It’s normal to do a double take when one meets a person who has otherwise been a disembodied voice on the radio. Russ Davis is sitting here in the flesh, his voice is rich and free of static, and the conversation is going both ways. For the past four years, Davis has been the man behind the Philippines’ only show that made it a point to play exclusively local independent music on the radio in its time: Fresh Filter on Jam 88.3. It began as a platform to premiere tracks that fit the criteria of being local and independent. Over time, the show went on to include live performances, gig schedule updates, and a popularity poll. Regardless of the popularity of the tracks featured, a listener was assured that the music would be well-curated and worth hearing.
“It has been a very interesting past few years for local music,” Davis says, “I’ve never heard this much variety before. It’s happening everywhere, not just the Philippines.” Despite all the good music circulating today, Fresh Filter was a band’s best shot at getting airplay ever since the legendary NU 107.5 closed down in 2010.
“Nobody took off where NU left off,” he says about the long gap before Fresh Filter. When the show began airing four years ago, it was the only one on the radio making it a point to air music by local underground musicians. NU lasted for two decades as the main flag bearer of local music. By the time it closed, the other stations as we know them today had already settled down into their respective musical niches with nobody left with the express intent of promoting unsigned acts.
Davis had already learned the ropes of being a disc jockey at NU 107.5 towards its later years, but Fresh Filter was also a learning experience in figuring out how to provide a slice of a large underground community in one hour, four times a week. Davis’ e-mail inbox receives hundreds of submissions weekly of all genres, levels of audio fidelity, and admittedly, quality. He’s listened to it all. Objectivity may be a moot intention in the curation of music, but Davis makes it a point to extend beyond his personal preferences in order to make the show more diverse. Even if a song stretches beyond Davis’ personal preferences, if he recognizes its merit, he’ll put it on. He hasn’t been the kind to shy away from playing something that deviates from mainstream conventions of content, genre, or taste. Premiering a prog-rock suite or an experimental instrumental in some irregular-timing seems like a risk especially since the radio industry is struggling, but it’s one he has been willing to take. Every minute counts.
“Radio itself is fighting for relevance—unless you’re playing straight up pop music, top 40,” he says, “and of course the sponsors have nowhere else to go.” The dust may have already settled after the music industry’s collapse at the turn of the century, but stations and labels are still wary of taking risks with anything alternative. They play it safe, and the advertising money goes to the commercial radio stations playing songs that are familiar, sent in by the labels that earn money by capitalising on pop formulas that are tested and true. Who can begrudge them? Everyone’s trying to stay afloat in these dire times.
“The kids know what’s up, right? But the sponsors don’t. They really don’t.” If anything, innovation isn’t something that should be expected of major labels or sponsors anyway. They’re reactionary, taking cues from trends and waves that have already been established or are gaining traction. Even musicians who were at the peak of the music industry in the 90’s are now skeptical of the old business model. Now that the means of production and the means of promotion are available to all, the new generation of underground artists no longer have to rely on labels and the radio. The rules of the game have changed, and more opportunities to reach audiences have opened up, especially with the internet, which makes it easier for flourishing music scenes from other regions of the Philippines such as Baguio, Cebu, Bacolod, Dumaguete, and Davao to get out there.
“There are more artists being completely independent and being successful without relying on the radio. It’s still happening in spite of,” he explains. The DIY ethos has been experiencing a renaissance with bands managing themselves, producing their own albums, and taking artistic control of their own endeavours. With resourcefulness and elbow grease, anyone can get their own music onto Soundcloud, Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon—even reaching foreign audiences. Still, tuning into the radio to hear your own song for the first time is a milestone for many musicians. “There’s nothing like having your own song played on the radio. They can all do without it. It sounds bad, but the most successful independent bands we’ve got right now have much less radio airplay—than if at all,—that are being featured heavily. It doesn’t line up.“
Beyond radio, Davis produced a Fresh Filter compilation pressed on vinyl in 2015, featuring musicians such as Bullet Dumas, Ourselves the Elves, Cheats, and BP Valenzuela among others. It’s a substantial introduction of what’s going on to a casual music fan, and prized memorabilia to people who hold the music dear.
Davis is one of the few people with the unique position of being in touch with the underground, while also having the rare means of influencing wider audiences. When he announced that he would be signing off for the last time, there was an
outpouring of gratitude and well-wishes from musicians and listeners alike. It’s this crowd that filled at a dive bar in Quezon City on the night of his last broadcast. Davis shrugs, “At the end of the day, the scene needs more support. It all adds up. It’s also going on by itself, really.”
“I still felt like I was doing something very meaningful,” he says. Fresh Filter was done out of a firm belief in Filipino music, and the genuine will to help it grow, despite the changes in technology or music distribution. Fresh Filter had been a gateway for many listeners who weren’t otherwise immersed in the local music scene to find out what’s going on. Also, being on Fresh Filter has been the springboard for careers of too many artists to count, but Davis is hesitant to credit for it. “I’m just doing my small part because really, it’s just a small thing. The rest is up to them, it really is.”
The life of a radio DJ isn’t all glamour and fame; After all, DJs are at the giving end of a one-sided conversation, addressing an unseen audience for hours on end in a studio. It’s a solitary job, but when it’s done with this level of dedication and care, it fosters a community of musicians and listeners that will continue to thrive whether the higher-ups take notice or not. As he said, the kids know what’s up. What Davis did was make it easy for anyone tune in to the sound of things to come.