Last Friday afternoon, the first in a series of downpours began in northern Nevada just as Burning Man was preparing to wrap up. Life in Black Rock City, the temporary settlement created for the event, ground to a halt as the hard-packed desert clay turned into a particularly sticky species of mud. Wheeled vehicles from bedazzled bikes to fire-breathing art cars instantly became useless. For approximately two and a half days, festival organizers forbade travel into and out of the city. Burners were asked to conserve food and water, and to live out their espoused principle of radical self-reliance.
As the lockdown dragged on, news reports from Black Rock City were limited and at times sensational. (Rumors of an ebola outbreak on Saturday were quickly debunked.) Social media commentary on the waterlogged festival was, predictably, infused with heavy doses of Schadenfreude. But one source struck a slightly different tone.
BMIR 94.5, a radio station which surfaces annually for the festival, quickly adapted its programming to the shifting conditions. The station—located in a DJ booth in the makeshift city—allowed walk-up studio guests to mingle with on-air callers from the “default world,” as attendees dub the universe beyond the Black Rock City gates. Over the long weekend, I periodically tuned in online from New York, listening for the vibes.
Every ten minutes or so, BMIR played a series of prerecorded PSAs. Some were earnest exhortations, if slightly surreal: “Please do not climb on art. There are muddy, unsafe conditions on playa and very limited mobile emergency services,” one message went. “Also, refrain from entering the man.” (This refers to the towering wooden effigy ritualistically set aflame at the conclusion of every festival.)
But most bulletins were conveyed with a bit more panache. A lisping voice, sounding like a certain Scottish actor, delivered ground transportation updates. “Well hello there, this is Con Seannery with information about the Burner Express: All buses have been postponed until further notice!”
Another recognizable character provided more general encouragement. “Patient we must be to create safe conditions for the departure,” X-Rated Yoda periodically announced in his swampy accent.
Sometimes, PSAs were vocalized by a couple of self-described buttholes.
“Dude, it’s Butthole Steve!” Butthole Steve intoned over a shredding guitar riff. “I went wandering around on the playa last night without any gear to keep me warm or dry, and now I got trench foot on my butthole. It’s gotta be amputated! So stay warm, stay dry, don’t wander around without the right gear … or else you’ll end up like me: Butthole Steve without a butthole.”
Butthole Barb took to the airwaves over the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme music. “Hi, it’s Butthole Barb and I just came down to BMIR to complain,” she whined, “because I have been looking forward to Burning Man all year long and I can’t believe the man burn is canceled for tonight … ugh!”
Still other announcements were more existential. Accompanied by eerie organ music, a deep voice—could it be Con Seannery?—recited the following verses of William Blake: “The Lamb misusd breeds Public Strife / And yet forgives the Butchers knife.”
Once these bulletins ran their course, DJs looked for ways to pass the time on their live broadcasts. During a Sunday-afternoon set, DJ David Cooper, a professional comedian and radio host in the default world, phoned his mother on air to reassure her that things on the playa weren’t as bad as they were being made out to be in the media. Then he quizzed her about her sex life on live radio. Why, for instance, is the vibrator kept on her husband’s side of the bed?
“He knows how to operate it,” she replied, chuckling. “I’m challenged when it comes to those mechanical kinds of things.”
“That’s gatekeeping,” said a cohost, who went by the playa name Red Scare.
After saying goodbye to his mom and thanking her for being a good sport, Cooper returned to the nitty-gritty of life in Black Rock City. “Don’t eat too much fiber because those portapotties are gonna eventually become full,” he advised. One of his cohosts pointed out that sanitation trucks had recently been seen servicing the portapotties. “Okay, good,” Cooper said. “Eat your fiber. No need to take Imodium. We are all clear.”
“Also, be kind to the porta-potties!” the cohost said. “You can have a dick, but don’t be a dick.”
Above all, Cooper added, “Don’t be a Diplo,” referring to the electronic musician who, along with the comedian Chris Rock, escaped Black Rock City while the gates were still closed on Saturday. (A “fan” happened to pick them up after they trudged six miles through the mud on foot, according to Diplo’s Instagram.) Other celebrities waited to leave with the hoi polloi. “Channing Tatum stayed put because he’s a frickin’ national treasure,” one guest noted.
Between studio banter, PSAs, and station identification—“BMIR, the voice of the meow”—DJs spun thematically relevant tunes. Isaiah Rashad rapped “Stuck in the Mud.” The Carpenters sang “Rainy Days and Mondays.” Once the gates to Black Rock City finally opened and cars began queuing up for what would be an hours-long exodus, Iggy Pop droned, “I am a passenger / and I ride and I ride.”
On Monday morning, one cocksure studio guest gave departing burners a pep talk. “When Woodstock got rainswept, people danced in the mud and helped each other out,” he said. “We got that Woodstock spirit! We don’t want to ruin that story by having people do a kind of Mad Max exodus.”
“Practice tantric exodus,” he went on. “If you ask the road for consent and it gives you a green light and the road says, ‘Yeah, daddy, hit this shit,’ then you’re going to have a great drive home.”
Ben Schneider is a freelance journalist and erstwhile burner based in New York.