Geeks tune in to their time
Disenfranchised find home on the airwaves and in pop culture
Listeners calling in to Rick Emerson’s radio show recently were given an unusual choice if they wanted to win a pair of concert tickets. They could either identify one of the band’s songs after listening to a few notes, or answer a question about the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Caller after caller misidentified the song until, finally, one listener chose the D and D question. Emerson asked, “What dice are required to play first-edition Dungeons and Dragons?” “Four-sided, six-sided, eight-sided, 10-sided, 12-sided and 20-sided,” the caller answered without hesitation. “Although you actually need two 10-sided dice to play properly.” Emerson, laughing, was impressed: “Why am I not surprised that one of our listeners would know that?” Emerson’s Portland-centric, pop culture-obsessed program, which airs 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays on KCMD (970 AM), has a large, loyal fan base. When the show lost its home at station KOTK, or “Max” (910 AM), in 2005, parent company Entercom was bombarded with thousands of coffee cups from listeners, accompanied by the message “I need my morning fix, bring back Rick Emerson.” The campaign caught the attention of CBS Radio, which returned Emerson to the airwaves in 2006 — to the delight of his audience, which is made up largely of what he describes as “delivery guys who listen to the radio all day, and geeks.” And the geeks adore him. Emerson’s program taps into Portland’s geek culture at a time when the zeitgeist finally favors nerds, dweebs and dorks. Long a disenfranchised, relentlessly mocked subculture, geeks have, Emerson says, risen up to inherit the earth. “Fifteen, 20 years ago, simply being able to use a computer could get you beaten up,” he notes. “You could be into sports, you could be into certain types of movies or TV shows, but if you were obsessively interested in pop culture you were to be ridiculed as a freak.” Times have changed — radically. Roughly 76 percent of Americans now have personal computers in their homes, and about 38 percent have game consoles like the Nintendo DS or Wii. Writer J.K. Rowling’s series about a teenage wizard has sold more than 500 million copies, and big-screen movies about spandex-clad superheroes rake in billions of dollars worldwide. It is, truly, the Age of the Geek. Sitting in his office at the CBS Radio studios, Emerson, 35, drums his fingers on the desk as he talks. Drinking one of the countless cups of coffee that he consumes throughout the day, he’s a barely contained bundle of nervous energy, compulsively arranging the items in front of him, brushing invisible specks of lint off his pants, and talking with his hands as he warms to his favorite subject — the pervasive influence of popular culture, and the transformation of the nerd from outsider to trendsetter. “Look at comic books,” Emerson says. “Fifteen years ago, if you were an adult man who talked about Batman, you were a pasty-faced Peter Pan who refused to grow up and lived in his parents’ basement.” The lines were clearly drawn between what was acceptable to enjoy, and what would get you a wedgie in the schoolyard. But nerds have grown up and have taken over the culture. Television, the most pervasive form of information and popular entertainment, has become a playground for self-proclaimed geeks like Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), J.J. Abrams (“Lost”) and Bryan Fuller (“Pushing Daisies”). The dweebs who joined the A.V. Club in high school now head up computer companies and create best-selling video games. “Maybe we’ve all just grown up and now we’re running everything,” Emerson says. “Or maybe we were always ahead of the curve, and the rest of the world caught up.” Portland’s plethora of tech companies, Wi-Fi coffeehouses, comic-book artists and laptop confessors — USA Today named Portland the fifth “bloggiest” city in America — provides a geek-rich environment ideal for Emerson’s particular brand of entertainment. “There’s a huge creative class here,” the show’s newsman, Tim Riley, says. “It’s a lot cheaper to live here than New York or L.A., and it seems like everyone wants to put together a video or be in a band.” Emerson’s producer, Sarah X. Dylan, offers another explanation for Stumptown’s nerd quotient — the weather. “It’s an indoor culture,” says Dylan, 27. “The weather gets so dreary that it forces people inside. In the winter you either go to a bar or you go to a movie.” Wedding song struck a chord When one of Emerson’s regular guests, Aaron Duran of the Web site GeekintheCity.com, got married in 2006, the event was predictably nerdy. Held at the Hollywood Theatre, the wedding guests were seated by an usher dressed as the “Star Wars” character Boba Fett, and the bridal march was the theme from “The Muppet Movie.” A light-saber salute followed the vows. To honor Duran and his bride, Jenn, Emerson sang a song he wrote for the occasion. Accompanied by Jairus Minsky, guitarist for Emerson’s band the Wonderstrucks, his ode to geek love was charming, funny and unapologetically sappy: Sweet imagination of wizards, myths and wands Books and film and television, and dreams of worlds beyond Then one night I met you, and the stories came to life Too scared to even let myself believe You’re a geek like me “That’s a common theme among people who read comics and love sci-fi and do geeky things,” Duran says. “You never think you’ll meet anyone who’ll understand you. I still get a little teary when I hear it.” “It was so sincere and sweet — really romantic,” Dylan recalls. “I remember Rick expressing the desire to sing, and I was a little afraid. But he has a really nice voice, and I didn’t have to pretend to like it.” Emerson was working on an EP of Wonderstrucks songs at the time but had no plans for “Geek Like Me.” At the insistence of friends, he added it to the CD, which is available online at Wonderstrucks.com or through iTunes. Then, at the end of December, came the “Geek Like Me” video. “I was going to do a video for one of the other songs, ‘Charlie’s Girls,’ but it would require outdoor location shooting and the weather was terrible,” he says. “I have no filmmaking talent at all, but I sat down and it took me a couple of hours to cobble something together. I never thought anyone would see it, but I did it just so I could check it off the list.” Emerson put the video, a slideshow of Trekkies, pirates and renaissance-fair wedding pictures set to the song, on YouTube. When he checked the next day, 30 people had viewed it. The next day, the site registered 4,000 views. Within a week, more than 40,000 people had heard “Geek Like Me.” The video currently clocks in at close to 130,000 views. “At one point, it was something like the 30th most viewed music video on YouTube,” he says. “If you ever told me that over 100,000 people would look at something I made in under two hours — well, it’s insane.” In Norway, they cried Comments and e-mails arrived from around the world. A woman in Canada linked to the song on her blog, announcing that she’d be using it at her own wedding. A man from Norway wrote that the song “really describes what happens when geekyboy meets geekygirl. … Both me and my girlfriend cried.” Emerson believes that the song has been embraced “for the same reason our radio show resonates with people — all of us are into stuff that earned us scorn when we grew up. Even if it didn’t get you beaten up, it certainly didn’t get you anywhere.” “Geek Like Me” will get the classical treatment April 11, when Emerson will be accompanied by the Portland Cello Project at the Aladdin Theater. Billing itself as “a multi-genre collaboration of 8 to 16 cellists in Portland who are all classically trained, but who have chosen to perform in venues not traditionally associated with the cello,” the group will collaborate with Emerson, Stephanie Schneiderman (Dirty Martini) and Keith Schreiner (Dahlia) and the blues and gospel ensemble the Builders and the Butchers. Dylan says that “The Rick Emerson Show” “bridges the gap between different Portland cultures. (Listeners are) older people, younger people, people in bands, mailmen — everyone can put in their two cents and feel welcome.” Emerson, however, puts it another way. “We are the geeky flame to which all the nerdy moths are drawn.” And in Portland, that may make him the coolest kid in school.