’s productions. Now based in North Carolina, Clark looks back on his 40-plus–year collaboration with Lopez and observes, “He’s amazingly calm. I can’t remember him ever getting mad.”
Lopez and Clark wrote and produced an album of talk songs performed by the Android Sisters, two New York City actresses who had appeared in ZBS productions. Clark employed a digital sampler to play back the stunning stereo sounds of combat, farm animals, 1950s doo-wop and the voices of the Android Sisters.
One of the Android Sisters, Valeria Vasilevski, remembers joining other actors on a frigid winter evening in the ZBS barn where Lopez used a Neumann KU 81, a microphone known as the Kunstkopf, to record a scene set in a supermarket. Affectionately referred to by Lopez as “Fritz,” the Kunstkopf records binaural sound using microphone elements placed in the ears of a replica of a human head.
“We’re all freezing,” Vasilevski recalls, “and we’re walking around with these shopping carts, following a wooden head with microphones that’s on wheels for half the night. But that’s Tom. You never knew what to expect. It was all a mystery until you got there.”
Mystery — and mysticism — loom large in Lopez’s oeuvre. Ask Tom Lopez if he considers himself a spiritual person and he replies with a chuckle, “Slightly.”
Jon Kalish, a radio journalist based in New York City, adapted this feature from a segment he produced for NPR’s All Things Considered. Listen to his full documentary about Lopez.