It's The Free Zone's 20th birthday, and its current host, Tom "Punkshots" May, is ready to celebrate.
The three-hour show, heard weekly from midnight to 3 a.m. Saturdays on the University of Indianapolis' WICR, is one of the few remaining freeform programs heard on terrestrial radio. Since its inception in 1990 by Tim Ditchley and Doc Bauman, The Free Zone has existed to spotlight music by local artists and whatever else its hosts may fancy at that particular moment.
To celebrate 20 years, The Free Zone is promoting concerts of varying stripes all year long. The first is May 25 at The Melody Inn. Kurt Baker from The Leftovers heads the bill, which includes locals Frankie Camaro, Destination: Earth and Hero Jr. The next is May 31 at The Sinking Ship and features headliner The Queers with The Involuntarys and Chaotic Neutral.
"We've decided every show we do this year will be The Free Zone's 20th anniversary concert," May said. "Might as well just keep it going all year long."
How May came to carry on the show's tradition can best be described as a happy accident. A longtime concert promoter in the city, he was at a Briefs show about four years ago at The Harrison Center's Underground room when he met Ditchley.
"We just got to talking and hit it off real well for some reason," May said.
Ditchley told him about The Free Zone, which May admitted he had never heard. Ditchley invited him to the studio for the next broadcast. He accepted, and hasn't missed a show since.
"I think I went a year before I ever really spoke on the mic for an extended period of time," said May, who had never done any radio work prior to this. "To be perfectly honest, it still freaks me out a bit."
What attracted May to The Free Zone was Ditchley telling him to bring some of his music collection with him in the initial invitation.
"I was all about, and still am, local music," May said. "I like all kinds of music, but I really like pushing the local bands and finding new ones that are good, trying to get them exposure. You'd have to ask Tim why he kept inviting me back. I think he was just trying to find somebody to take over some of the responsibility. I think he tried a lot of people, and I was the least incompetent person."
The Free Zone has always emphasized local artists, but there hasn't always been enough to fill the time. At one point the show was five hours long, prompting its hosts to devote entire hours to prominent players like The Grateful Dead.
"From one week to the next, we don't guarantee you'll hear a lot of local music, but we do try," May said. "And some weeks we try to do nothing but that for at least an hour."
Staying abreast of local trends isn't always easy. May has always tried to attend as many concerts as he can.
"Facebook is great because there's so much information; you can check out music by every new band," he said. "They're usually quick about getting it out there. But I think the only way to really know (who's good) is to actually see them play live. We do get submissions in the mail, but not as much as I'd like. I just kind of have to go out there and scout them myself."
He also gets lots of recommendations.
"I've booked bands just based on somebody's suggestion before, without ever even actually hearing them," May said. "I try not to do that, but it's something I have done. It's usually worked out pretty good."
His assessment of the current music scene is quite positive, especially compared to his memories of when there were about five popular bands in Indianapolis, and not much else.
"Seems like now there's a hundred new bands every year," May said. "Not all of them become real popular, but it seems like there's always a bunch of good bands coming out. That keeps it exciting, because there's always something new going on and people to be checked out."
He also appreciates those working behind the scenes to foster a vibrant music community here. May has long booked shows at The Melody Inn, which is still his favorite venue. But other venues are coming along, such as The Sinking Ship on North College Avenue, co-owned by Andy Hamaker and Damon Lyden.
"A lot of people talk about opening a bar," May said. "Nine times out of 10 it doesn't happen. But [Lyden] put as much thought as I think anybody could into what they did there. Obviously it's been successful so far."
May asked Lyden and Hamaker to host the Queers show, their first concert at The Sinking Ship.
"Tom's an awesome promoter, so we made it happen. Plus they're one of my favorite bands, so I couldn't say no," Lyden said. "Also, Tom has been so good to us and helped us out so much that it's awesome to help him out."
Best of all, says May, there's no cover charge. Lyden and Hamaker hope to do that with most concerts they host.
"If a band has a $1,000 dollar guarantee, we'll have to charge a cover," Lyden said. "Our hope is that covers will be few and far between. But if I can get some big bands in and charge a minimal cover, then we will."
May has booked concerts through the summer, including a return of London's The Vibrators in September. He sees himself continuing host duties of The Free Zone "until they want to get rid of me. I could see doing it for quite a while. It's too much fun to ever think of giving it up voluntarily."