At the start of my second year of blogging, I re-purposed a dormant Twitter account originally intended to tweet out assignments to my students and began putting out links to new posts. One of my first followers was @theuncolafm; I soon learned that Erik Mattox, that account’s proprietor, hosts The UnCola, a weekly radio show dedicated to “forgotten pop from the last 50 years,” Tuesday evenings from 8-10 on Asheville FM, a low-power station in western North Carolina. I became a fan of the show almost immediately, and over roughly the last two-and-a-half years, have enjoyed both listening live via its internet stream and to archived shows on The UnCola blog. (Erik also writes with deep knowledge of and strong affection for 80s tunes at Music In The Key Of E.)
After a while I realized I was curious to learn more about Erik’s show and the station. I recently reached out about getting together over Zoom for an interview (disclaimer: I’m not a journalist, nor have I pretended to be one since my junior year of college). A couple of weeks ago, we talked for more than an hour one evening.
Today and tomorrow, you get to check in on our discussion, which, as they say in the biz, has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
First up: how The UnCola came to be, what goes into putting a show together, and recurring features/special programs.
WH: How did your relationship with Asheville FM and your radio show come about?
EM: I had been away from Asheville for about five-and-a-half years. I was living in New York, working in the film commercial industry. My wife and I moved to Savannah for a short time and we came back here. I’d been approaching radio stations in this area before I left, and I had been doing some podcasting and live deejaying up in New York. When I moved back here, I tried to get in touch with a low power community radio station, and unfortunately they were in the midst of kind of splitting up. Maybe six months later, I was in a record store around the corner from my house and heard someone talk about wanting to start their own radio station. I got back to my house, I looked them up, contacted them, and immediately started joining meetings and helping them build the station, which was only a five-minute walk from my house, behind a coffee house. They had a lot of DJs from the other station, but they were looking for some new folks. I got lucky to be there in the beginning and be in there helping out and getting it started from the ground up.
They asked me what kind of show I wanted to do, and I really was not sure. I didn’t want to limit myself…. I’m going to give a short answer—there really is a long answer! One show that I really, really have enjoyed over the years for a long time is Barry Scott’s The Lost 45s, where basically he plays all the songs that were Top 40 hits that we’ve completely forgotten about. And I thought, why don’t I do the opposite of that, where I play songs people have completely forgotten about that weren’t even in the Top 40. And that way, I opened myself up and could call it a pop show. I wouldn’t limit myself, because pop can include tons of different genres, and so, in thinking of a name, I thought pop, I thought soda, and then immediately thought of Seven-Up, which was not soda, or the UnCola. And that’s where it got started, and it’s allowed me to continue since September 2009.
WH: You had no prior radio experience?
EM: I’ve never had paid radio experience. I did work at a campus radio station when I was a freshman in college, I’ve done some internships at radio stations, and I’ve done some free work for stations. Asheville FM got its start when the 2011 Local Community Radio Act opened up broadband to low power community FMs to apply for a license. It took many years for us to get that, so we started online only. We were able to get on the FM airwaves in 2015. It’s funny because locally, people weren’t taking us seriously, but we were able to reach an international audience almost immediately. People around the world found out about us, and we created fans worldwide before we had notoriety here in town, which was very interesting.
WH: So you have direct contact with listeners on other continents?
EM: Obviously, social media helps with that. One of the things I did was to reach out to artists and have them create bumpers for me. A lot of artists I reached out to are international, and they were like, “You’re playing my music in America? How awesome!” Because with traditional radio…they couldn’t just release a single to radio, or take it to the U.S…that just didn’t happen in 2009. So I was able to have people get interested and spread it that way, too. I wasn’t the only show to do that—there were a lot of shows that did, as well.
WH: Do you have a sense of how wide your listenership is? Is it possible to track that in any way?
EM: We do have access to Arbitron ratings, and there’s another one we have for low power FMs, but we can’t afford the advanced detailed version, so I only know from people who contact me and who I’ve reached out to. We had a big map of the world, and anytime someone has contacted us at the station, we’ve always put a pin in that country. At one point, we had somewhere between seventy and eighty countries pinned on that map. That’s pretty cool for a tiny little station.
WH: From listening to your show, it’s clear that you play an immense range of music and musical styles. Have your interests always been so wide?
EM: (Pauses.) Yes. Always. I grew up in New York, so right there you have every musical style at your fingertips. I grew up playing the viola, so I had classical music. My parents always had music playing, whether radio or records, and, growing up in the 70s, the variety was already there for you to sample. And even more so in the 80s, when there was a visual was added to it. Just the genre new wave is diverse enough. There was a station called WLIR, which was on Long Island, that was infamous mostly for playing new wave, but they broke everybody that was popular in the 80s. Madonna wasn’t new wave, but they had no problem playing her. They had no problem playing Wham! They had no problem playing Pete Townshend’s singles. There were so far ahead of everybody else—they would go over to England, buy records, and then play them on the air when you couldn’t find it anyplace. What they did in the 80s inspired me, because that’s what I want to do—I want to find music that people don’t know about and expose them to it.
WH: How big is your record/tape/CD/file collection?
EM: (Laughs.) I started out as a tape collector. I eventually got rid of all my cassette tapes, except for the mix tapes I’ve made. Vinyl—I’ve cataloged everything on Discogs, just in case of an emergency—I have approaching on 8000 albums. Digitally? Oh my god; I’m somewhere between 9 and 10 terrabytes of music backed up now. Part of that is I’m keeping more and more stuff either in FLAC or WAV format, so they’re bigger files. I do that partly for myself, because I’m getting older and for my hearing, but also for my kids, who one day will be interested, and I can go, “Here you go—here’s your library. Start listening.”
WH: I was looking at the early entries on your show’s website/blog and noticed that a number of the recurring features you do now, such as the XTC Song of the Week, were there from almost the very beginning. Do you have a favorite feature, either one that you still do, or maybe one you’ve discontinued?
EM: There are two. The first one would be The WestCoast Breeze. I started that because in 2009 there wasn’t this moniker ‘Yacht Rock’ for 70s and 80s soft rock yet. I kept discovering one band after another that I’d never heard before and I was, I’ve just got to get this out to folks. So many international bands were trying to get that LA sound. I began by doing that once a week, and I would do an annual full show. I even spun it off into a second show on Asheville FM for almost four years, to fill in a space on the schedule.
The other is one I did last year for about three months. De La Soul’s second album, De La Soul Is Dead, is unstreamable because of all the samples. I wanted to do a show where I played all of the songs they sampled from start to finish but that would have taken six or seven hours. So instead, every week I would pick one song, play five songs sampled in it, and then I’d play the song itself. That was fun to do.
WH: Are there features that you’ve stopped doing that you might bring back someday?
EM: I think I keep revisiting a lot of the same features. I’m always trying to figure out whether there’s something I should add. My show sometimes might not have any features, or they might have a few of them. Some of them are just excuses to go, “Oh, I’m going to play a disco song now,”, so I can have something to introduce it by, so it’s not too jarring. I will say this, though: it’s a mixed blessing that I’ve been able to be on the air for this amount of time where some of my musical heroes have passed away. Being able to honor them musically with a tribute show has been really cool. I try to do it in a nontraditional way where I don’t go, “Here are the hits.” I try to really dig to find some obscure stuff that they were a part of. It’s part of life that these folks are gonna pass away, like in 2016 when we had Bowie, Prince, Tom Petty, and Walter Becker, and George Michael. It was too much! But I’m honored that I have this privilege to do that and share that with folks.
WH: I fear your opportunities to do that are going to only increase.
EM: I’m also trying to jump ahead of it, too. I thought to myself, I don’t want to put together an Elton John show one day…I want to do an Elton John show while Elton John is alive—it’d be so completely different. So last year I did.
WH: Tribute shows are one kind of special show that you do. Are there other special shows that you particularly like to do?
EM: I love when I am digging into just one decade. Especially the 80s, the 70s, too. Because then when I’m going to do that show, I really, really take a lot of time to find artists that I’ve never played before. And songs that I’ve never played before. I keep track of all of that because I’m kind of a stats nerd, which I’m sure you can appreciate…
WH: Uh, just a bit…
EM: So I keep track of who I play, and sometimes I’m surprised, I’m like, “I haven’t played this artist in ten years on my show? I have no idea why.” That’s fun for me to do. But I struggle with 90s shows for some reason. 90s is a hard thing for me to pull together. I think I spent most of that decade really looking backwards. I don’t know what it is about it.
WH: Looking back over the eleven-plus years you’ve been doing this, can you see an evolution from your earlier shows to what you’re doing now? Can you articulate any aspects of that evolution?
EM: Doing the show by myself, I’m my own producer, so I have to be better technically, and I think I can get in and out quicker. I’m not the kind that tries to hit the post. I think that I am better about using my words when I need to, and at having the songs fit together better, rather than be so random. I try to find themes sometimes, even small themes within my sets. And I think I’m better at doing that, so that it’s not just a jarring, all-over-the-place mess. I am a lot more cohesive with my song selections. On the other hand, I can’t believe that my voice doesn’t sound better…my voice still sounds the same, I still stammer, I still slur, talk too fast, but sometimes I just get excited about talking about stuff.
WH: How do you go about preparing for one of your standard shows? You just touched on this a little bit, but how do you pay attention to the sequencing?
EM: I have big databases of songs, separated by decade. I take a look and say, “OK, I need some more from the 90s, I need some more from the 2000s, or the 70s…” I go look in a million different places. I’ve been recently looking at old Billboard magazines and at old Record World magazines. I’m amazed at the stuff I’ve found in there. YouTube has been—it’s amazing how that has become a very big reference for me. I find a lot of really hard-to-find music there. It used to be very easy—people would just post music on blogs. MySpace was a great place to find music—people would do tribute sites to obscure bands and put stuff on there. Do you remember iMeem? It was a free site where you could upload music—I discovered a ton of stuff there. I’m always looking for a new way, a new avenue to find stuff.
If I’m creating a five-song set, I like to do songs from at least four different decades—if I’m lucky, I can get five different decades. I want to make a seamless mix from five different decades, that’s kind of how I’m picking it.
I’ve streamlined when I play newer music. This past year, I’ve been putting it in one five-song block, rather than mixing it throughout. I’m enjoying doing it that way. I don’t know if I’ll continue to do it, but it makes it easier—people can focus on, “This is the new stuff right now.”
If I’m digging for vinyl, I can transfer it digitally. I don’t do that as much anymore, because of the time it takes. There’s still stuff that I can’t find online, but sometimes I figure out that I have it already—I just didn’t realize it!
WH: What’s your greatest recent discovery of “new” old music from the 70s or 80s, that you’ve come across in the last year or so? Something that you didn’t know about previously.
EM: Nothing hits me right off the bat from that era, but I will say that there’s a band called Baby Grand who put out two albums in the late 70s, and I constantly go back to those and listen to them. I’m amazed at not only how well they done, how well they were performed and produced, how complex they are, but that someone was allowed to do this, and put it out. The producer and two of their members became the Hooters and did something completely different. I love finding albums like that, that are just like, there was no chance in hell it was ever going to be popular when it came out. It’s obvious it was done because someone just really appreciated the artistic vision of these musicians and were hoping to expand the genre. It’s cool when you discover stuff like that, and so I keep going back to them.
WH: I’ve been digging through old Stereo Review magazines, and I recently came across one that had a review of one of Baby Grand’s albums, I think from ‘77. (Ed: It was the May 1978 issue.)
EM: That was their debut.
Tomorrow: Bumpers, bumper stickers, and Asheville FM’s role in the community.