A night in "The Free Zone" 

With your host Tom "Punkshots" May

The Free Zone, a one-man show airing Saturday mornings on UIndy's radio outlet WICR, is truly a one-man job. Host "Punkshots Tom" May interviews guests, spins tunes (mostly punk rock, though it's an eclectic, freeform mix) and does the math to figure out just how many songs can be played in hour.

May also books the show - who else would? - and the night I visited the WICR studios, May also ended up being a chauffeur, driving his guest, Sean Neal of Deacon Sean and the Bar Brawlers fame, back and forth from the station. Neal played a little background guitar and performed original songs to promote his gig at the Melody Inn, which falls on every fifth Friday for Hillbilly Happy Hour.

May started his deejay career after a chance meeting with then-Free Zone deejay Tim Ditchley.

"We met at The Briefs show at the Underground at the Harrison Center and knew right away we'd be friends," May told me. "Tim D. invited me to come to the studio the following Friday. I brought CDs and didn't talk. I've only missed one Friday since then in the last three years."

"It took two or three months before I talked on the air," May admits. But after that silent and somewhat inauspicious start, he slowly became more comfortable around the microphone, and eventually took over hosting duties (somewhat) exclusively.

"Tim D. says it's my show now, but I think of it still as his." Ditchley still stops in almost weekly for his segment, The Red Tape, and to talk about music and current events. The Red Tape series is pre-taped (on a battery operated cassette player), and the night I stopped by, the segment featured coverage of an art opening and an interview with one of the members of the recently defunct band Up! Scumbag (a band that was a fave of Tom's as well).

The rest of the show is live, including a post-Red Tape discussion between May and Ditchley, and a breezy recap of the Massachusetts election, during which the "idiot" was thrown around as many times as the FCC will allow.

During the second hour of the three-hour show, I got to turn the tables on May and interview him on the air. We covered the basics: how he picks his guests (quite pragmatically, either "bands and people that have shows coming up or that I run into"), his philosophy (he tries to create a truly "free zone," letting people talk even if he doesn't "agree with what they are saying - unless it is one of the words you can't say in the radio"). And what are those words you can't say on the radio? "Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep and beep," May says. Yep, I fell for the oldest radio gag since George Carlin's 1972 monologue.

One of the specialty shows that WICR airs on off-hours (on a schedule that also includes the locally-produced bluegrass show Fields of Bluegrass), The Free Zone has changed hands over the years: before Tom and Tim D. were Matt C. and Rob G., who aired a freeform mix that leaned more towards indie rock than punk. It was the show hosted by Matt and Rob that NUVO called "an outpost of freedom on the FM dial," but the same could be said of the current incarnation, which remains one of the few shows on the non-commercial end of the dial playing contemporary music.

The Free Zone takes place in third floor studio on the Southside campus of University of Indianapolis. The building and campus itself are nearly deserted on a Friday at midnight, and studio is surprisingly low-lit and calm, a place where you expect to be hearing smooth jazz instead of the punk rock May spins. And, of course, the daylight hours feature traditional jazz and classical, and NUVO's Chuck Workman has revitalized the smooth jazz format for his weekend shows.

May spends about twelve hours a week putting together the three-hour live show. All for no pay — putting the "free" in The Free Zone.

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