Saturday, August 8, 2020

Dr. Tim and the Subliminal Seductress

Dedicated to Deanna Love Burgess.

In 1971 a pirate radio station called WUCK-FM was broadcasting from the top floor of a three-story Victorian-era house located at 2737 Halifax Avenue South that was rented and inhabited by four young men in their early to mid twenties. The radio station was strung together by a long haired, bearded 24-year-old engineering student who called himself "Doctor" Tim Treeman, with a hand-built makeshift transmitter set up in one of the third floor rooms, a studio in an adjacent room that included a hand-built mixing board, microphone, two turntables and a reel-to-reel tape deck all set up on two old wooden desks, all of this wired to a rooftop antenna that could broadcast from a radius of several blocks to a few miles, depending on conditions. The station broadcast on the 107.3 frequency and didn't interfere with any legitimate radio stations, so it stayed under the radar of the Federal Communications Commission.

Programming was mostly progressive album rock. Everything from Mott the Hoople to Frank Zappa to Quicksilver Messenger Service to the Grateful Dead was played. But program director/operations manager/disc jockey Dr. Tim didn't have any real set limits on music, as he also played obscure pop singles and B sides if he liked them, plus a little jazz and blues. Music was supplied by a local store, Karma-Mantra Records, in exchange for frequent mentions on the air. In addition to music, Dr. Tim would do a little psychedelic poetry, much of it jotted down moments before he read it on the air. There was also editorial content about such things as the Vietnam War (against), pot (for), the draft (against), the brotherhood of man (for), the Establishment press (or "pig press") (against), the Underground press (for), plus public service announcements for such services as the free clinic and suicide prevention hotline. All in all, it was a pretty professional-sounding operation.

"This is WUCK-FM, I'm Dr. Tim and I'm here to play phonograph records," he would say in his deep voice, up close to the microphone, before hitting the start button on an already cued-up record on one of the turntables. When that song played through and ended, he'd go straight to another cued-up record on the other turntable, put a different record on the first one and cue it up, and so forth. At least once every half hour came an announcement that would go something like, "Music on WUCK-FM comes courtesy of Karma-Mantra Records, 1605 Roosevelt Avenue. Karma-Mantra is now your eight-track headquarters with the widest selection of eight-track tapes, plus eight-track car stereos. Get an eight-track stereo for your car. It's what's happening, baby!"

Elsewhere in the house on Halifax Avenue, there was usually a party going on. Dr. Tim and his roommates Barry S. Wilson, Kevin Leer and Eric Carlsberg turned it into quite a psychedelic mansion with colorfully mismatched furniture on the hard-wood floors, colored lighting, posters on the walls and a constant supply of beer and booze, and maybe some decent marijuana and other substances to make guests feel at home. And if somebody brought their own stuff and wanted to share it, that was beautiful, man.

There were other voices heard on WUCK-FM besides Dr. Tim. Barry, Kevin or Eric would often go up there and do a show for a couple hours, or a houseguest who was interested in trying it out, or someone who wanted to say something to the community at large. And then there was a mysterious, sultry female voice who would take over the airwaves from time to time, calling herself Renee the Subliminal Seductress. People within listening range of WUCK-FM wondered who she was, and whether she was affecting their subconscious minds broadcasting subliminal messages. Rumors began to spread that she, in fact, was.

The mysterious Subliminal Seductress was actually Renee Swensen, the 21-year-old youngest daughter of well-known local businessman, Larry Swensen. Renee was blonde, blue-eyed and gorgeous, and in case you didn't notice she was gorgeous, she'd tell you so. She enjoyed a comfortable upper-middle class upbringing in a lake front home, although she was sent to public school. Growing up, she was close to her father and coddled by him when he was home, which usually wasn't often enough with all the business trips, conventions and long meetings he had to attend. Meanwhile, her mother was more aloof, and was the one who kept her in line.

Renee was going to college with the goal of becoming a school guidance counselor, mostly at the behest of her parents. But upon getting there and being away from home for the first time, she felt the need to rebel, at least a little bit. Her new friends in the women's dorm, mostly from well-off families, introduced her to such things as alcohol, cigarettes and parties. She was much enamored with 1920s-era art deco fashion and so she liked to wear twenties-style dresses and smoke using a cigarette holder, fancying herself more as a modern-day flapper than a contemporary hippie. She had helped her father campaign for Richard Nixon in 1968 and continued to share his Republican leanings.

It so happened she and her college girlfriends went to a party at the house on Halifax Avenue, where she met Tim Treeman, and she immediately found him alluring. He was so completely different from the kind of guy her parents envisioned for her. He had long hair, a beard and wore dark glasses. His background was blue collar, his education was from trade schools, and yet he was a deep, intelligent thinker. She listened intently as he spoke on a wide range of subjects while most everyone else there was babbling nonsense. When she saw the radio station he built, she was all the more impressed. She quickly became infatuated with him and she was coming over to see him as often as she could. Tim's roommates started referring to her as his groupie.

It didn't take long, however, for her to win them over. When she saw how little food they actually had in the house, she started bringing some over and making them dinner, and if she spent the night, she'd make breakfast. Soon, she talked the guys into letting her host a fondue party at the house, making her very popular with the crowd that hung out there. She was also rather artistic, and so she brought paints over and started painting colorful flowers, hearts and other designs on the walls, putting her feminine touch in the bachelor pad, and giving everyone something fun to look at when they were using recreational substances.

The "Subliminal Seductress" thing came about the first evening Dr. Tim had Renee in the studio with him as he did his radio program. They talked together while the records played, and when Tim put on the headphones and started speaking on the air, she continued to talk in the background and it was picked up by the microphone. In an attempt to go with the flow, Tim told his listeners, "Renee the Subliminal Seductress is here, sending good vibes into your subconscious mind."

"I'm so sorry," Renee said after Tim removed his headphones, as another record was playing.

"No, that's cool, baby," Tim told her. "It adds to the atmosphere." A bit later, he opened the microphone while a record was playing, and had her say in a soft voice at a distance, "Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex." First at an even pace, then slower, then he told her to pick it up and say it faster and faster with more breath. Then he turned off the microphone and they busted out laughing.

Before long, Renee talked him into letting her do her own radio show. Women disc jockeys were fairly uncommon then, and Dr. Tim thought of it as another "revolutionary" thing for his station to do. He advised her to speak slowly and softly to sound a little less like a bubbly teenybopper, and he let her select the music she wanted to play. Her musical tastes leaned more toward Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins than hard rock. She called herself Renee the Subliminal Seductress on the air but refrained from whispering too many messages during the music because, Tim figured, "it might get us into trouble."

"Subliminal Seductress" was intended as a joke, a social satire on allegations being made at the time that marketers were slyly slipping sex-related subliminal messages into advertising to influence the subconscious minds of unsuspecting consumers. But to some people, just the suggestion of anything subliminal was no joke and from there, things started to snowball.

A few WUCK-FM listeners were claiming the broadcasts were having a strange effect on them, causing everything from weird dreams to desires to do things they wouldn't normally do. A man who was arrested in a home invasion just a few blocks from the house on Halifax Avenue blamed it on subliminal messages being sent over the airwaves by the station. Police, who knew the man, chalked it up to his mental illness and drug use, and being unaware of the existence of WUCK-FM, assumed it was part of his hallucinations as well. But the call-letters did appear in the police report.

Then a letter to the editor appeared in the daily newspaper mentioning the call-letters and expressing outrage that an unlicensed broadcaster somewhere within city limits was corrupting the minds of unsuspecting citizens with "subliminal messaging technique," suggesting it was a communist plot.

As city officials and law enforcement slowly became aware of WUCK-FM, they started monitoring broadcasts. The station did not broadcast on a set schedule, only when Dr. Tim felt like turning on the transmitter, and when it was on, the signal could only be heard in certain parts of town, which somewhat confounded attempts by authorities to investigate. When they were able to pick up the signal, officials listened closely for any potential subliminal messaging, as well as to song lyrics and spoken commentaries on the station for any obscenities or promotion of drug use and other illegal activity, such as draft dodging. Every questionable bit of content was jotted down in a log book, along with the date and time.

A complaint was filed with the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, DC, which promised to investigate. But other priorities for the government agency took precedence over some tiny unlicensed radio station run by a bunch of hippies that wasn't causing interference with other stations. So the police, in conjunction with the city council and mayor's office, decided to take things into their own hands.

On November 16, 1971, under the pretenses of complaints of a noisy party, police raided the house on Halifax Avenue. They arrested everyone they could get their hands on, while many others ran out the back door. They made their way up to the third floor of the house and confiscated the broadcasting equipment, as well as drug paraphernalia and other items found elsewhere in the house as "evidence." TV film crews were there and the raid made the top of the local Action News and Eyewitness News broadcasts.

Tim, Barry, Kevin, Eric and Renee were taken downtown, booked and charged with a number of alleged crimes, including disorderly conduct, conspiracy to provoke unrest, conspiracy to promote unlawful activity, possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia, and "broadcasting obscenities in violation of city code, using subliminal messaging technique."

The raid became an even bigger news story when it came out that the daughter of Larry and Lois Svensen had been among those arrested, and that she was, in fact, "Renee the Subliminal Seductress." People who knew the Svensens shook their heads in pity. "And she seemed like such a nice girl, too," they said.

The raid stirred a tremendous amount of controversy locally and on a national scale, as the story got picked up by the Associated Press, and thus made it into newspapers across the country, and film footage from the local affiliates appeared on the ABC Evening News, and on the NBC newsmagazine program "First Tuesday."

Ultimately, most of the charges were dropped, at least those pertaining to the radio station. Tim Treeman got his equipment back, but by that time he had received a warning letter from the Federal Communications Commission threatening fines if the station returned to the air, not because of the content of broadcasts, but because the agency's investigation found that it was an illegal operation, operating without a license and at higher power than would be allotted for such a station.

By 1972 the house on Halifax Avenue was vacated and the guys all went their own ways. Renee returned to a more "normal" life, graduated from college and became a school guidance counselor, until she realized she could make a lot more money with far less stress as a commercial voice talent. Her experience as a disc jockey at the underground radio station paid off quite comfortably in the end.

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