For reasons not fully understood, even to me, I have taken on a very special project called Peter Choyce. I first became aware of Peter during his days as a college-radio disc jockey for WZBC in Boston. Today, he’s a recovering addict living in Knoxville, Tennessee, subsisting on the generosity of the taxpayer and a few dear friends, who like me, see something very special in Peter, and who think the world would be a lesser place without a voice like his. I’ve taken on this project purely for selfish reasons. I get access to Peter’s fantastic archive of radio shows, and I get ground floor access to what might become one of the most amazing come-back stories ever.
My fascination with college radio began, ironically enough, just about the time I left college. The early 1980s saw the beginning of the end for “progressive rock” radio, a time when musically savvy DJs enjoyed some autonomy in the studio. Much of the nascent “New Wave” movement got airplay on these stations, but those that played someone as “radical” as Elvis Costello soon became as rare as hen’s teeth. By the mid-1980s, the commercial radio landscape had devolved into the wasteland of classic rock and top-40 schtick that still festers today.
So, if you loved music, and sought out new music, you sought refuge in college radio. Western Massachusetts, as it happened, provided a fertile music scene thanks to the many colleges up and down the Connecticut River valley, especially from those centered around Amherst-Northampton. When I moved to Boston in 1984, I mistakenly believed things would get even better. College radio in western Massachusetts consisted mainly of relatively low-powered, student-run stations that rarely stuck to any particular format. The kids played what they wanted for the most part in two-to-three-hour blocks. Their inexperience was part of the “charm” of it all, but from this I discovered some amazing music.
The Boston stations, though mostly student run, had much more rigid formats. While the listener might consider them more reliable, these genre-based formats did not provide for a “if you don’t like this song, then just wait a few minutes” listening experience. Like a commercial station, schedules were organized into lengthy blocks of time, and the often-humorless, sometime semi-professional visiting DJs took their music a little too seriously.
The one station that came closest to those free-wheeling broadcasts heard in my stomping grounds was WZBC, the Boston College station. When I finally settled into the Z’s particular groove in the late 80s, the one DJ that rose above all the others was Peter Choyce. Not a student, but a journeyman who spun discs at a variety of local stations, college and commercial, Peter came on air on Fridays during the 10 A.M to 2 P.M slot of ZBC’s “Modern Rock” programming block.
Unlike the students that ZBC mixed into the schedule, Peter knew not only how to assemble a set list, but also how to play to an audience. His mastery of the board, sharp wit, eclectic musical taste, and engaging personality ran circles around most everything beaming from any transmitter. Music selections ran the gamut, from early 60s garage rock, to French yé-yé, to punk and post-punk, to late grunge, and beyond. Within all that, Peter would spin a surprise or two and at least one “challenging” track to test the listeners’ mettle. I never changed the station during even the most annoying songs, because I knew that Peter would right the ship with something catchy.
I have listened to a lot of radio, and for what it’s worth, I believed that Peter’s talents as an on-air radio personality had few equals. Peter had Howard-Stern-like potential, without the need to resort to porn stars and fart jokes.
Adding to Peter’s appeal, he also had a gift for writing. He started one of the first blogs that fearlessly described some of the more outrageous events of his life, splashed across his splendid mess of a website. As a designer, I bristled at the site’s organization and layout, but like a bloody, cataclysmic car-wreck, I couldn’t stop looking at it. The site was unabashedly narcissistic, but because of his outsized personality, thoroughly entertaining.
Then Peter moved away. I know now that Peter had already bounced around once or twice, but in the early 90s, he made his first trips out to California, returning to Boston periodically. However, in that decade, I also moved away from Boston out of the reach of WZBC’s feeble transmitter. Reliable radio streams remained a good five years away, so I endured this dark period of radio with Worcester’s joke of a college station, WCHC, and tapes I replayed of programs I caught during off hours from a few other area stations.
By the time that just about every college station started streaming, Peter had decamped to California for good, taking up at Los Angeles’s ZBC equivalent, KXLU, and taking on acting work assigned by Central Casting in Hollywood. If you look closely, you’ll see Peter pop up on such shows as “Deadwood”, “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, and “Law and Order.”
Unfortunately, Peter’s situation began to deteriorate after developing a drug habit and then getting fired from his slot on the radio station. He also lost his eponymous internet domain, so his blog, which he allowed to wither, eventually vanished. He appeared a few more times on WZBC in the summer of 2013 during a return trip to the area. It was then that I finally met Peter at a diner in Philadelphia while he was in town to attend his mother’s funeral. Though never a drug addict myself, I’ve met people who fried their brains from this abuse. I could tell he was “off” somehow, like he was only half-present. Nevertheless, I felt honored to finally meet one of my radio heroes and exchange some stories with him.
During the lunch, he revealed much to my delight that he had hundreds of tapes of his old shows. I immediately offered to digitize that archive, but for whatever reason at the time, probably a lack of trust in some nutty fan, he shrugged it off. I merely wanted to hear the shows again, and while I did that, I could digitize them as well.
In the meantime, I rediscovered yet another ZBC DJ that still had a show on the station, James Krause and who also knew Peter very well. I often sent messages via AIM to him during his show, and I mentioned that I just had lunch with Peter.
I asked, though, whether or not Peter “was okay.”
James replied, “He’s a meth addict.”
About a year later, Peter abandonded L.A., trekking back to the East Coast and attempting to settle in Asheville, North Carolina, a very liberal enclave in a very conservative region. His Facebook posts indicated that he was clean, and that he was looking forward to his new sobriety. Despite this, wherever Peter went, drama seemed to follow. I watched from afar and read his entertaining accounts of the injustices inflicted upon him, all-the-while hoping that he would settle into some sort of normalcy.
In the summer of 2014, I reiterated my offer to digitize his show archive, and for whatever reason this time, he enthusiastically jumped on it, sending me a box of 25 tapes. When we met again in Philadelphia in late autumn, he brought along another 50 tapes. Today, you’ll find most of those archived here.
Still, Peter’s trip was hardly uneventful. On his trip north, Peter fell off the grid. His sister frantically posted on his Facebook feed, asking if anyone had heard from him. He eventually popped up again, arriving in Philadelphia. I again offered to buy him lunch at the same diner as before. There he described his ordeal in very dramatic fashion. According to Peter, the Washington D.C. police detained and incarcerated him overnight because, as he explained, he made the mistake of stopping to empty his trash in the parking lot of a McDonald’s known as a drug dealer way station. It didn’t help his case that he drove up in his un-registered “art car” festooned with slogans about the coming “revolution.”
At the time of our second meeting, besides digitizing his tapes, I also offered to set up a new blog for him. Despite his obvious addiction issues, I saw and continue to see, the potential for a Robert-Downey-style resurrection. Beside the tapes and the blog, I envisioned setting up a net-casting studio where he could once again get behind a microphone, this time free of the restrictions an employer would impose. Given the state of the radio industry, the last thing Peter needed was a job at a radio station, college, community, or commercial. His talent combined with is obvious persistence and abundance of opinions would make him a natural, making him a good bet to become a rising internet star.
The fact that he had no other job and received government assistance only made it better. He had nothing but time on his hands. He simply needed to get his act together and apply himself. Follow his progress for yourself here.
Yes. I know. I have this attachment to lost causes, underdogs, and the under-appreciated — people brimming with potential who just need a lucky break and a little support. Given my own history, I should know better, but lucky breaks do happen (mostly to other people). I could do a lot worse than managing the likes of someone like Peter Choyce for the remainder of my career. Few things bother me more than seeing talent go to waste, and we all need a project, don’t we?
I’m removed enough from Peter’s vortex to protect myself and my family. It takes little of my time to work on this project. And, who knows? If he does hit it big, I’ll only have to worry about him not become another “Lonesome” Rhodes.