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By Day, This Neurointensivist Treats Severely Brain-Injured Patients
Off Hours, She Is a Deejay and Radio Show Host

Article In Brief

By day, this neurointensivist is busy treating severely brain-injured patients. But when she's not at work, she works as a deejay and a radio host to share modern independent music and provide a place for voices from marginalized communities.


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As a clinician-scientist in the Neurosciences Intensive Care Unit at Oregon Health & Science University, Holly E. Hinson, MD, FAAN, spends her days providing cutting-edge care for severely brain-injured patients. The associate professor of neurology and emergency medicine is also the associate director of clinical research for the neurocritical care program. As an intensivist in the ICU, her schedule is often unpredictable—but when she has a free moment, you'll hear her voice on XRAY FM, a community-based nonprofit radio station in Portland, which is also available by streaming online.

Dr. Hinson said that as an intensivist her schedule is unpredictable. She fills in radio shows where she can—but when she does, it allows her to harness her creative side. In an interview with Neurology Today, Dr. Hinson discussed what brought her to the deejay booth and why she still makes time, however intermittent, to take to the airwaves.

Her comments are excerpted below.

How did you first become interested in deejaying?

This is a very longtime interest. I've always been extremely engaged in all types of music, and I have very eclectic tastes. During my freshman year of college at Rice University in Houston, TX—longer ago than I care to admit—I was able to secure a spot as a deejay on our campus radio station, KTRU, which is still in existence. I was a deejay all four years of college and became a music director and program director later on. It was a huge part of my on-campus life and my identity in college. It's how I made my friends and how I defined myself. As music director I got to select programming and interacted a lot with record labels, which was interesting. Ironically, I feel like I got more job training in that role than I did in my undergraduate education, which was cognitive science.

What kinds of music did you play?

The station had shows with all types of music. The standard playlist we would program was predominantly indie rock, but we also felt very strongly about programming jazz, experimental, world music, folk, and all kinds of things. If you were a student and had a conventional show that didn't have a theme, you'd play whatever you wanted, but a quarter of your show also had to be from this eclectic mixed playlist we'd developed. In addition to that, we had a number of community members, sometimes former students and sometimes people not affiliated with the university at all, who had specialty shows running the gamut from punk to hardcore to hip hop to reggae to folk.

It was a terrestrial radio station and we had this enormous transmitter—50,000 watts—unheard of for a college station. It reached all the way to Huntsville, TX, nearly 100 miles away, where there was a prison. We would even get requests from prisoners to play songs. Later the frequency was taken away from the student radio station in an unfortunate turn of politics. The university realized how valuable the resource was and sold it, and for a number of years, KTRU was online only. Within the last couple of years, they bought back a terrestrial frequency, but it's very small.

Did you continue deejaying in medical school?

Sadly, no! I went to med school in San Antonio and there was nothing like it there. It was a huge hole in my life throughout med school, residency, and my fellowship years. I'd make mix tapes for friends to fill the gap.

Then I took this position in Portland, and a few years ago, XRAY FM was started by a nonprofit group here. The programming is a progressive mix of music and talk, with the following mission statement: “To hold a microphone up to the best and most distinctive of Portland. To build a culturally relevant center for ideas, music, and creativity in service of a more open media and a more just community.”

The station launched in 2014, and I got involved about a year later after hearing about it from friends. It's run by a small full-time staff and all the deejays are volunteers. I can't have a regular show because I'm an intensivist, working in the ICU all hours, all day, and my schedule changes all the time. There's not one hour I can guarantee I won't be at work, but I substitute as a deejay for folks, most commonly on a program called Circa Rad manned by my good friend Tex Clark. I'll deejay with her or sub in when people can't make their usual show, and I also serve on the station's board of directors. I deejay under the pseudonym of Dr. Robot, which comes from a comic that I used to draw in college. I used to make a self-published magazine—back in those days we called them zines—and it featured a character based on myself. I blame the 1990s!

What kind of things does XRAY broadcast?

There are a couple of transmitters; we have two signals in the city of Portland and a third up in Vancouver, WA, right across the river, plus an online stream. We have progressive talk radio in the morning, including a locally produced morning show, after which is a nationally syndicated talk radio program with a host named Thom Hartmann. Beginning at noon, we have other talk programs depending on the day, like “The Future of What,” which covers the music business. It's undergone a dramatic change in the era of mp3s and streaming and shifting formats, from CDs back to vinyl and all the different ways in which musicians are challenged to make money these days. We have several programs in that vein.

Then in the afternoon through overnight, we feature a wide and eclectic range of music shows. Our community-based deejays play a number of things, with shows that include indie rock to classic country to reggae to hip-hop. You'll find a show you like and undoubtedly one you'll hate.

How do you keep radio alive and relevant in the era of Spotify and Pandora and downloading anything you want on the spot?

I think that the human element is stronger than the automated aggregation of music—that human curation is something that just cannot be matched by a machine, no matter how good the machine learning is. And ironically, as a researcher I'm a machine learning person! But there is something so valuable brought forth by community curated programming that can't be replicated by nationally syndicated programming. The media has consolidated so much over the last few years, and there are so few local news outlets and sources. To provide something that's from the community and for the community is rare and hard to find, and that's what we do here.

Also, another part of our mission is to provide voices to marginalized communities. A sister station of ours is called The Numberz, which streams online and terrestrially on 96.7 FM. This station is programmed exclusively by people of color and gives voice to those who have been historically left out of media in general and particularly in certain communities, something that has been especially problematic in Portland. We share equipment, help them get access to a terrestrial signal, and share some of the same platforms that support internet streaming.

How do you manage your radio role with your other responsibilities?

It's a challenge juggling clinical care, research and everything else I do with this. It works best for the commitment to be intermittent, and I love being able to deejay when the opportunity allows. I've also gotten to do deejay nights at bars, which has been really fun, and I love being involved with the board. It fits with where I am in my life very well.

How does deejaying and radio intersect with your role as a neurologist?

It helps me to harness a more creative side. For me, I feel like research is very creative, and any arena in my life that allows me to nurture that creative aspect and flex that muscle gives me additional insights that I wouldn't ordinarily have if I weren't doing this. It gives me energy to come back and do research, but also keeps alive that part of my brain that is able to make connections that otherwise wouldn't be obvious.

What do your colleagues and students think about it?

My colleagues aren't as interested, but my students absolutely love it. They definitely listen. I mentor a number of premed and med students, as well as residents and fellows, and they are interested.

What are your favorite musical genres?

I'm going to get really nerdy on you, but I think my go-to genre that I like to program the most is something called “post-punk”. That's the period of music that immediately followed punk rock, around 1978—ironically, the year I was born—to about 1983. A lot of the echoes of those sounds are found in more modern independent music today, so it's very much alive now. A good example is a band from that period called The Fall, and a more modern band that echoes that sound is Proto-Martyr. I just got back from a vacation in France a couple of weeks ago, and while I was in Paris I made it a point to get a bunch of French post-punk records to bring back and play on the show.

Link Up for More Information

• Tune in to “Dr. Robot”: All past broadcasts are available for streaming online.
    • The Numberz: