Moss Crafts the Soundtrack for the Big Blast

I thought it would be bigger. More glamorous. Sexier.

After all, WEBN's soundtracks for the annual Labor Day fireworks over the Ohio River are legendary. Mammoth, booming, smart, playful and as musically diverse as anything broadcast radio has to offer.

So naturally, you'd think that the studio where those soundtracks are made would somehow be special. But this? It's ordinary. Mundane, even. A few old photos. A couple of posters. Hundreds of neatly filed audio discs. A huge picture of the Cincinnati skyline that used to be the backdrop for WKRC-TV's news broadcasts. The most intriguing thing here is a table lamp with a Stegosaurus for a base and the WEBN frog emblazoned on the shade.

Clearly, it's not the stuff that elevates this office into the artistic stratosphere. Rather, it's the guy who calls this place home "” Joel Moss, WEBN's creative services director. On Sept. 2, the Cincinnati Bell WEBN Labor Day fireworks will, for the 28th consecutive year, feature a soundtrack by Moss.

Listen to one of his soundtracks "” you can download past ones on the WEBN website "” and you begin to realize what a daunting accomplishment it is.

These 30-minute soundtracks are dense and luxurious soundscapes. They are Moss' way of summing up everything that has transpired during the previous 12 months. In music. In Cincinnati. In the world. And ultimately, in his heart.

Since they debuted in 1977, the Labor Day fireworks have grown into a beloved community gathering, attracting upward of 500,000 people to the riverfront. Many of whom wouldn't dream of watching the fireworks without turning their portable radio dials to 102.7 FM to listen to the music that syncs with what they are watching. In some ways, that soundtrack is Joel Moss's love letter to each and every one of them.

You could write tens of thousands of words about the technology behind the synchronizing of the sound and pyro, as insiders call the fireworks. In the early, pre-computerized days, what passed for synchronization there was "dumb luck," says Jay Gilbert, WEBN's afternoon DJ, who created the soundtracks for two years before Moss stepped in.

There was no electronic connection between the audio and the fireworks. It was just one guy carrying on simultaneous conversations with an engineer back in the studio and the other to the technicians firing the shells on barges in the middle of the river.

"It was utterly insane," says Gilbert. "Believe me, it's much, much better today."

But ultimately, the technology is less important than a passion for sound.

And there are few who have quite so much passion for it as Moss.

His soundtracks ran an extraordinary musical gamut. Hit songs, of course. And ones you've never heard of. And some of the pounding, grinding music that has become the staple of WEBN playlists. But Moss's scores are so much more than that: spoken word, obscure sound effects, snippets of chords from songs that have been played for decades. You're as likely to hear The Beatles "” there's at least one VERY recognizable chord in there this year "” as you are to hear Beethoven or Nickelback. Or 17th century cathedral bells.

It's chaos.

But it's damned glorious chaos, a worthy partner to the lavish visual scene that Rozzi's Famous Fireworks puts in the sky. And in the water. And from the bridge.

Moss started the soundtrack early this year on May 1. And within six weeks or so, it was done. Today, he's trying to explain how he does it. He's huddled in front of a computer screen, a wild maze of graph-like bars of color streaming across it.

This is it: the 2012 soundtrack. It looks completely intimidating. Except, he explains, what he's got on the screen is merely a 10-second excerpt from the very beginning of the show. The entire show goes on for 22-and-a-half pages.

On the right side of the screen, there are notes, things like "big sky" and "super photo flash" and "dragon eggs" and "palms."

Those are Moss' suggestions to Joe Rozzi, the vice-president of Rozzi's Inc., which creates the fireworks show.

"From the day Joel started doing the soundtrack, he started learning about fireworks," says Rozzi. "He's not only a terrific collaborator, but he's an incredibly knowledgeable one. Those notes that he writes for us give us the shape of the show. He has a keen sense of music. But he also has a keen sense of pyrotechnics."

Moss continues his description of the various components of the short segment of sound.

"That's John," he says, pointing to the color bar that represents the voiceover by WEBN's John Wells. "Here's a little bit of sound that I think came from the Avatar' soundtrack. And this is from The Avengers.' But I reversed it. And then . . ." He pauses. "Yeah, I'm not sure where this came from."

He rattles off a half-dozen more sound elements.

"So here's what it sounds like."

The room erupts in sound. A shuddering rumble. A couple of words from Wells. And bobbing in and out through all of it is an extraordinary palette of sounds. Throbbing percussion, delicate zings, gongs, whizzes, a didgeridoo and some whacking sound that could possibly be a fleet of military helicopters. Or not. Whatever it is, it adds up to an exhilarating rush sound.

And that's only eight or 10 seconds' worth.

For a guy capable of creating an over-the-top soundtrack like this, the 62-year-old Moss is remarkably understated. There's no hyperbole. Occasionally, you think you may see a glint of pleasure in his eyes. But there's rarely anything that would qualify as a smile.

His attitude about the relationship between the music and the pyro is equally restrained.

"No matter what the soundtrack is like, the fireworks are the star of the show," says Moss. "You can never forget that. The folks show up to see the fireworks. Not to hear the music."

Possibly. But the fact is, come Sept. 3, the day after the show, people will be trying to dissect Moss' densely-packed score and figure out what is in there. And why.

Moss showed up at WEBN's Hyde Park studio in 1984 with a resume that would set off alarm bells for some station managers.

A native New Yorker, Moss's career took off meteorically in the 1970s. He worked alongside radio legends at equally legendary radio stations. And then, nothing. A few years later, he surfaced in Middletown, Ohio. But soon before he knocked on WEBN's door, he was let go.

And then, in what turned out to be the most propitious meeting of his career, he talked to Frank "B' Wood, the visionary behind WEBN's early success.

"He saw my resume and he asked --what are you doing in Cincinnati?' And I told him. I had been a junkie. But the last time I put a needle in my arm was in lower Manhattan in 1979. This was 1984."

At most stations, that would have been the end of the interview. But not at WEBN.

"Sometimes you just have to make a snap judgment about a person," says Wood. "Joel was logical and open about his past. I admired that. I have an enormous history of people with chemical abuse problems around the radio business and my professional career, starting with my own father, who was an alcoholic. When he dried out, it was a wonderful thing.

"A lot of stations don't look at individuals. That's not how we operated. Joel turned out to be remarkable. Joel's problem was heroin instead of cocaine or alcohol. But it's the same behavioral process. It's a redemption process, really. And Joel never let anyone down, most importantly himself."

It hasn't been completely smooth sailing for him. He had a bout with thyroid eye disease in 1997 and a heart attack in 2005.

But these days, there is a kind of serenity that surrounds him.

"If you are fortunate enough to make it out of that kind of a situation "” the heroin "” basically, all you want to do is live a very normal, very sedate sort of existence."

The world around him has hardly been sedate, though. The once-quirky independent radio station is now one of roughly 850 radio stations owned by San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications, the nation's largest owner of full-power AM and FM radio stations and a slew of other media holdings. The sense of playfulness that ruled at the old WEBN has been replaced by a decidedly bottom-line corporate philosophy. And the station's once-powerful ratings have dipped to once-unthinkably low levels.

"Once you could put all of your MP3s on a CD and put it in your car, that was the beginning of the end of FM rock radio," says Moss. "But the fireworks? That changes everything."

So when Sept. 2 rolls around, Moss will once again take hundreds of thousands of listeners on an emotional musical whirlwind.

"I'm definitely closer to doing my last show than to doing my first," says Moss. "But as long as I do it, I'll continue to pour all of myself into it. I don't have a choice. I regard myself as the custodian of this event." 

"No matter what the soundtrack is like, the fireworks are the star of the show. You can never forget that. The folks show up to see the fireworks. Not to hear the music."