Wednesday, February 17, 2021

If You Like Rye Whiskey, Thank a Natufian

A rye-lovers dwelling.
If you like rye whiskey, you may owe it all to the Natufians. They were among the first humans to use rye grain. 

The Natufian culture emerged along the eastern Mediterranean coast about 15,000 years ago. They were just starting the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers to farmers by collecting and then cultivating wild cereals, especially rye, which originated in nearby Anatolia. They didn’t have stills (they didn’t have metal), but they did make beer. 

In 2018, the world's oldest brewery was found in a prehistoric cave near Haifa in Israel. The residue in it was 13,000 years old. As their knowledge increased, early brewers learned that barley is better than rye for beer because it dissolves more easily and more readily converts from starch into fermentable sugar. But rye never fell out of use.

Like many rye whiskey lovers the Natufians were semi-sedentary, able to meet their needs without constant nomadic roaming. 

Two lovers expressing rye love.
The Natufians were the last Middle Eastern culture that didn’t have bricks. Their buildings were partially below ground, with dry stone foundations, the upper part of brushwood. Although they stayed in one place for long periods, their settlements were not quite permanent. Much like the pre-Columbian cultures of North America, they most likely exploited their immediate environment to exhaustion, then moved to a similar unspoiled area not far away. 

That pattern of behavior continues to the present day, except now when we exhaust a resource there is nowhere else to go. 

As people of the late stone age, the Natufians reached a high level of sophistication in stone implement manufacture, specializing in small and sharp cutting tools.

They also made stone art. The oldest known depiction of a couple having sex is a small Natufian stone carving found in a cave in the Judean desert. 

Some of the earliest archaeological evidence for the domestication of dogs comes from Natufian sites.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Before 97X, There Was WOXR


I rise today to add a minor footnote to a story that is itself obscure, so be forewarned. Also NO BOURBON CONTENT.

In 1981, Douglas and Linda Balogh, two Cincinnati advertising executives, bought a 3,000 watt FM radio station in Oxford, Ohio, for $375,000. They changed the call letters to WOXY and it became an alt-rock phenomenon branded as “97X,” whose influence far outstripped its humble size and reach. 

In 2004, the Baloghs sold the station and took their format online, which lasted until 2011. If you want to know more about their story, just search “97X WOXY” for a wealth of resources. 97X WOXY is not to be confused with 97X WLXY, a radio station in western Illinois.

I’m here to do a Paul Harvey and tell you the rest of the story.

The station’s original call letters were WOXR and it was licensed to and located in Oxford, Ohio, the home of Miami University, a public university with about 17,000 students. Oxford is the quintessential college town. It is about 50 miles northwest of Cincinnati.

Like many of the earliest FM stations, WOXR was started in 1959 by an electrical engineer. He had another station in Kokomo, Indiana, where he lived. The story was that he had invented some device, which he also manufactured and sold to the Defense Department, and that’s where he made his money. He was an interesting guy, an Indian immigrant, nice enough but a little crooked and he ran the station on a shoestring. On payday, the station's employees raced each other to the bank because there was a good chance the last checks presented would bounce.

Rick Sellers was my friend, teacher, and fellow radio enthusiast. He was a few years older than me, with a master’s degree from Miami. In about 1972, he was hired by WOXR as station manager and ‘morning man.’ Rick is legally blind but had enough vision to get around Oxford on a bicycle. He could read the teletype printouts from which we got our news and weather, though he had to hold the paper directly against his thick glasses and move it from left to right, imitating the motion of the teletype machine. His disability limited him very little.

Another notable Miami Radio & TV classmate and friend from that era was Rick Ludwin, who went on to fame as a television producer and longtime NBC programming executive, generally credited as being the person who got “Seinfeld” on the air.

The two Ricks were leaders of a group of younger radio enthusiasts that included me. When Sellers got the job at WOXR, we were all anxious to join him there. I got my chance part-time late in 1972, then full-time after I graduated in June of 1973. I was Operations Manager and the early evening DJ. Most of the people who worked there were close friends, so we hung out together most of the time when we weren’t working. We used to joke on the air that we all lived together in a big house at the edge of town, which was true metaphorically if not literally.

At the time, the station was on North College Ave., just north of High Street. Not long after I went to work there we moved to High Street, into the center of the ‘uptown’ commercial area just west of the Miami campus, in the lower level of a commercial building that included a Burger Chef fast food restaurant. 

Like everything at the station, the move was done on a tiny budget. We were, apparently, the first tenants in that space as it was entirely undeveloped. I designed the floor plan and we all participated in the construction up to the limits of our specific skills. I could help with most of the construction but not the electronic stuff, although I did successfully solder a patch panel, of which I was proud. The two mixing consoles were homemade, though not by me. 

The station’s programming was eclectic. Prior to Sellers the station, like its sister in Kokomo, tried unsuccessfully to be the typical small town radio station. Sellers convinced the owner that Miami students were an untapped audience, and he found a couple of local businesses who were willing to buy advertising to reach them. I sold advertising too and we eventually hired a fulltime salesperson. The first person to briefly hold that position was Bob Michelson, a Miami grad from New York who went back to Manhattan to manage syndication for the "National Lampoon Radio Hour," a steppingstone for most of the original cast of “Saturday Night Live.”

Naturally, WOXR was one of the first stations to carry the show. We also ran Bob's next project, a serialized radio drama based on the Marvel Comics "Fantastic Four" stories. Bill Murray was the voice of Johnny Storm, 'the Human Torch.'

Sellers’ morning show was on the ‘service’ model; lots of local news, weather, and sports; stories and guests of community interest; a limited amount of mostly top 40 and oldies music; and Rick’s very winning personality. The rest of the daytime programming was similar, becoming a little more progressive rock as the day went on. Although there was a program director and a music director, we had pretty much free reign to program our shows as we saw fit.

I came on in the early evening and transitioned into what was a full-on progressive rock format in the later evening and, eventually, overnight. I sometimes took shit from the daytime people for rocking too hard and from the late-night people for not rocking hard enough. I snuck in classical music, jazz, and novelty records, and read poetry and short essays on the air. Some of it was planned in advance, but most of it was spontaneous.

It was a lot of fun. 

Like the people who came along later with 97X, we played the most progressive music being recorded in the rock genre, much of it music that few other stations were playing. The Cincinnati market progressive rock pioneer was WEBN, an FM station started by a wealthy man who thought Cincinnati needed more classical music on the radio. It failed to catch on, so he let his son and daughter play 'their' music on the station at night. Pretty soon, the progressive rock format was making the whole station a commercial success.

Like 97X, WOXR aspired to be more progressive than WEBN. Also like them, we aspired to penetrate the Cincinnati market even though our signal just barely reached that city’s northern suburbs (unless you had a pricey antenna). One of our proudest moments during my tenure was making the Cincinnati ratings book for the first time, albeit with the lowest number needed to qualify for inclusion.

I left the station in June of 1974. I was 22 and afraid that if I stayed in Oxford much longer, I would never leave. That wouldn’t have been a bad life but, at 22, I wanted to see what else I could do. I continued to be close to Rick Sellers and some of the other people there for another year or two, coming back once or twice for the annual Easter holiday “Roll Away the Rock Weekend,” during which we played oldies and station alums like me came back and pulled on-air shifts. Rick left in 1975, eventually buying and running a station in Iowa. WOXR went back to more of a straight Top-40 format until the Baloghs bought it in 1981. They moved the station again and the old High Street space became a pet shop.

When “WKRP in Cincinnati” went on the air in 1978, we fancied that it was based on our little station. We even had a ‘Jennifer,’ an exceptionally attractive receptionist who was nice enough but romantically out-of-reach for her many admirers. 

I like to think that although I had nothing whatsoever to do with 97X, we helped lay the groundwork. We were popular with many local high school kids, some of whom were still around when 97X came along and who recognized the connection, but most of the people who worked there never knew about us or what we did. That’s okay. For me it was a great experience during my formative years and gave me a lot of confidence going forward. I had a few more radio jobs, then transitioned into advertising. The freedom of the WOXR experience may have made it hard for me to work for anyone else. In 1986, I started to freelance and remained self-employed for the rest of my career. 

Thursday, February 4, 2021

The Medicinal Use and Misuse of Alcohol

During Prohibition, you could buy whiskey legally with a doctor's prescription. Many years ago, I posted the picture above and it prompted a correspondence with a medical student who was also a whiskey fan, who wrote the following on the medical use of alcohol, what we know, and what we don't.

"Up until the 1980s, alcohol was given by I.V. to (of all patients) pregnant women as a "tocolytic," to help relax the uterus and stop contractions during premature labor. It was titrated to the slurred speech of the woman! It is hard to believe that it took until the 1980s for the medical world to realize that it also caused respiratory depression in neonates. 

"I consider this to be one of the more absurd uses of 'medicinal' ethanol use in history, despite the fact that it did in fact relax the uterus. Other uses have certainly been better thought out. The early anesthesiologists gave ethanol (before the advent of ether) to the wounded in the Civil War during emergency surgery. This was probably whiskey and was moderately successful. Ingested alcohol is actually a pretty good anesthetic, the problem being the amounts needed to reach an adequate blood concentration sufficient for surgery tend towards the lethal. 

"Another interesting use of alcohol in the hospital is its administration in the event of a methanol or ethylene glycol (anti-freeze) overdose. Ethanol reverses the toxic effects of those other poisons, preventing blindness, and liver and kidney failure. 

"My understanding is that during Prohibition, when physicians wrote prescriptions for whiskey, these tended to be for other reasons. I'm guessing the practice centered on the idea of whiskey as a 'general tonic,' a 'constitutional' of some sort. Perhaps even an early psychiatric medicine? Which would be interesting because of what we now know about the physiology of alcohol's depressive effects on the central nervous system. 

"What I find so interesting about all this is that humans have known for a long time that alcohol has a medicinal use, but we've often been very mistaken in our understanding of the physiology. This is a fascinating chapter in the history of medicine, not just in the history of whiskey. 

"Numerous papers have been published in journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine about the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. Wine gets all the publicity in the lay press, but every paper unequivocally states that the form of the alcohol one ingests makes no difference. Reductions in heart attacks are well documented, as are reduced rates of strokes, as well as reduced cognitive decline and dementia in the elderly. There has even been some work on the antioxidant effects of spirits, but the funding of these papers renders some of their conclusions questionable. 

"While the scientific understanding of alcohol's effects is expanding, it is still based primarily on outcome studies rather than on biochemical experiments. Animal models are useful only up to a point. Most conclusions thus far about the salubrious effects of alcohol are based on controlled, double-blind randomized population studies. Those conclusions are pretty darn solid, but when it comes to the hypothesized mechanism of actually how alcohol induces its effects, no one really knows, other than to say that there is something 'anti-atherogenic' about alcohol. Which is kind of like defining a horse as a horse. No shit. 

"I wonder what effect the anti-alcohol movement has had historically on developing our scientific knowledge of alcohol. An analogy is the debate about stem-cell research. Politics and moralists have our scientists hog-tied while the rest of the world moves forward with life-saving insights and technologies. The medical understanding of alcohol is one of the many casualties of American theocracy, one of the great ironies in our history."