Kyle Long Advocates On Behalf Of Forgotten Voices

September 19, 2022

Kyle Long – Courtesy of Kyle Long. Used with permission

Last month, I had the distinct pleasure of joining Kyle Long as a guest on “Cultural Manifesto,” on WFYI FM, 90.1. During his hour-long radio show, Long highlights American jazz, soul, and hip-hop, as well as a wide spectrum of global music. Besides exposing his audiences to new sounds, Long also conducts in-depth interviews, often featuring both local and national music figures. With a goal of entertaining his audiences, Long seeks to “use music as a bridge to create cultural understanding.”

“Cultural Manifesto” was awarded best podcast by the Indiana’s Society of Professional Journalists in 2020, and “Echoes of Indiana Avenue,” the other show he produces won an Edward R. Murrow award for best podcast in 2021. Long was a  2018-19 Scholar-in-Residence at IUPUI’s Arts & Humanities Institute.

A longtime fan of Long’s, a respected colleague whom I have always admired, I was flattered when he invited me on his show to talk about my own career as a writer, producer, and television talent.  Also discussed was “Jewel Box Revue 2022,” an IndyFringe show, presented by Magic Thread Cabaret, of which I am managing director. “Jewel Box Revue 2022” was presented during last month’s IndyFringe Theatre Festival at the District Theatre.

Following the interview, I remarked to Long that it would be my privilege to return the favor of providing him a platform to discuss his own work and career in this column. Agreeing to do so, Long, 46, and I recently sat down to chat at Provider, his favorite coffee shop, located at 16th Street and the Monon Trail. Below is an edited transcript of my wide-ranging interview with Long.

Tell me about your background.

L-R Herman “Butch” Slaughter, founder of Words of Wisdom and host of Echoes of Indiana Avenue, Kyle Long, James Davis, lead vocalist of the Vanguards, Herb Miller, founder and owner Lamp Records. Courtesy of Ted Somerville. Used with permission..

My parents split up when I was five, and we moved to Avon in Hendricks County, a suburb of Indy. My dad was not a part of my childhood in any substantial way. I was raised by my mom, Beverly Long, and I had a lot of free time on my hands because she worked. I was not supervised during much of my childhood, and I just had the freedom to explore. Sometimes that got me into trouble, but often, my interests were towards music and the arts. I had a lot of freedom. I dropped out of high school at 16. My mom gave me that freedom. She was incredibly supportive. Some people may not understand her hands-off attitude towards the things I was doing at that time, but she saw that I was not self-destructive and was interested in the arts and music. She gave me the freedom to explore those ideas, so I had a lot of free time. I really did not fit into the social world of suburban Indy and went off into my own world of music and art.

Where did you go to high school?

Avon High School. It was vastly different at that time. This was prior to the current explosion of retail there. It was noticeably quiet out there; the railroad ran through there. There was a little market, and that was it. There was no cultural stimulation, so I just retreated into my own imagination. I got really into music and art, started hanging out at the library. I came downtown to the Central Library whenever possible. That was my university and education. And public radio. As a teenager I discovered public radio and became interested in opera, contemporary classical, blues, and jazz, and it just opened this world of culture that wasn’t accessible to me in the real world, so yes, I never got a GED or went to college, never completed high school, so I went through this period of self-learning as a teenager and am still doing so.

What were some of your favorite programs on WFYI?

I had a little tape recorder, and I would tape segments of programs. They had a series out of Minneapolis called “The Composer’s Voice,” and it was not an ongoing series. It was on a limited run, but they interviewed contemporary living composers like Philip Glass, and hearing Philip Glass as a young person was this consciousness-expanding experience. His music was so otherworldly, nothing like I had ever experienced. So that show was extremely influential. You know when I think about production elements of what I do now, I am looking back to the experiences of listening to the show.  They were interviewing black composers on that show. They were written out of the narrative of classical music that I learned about in school. I did not know there were black composers or women composers, so this was a groundbreaking program for its time. It was in the 90s.

Another show I listened to was a silly show. Do you remember Peter Schickele and Schickele Mix? Peter Schickele was a classically trained musician and a comedian. He created this character P.D.Q. Bach and did these ridiculous lampoons of classical music. He had a smart and interesting show. He would discuss all sorts of music in this very academic way but break it down for casual listeners like me. Listening to his show, I heard the composer Meredith Monk, who became this guiding spirit in my life. I had a chance to interview her recently. Her music was just so beautiful and otherworldly and lifted me out of this reality. I did not want to be in Hendricks County. We lived in this terrible trailer park. It was dreary and a nightmarish place to be, and this music just lifted me out of that. It was a better reality. So yes, “Schickele Mix” and “The Composer’s Voice.” Also, I used to listen to the Metropolitan Opera Broadcast. I was always just glued to NPR.

Who do you consider your most important influences? 

Musically speaking, the Bollywood composer Rahul Dev Burman was a huge influence and inspiration to me when I began my work as a DJ. I used to search for his cassettes at all the South Asian corner stores on Lafayette Road and 38th Street. I was totally mesmerized by his music. Burman had an ability to balance an extraordinary breadth of musical language in his work, blending traditional Indian instrumentation with psychedelic rock, disco, bossa nova, mambo, etc. I wanted to learn how to incorporate that rich palette of sounds into my DJ sets as effortlessly as Burman did in his compositions.

The folk singer and record label owner Barbara Dane has also been a huge influence on my work, and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview her a couple of years ago. Dane has been unapologetic in her advocacy for human rights and social justice – even when it creates controversy. I am particularly inspired by the record label she started in 1969: Paredon Records. Dane used Paredon as a platform to elevate voices that were often excluded from mainstream American media. Paredon issued spoken word recordings by Huey Newton and Che Guevara. Paredon also issued revolutionary protest music from around the United States and the world. Just reading some of the titles of Paredon’s releases is evocative: “Angola: Victory Is Certain,” “Vietnam: Songs of Liberation,” “Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America,” etc.

How did you find your way to WFYI?

L-R Kyle Long & Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds. Courtesy of Sid Johnson.

Fast forward a couple of years. I became a notable figure on the DJ scene, playing nightclubs. NUVO did a profile on me. It was in 2008 that a writer named Michelle Skinner did a nice write-up on me and that led to an opportunity to begin writing for NUVO. I eventually developed a weekly column called “Cultural Manifesto.” It ran for a decade and out of that came the radio show. The editor at the time was Ed Wenck, who had a really illustrious career in Indy. He had a morning radio show for X103 that was an exceedingly popular radio show. He was a very respected figure on radio, and he was listening to these podcasts I was making in a very primitive way on the phone and reading the articles I was writing for NUVO. I was recording interviews on the phone and then editing them. But he heard something in there that he thought was meaningful, and he negotiated a meeting at WFYI and really pressured them into giving me a program, so it was through his intercession that I was able to get my foot into the door.

How long have you done the show?

Seven years.

Where does your content come from?

I am constantly immersing myself in both period research materials and newspapers, magazines. I love collecting old leftist media publications. There were a lot of underground newspapers, like the Fort Wayne Free Press.

What is your purpose?

I feel like my purpose can be best described as covering things that have been excluded from the official narrative of arts and culture in Indiana for foolish reasons. Maybe I am featuring a lesbian band from the 1980s who never had a chance because people thought it was taboo at the time. Or I am writing about Black musicians from the 1800s who, again, were excluded for reasons of race. That is where my time is best invested, and that is what I care about, too. I try to add these stories to the narrative of art in Indiana.

It appears you have a lot of leeway with station management.

Because I get so much positive feedback, they just trust my judgement. Roxanna Caldwell, the station manager, has been an enormous supporter of what I do. And what I do would not be possible without her support and the freedom that she gives me.

Has there been any negative feedback?

If they get any negative feedback about any of the programs I do, they do not tell me, and I do not see it.

Probably because NPR listeners tend to be liberal, right?

Yes, we are shielded. In a bubble.

Having been interviewed by you myself, you make your guests feel like you are deeply interested in their story.

Ideally, whatever interview or program I do, and this is true when I interviewed you, I come from a place of sincere interest and curiosity. We all do interviews as a favor to someone, but we are not really engaged with those subjects. It happens from time to time. But often, I am like super excited to have the opportunity and the privilege of speaking to someone about whatever subject we are speaking about. It is all coming from a sincere curiosity. And that is what I like about your interviews as well, when I read some of the stuff that you do. You ask questions that almost come out of left field that I would not think to ask a person, but you bring your experience. I ask a lot of questions because I try to bring my experience and interest to the work, and that is why it is engaging. I hope people think, “Oh, I wouldn’t have thought to ask this person this such a question.”  It is engaging to learn about these things.

I also observe when listening to your interviews that you make your guest feel safe to open up to you. I felt that way when we chatted on your show.

I have been interviewed myself quite a bit in my life, and sometimes in an interview some people do not have any knowledge of who you are. They do not care, which is even worse. So artists come into a situation expecting the worst. But when they see the person who is speaking to them actually has a real sincere interest and not only knows important details about the work and has made an attempt to understand the purpose and meaning of the work, I also think that is exciting for an artist and that is the loosening up.

So it is important for you to do your homework?

Absolutely. I mean, what is the point of it? I do not want to waste my life in meaningless acts. And I do not want to waste someone’s else time to participate in these acts.  I feel like the consumption is about our understanding of our place in the world and how we relate in it and interconnect with other people and with the modern industrial world and with the natural world. To me, this is all very deep and philosophical. Without this sounding pretentious, this is more than just a guy who put out a record. It is about someone attempting to make sense of a crazy world we are living in. Yes, I am very invested in it and take it extremely seriously.

Sometimes I worry I am getting too deep into the weeds and details. Is the average person going to care?  There is a show on NPR that is very influential to me. It is called “The Splendid Table.” It is a cooking show. I cannot even personally relate to most of it. I am a vegetarian, and on that show, they talk a lot about cooking meat, but the hosts bring so much knowledge and passion into these interviews. They get into some obscure culinary stuff that I have no clue what they are talking about, but I do find myself wanting to understand it.  Their knowledge and excitement are contagious. The knowledge is important, so I stay tuned and check it out. That show gives me a confidence to continue doing what I am doing.

What is Kyle Long’s favorite music?

L-R Jasper “Mississippi” Travis, John Green, & Kyle Long. Courtesy of Daniel Axler. Used with permission.

We all revert back to what we heard when we were young, right?  The music that made an impression on us during our youth as teenagers. My mom used to listen to oldies radio, so I grew up listening to all that classic American and British pop music of the 60s. My mom was a huge Bob Dylan fan, so I am, too. My mom had records by Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, and Thelonious Monk. I will always go back to the classics of 60s American music but beyond that, it changes all the time. I am really interested right now in Malaysian, Singaporean, and Indonesian music from the 60s and 70s, which I find exciting. I am trying to learn about the producers, the song writers, beyond the pop stars of that period of 60s and 70s music in Southeast Asia. There is such incredible music out in the world that there is not enough time to listen to it all. But I am constantly consuming contemporary music from the past and present. I also love listening to contemporary music. That is my favorite.

Is your mom still alive?

No, she passed in 2005.

What would she have thought of your accomplishments?

She would be extremely excited. She loved music. I had not begun any of this in an external way when my mom was still alive. It was something I was internally preparing myself to do but did not know how to get there, you know? When she died in 2005, I had not started DJing. I was working in a grocery store on the third shift when she passed away, but again, she gave me freedom throughout my life to explore whatever interests I had. She gave me freedom to understand the world on my own terms. There is something almost Buddha-esque about her to me now. She never tried to impose her values, her tastes, and her ideas on my sister and me. She led by example. I always saw her treat people with dignity. I always saw her treat people respectfully and fairly, no matter who they were. I never heard her speak ill of people for any reason, even if they were doing something destructive.  I always wanted to be like her. Sadly, my father was in stark contrast to her gentle nature, so I always wanted to embody her gentle spirit and also the openness she had.

Is your father alive?

No, he passed too. My sister Lisa also had a huge influence on me. It was a tragic situation. She was hospitalized at a youthful age with heart failure. My mom and I would take turns staying with her at Methodist Hospital, where my mom died in my sister’s room. She was 58. She had a massive heart attack. And my sister died less than a month later. She was 27. It was a very tragic situation, but it was through that tragedy and the shock of losing the core of my social world, my mom and sister, who were also my friends, that I was forced to expand myself into the creative work I do now. It was either that or go insane with grief or confusion or what to do with myself, so that pushed me.

You know, I do not actually miss them because I feel like I am constantly in dialogue with them regarding my work. My sister was a huge influence on me. When she was a teen, she started a zine which was an underground newspaper in the 1990s, and she and her friend interviewed huge rock stars and were very motivated to do this, and they had this big idea for their little photocopy magazine. They interviewed bands like Oasis, these huge bands. She was a huge influence on me in the way she would conceptualize things and just do them. She was very ambitious. Not what you would expect from a tiny publication.

How do you deal with your celebrity or the attention you receive?

The only time I am at the center of attention is when I am DJing someplace.

You certainly do not fit that mode of a traditional broadcaster.

I am coming into this as a medium to guide people through this sort of ongoing world of music, art, and culture. I am not trained. I got a lot of bad advice when I first started out. Early on it was always someone with an ulterior motive who was trying to negotiate into this space I was in, and they did not think I deserved it. So early on I got some nasty feedback, but I did not care. I grew up listening to punk rock music. The whole core value of punk rock is to be yourself unapologetically, and if it means that you are not professional, and you do not exude that polish that a pop band or that a television broadcast would have, that is fine. You work with what you have. The concept is more important than the packaging. I am so passionate and invested in this music that I advocate for that nothing like that really gets to me.

What is the most important thing that you do?

It is archiving lost music, and that goes back to your comment about establishing trust. The example I always point to is: there was a group in the 70s called Merging Traffic. George Benn co-founded it. He called himself a professional choir boy. He has been a part of the Christ Church Cathedral downtown for decades. They started this experimental jazz fusion group and recorded hours of incredibly beautiful music that they never released. For 50 years this music never became exposed, and this became an obsession of mine. They were reclusive, George and Kenny Simms – the other founder and a brilliant keyboardist. They were very reluctant to discuss this, but I patiently waited, and they agreed to do an interview and gave me a significant amount of their music, which I was able to share for the first time. That is just one example. I have digitized hundreds of tapes, both home recordings and studio recordings that have been lost to time. I have particularly been focusing on Latin American music in Indiana and have found lost sessions by important Latino musicians. That, to me, is going to be my legacy: the archiving.  I recently interviewed Mary Byrne who owned and operated Labrys, a lesbian bar on Michigan Street in the Lockerbie neighborhood. She gave me dozens of tapes of live performances. We are eventually going to do a program sharing all this music. Those are just a few examples.

I also notice in your interviews that your subjects always seem grateful and humbled that you build them up, especially those who are now living in obscurity.

Well, it is exciting to me. I will always remember James Davis who was the lead singer with an Indy group. They were like the Temptations. They were called The Vanguards. They had a top-40 hit and another that scraped the top one hundred. These are very moving and emotional songs. There is a subculture in Los Angeles that has embraced one of their songs, and it has been translated into Spanish and is part of this low rider, Chicano subculture. James Davis had no idea this was going on. That the art he had made 50 years ago had travelled across the globe and found these niches with different audiences in Europe, California, etc. Talking to James, who has been retired from music for 40 years, I learned he was working as a custodian of a church at the time. Documenting his whole life in music for the first time was an extraordinary honor for me and one I will always remember. We captured something especially important through these interviews. I am grateful I was able to be part of it.

How do you enjoy seeing the attention that your subjects receive and the joy they derive from the exposure you give them?

That is the motivation for me, knowing that the work I am doing is going to lead to that outcome.

Being an influencer carries a lot of weight, doesn’t it?

The work that I do has led to real-world outcomes. Like Merging Traffic, the interviews we did lead to one of their pieces being released. There are multiple reissue projects that are in the works right now that are a direct result of interviews, I did with artists who had been forgotten, lost, or never released, so there are real-world outcomes to this that are very significant.

I read a story about an Indianapolis Star writer who in the 50s and 60s was obsessed with the idea of Indy having a zoo, and he would continually editorialize about why Indianapolis needed a zoo. That built momentum for building the zoo when it was in Washington Park on the Eastside in the late sixties. That always stuck with me. If you are an advocate for something in a public forum for long enough, there can be some real manifestation.  I have been harping on these various aspects of Indiana history for so long that I am beginning to see real-world outcomes of this advocacy whether that is me being asked to be a part of a museum exhibit, or some of these reissue projects I am involved in. It is incredible to see an idea you nursed for so long take flower in this real world, and you were not even directly involved in it but just received the message and were moved by it in some way to take action. It is a testament to the power of the media.

What are some “pinch me” moments you have had in your career?

You know I participated in the reissue of a catalogue of recordings released by an Indy recording label called Lamp Records. The Vanguards that I mentioned before were part of it. I was able to be a co-producer of this project. I wrote liner notes for it, and it was issued in this beautiful package with a book, and this was something I had a real curiosity about for a long time. It was conceived as Indiana’s Motown, so to be a part of the legacy of that record label in some ways was…I could not have imagined. But just doing interviews with musicians that I really respect, and them wanting to bring me into their work in some way, is always humbling.

Moving forward, what is the future of “Cultural Manifesto”?

Who knows? I am very realistic about the volatility of media and especially as a freelancer, like you, who have navigated through this volatility for a long time. Something that is immensely popular with the public can just be chopped without notice because a new executive is in place who has some cockamamie vision for the future of the newspaper, radio, or television station, so I just try to do the best show I can with the time I have. I am producing two shows a week now and I put everything into them and just take it week by week. With the limited resources I have as a one-man band, as you saw: I run the board, I edit, and every aspect of the program is crafted by me for better or worse. I am just hopeful that it is appreciated because you have seen it. You have seen people who are legends get pushed out the door without notice.

In the meantime, however, I love radio, and this medium is as good as literature. I think it can be as good as film. It is so often crafted for the lowest common denominator audience. A lot of it is trash we hear, whether it is top-40 radio or right-wing conservative radio, but there is so much life in this medium, and I like that there is such a low barrier for entry. A documentary is so expensive to produce. It requires so many people. I am a one-man band with this radio operation and can keep it going for as long as I want to. You can make radio as great as any other medium, and that is what I am invested in, just making radio with my limited talent and means.

What is your advice to a young person who wants to break into broadcasting?

The media landscape is incredibly crowded today. It is more important than ever to cultivate a unique voice and perspective. Do not be afraid to think differently. Do not be afraid to challenge convention and tradition within your field. It might feel counterintuitive to push against the system you are trying to break into, but in my personal journey, I have created opportunity by challenging the existing practices and methods of conventional music journalism.

Listen to Kyle Long and “Cultural Manifesto” on 90.1 WFYI via stream or on a smart speaker each Wednesday evening at 8 p.m.

 

photo: Josh Humble

About Tom

Journalist, producer, director, Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, arts administrator, TV contributor, actor, model, writer and lyricist, Tom Alvarez has had an extensive career in media and the fine arts and continues to be an enthusiastic and devoted fan of both. His passion and unique background grant him insight, access and perspective to cover, promote and review the arts in Indianapolis, Central Indiana and beyond. Follow him on social media @tomalvarezartswriter and @tomalvarez1.

Alvarez has been writing about theatre, dance, music, cinema and visual arts for 40 years. His work has appeared in the Indianapolis Star, NUVO, Indianapolis Monthly, Arts Indiana, Unite Magazine, Dance Magazine, NOTE Magazine, and Examiner.com, among many other print and online platforms. A former contributor to Across Indiana on WFYI-TV, he currently has a regular performing arts segment on WISH-TV’s Life. Style. Live!

A principal of Klein & Alvarez Productions, LLC, Alvarez co-created “Calder, The Musical” and is the managing director of Magic Thread Cabaret. As an actor-model, he has appeared in numerous TV and print ads and is represented by the Helen Wells Agency and Heyman Talent Artists Agency.

On the Aisle Team

  • Creation, content, and publishing: Tom Alvarez
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  • Graphic design:- Casey Ross
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