WPRB lost a programming giant this weekend. George Mahlberg, more commonly known as "Doctor Cosmo" to listeners of his excellent and long-running Nocturnal Transmissions program, passed away after a long illness. As an old acquaintance and former WPRB programmer, I extend my sincerest condolences to those who were close to him.
Cosmo came on board at WPRB sometime in 1991—about a year prior to me, but his experience and radio wizardry far surpassed anything in my stable. He was older than most of PRB's other non-student DJs, and had a long résumé of radio credentials, reaching all the way back to the 70s when he'd been a programmer at L.A.'s then-adventurous K-Rock. He was also a brilliant storyteller, had a voracious appetite for unusual sounds, and most of all, he really enjoyed the company of young people who were passionate about radio. To call him an inspiration and a hero may sound trite, but after spending the last 18 hours reckoning with the cruel news of his sudden departure, I'm having trouble denying how appropriate those terms are. Recollections on his Facebook page, as well as the phone calls and emails I've fielded from former WPRB colleagues seem to validate the sentiment. There are probably dozens of mic break techniques I've nicked from him over the years, and I feel no shame in admitting it. WPRB was beyond fortunate to have a shepherd like him, even if only a small minority of the staff were aware of how incredible his talents were.
Though I didn't realize it at the time, Nocturnal Transmissions was freeform radio at its finest. When Cosmo joined the airstaff, much of WPRB was very much entrenched in the indie/underground scene of that particular era. While his programming did acknowledge those trends, he also dosed listeners with generous helpings of the avant garde, free jazz, Zappa, Krautrock, 20th Centrury Classical, 70s Marshall Boogie, fringe politics from across the spectrum, and schitzoid spoken word from all manner of radicals, revolutionaries, and acid casualties. More importantly, to the mix he added his own fierce intelligence, his incredibly eccentric humor, a tremendous appreciation for science, and an open door policy for any listeners who wanted to join the fray. As you might imagine, central Jersey doesn't offer too many rewarding avenues for seekers of adventurous art and culture, but to the avid listeners of WPRB's Friday night programming, the reality seemed very much otherwise.
I have many wonderful memories of Doctor Cosmo, but perhaps my favorite was the night he joined me on air when the DJ who followed my program failed to show up. Scrambling for a long track to eat up time, I put on "Die Donnergotter" by Rhys Chatham—a 20+ minute epic of ringing, hypnotic guitars. I'd surrendered control and had assumed a new position behind the guest mic while George slid easily into the captain's chair and engaged me in a lengthy on-air banter while "Die Donnergotter" churned away in the background. As the track approached its crashing apex, George calmly reached over and switched the turntable off so that the audio began spiraling down as we continued our on-air rap. In the kind of seamless transition that true radio geeks get their panties in a twist over, he then began manually rotating the record in reverse with his finger at what sounded like a perfect 33 RPM clip. Presto! Another 20 minutes of background music for us to push later into the evening with.
There are many songs that I'll never be able to distance from the immediate Cosmo-connection they hold for me, but "Die Donnergotter" is probably chief among them. I can only hope that wherever George is now, the guitars sound as great (whether in forward or reverse) as they did to my ears that night. To my friend, I say thank you and goodbye. I wish that we'd had more time together.