Updated July 27, 2022 - 12:55 pm
A mushroom cloud in the distance dominates the clear blue winter skies in early 1951 — the first in a series of atomic tests at the Nevada Test Site (now the Nevada National Security Site) just 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
For just a moment, imagine if, instead of being isolated to postwar tests, nuclear bombs had wiped out most of the population — except for a lucky few survivors who live amid the fallout in the city of neon.
A survivor by the name of Geiger broadcasts music from a bunker in the Mojave Desert. He’s an interesting and somewhat stir crazy character resembling Hunter S. Thompson. And he doesn’t play what he wants. He plays what he’s got.
This is the creative and imaginative backstory of XBOM Radio, an online radio station and HD3 channel founded by “Gonzo” Greg Spillane and Matt Zophiel that covers the Las Vegas metro area all the way to Barstow, California. It’s tagline: “Post-apocalyptic hit radio from an underground bunker in the Mojave just outside the blast zone of radioactive Lost Vegas.”
By day, Spillane works for a local radio media group. He’s the voice behind Geiger. Zophiel spends his days working in the tech industry. After the sun goes down, XBOM Radio takes center stage.
The duo brought the “weird” audio project to the airwaves in about 2014. It was born from the carefully curated playlists used in between acts of a post-apocalyptic burlesque show where Zophiel was the ringmaster and Spillane filled in as the sound guy after the DJ left.
Zophiel instructed Spillane to find music that would match the vibe of the world ending in 1967 and similar to what legendary DJ Wolfman Jack would play.
At the beginning of the burlesque gig, Spillane’s playlist was overwhelmingly rockabilly hits.
“The thing with rockabilly is if you play all rockabilly, it gets really Caucasian really fast,” said Spillane as he and Zophiel laughed. “From there, we added in soul, some pop, it’s this crazy mix that it ended up being. The idea was it was a radio station to support the Nuclear Bombshells Show, the burlesque troupe. So it originally started as a pirated station that may or may not have been originally broadcasted in the Wasteland Weekend,” the annual post-apocalyptic festival that takes place in the Mojave.
An opportunity arose to put XBOM Radio on the airwaves to reach the masses.
“Then we put it on the internet because you can, and it’s been going ever since,” Spillane said. “It ended up on the HD3 channel because the radio stations I work with bought a fancy new HD transmitter that has the extra channels. And they were like, ‘We got two. We just need another one to fill up the extra one,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ve got something.’ ”
HD radio stations broadcast a digital signal over traditional radio frequencies, allowing for up to three additional channels of new content. The sound quality is less than a good FM signal.
“I really think the optimal listening experience is driving down the number for the AM sound,” Matt said.
Initially, XBOM Radio was put on the HD3 channel as a test, “because it has the AM sound, and I seriously think they’ve forgotten that it’s on,”
XBOM is essentially a pirated station that exists in between mainstream radio frequencies. There’s no marketing to bring awareness. It’s discovered serendipitously by listeners trying to find a soundtrack for their commute.
“People find us organically. They come into town or live here and hit scan on their radios, and we pop up. ‘What is this? What is happening?’ ” Spillane said.
“People at Wasteland use it as their background music at work,” Zophiel added.
In between his day job and voiceover gigs, Spillane spends his free time finding music and content for XBOM Radio on YouTube and internet forums where record collectors document rare tracks.
“We wanted that vintage Vegas feel 50 years after the bomb,” Zophiel said.
The cutoff point for most of the music is the Cuban Missile Crisis, though the timeline gets a little blurry as some 1930s tracks and a little bit of punk are sprinkled in. “The main blob of the thing is mid-’50s to ’60s,” Spillane said.
Between the groovy tracks, vintage throwbacks and catchy instrumental head-bobbing tunes are some ballads and radio spots that most would find distasteful, controversial and borderline offensive today.
“There are a number of songs that are fairly horrifying to hear in our woke times, ‘Bobby Sox Squaw’ as an example, which turns up from time to time and I suppose is presented as a historical document,” Spillane said. “A few terrifically bad songs in there as well, mainly for purposes of kitsch. For instance, ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ playing across a devastated, post-apocalyptic hellscape is, well, odd on purpose.”
In a way, XBOM Radio is meant to spark a cultural conversation. Various characters appear in satirical radio ads that were dreamed up by the burlesque troupe in between shows. Listeners are introduced to Mr. Cross, who is perpetually running to be President of the Wastes, although no one knows if that’s even a thing.
Then there are the sultry-voiced Neon the Last Show Girl and the Ringmaster, who appear between tracks with satirical one-liners.
“The weird post-apocalypse commercials were brainstormed when we were at live events for a weekend or a week at a time,” Zophiel said. “The cast would be sitting around eating and coming up with ‘What is the gag that the censors won’t let us do?’ And we would come back with like 10 of those.”
Spillane would invite the troupe to his home studio to record the spots, and he would produce them for the station. Along with the make-believe ads, he mixes in actual wartime and government PSAs about “duck and cover” drills and the dangers of nuclear warfare.
News bulletins from the golden age of broadcast journalism and old jingles from recognizable fast-food brands are also included to transport listeners into another dimension of time.
Spillane and Zophiel agree that XBOM Radio is a way to rebel against the grain of today’s corporate-controlled radio.
“It’s fun to do radio without having to look at the charts and play what every other damn station in the world is playing. Just to do something new and make it sound good, and find all the good stuff to put in between the records that fits the persona, is the ethos of this thing,” Spillane said.
Zophiel says corporate radio has “done everything to take everything human out of it. There’s no DJs. They’ve got the scientifically designed top 40. Every track is an earworm because it uses this 4×4 progression. You could make $100K a year as a DJ in the ’80s because the ads came to you, not the station. And those guys, there’s no place for those guys in the modern radio industry.”
While Greg echoes this sentiment, XBOM Radio uses a lot of the same technology used in pop radio, like categories and algorithms.
The founders accept that the station could disappear tomorrow from the HD3 airwaves, though it would continue to exist on the internet, where it broadcasts 24/7 on XBOMRadio.com.
“There has been talk of doing secret late night radio shows in rotation,” Zophiel said. “There would be no internet marketing. You would just have to be driving around and hear it and go, ‘What the hell is that?’ And every 15 minutes or so we would announce, ‘We’re doing something weird at this time every weekend’ and let it grow on its own.”
With its kitsch and social commentary through music, XBOM Radio provides a unique look into the history of the mid-20th century, a time when racism was rampant, the fight for gender equality was heating up, and protests against the realities of war graced television screens and analog radio.
Listeners can help keep the music flowing by donating on its website, following the station on social media and spreading the word of its existence.