Radio, or: stealth fandom through your ears

Cover artwork by España Sheriff

It all started on the radio.

As a kid, my nascent fandom likely began with glimpses of the original series of Star Trek, mere snippets before I was sent to bed with Technicolor visions of spaceships and monsters in my head. Since I grew up in the 1970s and didn’t have access to anything but the whims of a television schedule, SF and fantasy programming was a rare and special thing to be cherished. I would watch the original Battlestar Galactica on French language television because that was all we had.

Canada, especially in the seventies and eighties, was a weird media mix of American television and films alongside government mandated homegrown efforts. On TV, that meant watered down and cheaper versions of American fare. The US had All in the Family and we had the much weaker King of Kensington.

But unlike the States, we still had — and to some extent continue to have — a thriving radio culture. Nothing compared to the extent of the UK’s many public and private radio channels but certainly a locus for culture and performance formed on CBC Radio’s main service, and that’s where I and my family listened to two pillars of Canadian comedy: The Royal Canadian Air Farce and The Frantics.

I’ll be honest, the Air Farce wasn’t much for SF spoofery. They mainly focused on making fun of Canada’s political class, which is the closest thing we have to movie stars in this frozen wasteland. But the Air Farce did become one of my first fandom experiences, even if the “fandom” consisted entirely of my mother, father and sister, and most of the fan meetings were day-long car rides to Saskatchewan to visit both sets of grandparents.

One time the company my dad worked for in Edmonton brought Dave Broadfoot, a member of the troupe, to entertain at a corporate event. He later stopped off at my home and had coffee and apple pie and in a pre-teen stupor I vaguely remember being pulled out of bed to say hello before collapsing into a pajamaed heap once more. Is that my first con experience? I’m saying it is.

The Air Farce also worked as a gateway drug for my true nerdy comedy passion, a group called The Frantics whose show Frantic Times ran right before lunch every Saturday. The team of Rick Green, Dan Redican, Paul Chato and Peter Wildman were much more surreal and influenced by SF weirdness than the Air Farce. While they weren’t often explicitly dealing with SFnal topics, there was a general atmosphere of nerdy mayhem permeating the proceedings that my outcast heart clamored for.

One of the key characters the Frantics created was Mr. Canoehead, a ‘superhero’ who ends up with a canoe welded to his skull due to a freak lightning storm during a camping trip. Since this is radio, the Frantics used his distinct booming voice as a springboard for all sorts of epic nonsense, including battling his nemesis, the Evil Ultramind. I unreservedly loved the combination of utter absurdity and comic-book posturing.

Eventually the Frantics migrated to television with a one season, 13 episode show called Four on the Floor that also featured the exploits of Mr. Canoehead, Ultramind and others with gloriously low-rent special effects. The best effect of all, besides getting a full-sized canoe into and out of interior sets without destroying everything, was the Ultramind’s costume consisting of a skin-tight black outfit, a cape and the equivalent of a TRS-80 Model 1 computer for a head. I’ve never seen anything that magnificently low-rent before or since, including the Astron-6 masterpiece Manborg, which was made for $1,000 in a Winnipeg basement. Google it, you won’t be sorry.

There’s a coda to all this, and it (finally) involves proper SF. Frantic emeritus Rick Green is a huge fan of SF and he became the face of Prisoners of Gravity, a TV Ontario production where he played Commander Rick: a hapless astronaut who whiles away his time on a satellite by conducting interviews with SF creators. The show was made for next to nothing and simply videotaped interviews at conventions and then used clever editing to make it appear as if Rick was interviewing authors, artists and speculative thinkers from space.

For a young man with a keen interest in SF but nothing other than occasional bookstore runs to satiate his unholy hunger for ideas, Prisoners of Gravity was a miracle. Week after week of advice and stories straight from the people who created them, all poured into my eyeballs with loving care. One of the best things about my forays into creation myself with my podcast was interviewing and later meeting up with Mark Askwith, the co-creator and producer of Prisoners of Gravity and telling him in person over a beer how much the show and the comedy that preceded had shaped my life.

Is there an equivalent to the Air Farce, Frantics and Prisoners of Gravity out there now, warping the minds of the next generation of fans and making them look at the world a little differently? I’m far too old to know. But I hope so. This world is coming apart at the seams, and we need people who can laugh at it all and put it back together regardless.

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