Tuesday, March 31, 2009

It's, It's a Ballroom Blitz: Part Two: The Public Address System

This story, like any story involving disparate characters (and some desperate characters), could be told from a number of different points of view. But I'm telling it here, so I'm telling it from mine.

And from my point of view, it's a story about a short-lived alternative newspaper a few friends of mine and I perpetrated upon the campus and surrounding environs of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb between 1988 and 1990, called The Public Address System. We only managed to publish four issues of the PAS -- and this story is, in large part, the story of why our output was stifled ... but I don't want to get ahead of myself.

A little bit news, a little bit political commentary, a little bit post-"Realist" satire, and a little bit pre-"Onion" fake-news comedy, The Public Address System had a decidedly leftist bent, but we were more about having fun than anything else. I'd have to say we were more "bent" than "left," but a very positive "Factsheet Five" review gave us credit for returning humor to the otherwise then-humorless left-wing underground press scene, or words very close to that.

At the time, I was heavily influenced by Discordianism (I even corresponded with Kerry Thornley for a while, and published a couple of his things in the paper), and Eris knows the NIU community needed some good-natured chaos.

Bill Griffith let us run a few "Zippy" comics free of charge, and we ran a couple poems and comics by somewhat-known small-press artists of the day, but it was otherwise entirely home-grown. The real goal was to make our own fun at a place that had (and still has) a bad rap as a "suitcase school" where nothing much was going on.

The truth, of course, was that lots was going on at and around NIU. We had a small but vibrant music scene, many amazingly talented visual artists, and a political activist community that, for a time, outshone Madison's for sheer guts and energy.

The official campus paper (this was before it became the college home of famous "Daily Kos" blogger Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, who was editor in chief of that rag in 1995) was almost entirely indifferent to all of this -- when it wasn't blatantly disdainful. Which rubbed me exactly the wrong way -- not the smallest reason for which being that I was a journalism major and attended classes every day with these jerks, and I had lasted about three days as a reporter on that paper before cussing out an editor and stomping off (I used to do that sort of thing a lot back then).

Frustrated with living on a one-paper campus -- and a drab stick in the mud of a paper it was -- a few of us got together and ... skipping ahead through several chapters, false starts, bitter fights, and hard lessons (maybe to be detailed here someday later), The Public Address System was born.

This is the above-the-fold view of the "Special Collector's Edition First Issue," November/December 1988:

This was before the era of affordable computers, kids, and desktop publishing software itself was still new and prohibitively expensive. So our paper was a very, very low-budget and very, very labor-intensive product. Every single character of every single line of text and every headline was typed, by yours truly, on an electric typewriter. We dragged headlines to Kinko's and, after calculating the size we needed, blew the typewritten text up on photocopiers. We cut the text columns into strips and pasted them with rubber cement onto tabloid-size layout sheets purchased from the campus bookstore (where they were sold for newspaper layout classes).

It used to take a solid weekend of no sleep -- double all-nighters, yes, I shit you not -- to physically put together one eight-page issue, which we would then schlepp over to a plant in Naperville to be printed on good old-fashioned honest to goodness newsprint ... and then we'd load 5,000 fresh, hot copies into the car to lug back to DeKalb to dump at dawn in every major building on campus, as well as several student haunts around town.

It was a lot of work, but of course it was all more than worth it when people would tell me, "I love this!"

Over the paper's short life, we developed a few running jokes. The most successful was a parody of something that used to run in a local advertising rag, "The DeKalb Nite Weekly," called "Coed of the Week," featuring cheesecake photos of local wanna-be models (that publication's claim to fame: very early swimsuit pix of pre-famous supermodel Cindy Crawford) -- only our coeds were men. Generally tattooed, pierced, or otherwise ... uh ... nonconventional men.

Another running joke was falsely reporting the death of Gavin MacLeod. I think that was my fault. I'm not sure why I thought that was hilarious, but I did. In that jugular vein, here's a scan of the very beaten up but still extant original of a collage-cartoon we ran (by me) shortly after the death of Andy Warhol, titled "Love Boatmen on the River Styx":

But I digress.

As I was saying, it was hard work putting out an issue, but the positive reception we got was worth it. Of course, not all the reception was positive. Far from it. My fellow journalism students -- once I was outed -- were colder than cold about it. I think the word I took from them (and a few professors, too) was "shit." And the NIU administration was not terribly crazy about us at all. The bureaucrat in charge of the campus student center, in fact, ordered the janitors to throw out all the copies of the paper we tried to distribute there. So we just dumped more.

By and large, the feedback was good, though. And after someone said "I love this," they'd invariably ask, "When's the next issue coming out?"

To which I'd reply with a sigh and say, "As soon as we can."

In a perfect world, we'd have published monthly, or even more often. But it wasn't a perfect world. The problem was not with the amount of work involved -- the problem was money.

Which is what really drives this story.

And we'll get into that in the next part, later this week.

1 comment:

Feral Mom said...

I love this. And I love STDPM in series mode. Keeping preaching it, dude.