Videopunk, or, The Zen of KLCS

Not long ago, I wrote an article singing the praises of the Public Broadcasting Service. Today is the day to shed some light on PBS’s darker side. I speak, of course, of KLCS.

My first acting job was for KLCS. When I was three months old, my mom tried to get me acting work, but it wasn’t happening. Luckily, my dad was transport commissioner, so I got to be in a documentary about the rebuilding of the Southland’s public transit infrastructure. My mom and I were the token white people on the blue line.

KLCS is the official television station of the Los Angeles Unified School District, and as such most of its programming was exactly like Look Around You, except that instead of 1978 it was 1993. Its creepy dullness and retrograde production values hypnotized many young children who grew up to become videopunk artists– aficionados of the VHS aesthetic. It’s something understood by everyone who spent their childhood savouring the first tear into the gold wrapping paper of a fresh Matsushita JVC cassette.

A typical day’s programming would start off with some ancient educational films, seemingly all of them about the history of mathematics. But that was before dawn; what most people first saw was a blue screen with a list of programs and the current time. There would always be music in the background: usually Sting or Maxi Priest, which they could get away with because the programming was “for educational purposes only.” The music was always loud enough recognize, but not loud enough to enjoy.

Suddenly, you’d be treated to live video footage from the Los Angeles School Board. In effect this meant three hours of parents complaining about the quality of their kids’ education and being shouted down by a very bored-looking old black lady. Noon is where things got freaky, starting with animated tags so terrifying they put the old Talkback Thames logo to shame:

Don’t get me wrong, all TV production company logos in the ’80s were creepy. The difference here is that the shows themselves were like that too. First was a quietly radical talk show called Tony Brown’s Journal. Look it up on YouTube lest my comment section get too ridiculous.

After that was a surreal yet technical kids’ mystery show called Ghostwriter that had a surprising number of prestigious guest stars. Like many shows of that time, everybody I knew thought they were the only person who watched it, but it’s found a new life on the internet.

Finally the day concluded with some even more surreal documentaries on the LAUSD itself. It’s possible that they were all the same film because they always included the following things:

  • A scene of kids in Watts dancing to New Jack Swing in a school auditorium.
  • A shot of the train passing through LA’s South Side.
  • The narrator raving pessimistically in monotone.
  • “Candid” on-the-street interviews of people staring blankly at the camera and speaking in a similar monotone.

Clearly, the LAUSD had made these videos, but it was impossible to tell why. They were extremely critical, and there was no intended audience or even a detectable reason to make them.

Personally, I think it was genius. I think it somebody woke up one day in the late ’80s and said. “Kids these days have long, boring lives ahead of them. I’m going to make them crazy. Someday they’ll thank me.”

This has been a rare moment of uncritical ’90s nostalgia.

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