Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Death of Local Radio

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.


jackscrow said...

"...Used to be they kept the signal on location
Now on a real clear night you see the satellite from here
Used to be that tower pointed straight to heaven
And that flashin' light was always on to guard against the fear

But now some guy runs rotation from an office in LA
He's got a master list and he never quits just-a-pushin' crap your way
He's got sixty-four and room for more and they all sound the same....
And as you drink, you think "you sad luck sucker, mebbe he'll play your song today"...".

axegrinder said...

Just today someone asked me if I ever listened to the radio. I told them that my iPod has freed me from the tyranny of the radio. You did a good job articulating what I meant.

Despite the loss of the quality of local radio, I am glad for all the options that have filled the voids you mentioned.

BTW, I was thinking of your playlist addiction today while listening to Elliott Smith's song "LA." How about a Los Angeles/Hollywood playlist? I only got four songs in and thought that you and your readers could fill out the rest.

"Los Angeles, I'm Yours" - Decemberists

"LA Woman" - Doors

"LA" - Elliott Smith

"Burn, Hollywood, Burn" - Public Enemy

Friar said...

During my time at Northwestern (1982-1986), I lived for XRT, which widened my musical vision considerably. Driving back to school, it seemed like I'd set my car radio to 93.1 not far out of St. Louis and start hoping for a signal skip...

Anonymous said...

for axegrinder...

"Lonesome LA Cowboy" - New Riders of the Purple Sage


Chris Breslin said...

i'd like to refer to a solid little ditty (found on the myspace page of a little chapel hill band called roman candle) called "that's why modern radio is a-ok with me." give it a listen, it provides a nice take on what modern radio is and isn't and why that's a-ok.

-chris breslin
chapel hill, nc

Andy Whitman said...

axegrinder, here are a few more L.A. songs for you:

-- "Los Angeles" -- Frank Black
-- "Walking in L.A. (Nobody Walks in L.A.)" -- The Motels
-- "Shaky Town" -- Jackson Browne
-- "I Love L.A." -- Randy Newman
-- "Venice Beach" -- Bob Neuwirth
-- "Santa Monica Pier" -- Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
-- "La Cienega Just Smiled" -- Ryan Adams

Songs about Hollywood could constitute their own musical genre.

Chris, I'm a big fan of Roman Candle, and corresponded a bit with Skip and Timshel Matheny a few months back. Good band. Nice human beings.

jackscrow said...

Does LA County, by Lyle count?

Baby Meek said...

Thank you much for your writing. I just happened upon your blog today when I did a search for something related to Paste. What a pleasant surprise. Its weird, because I know I have read your reviews for All Music (I get a lot of music on Emusic.com) and in Paste. Its great to read a Christian that engages culture like you do. You have been an encouragement to me today, which was MUCH needed. I will definitely be checking your blog all the time now.

As for the radio, I got XM and I will never look back. XMU and XCountry have saved me from a musical wasteland. I didn't have it for most of May and June, and it was like pulling teeth to turn on local radio. Thankfully, I have my ipod too.

scott said...

Don't forget Guy Clark's "L.A. Freeway."

Anonymous said...

columbus radio is almost as good as the concerts we get here...not very