Switching it over to AM
Searching for a truer sound
Can't recall the call letters
Steel guitar and settle down
Catching an all-night station somewhere in Louisiana
It sounds like 1963, but for now it sounds like heaven
-- Son Volt, “Windfall”
It occurred to me a while back that I never listen to the radio. This is an odd thing for a music reviewer to admit, but there you go. I simply never turn it on in the car, or when I’m at home, although I’m listening to new music all the time. And it’s a bit of a sad realization, because I grew up with the little white earbud of my aqua transistor radio more or less permanently affixed to my ear, right up until the time when underground FM radio and real stereo receivers supplanted the AM Top 40, and then I listened to Chicago’s WXRT for my daily musical fix. But not anymore.
To paraphrase Homer Simpson, they’ve got music on computers now. And when I’m not attempting to crawl out from under the pile of new CDs from music publicists, I’m inclined to tune in Seattle’s KEXP or Santa Monica’s KCRW, Philly’s WXPN, or Laura Cantrell’s old time country radio program out of Jersey City’s WFMU, or Paste’s own Internet radio station. I don’t touch that dial because there’s no dial to touch. The old boundaries and categories have disappeared. And the losers, for me at least, are every radio station in or around Columbus, Ohio.
I don’t mean to badmouth Columbus. It’s a nice, liveable city full of straight-shootin’, friendly midwesterners. And the radio scene isn’t nearly as bad as it is in many other places. There’s a good-to-great NPR station that plays a nice assortment of world music and earnest folky singer/songwriters. There’s an okay “indie” station that plays new music about 25% of the time, in between bouts of The Cure and Nirvana. And there’s the usual assortment of old sixties and seventies hippies, Nashville hats, former American Idol contestants, robodivas, and misogynistic thugs that fill out the Buckeye musical spectrum. It’s not great, but it could be, and is, a lot worse in many other cities. But I’ve discovered that I have little reason to seek any of it out. In the world of Internet radio and iPods and instant playlists, it’s too easy to play my own private DJ, spinning the hits on WHIT, man, where the music is guaranteed to please.
But that’s only part of the story. With the exception of that NPR station, which is run by people who sound like they’re actually engaged with the music they play, local radio isn’t local at all. It is dominated by bland, faceless non-personalities whose playlists match exactly what you’ll hear in Indianapolis, Indiana or Tampa, Florida or Omaha, Nebraska. They could be anywhere, or nowhere.
One of my favorite musical memories involves a former Columbus DJ whose nom de rock was Rick West. Rick worked for the local “underground” FM station in the late seventies, right at the time when the station’s format was changing from the chaotic musical free-for-all that had characterized its early years to the much more narrowcasted format of non-stop Eagles, Boston, and Fleetwood Mac. And Rick wanted none of it. On the first day of the new and “improved” format (ironically, the new format’s slogan was “more variety, all the time,” thus presaging the era of Reagan doublespeak), Rick barricaded himself in the studio, locked the door, got stoned, and played Captain Beefheart, Albert Ayler, and Bill Monroe back to back to back. Twenty minutes into the proceedings a manager found the spare studio key, and Rick was summarily relieved of his duties. But for those twenty minutes local radio was in full flight. Rick West, whoever and wherever you are, I salute you.
Not much has changed in the intervening thirty years. There are still outposts of light, and now you can find them on the Internet. And the iPod, file sharing, and good old sampler CDs in magazines now make one of radio’s former primary purposes – exposing listeners to new music -- largely superfluous. I miss Rick West. But I don’t miss the Columbus/Tampa/Omaha playlists, and I don’t miss the dumbing down of all that used to be exciting and vibrant. In the meantime, I’ll focus on my iPod. Can’t recall the call letters because there aren’t any call letters. But it still sounds like heaven.