Monday, August 21, 2006

Fifty Thousand Watts Out of Mexico

I miss radio. Real radio, you know, like there used to be? Back when I first became aware of the medium, it was the 60s. And no, I’m not waxing all nostalgic… No, wait… I guess I am, actually. I used to groove to the killer AM stations in Boston, WRKO being my fave. In a night’s listening, you might hear, in no particular order, a spoof comedy spot a la the Firesign Theater, The Beatles, Captain Beefheart, Nancy Sinatra, Bonnie Raitt, Satchmo, Big Brother & The Holding Company, Jimmy Hendrix, Cream, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Bob Dylan, E.L.P., Peter, Paul, and Mary, and local bands that the DJ heard and dug and somebody recorded and they threw on the platter ‘cause they could. One station, one night… Where’d all that go, y’all? I can guarantee you that WRKO was a popular station: It held some power on what got played and who heard what. D.J.’s were hip and well known. I assume they made money, because it was there for years and years…

The Public Radio F.M. station was where we found other cool stuff – Classical and Jazz – Bebop, cool, big band, Chicago and Delta Blues, Texas Swing, New Orleans and proto-free. “Folkies” like Odetta, Ledbelly, and Mississippi John Hurt.

What happened to that eclecticism? Where did the diversity go? And why did it die? What idiot or idiots decided that homogeneous, single-genre radio is better? Who decided that DJ’s weren’t necessary? Why is better to have ‘local’ radio stations, when there’s nobody there to answer the phone, the company that owns it is in New York or L.A., and they don’t play, do, say, or promote anything local whatsoever? How did we let that happen?

I don’t listen to the radio for music any more, other than what I hear on NPR. Oh, I’ve had in forced on me at various jobs, mind you. And what I found is that in short order, I can come to hate even the Classic Rock station. Why? Because they play maybe 20 songs over and over and over and over again, every day for months on end. They change the play list about quarterly, so you have plenty of time to get totally sick of the next 20 songs coming down the pipe, too. Anybody who could burn me out on Sweet Home Alabama is a jerk, plain out and simple. My current cubicle mate listens to a contemporary R & B station: She puts it on fairly low out of courtesy, because that will drive me batshit in about 2 hours, give or take. I don’t know what the songs are, but I can tell you this: They only play about 15 songs over and over again, AND - The Hook is dead, replaced by random, stupid, really irritating noises repeated behind the vocal tracks ad naseum: I’m talking about stuff like the whistling sound a cartoon bomb makes on the way down, or a two-tone siren sound over and over again. Remember when R & B had hooks? The guitar line in Superstition, the bass line from For The Love Of Money? No more, baby, it’s all jangling, meaningless noise, like having incessant cell phone ring tones forming the backbone of your next hit. Just kill me now, OK?

And of course, every station is neatly regimented and compartmentalized – Top 10 Country, Top 10 Pop, Alt Country, Alt Rock, Heavy Metal, R & B, Soul, Talk, Sports, bla, bla, bla, bla. They all do the same thing: Play 10 to 20 songs over and over, have incessant commercial breaks, (And the commercials are MUCH LOUDER than the music), and they have absolutely nothing to do with the heart and soul of anything. Does Border Radio like the Blasters and ZZ Top sang about still exist? “Fifty thousand watts out of Mexico – This is the border radio.” If so, I gotta find me some. Radio has become just like fast food; same shit, different town. It don’t matter whether you’re in Dallas, or Boston, or Chicago, it’s all Clear Channel crap, and there ain’t nobody home.

It’s sad, really, and probably has a lot to do with the general decay of the music industry, frankly. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but, I think it’s pretty simple really. I remember the first albums I bought myself, and why: I was listening to WRKO, and I heard Carole King, and then Jethro Tull. I liked ‘em. I went down to Stop, Look, and Listen and bought Tapestry and Thick as a Brick. Just like that - Simple, see? When they stopped playing diverse music; when they stopped having any soul, any tie to the local community, why would people listen as much? When they stopped playing a broad enough spectrum of music to pique someone’s interest, why would anybody be moved to buy based on an unsatisfactory listening experience? If it’s all corporate tripe, sanitary, boring, and white-bread-same, why would anyone be loyal to a station? There’s nobody left to be loyal to….

I understand there’s a movement in a few of the country’s larger cities, with stations going back to eclectic play lists, live D.J.’s playing what they feel like on any given shift... I’m looking forward to one coming soon to a town near me, let me tell ya. Maybe then I’ll have something other than NPR to listen to.


Mark Jens said...

Eben, I'm in your corner where radio is concerned. Dr. Demento on WOKY radio in Milwaukee was my staple. Oh, and though irreverent and funny and all as it was, my kids could still listen if they had been around. Now I try to encourage Christian radio because most of the rock stations have become "All soft porn, all the time." Oh, by the way, Christian radio can drive you just as batty as any - because they play the same 20 songs to death, just like you said. Keep up the faith, maybe one day we can buy our own station like Stephen King did '8)

Tom said...


In Australia we have a great non commercial radio station called triple J. I listen to them almost everyday for several hours whilst I'm at home. The station is funded by the government so there are no ads, and the hosts seem to be able to play what they want (within reason). The station only plays new music, and makes a good attempt at introducing new local acts to a larger audience. its rare to hear anything older than 6 months old. I'm out of the country now and I am sure when I go back i wont know 50% of the songs. You can listen on the net worldwide, but in the US you would end up listening to a lot of late night music (can get pretty weird). if you are interested check out the website