The Jerky DJs

Always up for a good spoof, the late-night pranksters at WRUW cultivate chaos with their cut-and-paste show, Press the Button.

Kennedy, Harmon, and Smith (left to right).
Kennedy, Harmon, and Smith (left to right).
"We're used to talking to each other in complete sentences. If you took the same conversation and broke it into fragments, you might understand it better." Or so believes Jay Kennedy, one of three Cleveland radio hoodlums responsible for the late-night WRUW show, Press the Button. He and pals Paul Smith (a.k.a. Paul Ryan) and Sam Harmon (a.k.a. Dr. Asbestos) have taken this concept to heart. For the better part of three hours every week (from 12-3 a.m. on Mondays), these guys devote themselves and WRUW's basement broadcasting studio to a radio show that attempts to convince you of just that.

Seven minutes into Monday morning at 91.1 FM, the show begins with a somewhat conventional farce, a mock talk show called the Paul Ryan Report. It's conventional compared with what's to come, but it certainly has its piquant elements. (One recent target, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, sustained a nearly hour-long roasting in a radio play that the church was later erroneously credited with producing.) But by hour two, rest assured, if you tune to WRUW, your radio will be awash in audio swamp: Television and film dialogue and random voice samples commingle with floating, constantly shifting swatches of background music. One week, insurance commercials might be cut and re-pasted to the tune of live contemporary classical music; the next, you might hear dialogue from this week's episodes of ER and Chicago Hope taken out of context and then juxtaposed -- all to a soundtrack of echo effects and static.

As loyal listeners may already know, the hospital drama episode of Press the Button actually exists and aired recently. Kennedy, Harmon, and Smith sampled dialogue from ER, Chicago Hope, and various other hospital dramas of television past, shuffled them and looped them into the show. The broad range of material suggests the ways in which Press the Button has no singular theme.

"People always ask what the talk show's about, but it's not really a talk show. People ask what the music is about but it's not really music," explains Kennedy. "Some weeks there's no music at all -- just fragmented words throughout the whole program. Sometimes there's a mixture of both. It's not consistent, but I think that's the beauty, and that's why people should tune in."

The show certainly has its moments of anarchy. More than a few, perhaps. But for Kennedy and company, Push the Button has a specific working manifesto and a clearly defined whipping boy. "The subdivisions of commercial radio are too black and white . . . it's either straight music or talk radio," says Kennedy. "There's no in-between." With Push the Button, Kennedy, Harmon, and Smith blur the distinction between radio as strictly music, talk, or white noise. They hope for nothing less than to change the way you listen -- not just to the radio, but to anything and everything.

"Normally when you're driving home and you're listening to NPR or something, you kind of zone," says Kennedy. "And every once and a while, when you hear something that interests you, then you pick up on it. What we're trying to do is keep it constantly interesting; keep that mind working all the time. We don't do that as humans as often as we should. We just listen to music, trance out, and not pay so much attention to it. But in fragmenting it into smaller bits and putting it together with other fragments, we try to think about what these fragments, what they mean to us. It's a learning experience, as we do the show and as you're listening to the show."

Largely, the show accomplishes this by constantly frustrating the listener's expectations. Tune in for what sounds like a talk show on the Cleveland Browns, and within a few minutes you may be listening to anything from an agricultural talk show to random sound. Aside from the Paul Ryan Report, Press the Button allows almost no continuity.

"If you tune in to it at first, you might think, "Oh this is regular music; this is a regular talk show.' But if you sit there for longer than 10 seconds, all of a sudden, the sentence will stop and a new voice will start, saying something completely unrelated. And [the listeners] will be like, "Wait a minute.' They'll try to put those two samples together and think, "Oh, this must be what they must have meant.' Then they'll hear another fragment, totally unrelated to that, and they'll try to relate those to the other two and think, "Oh, that's what they meant.' And you'll find yourself studying what you're listening to."

The Push the Button aesthetic, equal parts John Cage, William Burroughs, and Cleveland late-night talk show, germinated at the radio station at Mercyhurst College, where Kennedy and Smith both worked in the mid-'90s. Engineering proto-Press the Button soundscapes that alienated the station manager, the two were actually banned from airing anything they had collaborated on or even participating in each other's shows. "We were doing similar experimental pieces, except they were a little more abstract, a little less fragmentary," says Kennedy. "The station manager, an older guy, did talk radio in the '70s. He hated what we were doing." Undaunted, Kennedy and Smith continued to produce and record material; for what, they didn't know.

Eventually, the material ended up on a CD, The Button . . .for Dummies. (Faced with two hours worth of material, Kennedy and Smith skipped on the double album concept and burned two hours onto the single CD -- one hour in the right channel and one in the left.) The show got started in earnest when Kennedy met up with Harmon, a WRUW DJ spinning underground electronica. Two and a half years ago, Harmon invited Kennedy on to his show, and the conventional format was dropped in favor of the sample-heavy, cut-and-paste sound of Press the Button. A year later, Smith moved to Cleveland and joined the show.

At present, the trio enjoys the company of a constant stream of student musicians from Oberlin, experimental, classical, and jazz players who hang at the studio and play much of what ends up as background music for the show. They have also been fine-tuning their show in the hopes of taking it live some day soon. "Ideally, we want to play quadraphonic -- four speakers around the audience -- so that we could have a spinning effect," says Kennedy.

In the near future, Kennedy, Harmon, and Smith will be preparing the release of another recording. According to Kennedy, the CD will be more structured and feature what might actually be called songs. Some might even have rhythms. But the radio show is still their main gig (with generally 12 hours of production for every three-hour show), and the plunder of our sonic world is still their passion.

"Everything you hear on the news, all the music that you listen to, new or old, everything you hear when you're walking in the streets -- all of that is audio," Kennedy says. "None of that is safe from us."