Back in the 1960s, freeform FM radio helped the alternative music of the day receive exposure. DJs would play whatever songs they felt like and audiences loved it.
The corporatization of radio in the '70s and '80s killed off freeform FM radio and the result, some say, has been cookie-cutter, bland music being rewarded with airplay.
But Indianapolis has one lone outpost of freeform radio, in the form of The Free Zone, a program aired from midnight to 3 a.m. each Friday on WICR-FM (88.7), the radio station of the University of Indianapolis.
While The Free Zone was founded 11 years ago, it recently came back on the air after a hiatus of two and a half years. One of the show's founders, Tim Ditchley, and a longtime contributor to the program, musician/promoter Matt Chandler, serve as hosts.
They play the most eclectic music possible on their show. On any given night, a listener might hear a classic tune from the Clash, something from Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, a cut from local hardcore band Majhas and 'War Pigs' from Black Sabbath.
'We pack up a milk crate with vinyl, cassettes, CDs, whatever, and haul 'em into the studio and play 'em,' Ditchley said. 'We have no real restrictions on what we can or will play.'
'I'll stand in front of my music collection, and whatever I've been listening to that week, I'll put it in a crate and take it down there. But it can change once we start the show,' Chandler said. 'We'll riff off what each other has been playing. Tim has always been a good sounding board and has always given me good advice.'
The show has a rich history. Back in the early '90s, The Free Zone was a wild combination of grunge and avant-garde music. A spinoff show that featured live bands in the studio caused a scandal when the noise disturbed the University of Indianapolis' president, who lived near the studio.
The show, along with Butler University's late-night rock show, became a cult favorite among fans of independent music.
'When I was 19 or so, a friend of mine told me to check out this radio show that played Zappa and Black Flag,' Chandler said. 'I was like, no way, I live in Indianapolis. I started listening to it and it blew my mind.'
Eventually, Chandler and his friends started hanging out at the studio on Saturday nights, when the show formerly aired. 'I was stuck doing it every week by myself. I think I did it for a year solid without any help, any backup. And then Matt and his friends started hanging around so I could take a week off,' Ditchley said.
'It's funny how 11 years later, the show is still fresh,' he added. 'I think we're the only ones in town doing what we do.'
'Bringing listeners to the show doesn't bring some sort of financial gain to us,' Chandler said, 'but I remember how excited I was to find this show. And I want to give everybody that opportunity to get excited about music. We're just two really big music fans who would sit around and play records for each other for three hours whether anyone was listening or not. But the fact that the show exists and you can get it throughout Central Indiana is exciting.'
And while the freeform nature of the show hasn't changed, the two are also focusing on helping out the local music scene as well.
'When the opportunity arose to come back on Friday nights, with all of the big shows that started to come to Indy, and with the clubs being supportive of independent music, I saw it as a priority to provide the radio support for these independent touring bands,' Chandler said. 'For the local bands, there really is no opportunity to get airplay in town.'
'We're doing commercial-free radio,' Ditchley said. 'We're not asking you to listen to our advertisements. We're asking you to go out and support the local music scene. If you sit at home and whine about the music scene and don't support it, it's going to go away again.
'There's some really amazing stuff going on in this state, and with the touring bands playing,' Ditchley said. 'But we still bring a lot of the old stuff and obscure stuff.'
'Last week, we brought a lot of acidly political songs,' Chandler said. 'And next week will be something else. I mean, we're the ones who have to be up from midnight to 3, so we have to like it, that's the rule. We are definitely fueled by the energy drinks. We should get some kind of endorsement from Red Bull.'
The two see the local scene as thriving for the first time in years, providing them prime opportunity to do what they do.
'From the time I started doing radio in '91, I was digging on the local scene,' Ditchley said. 'Around '95, the clubs all changed, it sort of just lost steam. My favorite bands broke up or moved to Chicago or went away. For several years, it was dry to me. The kids were still doing some shows. But now the scene is busting out again. We've got all this local music again and there's no outlet for it.'
To that end, they've been working with local show promoters, of which Chandler himself is one, and with local record labels to provide the much-needed exposure.
'We played Pop Lolita the other night,' Chandler said. 'The Mudkids, Russell, we always play his stuff. We played a couple cuts from the Even Homer Nods album. But we've only been back a couple of months. And I don't think people in bands understand that if they send us stuff, we'll play it.'
'I keep going back to the old stuff,' Ditchley said. 'Toxic Reasons. The United States Three. The Datura Seeds. Great Indiana music.' Ditchley also hosts a Saturday night Grateful Dead-themed show and is trying to incorporate like-minded local bands into The Free Zone. 'But the hippies can't take the punk rock,' he said, laughing. 'And the punk rockers can't take the hippie music.'
Local music stores have provided some low-key underwriting for the show. 'Anything new that we want to play, we have to buy,' Chandler said. 'The major labels and the bigger independent labels haven't been supportive. They're not as willing to say, 'Hey, here's this three-hour show in Indianapolis, let's send them one of everything we issue.' We're pretty much left to our own devices.'
Eventually, Chandler would like to see a local club hold a Free Zone night featuring local artists played on the show. 'I'd like to do interviews with national touring bands and local bands. We're still getting the ball rolling on that.'
They have ambitious plans, but what they want most of all is input from listeners. 'Call us up and tell me, 'Man, there's this new band I want you to hear,'' Ditchley said.
It's obvious from listening to them that they have a blast. And they realize just how fortunate they are. 'When you have one corporation owning two-thirds of the radio stations, how many people in this country are fortunate to be able to go in the studio for three hours and do whatever they want?'
'What he's saying is that we're two egomaniacs given free rein on the radio every Friday night,' Ditchley said.
'So cope and adjust or don't,' Chandler said.