Ken Katkin has built several careers out of his love for adventurous music and freeform radio. Katkin, host of the Saturday afternoon Trash Flow Radio broadcast on listener-supported community station WAIF, has had radio shows in New Jersey, metropolitan New York, Illinois, District of Columbia and now Cincinnati for more than 30 years, always at college or community stations and always at places where he can play only what he likes. He started while a Princeton University student at its station WPRB and, other than getting a stipend at Princeton for working summers, he’s never been paid.
But as an indirect result of his interest in radio, Katkin is also a constitutional law professor at Northern Kentucky University’s Salmon P. Chase College of Law. Further, he’s a supportive family man whose son is active in college radio and whose daughter once baked a Trash Flow cake to show her support.
The 49-year-old Katkin has been at WAIF (88.3 FM) as a volunteer since shortly after he and his family moved to Cincinnati from Washington, D.C. for his professorial job in 2000.
His show is always stimulating and informed, drawing on his deep-catalog record collection. Recently, after playing such songs as Yoko Ono’s “What Did I Do!,” Bikini Kill’s “Double Dare Ya,” Beat Happening’s “Indian Summer” and something from David Allan Coe’s Requiem for a Harlequin album, he did a telephone interview with University of Louisville Associate Professor Diane Pecknold, who was planning to host the 2015 conference of the U.S. chapter of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music. She is its vice president. (It was held last weekend; Katkin traveled — as he often does for live music — to it to see a concert featuring Wussy and former Squirrel Bait member David Grubbs.)
Pecknold talked to Katkin about the guests who would be present, including Ally Jane Grossan, editor of the “33 1/3” series of books spotlighting important popular music albums, like James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Belle & Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister and many more.
“Oh, they need to do The Frogs’ It’s Only Right and Natural,” Katkin interjected, explaining why, more or less, The Frogs had one of the great Indie Rock albums. Pecknold said Katkin should do it, without quite making it clear whether or not The Frogs thrilled her as much as they do Katkin.
And who exactly are The Frogs? Later, during an interview for this story, Katkin explained his affinity for that band, which released several outré albums in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“The Frogs were these two adult brothers from Milwaukee who presented themselves as romantically involved with each other and favoring a doctrine of gay supremacy,” Katkin says. “And they did it with Folk instrumentation heavily influenced by Bowie’s Glam period. That was their sound. They really were brothers — the rest was largely fiction.
“One of them sadly died a couple of years ago,” Katkin says. “He drowned off a boat. He was swimming and may have had a heart attack; he died in his fifties. The other has mostly kept working as a musician. He played in Sebastian Bach’s band for awhile and in a spinoff of Smashing Pumpkins called The Last Hard Men.”
Katkin told all this, in his gregarious and enthusiastically friendly way, while dressed in suit and tie and eating a sushi dinner in the Student Union of Northern Kentucky University. In a short while, he would be teaching a night class in Constitutional Law.
Katkin is as knowledgeable and opinionated about the Constitution as he is about The Frogs. I asked Katkin for his take on the book How Democratic is the American Constitution?
“I think it doesn’t serve us so well now,” Katkin says. “The House was supposed to be accountable to people, but because of gerrymandering and modern technology that makes gerrymandering extraordinarily effective, the people don’t really have a role in choosing who represents them in Congress anymore. Almost every district in the country is not competitive. So that didn’t work out.”
And he continued. “In presidential politics, we didn’t get what (the Founding Fathers) wanted. (Principal Constitution author) James Madison set up a lot of checks and balances, including the idea of an extended republic that he thought was too big for any faction to dominate. But he couldn’t imagine the concentration of wealth and power that is out there now. So I think that’s corrupted that system as well.”
Katkin departed the Student Union — and this conversation — to get to his class on time, where the discussion topic was U.S. Supreme Court decisions on college efforts to increase minority representation in their classes. Standing before his class, frequently smiling while explaining these difficult-to-understand judicial decisions, you’d be hard-pressed to guess this is the same guy enthusing about The Frogs a short while ago.
Or, for that matter, to be found at late-night local concerts by such Indie Rock pioneers as Jon Langford, Jad Fair or Lydia Lunch. Other than his wire-frame glasses and slight beard, he doesn’t look like someone steeped in the roots of an Alternative music culture.
After the class, Katkin got to his home on Cincinnati’s East Side in time to listen via Internet to his son Nathan’s late-night Blues program on Columbia University’s radio station. (A freshman, Nathan is studying classics.) Nathan also has a Saturday afternoon Folk show that competes with Trash Flow Radio, so Katkin’s wife Linda Dynan, herself an Economics professor at NKU, tapes it. The couple’s daughter, Molly, goes to Walnut Hills High School.
“What’s rare about Ken is he has the same level of enthusiasm and obsession as a law professor and parent as he did as an actual college student college-radio DJ,” recalls Jason Cohen, a former Cincinnati Magazine editor who sometimes co-hosted Trash Flow Radio with Katkin before leaving town.
Actually, it isn’t that unusual for a lawyer — even a law professor — to have a keen interest in music. It isn’t even that unusual for a professor at Chase College of Law at NKU to have such seemingly disparate interests. Fellow professor John Valauri is a record collector with a vast knowledge of American Blues and Gospel, Country, Latin and R&B music.
“Shared interests make for good colleagues and good friends, and Ken and I share two deep interests — Constitutional Law and recordings,” Valauri says via email.
“If Ken or I find an exciting record by an artist we never heard of, we want to know things, like what other records has he made, who were his influences, are there other exciting records to be found on this label, etc.,” Valauri added. “That’s how want lists grow. We take a similar approach when we receive a novel or surprising Supreme Court opinion.”
On Trash Flow Radio, Katkin rarely plays obvious cuts or acts, preferring to dig deeper into his vast collection. For his weekly two-hour show, he does 12-15 hours of preparation. He usually brings a crate of far more recordings than he can play and doesn’t weed it out until he’s on the air. He plays older stuff, but not exclusively.
On a recent show, Katkin played something fairly new by British band Sleaford Mods, whose talk-sing approach to their Post Punk Rock reminds Katkin of The Fall’s Mark E. Smith. “I love The Fall,” he says. “Anybody working that terrain is going to get a sympathetic listening from me.”
WAIF doesn’t use Nielsen ratings to measure its terrestrial listenership. But Katkin has some other useful yardsticks for his show.
Trash Flow Radio’s Facebook page has more than 1,100 people liking it. He sells about 50-60 WAIF memberships throughout the year to supportive followers. On his show’s live web stream, about 20-25 people are listening at any one time. And once he archives his shows, they get about 20 downloads per week. Some, like his special programs honoring Alex Chilton, Will Oldham or Lou Reed, are approaching 500 downloads each.
A fair amount of the listeners aren’t even from Cincinnati. They are fans that use the Internet to keep up with someone they’ve listened to for decades.
The son of professors in the State University of New York system, Katkin became interested in both Indie/Alt Rock and freeform and/or college radio growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., especially, and then in the New York City area.
He went to Princeton at age 17 to study mathematics after a fateful early visit as a high-school student. “I went to Princeton Record Exchange, a big independent record store, and managed to score the first Modern Lovers album,” he says. “That was 1982 and it was out of print and hard to find. As a prospective student, I thought, ‘Well, they’ve got a good math department, good radio station and a record store that has the Modern Lovers album.’ ”
By the time he was a junior, he was the university station’s program director. But he didn’t let his studies lag to do so.
“I graduated as a math major and worked as a mathematician for three years on Wall Street,” Katkin says. “It was an actuarial consulting firm — I made insurance rates, basically. They wanted me to do a big cash flow model of the insurance industry and they paid me a chunk of money. I said, ‘I’ll take the money I got from doing the cash flow and I’ll start Trash Flow Records.’ It was a pun.”
As a result of selling his Trash Flow records to a distributor, Dutch East India Trading, Katkin was hired for its own record company, Homestead. He left Wall Street, but not before meeting his future wife, a Columbia University doctoral student in economics who had a part-time job at the firm and liked music. “Our first date, I took her to see The Feelies at Maxwell’s in Hoboken,” Katkin says, laughing. They married in 1992.
After a couple years with Homestead, he left for a rival indie distributor to set up a new label, Safe House, where he released albums by Half Japanese and Cincinnati’s Ass Ponys (1993’s Grim). But he also kept working in radio the whole time, still at Princeton’s WPRB and at another New Jersey station, the trendsetting free-form WFMU.
And that work inspired him to enter law school at Northwestern University. “I thought with radio there would always be interesting problems,” he says. “You’re always up against the FCC and it’s not as much of a ‘What will kids be listening to?’ kind of thing. WFMU at that time was actually having legal problems, and I was feeling like I wish I could help them.”
After Northwestern, where he also was on the college radio station, he clerked for a judge in Denver and then spent three years in the Washington D.C. law firm of a former FCC chairman. He co-hosted a show at University of Maryland’s station that reached into District of Columbia.
Katkin next decided to become a law professor and accepted a position at NKU. “I didn’t know much about Cincinnati, other than my one association with Chuck Cleaver [of Ass Ponys/Wussy],” he says. “It wasn’t really my design to come here, just the way things went.”
But it didn’t take long to find WAIF, which traditionally has been open to its announcers programming their own music shows. WAIF, however, wanted to have names for its programs, so Katkin resurrected the Trash Flow moniker.
Community radio is obviously very important to Katkin. But, at the same time, he’s not sure of its relevance or future in championing Alternative music when anybody can listen to anything from anywhere via YouTube or Internet streaming options. (A community station like WAIF does offer many other types of programs besides Rock-related music.)
“Before the Internet, if you wanted to be a fan of a certain kind of subcultural music, you’d have to rely on knowing a community of fans of that music to get information,” Katkin says. “A community radio station was one place where you could find them. Now people can get information from the Internet without having to interact with anyone, so you don’t gain anything by getting initiated into a community of people who actually know something. Knowledge is better preserved and sifted when actually preserved by communities. I think that’s all falling apart.”
Still, he’s prepared to keep going with his programming — even via podcast, if necessary. “I’d have to at this point,” he says. “I’m in for a penny, in for a pound. And I’ve got all these records.”
Tune in to TRASH FLOW RADIO 3 p.m. Saturdays on 88.3 FM or stream live or download the podcast at waif883.org.