Left Field

Sputnik, The Busch Beat, The Bush Beat, KIND Radio

Two years ago a couple of ballsy young marketers published Street Trends: How Today’s Alternative Youth Cultures Are Creating Tomorrow’s Mainstream Markets. As founders of a market research firm called Sputnik, authors Joanne De Luca and Janine Lopiano-Misdom gathered interviews with supposedly avant-garde young people from around the country, in order to explain and dissect “street trends” for the benefit of the less-than-hip.

Their book divided the newest generation of shoppers into a variety of “microcultures” with names like the “Soldiers for Culture.” Despite their different drug habits, tastes in music, and so forth, members of the various microcultures are all generally upbeat, and all of them seem to devote all their time to cultural and recreational pursuits. They have no solid politics or beliefs, because they’re too busy surfing the web and flipping through ‘zines, searching for “newfound ideologies and perceptions.”

The text of Street Trends is in places so ridiculous that the reader starts to hope that the whole thing was actually an enormous hoax foisted on large corporations. (Sputnik’s clients included Reebok, Pepsi, Levi-Strauss, and the N.F.L.) But Left Field managed to contact three Austinites who’d been interviewed by the “Claire, twenty-eight, of Austin, Texas” referred to in Street Trends, and confirm that they are real people. Two – Andy Glickman and Drew Davidson – are graduate students in the department of Speech Communication at U.T., while a third, Travis Somerville, is a computer programmer.

Austin was characterized by Street Trends as “perhaps the heartland of the technorganic movement,” though the term technorganic is never defined. “I’d heard there was this girl looking for people to talk about the term ‘technorganic,'” says Davidson, who believes Sputnik came up with the word to describe people who like both computers and Barton Springs. He told Claire he is “looking for fluidity.” “I don’t really remember what I said. I’m just happy that it wasn’t embarrassing.”

Glickman responded to, “Explain the relationship between technology and spirituality that people are talking about,” with some thoughts about interchange between technical and New Age interests. Like Davidson, he heard about the interviews through a friend. “I sort of take the platonic view – I know nothing,” he says. “But people seem to think that I do, partly because I’ve done a lot of research into the Internet, technology, and what that means for society.”

At the time of his interview, Somerville was trying to start a self-sustaining farming community, and is disappointed by the book’s failure to “truly translate” what he had told Claire. “I think they put together the message they wanted.” He would have liked Street Trends to mention Humanure, a treatise on how to successfully and safely compost human waste, which significantly influenced his communitarian plans. Unfortunately, he says, he was never able to realize his vision because of Health Department permit requirements for small parcels of land and other regulations. (“If you get too close to any city then the laws get really poopy,” he says.)

Given that holistic health, the relationship between technology and spirituality, and communal farming don’t seem to have expanded their presence in “mainstream markets” during the two years since Street Trends was published, maybe it’s no surprise that Sputnik seems to have gone the way of the Russian space program. Left Field’s Internet and directory searches turned up only a few old book reviews. This mysterious disappearance is promising: maybe it was a big joke after all.

The Busch Beat

In the summer of 1998, thousands of downtown Austin office workers received a cheerful flyer advising them not to give money to panhandlers. The pamphleteer was the “Downtown Austin Alliance” – the neighborhood association of the city’s downtown real estate barons. The Alliance spends about a third of its million-dollar annual budget (raised by a special “public improvement district” tax on major property holders downtown, and supplemented by city and county funds) on maintaining “security” in downtown Austin. Most of the cash goes to fund the Alliance’s own private militia: the Downtown Rangers, who patrol a 200-block area, thirteen hours a day, six days a week. On a rainy afternoon in January, Left Field accompanied ranger Eric Mercado, twenty-five, on his daily patrol down the mean streets of Austin.

In his blue walking shorts and red windbreaker, the short, stocky Mercado could pass for one of the young valets he nods to as we pass the entrance of a downtown hotel. But Mercado takes the security business seriously. “I’m planning to go federal, hopefully N.S.A. [National Security Agency],” after gaining some experience with the Rangers, he explains. The chief security problems in his current assignment are panhandling, open containers of alcohol, and “camping,” the urban euphemism for what homeless people do at night. Since their inception in 1994, the Rangers have waged low-intensity warfare against Austin’s small but persistent army of transients.

Like many of his fellow Rangers (and, for that matter, most of his homeless adversaries), Mercado has some military training, having served in the National Guard since he was eighteen. After two years as a part-time Ranger, Mercado (who also works forty hours a week at the post office) has learned to spot the tell-tale signs of an enemy encampment. “They’ll usually have cardboard spread out; some of ’em even build little cardboard houses. But sometimes it’s just a depression in the grass,” he says. As we approach a “hot spot” along Waller Creek, Mercado spots a call to arms: two middle-aged men sharing a tallboy of Busch on the concrete embankment. “Hang back here a sec,” he says.

The skirmish is over before it even begins – the Ranger intercepts, retrieves, and relieves the can of its contents, returning the crushed empty to its quietly chagrined former owners. “Did you follow what happened there?” Mercado asks, as we slowly pursue the two army-surplus Americans ambling up the concrete and limestone creek bed. Despite their police radios and sewn-on badges, the Rangers have no more enforcement authority than regular civilians, so they rely on “voluntary compliance” to enforce city ordinances. Of course, such niceties can get a little hazy out on the front lines. “Usually I just dump it out for them,” Mercado says.

Back at headquarters, Ranger commander Dane Sullivan explains the strategic importance of the Waller Creek area. “That’s an important sector, because they’re planning on developing along there and this is the sort of thing you have to clean up before you can do that,” he says. A former cadet at the Austin Policy Academy, Sullivan came to the Rangers after a ten-year mission as the manager of a Dunkin’ Donuts in South Austin. He concedes that Austin doesn’t really have a crime problem downtown, at least not compared to other cities of comparable size. But Sullivan subscribes to the hot new “broken windowpane” theory of crime: that tolerating smaller offenses – graffiti or public intoxication and panhandling – leads to larger crimes.

Alliance communications director Anne Gilliam says downtown Austin is one of the safest places she’s ever worked. Nevertheless, when city leaders began their effort to boost tourism and attract businesses downtown in the early nineties, “polling showed that perception of safety was a problem,” Gilliam says. “Safe and clean,” became the mantra of the newly formed Alliance, and soon thereafter the Rangers were born, as “ambassadors of Austin.” Of course, “No city is ever going to be 100 percent safe,” Sullivan points out. But that’s a perception the Rangers are working to change, one tallboy at a time.

The Bush Beat

In his State of the State address last month, Governor Bush once again proved himself a far cry from Daniel Webster in the speechifyin’ department. It does appear that in preparation for greater things, he’s hired himself a high-school drama coach – when he reached for emphasis on such inspirational subjects as property tax cuts and high standards for schoolchildren, the Governor paused, took a deep breath, and SHOUTED into the microphone.

The substance was something else again, and not to be improved by amplification. To take just one example, the evidence Bush cited for his most “scientific” project – phonics – seems as elusive to the Governor as a great speech. Following his pledge to raise teacher salaries, Bush urged his legislative listeners “to fund teacher training so our teachers learn to teach reading with the most up-to-date science: phonics.”

Unfortunately for the Governor-Who-Would-Be-President, he needs to go back to school. Phonics, now a curious right-wing shibboleth, is one of the two major approaches to teaching reading currently used in the U.S. In phonics, reading pupils are taught to sound out words from letters and syllables. The other approach, called “whole language,” teaches students to use context clues to help decode unfamiliar words. Whole language supporters say phonics teaches students to read aloud, but not to comprehend. Phonics proponents blame whole language for low reading scores on standardized tests. The debates over teaching methods have been so long-running and vitriolic they are commonly referred to as The Reading Wars.

In repeatedly siding with phonics, Bush has taken a firm stand on an issue with great resonance for the Christian Right. A bulwark of the phonics movement, for example, is Eagle Forum President Phyllis Schlafly’s 1996 report on reading instruction, which aggressively defends phonics and standardized tests as healthy exercises in Social Darwinism, because “children should learn early that life is competition.”

Closer to home, a 1998 article in Education Week focused on the relation between phonics and the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. The Houston Independent School District has implemented a heavily phonics-oriented curriculum in the last two years, and the district’s T.A.A.S. scores have improved. Yet Education Week found teachers and education researchers who doubt the H.I.S.D. program’s effectiveness. Some expressed concern over the curriculum’s rigidity, and its neglect of individual performance and personality. Others argued that any curriculum improves scores when favored with the money for materials and teacher training that H.I.S.D. is sinking into phonics. Most damning, though, is research showing that phonetically-trained students succeed on the T.A.A.S. – but not on tests that measure students’ reading comprehension, where H.I.S.D. students continue to score below the national average.

In fact, the school district issued its own report, which prescribed “A Balanced Approach to Reading” – that teachers use both phonics and whole language. And that recommendation, not an exclusively phonetic one, is the result of the most recent research, or in the Governor’s phrase, “the most up-to-date science.” As Education Week summarized, “Research strongly indicates that students will be the most successful if a balanced approach is used.”

Bush’s staff is already backpedaling from the Gov’s ringingly one-sided endorsement. Asked to cite the “science” referred to by Bush, his press office referred to a publication by the Texas Education Agency (headed by Bush appointee Mike Moses). The T.E.A. document – surprise! – advocates a balanced approach to reading instruction. Bush’s spokeswoman explained, “When the Governor said phonics, he didn’t really mean phonics. He’s not saying, Use just phonics.” Pardon Left Field for misunderstanding the Gov’s plain text: we just sounded it out, instead of decoding the political context.

Unfortunately for Bush, a “balanced approach” cannot provide a partisan political soundbite on education – nor can it appease the Governor’s right-wing supporters, who remain desperately hooked on phonics.

Interview: Some Dreamers of the San Martian Dream

Strange reports have lately been emanating from the sleepy college town of San Marcos. A medical marijuana initiative almost passed a citywide referendum. Dope-smoking outlaw micro-broadcasters have been conducting live radio interviews with the mayor – from their garage.Left Field followed the smoke signals thirty miles down the highway to their source: Joe Ptak, forty, founder of KIND radio and guru of the tribe known locally as the San Martians. A mid-1980s transplant from Chicago (“I sort of over-extended myself politically,” he says of the move), the tall, lanky Ptak speaks with a manic energy. Since the spring of 1997, KIND has broadcast without a license, using a low-power transmitter from a small studio in Ptak’s garage. The station, which now has over fifty volunteer programmers, has become a national cause célèbre for its resistance to the efforts of the Federal Communications Commission to quash KIND and other microbroadcasters around the country. Although they can’t participate in the ad-driven Arbitron ratings system, the San Martians believe KIND is also the most listened-to station in San Marcos.

Ptak on San Martian Culture and the Time/Space Continuum:

Every Friday the Thirteenth in San Marcos there’s a party out in the hills which has become a ritual ceremony. It’s been going on now for fifteen to twenty years. We also have a “Just for Fun Parade” – where for no reason other than just for fun, in one of the first weeks of April, people get together, dress funny and parade through town. And those are the traditions of San Martians.

At KIND radio we have even taken it a step further, with the manipulation of the calendar. Now this is real interesting here. Europe’s on a twenty-four hour clock, the first minute is 00:01, and the last minute is 23:59. What we’ve done with KIND radio, if you look at our schedule, we’ve thrown all of that out the window. Because, come on, if it’s like twenty minutes after midnight Tuesday: that’s Tuesday night. So what we do, we start our days at six o’clock in the morning, because usually by six in the morning … you’ve done partied Tuesday night out, and you are into Wednesday, okay?

Mondays we don’t really consider a work day – they’re like our recovery of the weekend day. When you wake up Tuesday at 6 a.m., you know you’re going to work, so that’s our first day of the week. So our schedule goes from 6 a.m. Tuesday to 6 a.m. Monday and that’s how we live. Once people grasp it, then it’s amazing. In the realm of KIND radio, we’ve changed the concept of time.

Ptak on Marijuana and The Man:

We had a medical marijuana initiative that helped mobilize people – we got a third of the vote for that. There was an occupation of the Hays County jail in 1993. In 1991, I was one of the San Marcos Seven. We walked into the police station [openly displaying marijuana] one after another for nine days in a row; they only arrested the first seven of us. And that was in the middle of the drug war, I mean there was no hemp movement, no cannabis buyers’ clubs, no nothing.

I felt like I had to take action because the way things were going I was afraid the police were going to be watching me from across the interstate, searching my trash, and raiding the house to arrest me with a joint. Seven years later they did just that [laughs], they did bust me, they did raid me, and I took it to a jury trial and won. I’ve won three jury trials in the last thirteen months: one for the radio station [against the city – Mayor Billy Moore now says the station “cultivates the creative energies and political discussions of our community”], one for marijuana, and one for cocaine they tried to plant on me.

So what we’ve been able to do is establish a community standard for marijuana use. You know, it’s kind of an unwritten rule, but there’
a lot of public marijuana smoking in various bars and the police have realized that their job is to enforce the peace rather than to cause a great deal of stress.

Ptak on People in Motion:

We call what we do here horizontal community organization. Vertical is what’s traditional: you’ll have a non-profit organization, with a staff member, coordinator, board of directors, etc., and when they want to do something a proposal will be brought up, discussed by the committee, and blah, blah, blah. They’ll have this whole structure set up that you got to deal with. We don’t have that. If someone has an idea they want to do something, they say, “Hey, they’re doin’ something down at the river, they’re tearing it up down there, it looks like shit!” Somebody else says there’s nothing we can do, but somebody says let’s go down there and stand out front. So they did that! There was nothing they could do, it was a done deal, but instead of accepting nothing, or waiting for someone to tell them what to do, thirteen to fifteen people went down and stood there every day for a week. And that is an example of horizontal organizing: no leadership, no structure – no possibility of victory – but it needed to be done. And everyone who was involved felt satisfaction for doing it.

It just goes out of control. It’s a headless monster that’s constantly changing, and it’s beautiful to be a part of that.

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Published at 12:00 am CST