The National Cynical Network (NCN) is a long-running, alternate programming media project. It originally consisted of a trio of SF Bay-Area based radio collage artists: Phineas Narco, Ronald Redball and Alexander T. Newport.
NCN seeks to play with music, using sound, and video media samples in the process of media collage or ‘mediage’.
‘Mediage’ is defined as the process of artistically appropriating material from the media, synthesizing it throught the filter of the artists’ own subjective experience of it, and then recasting it back into the media environment.
What is the History and Influences of the Original Members of NCN?
Phineas Narco (aka ‘Phinny’) was born in the 1960’s in the US’ mid-west region, during the very last few weeks in which Baby Boomers were born. He considers himself a ‘Barely Boomer’. Narco spent much of the 1970’s capturing media from TV, movies and radio using tape cassette cassette recorders, making mix tapes as a hobby, and as presents to friends and family. He also enjoyed putting together scale models and puzzles. An older friend, who worked at radio station KEAR at the time, let Narco hang out at the station where he developed an interest in broadcasting.
Phineas toured Europe with a high-school sponsored chorus and band at the age of 14.
In 1982, Phinny was impressed by the maniacally improvised, late-night surreal weirdness of Berkeley, CA radio station KPFA‘s “The Subgenius Show” (aka ‘More Than an Hour Less than a Show’ aka ‘The Puzzling Evidence Show). (recordings of ‘The Show’ from this era is available here. Inspiration was also found in the live sonic wizardry of Negativland‘s late-night sound-collage show “Over the Edge” (OTE), also on KPFA.
Phinny soon after began calling up the two shows to talk and insert audio material into the live on-air mixes, eventually becoming an in-studio guest on several occasions, starting in 1987, creating live sound collage mixes with the show’s hosts and sometimes other guests. He has done at least 2 dozen such shows since that time.
Narco has performed, with most of the members of Negativland as well as TradeMarkG of the Evolution Control Committee, solo artist Wobbly, Otis Fodder of The Bran Flakes, Janor Hypercleats (aka Mr. TV), cartoonist and peformer Hal Robins, UNIVAC, Ivan Stang, and members of Big City Orchestra.
Phineas has also written two books: ‘The Hawk Flew South” (a novel) and ‘Seasons Black and Red’ (a book of poetry) and has written for various zines during the eighties, including Trevor Blake’s OVO and Boiled Angel edited by underground cartoonist Mike Diana.
Phinny has been a (double!) card-carrying member of the Church of the Subgenius since the early 1990’s, and was an attendee of the original Subgenius X-Day celebration on July 5th, 1998 in Brushwood, NY, as well as the 1998 Burning Man Festival. Around this time too, he had a running correspondence with the iconic comedian and actor George Carlin, who expressed tremendous enthusiasm for Narco’s work and the social commentary therein. Phineas never got to meet Carlin in person, but credits Carlin’s endorsement with giving him the confidence to launch his artistic career.
Mainstream influences for Phinny include the progressive rock groups Pink Floyd, Genesis, various New Wave bands such as Oingo Boingo and Devo as well as the solo work of Roger Waters, the music of Trent Reznor, and the work of the late Frank Zappa.
Ronald Redball, was also born in the U.S. mid-west at the end of the 1960’s. Artists who influenced Ronald include most notably radio personality Phil Hendrie. Redball built the legendary ‘Shoebox Tapes Site’ which featured many theretofore lost early Phil Hendrie Showrecordings, given to him by Alexander T. Newport. Many of the Shoebox Tapes are now available on Hendrie’s official site.
Redball was influenced, and emulated, the stylings of comedy groups such as The Jerky Boys, as well as The Firesign Theater and was an avid follower of the TV shows The Simpsons, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and The Prisoner. His favorite musician is Philip Glass.
The so-called ‘man-of-a-thousand-voices’, Redball wrote and performed the NCN piece ‘PepRidge Farm Commercial’ and completely improvised the ‘Tasteless Star Trek’ segments which Phineas post-produced. (All of the above-mentioned tracks can be found on the NCN online album release: “Straight Outta Klonopin”).
Redball has done over forty “Over the Edge” shows, with Al Newport guesting on many of the overall shows, and Phinny on some of them.
Redball effectively dropped out of ‘NCN’ in 2003, current whereabouts unknown.
Alexander T. Newport (aka Mr. 1:15) contributed writing, philosophical support, and much voice talent to early work of NCN. He is now a writer living happily in the UK with his wife and several pets. Newport spent decades authoring three books of self-termed “philo-babble”: including the underground cult-classic The Vomit Factory (Life is Fake: Death is Good). The tome is partly autobiographical but also outlines his personal dreamgame theory. Newport has further explored the ramifications of his dreamgame theory in the two (unavailable) sequels to The Vomit Factory titled, ‘Ice Cream and Poop (Making the Best of a Stupid Existence)’, and ‘The Steering Wheel Ain’t Connected to the Wheels (It’s Just for Show)’.
Newport has since disowned and renounced all 3 books saying he has grown beyond the points of view expressed therein.
He currently is an eloquent adherent to the teachings and philosophy of new-age ‘guru’ Abraham-Hicks.
WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF ‘NCN’ AS A GROUP? WHAT HAS IT DONE?
In 1987, Newport and Redball did a number of shows guesting on Negativland’s radio show “Over the Edge” (including one called ‘The National Cynical Network’ a show that featured Redball and Newport, and a name created by Ronald. The duo met Phineas Narco through their involvement with the Over the Edge radio show. Newport and Redball introduced Narco to the voicemail community scene which was the subject of the later-to-be-made NCN series ‘Midnight Voicejail’ (more on this in a little bit).
The voicemail community that Narco and Redball were a part of was sparked by a personal ad in the San Jose Metro, put there by a character named Ed Note. The ad invited Silicon Valley ‘freaks’ to call a free voicemail box number sardonically titled ‘The World Suicide Club’. The recordings of incoming calls (to Note’s voicemail box) were then cut up and used in collage form as outgoing message material, which greeted new and recurring callers to the advertised number.
This early ‘mediage’-type effort created it’s very own small, divergent, electronic media environment or ‘scene’ from which it also largely drew. ‘the World Suicide Club’ was therefore a kind of feedback loop of creativity creating a clarion call which attracted all manner of artistic and disaffected weirdos who had been largely alienated from the ‘normal’ Silicon Valley yuppified work and social scene which predominated in the area during the 1980’s and 90’s.
“Mr. 1:15” (Newport–the effective protagonist of the later ‘Midnight Voicejail’ series) set up his own Metro-based voicemail box soon after Ed Note’s box became popular, and called it “Club Manic-Depression”. This was soon followed by Ronald Redball’s voicemail box which he called “The Global Maverick Society“.
Many more boxes followed, each being ‘advertised’ on other boxes, and the scene soon grew and migrated to other more robust voicemail box systems which were better equipped to handle the increased traffic load. Voicemail systems of the day were meant basically only to capture messages while people were away from the phone. But the ‘Voicejailers’ (as the box scene participants came to be called) were using them in ways they weren’t designed, pushing the technology to its limits
At its peak, there were at least fifty different mailboxes, all of them interacting with each other, trading and re-broadcasting messages, and presenting creative outgoings for the world to hear. There were also ‘partyline’s (much like modern-day chatrooms) in which people had public and private conversations. The main partylines even used the tagline ‘A place for friends’ which was an almost identical tagline used by myspace well over a decade later.
The number of actual participants in this voicemail community, beyond the box owners, is unknown, but is probably in the hundreds.
So… Okay, but Why Is This Important???
In retrospect, the voicemail box scene, as described above, was a kind of internet before the internet. It utilized the unintended artistic, social-networking, entertainment and yes, even journalistic potential, of voicemailbox systems much in the same way websites do, intentionally, today, many years before they even existed. Voicemail boxes were used as public journals, creative outlets, political soap-boxes, and in general, an alternative media source within the scene.
Effectively it was the dawning of what we know today as the world wide web.
It should be noted that the utilization of these voicemail box capabilities was experimental in nature and not originally intended in their design; rather. These uses imposed, in a creative DIY fashion, by its users who often hacked, squatted, as well as rented the voicemail boxes largely as a reaction to the erosion of physical public space which, through the necessity of invention, created its own space, on the phone lines using what technology was available at the time.
Other parallels between what went on in the voicemail box systems then, and what goes on over the web today included a practice called ‘box bombing’ (similar to DDOS attacks on the web today) in which one would ‘fill up’ a person’s mailbox with a short noise, such as blowing into the receiver, thereby rendering the box ‘full’ and useless until emptied by the owner.
Eventually, even the yuppies started to sit up and take notice of what was going on.
Many of those who looked down on ‘the boxes’ as ‘lame’ and a waste of time, have computers, and blogs, today. Many more had their own collection of tapes from recordings received and sent, as well as the public creative outgoing messages. Obviously, people who left messages realized they were being recorded, and it was widely known that such taped material was being collected, freely circulated, and would someday be used for… ‘something’.
‘Midnight Voicejail’ was created by Phineas Narco and The National Cynical Network in 1999 and ran until 2003 as a weekly feature on KFJC’s radio show “Club Manic-Consciousness”, run by then KFJC DJ (and latter-day voicejailer) Angel D. Monique.
Midnight Voicejail was a series of 50 (mostly) half-hour episodes, which comprised an artistic and psychedelic audio documentary journeying through, focusing on, the happenings of the voicemail box scene using actual recordings from it, and intermittently going on collage-based ‘flights of fancy’ in between message sequences. (A more detailed FAQ of this radio series is to be found here).
What has Happened with NCN Since 2003?
The phrase ‘Needle in the Red’ came out of a studio session (or ‘play tape’) made at KFJC one evening in 2001. In that session, Newport kept pointing out how the needle of the board’s VU meter kept going into the red to an obliviously loud Redball and Phineas. In jovial frustration, the trio suddenly burst into singing ‘The Needle’s in the Red’ sung to the tune of the old folk song “The Farmer in the Dell”.
By 2003, years into the wake of the Silicon Valley dot-com bust, George W. Bush’s presidency, and 9/11, and with the world wide web in full swing, Phinny was weary of working on voicemail material. Disillusioned by incomprehensible KFJC station politics, spooked by seemingly eerily prescient synchronicities in his own sonic creations, devastated by an aborted friendship with comedian George Carlin, tired of dealing with Ronald Redball, and missing his absent best friend Alexander T. Newport who had since moved to the UK, Phineas withdrew to his home studio. There he spent years abstractly exploring, and expressing, personal inner landscapes through the mediage process. He worked obsessively on intricate collages, and expanded the psychedelic ‘flights of fancy’ that peppered the Midnight Voicejail series. The series was called ‘Needle in the Red’.
During this time, Phinny became more and more reclusive and immersed in his work. He kept working on the strange psychedelic audio documentaries, which in retrospect seemed to symbolically document his own inner psychological breakdown. Program titles included: ‘STOP’ ‘Kill Me’ ‘Paranoia’ and the much-praised ‘BODIES’. The voicemail art was now taking a backseat to collage and outright music. In 2006, Phineas started to webcast many of his programs on Plundercast, a service provided by The Sensory Research Network. Phinny has produced over 75 episodes as for ‘Needle in the Red’ as of the summer of 2009.
In the Spring of 2010, Narco produced the mash-up movie Floydatar which premiered in the Second Life Environment and which is now available in its entirety as an NCN thank-you gift for a donation to NCN. Portions of the Floydatar project are in the NCN archives at the NCN Home Site.
What are Some of the Styles, Themes and Techniques that Characterizes NCN?
Many people ask what the ‘style’ of NCN is. While it identifies itself with no particular genre, it shares some identification with the following terms: ‘experimental’, ‘variety’, ‘stream-of-consciousness’, ‘mediage’, ‘found sound’, ‘med-core’, ‘the new blues’, ‘dark psychedelia’, ‘sound collage’, ‘audio collage’ ‘illegal art’, ‘neuro-novelty’, ‘retro-reality radio’, and ‘culture-jamming’.
There are elements of comedy, satire, parody, experimental psychedelia, trance and techno, in the NCN ‘experience’.
Like many Generation X-er’s themselves, the project cynically rejects idealogy and therefore ‘suffers’ (or one might say ‘benefits’) from an inherent and indecisive lack of identity. However it ultimately seeks to come to terms with, and embrace, this identity crisis. To use it, instead of opposing it.
The project’s classic logo is a mix-up of CNN’s logo, symbolically denoting the mix-up approach of the ‘mediage’ process upon mainstream corporate controlled culture as filtered through it’s own unique and richly distorted lens.
Common themes include: cynicism, psychedelic intensity, experimental music, political and pop culture, political caricature, drugs, an obsession with the shows ‘Star Trek-The Next Generation’ and the short-lived comedy series ‘Sledgehammer‘, an identification with ‘nerdculture’, the necessary ‘illusion’ of ‘reality’ in an inescapably subjective world, vulgar humor, “Newportian dreamgame theory”, buddhism and new age ‘self-help’ spirituality, extreme states of mood and consciousness, work, liberalism vs. conservatism, the phrase ‘how dare you,’ the word ‘types’ and the number ’59’.
Material runs the gamut from improvised mixes, produced comedy skits, straight up found sound-collages, political caricatures, abstract sonic expressionism, dada, surrealism, social commentary, voicemail messages, field recordings, naive melodies, ‘psycho-philobabble’ (the expression of an amalgam of various philosophical standpoints) and novelty songs.
All of the above, at any given time, can be lampooned or taken very seriously but…. but….
We of The National Cynical Network do not seek to change minds, as much as to describe the world so many minds have created and how it affect our own world. Our own minds. These programs are presented as rides and as surreal sonic ‘snapshots in time’ of the world as we see it. We seek to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. We recognize that when historians look back to see what a civilization was like, they first look at the art from that period. As artists, we say that it is appropriate to appropriate.We recognize the fundamental truth that to deny media appropriation is to deny art itself. Artists have always copied objects from their their environment in order to reinterpret them in the form of their own subjective experience. As Children of the Media, raised on television and muzak which comes into our eardrums in stores and restaurants and in the radio waves which surround us and penetrate the walls of our home unbidden, we reclaim our birthright to play with the media that so influences our thoughts, our minds, our world. We claim, in short, the right to be artists in the truest sense of the word.
NCN is a long and passionate dance between all the above elements, events, and ideas.