Deep inside one of those monolithic new apartment buildings off Hillhurst Avenue in the Los Feliz district, beyond an electric front door and a foyer, up an elevator, down a long corridor, through a self-closing fire door and then another, and at last behind a dark recess of an entry, the Master Blaster lives and carries on his work. Tom Reed today is a more mellow--and yet evidently more pained--metamorphosis of the young disc jockey with the Afro hair who spoke to Los Angeles rapid-fire on the KGFJ radio in the days of civil rights and anti-war protests.
Reed is out of radio these days, but not off the air. He's now producing television.
He broadcasts independently on Channel 18, that mixed collection of programs for the city's Japanese, French and Korean viewers and, in Reed's case, the limited number who seek knowledge of the real black L.A.
Reed makes two magazine-format programs a month and four documentaries a year. None of them will ever show on NBC. They are without dramatic violence, without stereotypes, without much narrative suspense, and without laughs.
"It's not popular television," Reed practically bragged one afternoon. "We don't do comedy shows. We do not do entertainment. Not to say that comedy is wrong. I just feel that black people laugh too much. They're always giggling, scratching and wiggling. We like to keep it information, as opposed to entertainment. We like to stick to positive images."
It's a lonely commitment.
"It's real sad," Reed said. "Big as this city is, we are the only black-produced program in the county."
It's a calling that doesn't pay especially well, either. Reed has a secretary who sells a few ads. He has gathered in a couple of grants. He manages to pay the rent and salaries for his company of five, For Members Only.
"We keep the content alive," he said.
The content sometimes comes directly off his apartment walls. There he has collected a melancholy pictorial of his life and the troubled times it intermingled with.
There are scrolls from politicians and celebrity photos with Reed in them or mentioned in the inscription. There are news photos of great events, movie posters, paintings and letters. There are snapshots of the famous, the nearly famous and the almost forgotten, such as Maulana (Ron) Karenga, leader of the black militant group, known as US, of 1960s Los Angeles. He is now a professor at UC Riverside.
"I collect these things," he said.
Then he transmits them to videotape.
In one of last year's specials, "The Black Music History of Los Angeles: Its Roots" Reed careened through 30 years of film-clip and still-photo imagery tied together by reverential interviews with aging musicians and Reed's disjointed DJ sentence fragments.
The effect is almost completely cleansed of Hollywood slick. Yet, against the backdrop of Hollywood's disinterest in the subject, The Times' pop music critic declared it an "essential" work, like a glass of water brought to a dying man in the desert.
Today, at 2:30 p.m., Reed will serve a tougher cause in his latest work, "Brothers," about the black gangs of Los Angeles.
Struggling to turn positive images out of impossibly thin resources, Reed and cameraman Matt Ragozzino pushed deadline to the nub a couple of Saturdays ago in Reed's apartment. Camera tilted toward the carpet, Ragozzino filmed a collage of stills, beginning with L.A-bred baseball stars Daryl Strawberry, Eddie Murray and Ozzie Smith.
"Here's a guy out of that same situation of the ghetto who got out," Reed said. "But he's one of the fortunate ones. The odds are 1,000-to-1."
Next Reed picked a record jacket showing a child in the ghetto. It was the recorded poems of Anthony Hamilton, whose "Watts Prophets" arose from the Watts riots.
"This man is now a priest of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church," Reed said. "It changed his life."
Almost capriciously, Reed slipped in a 1969 picture of his own thin face, framed by a ball of hair.
"Let the people see my militant man," he joked.
Soon an interview subject arrived--City Council Deputy Fred Horn, to talk about Project Long Table, the city's first black gang project in the early 1970s.
Reed calmed the visibly nervous Horn.
"You got a book out there, brother," he said. "This is like three, four pages."
He didn't press for substantiation of Horn's contention that Project Long Table was scuttled at the moment of its success by the city's powerful elite.
If his news perspective goes no deeper than that, it's not that Reed shrinks from the negative. In some ways he seems consumed by it.
"We've got a severe problem--gangs, drugs, crime, unemployment--in the black community," he lamented later.
He simply refuses to glorify that for profit.
"I'm not going to be on NBC," he said. "But you don't have to be on NBC to make a contribution to your craft. To make a contribution in your profession is one of the most important things a person can aspire to." For a moment Reed has surrendered his DJ cool to a complex and penetrating thought. And it is important.