The Long Life of a PopCult

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EDITOR’S NOTE: As we settle into social isolation and life constricts to a few rooms, I wish to note folks who still publish worthy original content online, and whose work we might visit for a little headspace. PS: I dislike the word ‘blog.’ It sounds like bad news from a doctor: ‘I’m sorry, you have a condition we call ‘a blog.'” (Which is true, in the case of sorry ones.) I’m accepting nominations for a new word. ‘Diary’ and ‘journal’ are too dated. ‘Feed’ sounds like a cow. Submit nominations in the comments or on FB to this post.

PopCult has been published online out of Charleston, WV since 2005.

By Douglas John Imbrogno | march22.2020 | thestoryisthethething.com

Back in the Days of Yore, pre-Plague, when we were all young and innocent and didn’t tweet-rage or sh*tpost, there were these things called ‘blogs.’ (Fun Fact: Oldtimers know this, but young’uns might not. The word ‘blog‘ comes from ‘web logs,’ which telescoped down to: ‘weB LOGs…’)

As mentioned above in my ‘Editor’ alter-ego, I dislike the word ‘blog,’ but have long liked the phrase “pop cult,” short for ‘popular culture.’ When my friend, Rudy Panucci, was wishing to do a blog for the then-Charleston Gazette, I was all in. His PopCult blog launched—and this will date us—in August 2005.

I had just began my career as a digital media evangelist, crying out in the wilderness of staid and hidebound newsrooms to switch horses. Or, at least, to add a pony to our horse-and-buggy operations. It needed to be a fast one, minus the buggy. We needed to start trotting—cantering even—into whatever the future of online publication might hold.

(Cantering, I should note, is “slower than a gallop but faster than a trot.” I was trying to be judicious and forward-thinking. But in retrospect, I was likely also an annoying nag, if not a he-ass—which is really, truly a word.)

That was a different information age. I recall the first time I saw a billboard in West Virginia promoting a business with a URL web address. It was so notable, I told my editor at the time that it might make a story.

We also walked ten miles to school in the snow—uphill both ways—dodging wolves who came off the mountain and across the frozen lake, where grandpa ice-fished for that night’s dinner. But that’s a tale for another day.

Yet much like agriculture before the machinery that replaced so such human labor, newspapers were almost hand-made affairs, back-in-the-day. (This, of course, was even moreso in the days of hot metal typesetting  and before that Johannes Gutenberg and Ben Franklin cranking down and up muscle-driven presses. I’m old, but not quite that old.)

If you wanted a drawing to illustrate a story, you pleaded with the busy graphic artist. If they said, no (“Sorry, cityside needs me to do a locator map …“) that left only one option. That’s why you might see an editor or copyeditor in a corner for a half-hour, paging though ‘clip art’ books and scissoring out a line drawing, most likely from a decades-old collection of copyright-free artwork. Then, you had to petition a photographer to shoot the drawing, get the copydesk to write up a ticket, and make sure the artwork got attached to the story.

One floor up, you could still smell the scent of hot glue.

The composing room staff printed the next morning’s news columns out from a huge printer on thick, glossy paper. They’d run the long streams of paragraphs through a hot-glue thingie and then hand-affix them, lining them up with rulers and T-squares, to pages they being built (“laid out,” in newspaper-speak) on angled tabletops. Readers would peruse these columns some 12 hours later on their kitchen table, beside their corn flakes and orange juice.

Back in the day, if you ever noticed a single word or phrase oddly angled compared to the rest of an article, that’s because a composing room staffer had used an Xacto-knife to cut out a misspelled word. A moment’s inattention and the fix might be glued on at a slight, unnoticed angle—which became glaringly obvious beside a spilled cornflake the next morning.

These corrections happened often as the newsroom sent up corrections after seeing drafts or early editions of the page. The newsroom and composing room communicated pages back-and-forth via plastic pneumatic tubes, whose plastic tubing arced into and out of the respective floors of the building. When a rolled-up page arrived with a satisfying ‘plonk!’, the whispering air sounded a bit like the old elevator door on the Starship Enterprise. Or like the flood of pneumatic tube “containers” arriving in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.

‘Sulu, get us out of here!” The elevator doors in the original “Star Trek.”

Calling All Beacons of Obscurity

Prior to PopCult’s launch, Rudy had helmed the music show “Radio Free Charleston” (RFC) in Charleston WV, on a local station, from Labor Day, 1989 to late April, 1990. (He lays out the history in this blogpost last year, marking 30 years of RFC.)

The show featured local music, alt- and prog-rock, New Wave, underground tracks and even comedy records. It was for a night-owl crew—it came on 2 a.m. Saturday night/Sunday morning and ran until 6 a.m. Back then, you took your entertainment when you found it—and only then.

And it took off. At its peak, “Radio Free Charleston” had more listeners than the station’s morning or afternoon shows, recalls Rudy. “Then station management changed and office politics killed it.” He left the station shortly after that.

His show did score a Charleston Gazette profile—an augury of things to come—featuring a photograph by a dear, departed former colleague of mine, ace photographer Lawrence Pierce. In a memorable phrase, Rudy described the show this way in his 30-year look-back:

“That first RFC happened during Labor Day Weekend in 1989. Nobody knew then that the show would take on a life of its own as a beacon of obscurity. All the big shots in Charleston pretend not to know what RFC is, even if they’ve been on the show. I’m proud of the underground legacy I’ve built over the last three decades.”

PS: If I ever need a new band name, I may go with: The Beacons of Obscurity.

If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

‘Make It So!’

We birthed PopCult as one of several blogs that I experimentally launched in 2005. This coincided with rebranding the Gazette’s arts & entertainment section as “the gazz.” (I was full of ideas back then, including inventing words.) A friend of Rudy’s suggested reviving his “Radio Free Charleston” music program as a video show incorporated into PopCult.

“Make it so!” I cried from the bridge of the gazz.

No, I didn’t really say that. Jean-Luc Picard, of course, said that on various iterations of “Star Trek.”

Interestingly (at least to Google-fueled digression-aholics), “Make it So,” is a common phrase by officers throughout the long history of British navy service and elsewhere. One of the main characters in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin seafaring novels, Capt. Jack Aubrey, uses the phrase and Richard Widmark utters “Make it so” in the 1965 film “The Bedford Incident.” As far back as 1850, Herman Melville used it in his “White Jacket,” a book based on his service in the U.S. Navy aboard the frigate USS Neversink:

“For when the sailing-master, whose duty it is to take the regular observation at noon, touches his hat, and reports twelve o’clock to the officer of the deck; that functionary orders a midshipman to repair to the captain’s cabin, and humbly inform him of the respectful suggestion of the sailing-master.
“Twelve o’clock reported, sir,” says the middy.
“Make it so,” replies the captain.
And the bell is struck eight by the messenger-boy, and twelve o’clock it is.

https://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/9695/whats-the-origin-of-picards-signature-phrase-make-it-so

PS: “Star Trek” Digression Cherry-on-the-top: Picard’s reference to his assistant, Commander Riker, as “Number One” also hails from British naval slang for the First Officer or XO: “It comes from the days when the senior Lieutenant on a ship was the First Lieutenant, or the Lieutenant Commander, and therefore usually second in command.”

OK, I’ll stop now.


‘What the Hell Was That?!’

“Radio Free Charleston” began life as an actual radio show in Charleston WV, but has since migrated online.

Technically, there were all sorts of things we had to do to hoist Rudy’s “Radio Free Charleston” video file onto the Gazette servers, dutifully hand-delivered via CD-ROM. It took nearly a week to figure out how to do the first episode. Subsequent RFCs mean an hour or more to get the show working properly, via all sorts of code hijinks. (SHOUT-OUT to patient tech/server soldiers Joel Armstrong and Ron Phillips, still fighting the good fight at what is now an HDMedia operation.)

I recall the newsroom meeting I called with other editors to debut and pre-screen the first online edition of Rudy’s wild-and-wooly “Radio Free Charleston” videocast. The show was a grab-bag amalgamation of locally captured music performances, whack-a-mole graphics, and hipster animation, much of it made by his brother, an accomplished animator named Frank Panucci.

I was proud of the visionary baby Rudy and I—well, mostly Rudy’s vision and his crew—helped to birth. But what would my my fellow editors and hard-news colleagues think of this somewhat goofball offspring and the entertaining racket it raised?

I dimmed the lights in the glass-windowed meeting room in the corner of the newsroom where we editors gathered for budget meetings (‘budget” signifying which stories were on tap for the day or week ahead.)

You did not want to attempt to circumnavigate the world with Magellan. Here’s why.

I was feeling like Magellan, setting off to attempt something never attempted. (Which, given Magellan’s troubled history and attempted circumnavigation of the globe in 1519, is maybe not a good comparison.)

I proudly flipped on the lights after revealing to my fellow stewards of the Charleston Gazette’s proud, Chiltonian/Marshian traditions, this new direction I felt we absolutely needed to head, in addition to our core mission of kicking butt and taking names.

There was silence. Then, an editor growled:

“What has this got to do with putting out the news? We don’t have time for this kind of stuff…”

Sigh.

(My colleague might not have said ‘stuff.’ That was a long time ago.)


‘Batshit Crazy Show’ and Beyond

“Sunset In the City,” a watercolor pen drawing by Rudy Panucci, inspired by the view from his hotel on his recent trip to Chicago, as part of the “Monday Morning Art” feature in PopCult. 

So, all that was decades ago. Speaking of fighting the good fight, Rudy has fought the good fight on several fronts. If I am not mistaken, PopCult is the Last Blog Standing of all the ones we launched so long ago. (Their bloggish remains are viewable in the digital boneyard of the Wayback Machine, where you can look up the ghost town of “the gazz”—broken links and all, due to many a server relocation.)

Rudy has also soldiered on and led a long and fruitful creative life while living with the neuromuscular disease, Myasthenia Gravis, whose personal challenges he has long chronicled as part of what makes PopCult sometimes such a personal read.

His creation is a curious, polyglot and intriguing beast. As a serious toy connoisseur, Rudy made PopCult into—among much else—an informed, near-scholarly account of the collectible toy scene, from GI Joes to a scale-action figure of Robbie the Robot. You may also encounter, just as an example, a thoroughly knowledgeable review of “Dingbat Love,” unpublished illustrated stories by “the King of Comics,” the DC Comics’ legendary illustrator Jack Kirby.

But other things pop up on PopCult, including his colorful illustrated photographs. He recently published a review of the production of “Titus Andronicus” by Haven Chicago, which he and his talented wife, Mel Larch, saw in Chicago. (Mel recently was featured in a star turn in Doug Minnerly own accomplished Titus Project staging of the play on the West Side of Charleston WV, for which I was the musical opening act, which Doug assures me was very Shakespearian. Not me—but live music as a way to set the bard’s ‘stage,’ as it were.)

Rudy has also long been a faithful documentarian of the Charleston WV-area music scene. For many of us weekend musician warriors, our very first online video exposure singing our tunes was through “Radio Free Charleston.” You could easily cobble together a 30-plus year oral history or graduate thesis on what West Virginia’s capital city sounded like in its clubs, bars and coffeehouses by riffling—and riffing—through the PopCult archives.

Some years back, he also began broadcasting a quite fine online, prog-rock “Radio Free Charleston” music show, which has listeners from around the globe. (He uses the Airtime Pro platform which allows you to create your own online radio channel.)

His station, AIR (“Alternative, Intelligent Radio”), is his attempt to bring back the free-format radio that dominated the FM frequency back in the 1970s, before—as Rudy puts it—”anyone realized you could make money with FM.” I asked him to sketch AIR’s online aim and offerings:

“Our goal is to provide a wide array of unique programs that do not accidentally insult the intelligence of the listener. ‘Radio Free Charleston’ is the flagship specialty music show that blends locally-based artists from West Virginia with the best of alternative, progressive or classic rock.”

Other music programs (which debut during the afternoon hours) include shows devoted to Progressive Rock, Ska/Punk, Psychedelic Rock, Show Tunes, Swing Music and New Wave Music. The AIR also presents interview programs, a show about the paranormal, classic comedy and the self-explanatory “Batshit Crazy Show.” You can find and listen to The AIR at www.theairwv.com.”

Rudy has a regular show titled “Beatles Blast,” which, I assure you, includes Beatles content you’ve never heard before, unless you are a serious Beatles-holic. It features wonderful out-takes of tomfoolery in the studio that will take the Fab Four off the musical Mt. Rushmore—where they most certainly belong—but will also show them to be a bunch of goof-off English lads out for a good time.

PopCult is all grown up.


PS: The whole reason I set off on this post (first, as a simple Facebook comment) was to note Rudy’s song lineup for his March 18, 2020, RFC AIR music program. It featured a favorite cover tune by my old quartet, The BrotherSisters, “Love is the Water” (a great uptempo song by the band Brother Sun). Rudy teed it up as my BrotherSisters’ mate Albert Frank Perrone and I were to have performed live that night at Songwriterstage in Charleston WV. It was a send-off to Albert, who is moving into the Appalachian outback, so he can look up and see the stars. The Great Sequestration from CoVID-19 canned the concert.

Ah, well. I take satisfaction in that “Radio Free Charleston” listeners in Slovakia, Iceland and Kuala Lumpur may have taken a few moments pleasure from a moment with The BrotherSisters.

There’s a whole lot more fine music where that came from on The AIR.

Rock on, Rudy.


PS: A note of thanks to dear friend, Richard D. Erlich, one of my key professor commandos at Miami University back in the day. Being a newsroom- and copydesk-free writer since April 2018, I have to find editing where I can find it. Rich has been gracious enough to pre-screen my messy post drafts, line-edit my venial grammatical sins, and suggest welcome left-field insertions and digressions (the Terry Gilliam Youtube image and link above, for instance.) Check out his blog, “Views From a Jagged Orbit.”

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