I enjoyed being ‘radio-active’


QSL card from KIPM. I had sent my reception report to a mail drop.


(Originally published June 7, 2009.)

For many years, I was a devoted shortwave radio listener. Even on worknights and schoolnights, I’d be up until the wee hours scanning the high-frequency bands for unusual signals, pirate transmissionsnumbers stationsclandestine broadcasters and other fringe emanations from the ether.

One of my favorite pirate broadcasters was Alan Maxwell’s KIPM, which usually took to the airwaves on holiday weekends. Many pirate broadcasters simply played rock music and subjected listeners to vulgar humor, but KIPM produced professional-quality science-fiction dramas that could last an hour or more.

Like many pirate broadcasters, KIPM responded to listener reception reports. Much to my delight some years back, I received a QSL card from KIPM. Shown above, the card confirms I picked up the station’s signal on Oct. 27, 2002, on 6950 kHz. Maxwell also included some bizarre artwork and an audio CD of the shows.

About this same time, I began listening to the eclectic programs on WBCQ, a shortwave station owned by Allan Weiner that courageously embraces the First Amendment in a way that would make most mainstream broadcasters defecate cinderblocks.

Although WBCQ’s programming has always run the gamut from extreme vanity to extreme politics, I found some shows to be fascinating. Radio Newyork International with John P. Lightning was a favorite of mine. It’s a potpourri of pop culture and politics that’s best described as Howard Stern without the punchbowl — and without the turd.

Another great WBCQ show I enjoyed listening to was “Marion’s Attic,” which featured an elderly lady playing Edison cylinder and old 78 RPM records from the dawn of commercially recorded music.

But not all of WBCQ’s programming smelled so good. Weiner’s commitment to free speech also meant that some genuine weirdos, goofballs and nutjobs gained access to the airwaves. Among those was Hal Turner, who bought time on the station for several years to espouse his anti-Semetic and racist views.

Turner was arrested just the other day amid accusations of threatening public officials. I disagree with nearly all — if not all — of what Turner stands for and says, but this is still America and he has the right to espouse those views. But if Turner did try to incite violence, however, then he does need to answer for that.

An even more interesting fringe broadcaster active around the time Turner graced WBCQ was “Colonel” Steve Anderson, a self-styled militia leader who operated clandestine shortwave station United Patriot Radio from a site in Kentucky.

Anderson broadcast nightly diatribes against the federal government for far longer than most shortwave listeners believed possible. Here in Jefferson Park, his shortwave transmissions came blasting across my radio with such strength you’d have thought the transmitter was just up the street.

See a reception report of mine from April 2001 (scroll down to the USA logs).

The colonel’s rhetoric usually began at a seemingly sane level, but quickly progressed to mouth-frothing talk about New World Order conspiracies and Jews being the spawn of Satan. Interspersed among his Christian Identity pontifications were references to his love of baking homemade bread.

Anderson, a former Kentucky State Militia member who got the boot when he refused to stop his illegal transmissions, definitely knew how to keep his audience riveted.

United Patriot Radio’s hit parade included “You Can Take My Gun From My Cold, Dead Hand,” “Onward Christian Soldiers” and a taped interlude featuring a guy firing a machinegun and yelling, “Janet Reno! Get some! Get some today!”

The broadcasts ended one fateful night in October 2001 when a county mountie pulled the colonel over on a routine traffic stop for having a broken taillight on his truck. One thing led to another and Anderson whipped out an automatic weapon and swiss-cheesed the officer’s patrol car. (Initial newspaper reports noted that Johnny Law had a 15-year-old girl in the squad car with him, but if this fascinating detail was ever explained in subsequent coverage, I missed it.)

Anderson took it on the lam until he was arrested after his mugshot appeared on “America’s Most Wanted.” He’s now doing time.

The interwebs have occupied much of my spare time the past few years and I haven’t monitored the shortwave band for bizarre stuff for a long time. I ought to see what’s up and start listening again. After all, it’s like having kids in the next room: If they’re too quiet, you know they’re up to something.

‘The Invaders’ still creeps me out

Michael “Klaatu” Rennie leads the way as his alien henchmen escort David Vincent toward a flying saucer that has conveniently landed in the back yard.

(Originally published July 7, 2008)

When I was a kid, I loved the outer-space adventures of the original “Star Trek” series, which I found entertaining and thought-provoking. But another series at that time managed to scare the living bejeezus out of me — and still does.

 That program is “The Invaders,” introduced each week with an ominous opening sequence:

The Invaders: Alien beings from a dying planet. Their destination: The Earth. Their purpose: To make it their world. David Vincent has seen them. For him it began one lost night on a lonely country road looking for a shortcut that he never found. It began with a closed, deserted diner and a man too long without sleep to continue his journey. It began with the landing of a craft from another galaxy. Now David Vincent knows that the Invaders are here, that they have taken human form. Somehow, he must convince a disbelieving world that the nightmare has already begun.

The show’s first season is now available on DVD and I’ve been watching “The Invaders” with new appreciation. Unlike a lot of series from that era, it sure holds up. The few effects are done well and the attention paid to lighting, music and art direction rivals that of many contemporary theatrical films.

Roy Thinnes, then and now.

Cloned from Quinn Martin Productions’ “The Fugitive,” this show follows “architect David Vincent,” played by 29-year-old Roy Thinnes. Although he gains allies in the second season, Vincent initially leads a desperate, one-man campaign to expose the vanguard of an alien invasion. The aliens themselves are among the reasons why the series proved so frightening. They’re only shown in their human forms, which often aren’t 100 percent perfect, and can be identified usually -— but not always -— by a misshapen pinkie finger.

To maintain their human shape, the invaders must periodically step into regeneration tubes. Only occasionally, a human gets to see an invader in its actual native form. Those who do often are driven to the point of madness.

And although within the context of the series these humans see the invaders, viewers never do. We see only the humans’ terrified reaction to these aliens, which makes their presumed appearance all the more terrifying.

Almost as terrifying are the ways in which the invaders infiltrate human society. They’re small-town sheriffs, government officials, leading scientists -— and in one notable episode even a stripper played by Suzanne Pleshette. It’s a rich vein of paranoia later mined to similarly chilling effect by “The X-Files.”

Although it’s difficult to believe these invaders really are here from “another galaxy,” they’ve definitely come a long way and their resources are being stretched to near the breaking point. Their most effective weapons are seldom a large scale effort, but rather treachery, brainwashing — and a nasty little disk that when pressed to a human’s neck induces death by cerebral hemorrhage.

An invader glows red as it combusts without leaving a trace.

But the biggest problem facing David Vincent is that it’s next to impossible for him to prove that the invaders are here because when one is injured or shot, they just about always go up in a blaze of spontaneous combustion.

Most of the episodes in this set have been transferred in crisp color and with a rich soundtrack that allows Dominic Frontiere’s eerie musical score to properly frost your spine. Roy Thinnes, now 70, introduces each episode and is also featured in a supplemental interview in which we learn that some of the show’s crew thought UFOs were no laughing matter.

Series creator Larry Cohen narrates much of “The Innocent,” which, although he didn’t write it, is his favorite episode. Cohen offers up some interesting stories, but his narrative tends to wander. And he also gripes way too much about how his “Created by Larry Cohen” credit is at the end of each episode rather than at the beginning. Larry: If it’s any consolation, I noticed and remembered it. So much so that when I saw “It’s Alive,” “Q” and “The Stuff” years later, I thought wow, this is by the guy who created “The Invaders”!

Genre fans will especially enjoy “The Innocent,” which was originally telecast March 14, 1967. It’s not hard to see why Cohen counts this episode among the best. In it, Vincent is abducted and taken aboard a flying saucer by one of the invaders’ leaders — played by Michael Rennie, famed for his portrayal of Klaatu in the seminal saucer movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

This episode illustrates how “The Invaders” sparingly used special effects to such advantage. Vincent is driven to a mission revival ranch house and taken to see Rennie — and then he’s escorted into the back yard where he’s manhandled into the saucer. It all plays out as matter of factly as if hoods were stuffing a snitch into a Lincoln.

Classic Adamski-style saucer featured in “The Invaders.”

The saucer design itself no doubt tapped into its own wave of paranoia. Inspired by the spacecraft reported by 1950s contactee George Adamski, it was in a way the series co-star, a character that all of us hoped to see more of than we did.

Perhaps the saucer’s best appearance is in “The Mutant,” which finds David Vincent tracking down reports of a crashed saucer in the Desert Southwest. The scene in which he stumbles upon aliens repairing their saucer does a great job of laying the early groundwork for vectoring the Roswell legend.

The road goes on forever


While stopped at a Route 66 gas station, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, James Taylor and Dennis Wilson discuss racing to Washington, D.C.


(Originally published Nov. 10, 2008)

I first saw “Two-Lane Blacktop” during high school in its initial release back in 1971. I saw it at a drive-in theater — probably the Lakeshore Drive-In in Edgewater, Colorado, although it could have been at the Wadsworth or West. (My parents always felt the Lakeshore attracted too many hoods, so we were discouraged from going there.)

Even with the threat of hoodlums aside, this road film made a big impression on me then. The plot of “Two-Lane Blacktop” is simple: Two cars race across the American heartland and, ultimately, we see that its characters are going absolutely nowhere. If anything, I guess this movie forces viewers to fill in the blanks.

Filling in those blanks proved easy for me. Our family moved several times during my adolescence and I was intimately familiar with highways and horizons. Once, in a grand but ultimately disastrous adventure, my dad moved us cross-country from Colorado to California, then to Alaska, and then back to Colorado. And we drove all the way. The Alaska Highway has been burned into my brain, along with memories of crossing Utah, Nevada and the vast northern expanses of the Yukon Territory — when gasoline was sold in imperial gallons and we picked up a hitchhiker who, we later found out, was an escaped murderer being pursued by the RCMP.

Maybe this why when I headed out on my own and moved to Wyoming and, later, Arizona, I found myself looking forward to the long, lonely drives. In an odd way, I find myself enjoying the start of the trip and the midpoint more than the arrival. In fact, the arrival usually is a let-down. “Two-Lane Blacktop” has no let-down; its characters never reach their destinations and are still traveling when the movie ends.

Director Monte Hellman hadn’t made a movie like much of the others out there at the time. I had managed to sneak into R-rated “Dirty Harry” at the Paramount Theater in downtown Denver and really appreciated what I perceived to be its sophisticated storytelling techniques. However, that Don Siegel film seemed hopelessly mainstream compared to “Two-Lane Blacktop,” which frequently has been described as nothing less than existential.

I missed out on Anchor Bay’s limited release of the film about 10 years ago, so the next time I saw “Two-Lane Blacktop” was last year, when it was available for something like six months as part of Comcast’s free on-demand movie service. Although I must have watched it a dozen times and enjoyed it, there was still something missing, mostly because this anamorphic widescreen movie had been converted to the dreaded “full screen” pan-and-scan format.

Thankfully, the film is now available in its original format on a new Criterion Collection release. Take a look at the frame grab I’ve placed here. It shows Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, James Taylor and Dennis Wilson at a small-town gas station where the decision is made to race all the way to Washington, D.C., for pink slips. Just imagine cropping that image to 1.8 times its width; Hellman’s thoughtful widescreen composition demands letterboxing at its native 2.39:1 ratio.

The supplemental material on Criterion’s two-disc set provides additional insight into the making of “Two-Lane Blacktop” and its creators’ mindset. In one segment, Hellman’s daughter drives the director and several of his film students from Los Angeles out to one of the remote, high-desert locations used in the film. In another, Hellman interviews James Taylor, who has apparently never watched the film he starred in almost 38 years ago.

There’s no musical soundtrack to “Two-Lane Blacktop” in the usual sense; music in the movie is heard in the background from radios. That’s why the best interview by far is with Kris Kristofferson, whose “Me and Bobby McGee” sets the tone for the film. Kristofferson’s original version of his song plays in the background as James Taylor challenges Warren Oates to the cross-country race. The result is a haunting, almost melancholy yearning for the open road.

Interestingly enough, when I bought this Criterion version from Amazon, I was prompted to buy it as a package deal with “Vanishing Point” and “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry,” two other car chase films of the 1970s. Both are entertaining, but fall far short of reaching the classic level of “Two-Lane Blacktop.”