Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Deaf Radio

I dedicate this blog post to a guy named Mike Shannon for no other reason than because people like him and George Gimarc and people who update Wikipedia about radio stuff and guys who actually love radio more than I do have taken the time to capture the history of it for posterity, so when someone like me wants to write about radio, I got places I can go to check my own memory and pretend to remember more than I do. Recently in my car I've found myself listening to the radio again. I guess I'm too lazy to change out the CD in the car. Isn't that pathetic? So when I have the radio on in the car it usually starts on the NPR station even though I haven't donated to them in over a decade. I haven't had a decent job in over a decade. I'm barely paying my bills. I can't afford to pay theirs, too.

Having a short attention span (I know the politically correct term nowadays is Attention Deficit Disorder but screw that), I found myself crawling up the radio dial. I say "dial" as if it still is a dial. It's not. Radio has become digital. I push buttons now. I understand how old the phrase "radio dial" makes me look and I don't care beyond my surreptitious amusement to type about it for about thirty seconds okay I'm done let's move on where was I? Many years ago there was a radio station here in Dallas called "93.3 The Zone." No one remembers it cuz no one listened to it. The Zone briefly turned into "The Merge" and that's when I first started listening to it. I liked it, so naturally the Media Gods deemed it Too Cool To Live and destroyed it just as I was getting into the habit of listening to it. One reason why I enjoyed The Merge was that at the time, it was one of the few radio stations in the air that was attempting, however feebly, to play and support local Texas music by local north Texas bands. Predominantly this support was relegated to Sunday nights when most people weren't listening, but I figured it was a start and back then this idea of supporting local music actually mattered to me. I believed in supporting local music and independent film. I now don't believe in supporting much of anything, since everything I support tends to not make it big. I'm a curse. I decided years ago the best thing I could do if I loved something was to stay as far away from it as possible and enjoy it from a safe distance. I cite Kristy Kruger for example. She seems to be doing very well for herself. At one time I fancied myself someone who could figure out a way to help her jump start her career, but being completely incompetent and unable to network and totally devoid of ideas was not the best place to start in that arena. When I stopped trying to ingratiate myself to her, coincidentally her career went from local to regional to national to international. I adore her from a very safe distance now - like how safe Mars is from Chernobyl. This seems to be working for her. I'm very proud.

So I started listening to The Merge and it tanked. Everything I touch dies. The Merge died and was replaced by "93.3 The Bone" because someone in their infinite wisdom thought since people weren't listening to a vague radio name like Merge, they'll surely listen to something more concrete like a dog chewtoy. Needless to say I stopped listening to The Bone as soon as it stopped being The Merge. I take it as a personal insult when a radio station decides to change its identity while I'm enjoying it. Maybe I shouldn't be so sensitive. However, true to form, the second I stopped listening to the station, it became popular. The Bone enjoyed its existence on 93.3 from 2002 to 2009. It never got fantastic numbers but it seemed to manage to hold its own. One of the things 93.3 was doing right was that it had local talent. One of the things it wasn't doing right was that it wasn't playing local talent a lot of local people wanted to listen to, which eventually led to its demise.

Recently I happened upon 93.3. It was still one of the preset buttons on my dashboard. This indicates how rarely I change the preset buttons on my car. It also may indicate how long it's been since I listened to the radio. I mean, I have a CD player. I listen to my CDs mostly. Imagine my surprise to learn that what was once The Bone is now "FM 93.3 Quality Rock" and the morning show consists of a group of guys based out of Atlanta Georgia who call themselves "The Regular Guys." I shit you not. Quality Rock. Regular Guys. I suppose they also have Generic traffic reports and Store Brand sports & weather.

This is what conventional radio has been reduced to: a radio format that is designed to be as politically correct and unobtrusive as possible, to the point where the soul has been completely wrung out of it. At one time there were radio personalities that people remembered because they stood for something. Maybe they stood for shit, but it was something. I'm not talking about shock jock Howard Stern, although in his own way he was continuing the tradition. Since radio first became a place where music could be presented to an audience, there have been people in the business who were willing to take risks and present new sounds to the world that tuned in. Whether it was the big band sound of Glenn Miller, or that daring brash young man named Elvis Costello, there were men and women on the cutting edge of sound. They'd go out there and listen to what artists had to offer, and they'd bring back stuff that was original and hungry and thought provoking and challenging and fun.

Then top 40 came along and though no one knew it yet, we were witnessing the beginning of the end, and it's been a long time coming. Also recently here in Texas someone with money and influence has taken the radio station 97.1 frequency and tried to bring back a ghost.

"97.1 The Eagle" was a staple of north Texas radio for decades. As a teenager I remember it being one of those stations that everyone listened to, even if you didn't really like the music played. Personally I liked it cuz it's where I could hear Doctor Demento, but local church pressure caused the station to drop his show, and I don't recall being a big fan of The Eagle much after that, but I had a silent respect for it. In the late 90s and early 00s, between Howard Stern's morning show and Kramer & Twitch at night, let's just say Clear Channel's lawyers had their hands full.

Clear Channel had purchased The Eagle years before as it had aquired pretty much all its stations, without giving a damn about the people listening. CC realized around this time that The Eagle & The Edge were sort of vying for the same audience. However, both stations were owned by CC so why was it competing with itself? In some suit and tie's remarkable knuckle dragging move, a decision was made to pull the plug on the controversial Eagle and replace it with an adult contemporary format called "Sunny 97.1" that played "the best of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and today." This was later replaced by a spanish format station.

Earlier this year, the ghost was resurrected. The Eagle soars once more over the airwaves of north Texas. However, what was once a teeming cauldron of over-active disc jockeys each with a chip on their shoulder and an annoying attitude? Now we got robot jocks. They think we can't tell the difference, and consciously maybe we can't.

Not long ago Texas was subjected to Jack FM which I understand is popular here and in many radio markets across the world. Jack is all voice tracking, and its slogan is "we play what we want." So basically the format is telling the audience, to its face, that it doesn't know what it wants to listen to and even if it did Jack doesn't care. No requests. Jack's gonna play what he's programmed to play and if you don't like it, change the channel. Jack has a playlist of roughly a thousand songs, easily twice as many as its competition in most cases. However, it's still a glamorized automated playlist that's not determined by a deejay. It's determined by committee. It's soulless, and after the novelty wears off, it can't compete with my CD collection.

People owning radio stations still prefer a robot deejay to the alternative. This is safer: they surely wouldn't want actual human beings on the air that might accidently make a joke about domestic terrorism, or demean women as sex objects, or say the word "booger" during drive time. It's a ghost with no soul. The soul in conventional radio has been removed - exorcised by lawyers and politicians and special interest groups.

You think that's bad? Look at Radio Sass. This is the new direction of radio. "Through time compression, you get the memorable heart of each song, with an average length of aproximately two minutes with NO self indulgent guitar solos, NO long intros, NO repetition of choruses again and again. Radio returns to the snappy song length of the 1960s." Then they wonder why we listen to our CDs? Are they so dense?

Maybe we can't consciously tell, but unconsciously we can sense that there's nothing under the sheet. With "Quality Rock" they are actually trying to create a radio station that is as bland as our CD collection - no personality. Just sound. What they don't understand is that we each turn to our CDs not because we are easily offended, but that we each are offended in different ways, and we want our entertainment to appeal to our sensibilities, whatever they may be. Making radio more generic isn't going to bring us back. It only reminds us why we listen to our own music collection instead. When I listen to my music, I am my own deejay, program director, and everything. How did radio ever compete with that?

People who own radio think they're listening to their audiences. Millions of dollars are poured into focus groups and surveys and research and all kinds of stuff. The end result makes McDonalds' Fillet O Fish almost palatable by comparison. For all its attempts to listen to what its listeners want to hear, radio has been tone deaf for decades, and it never listens to anything about itself that it doesn't want to hear, which nowadays is pretty much everything.

Maybe a request line that actually answers requests and doesn't just thank you for calling, would be a start. However, why would I bother calling a request line, when my favorite CD is ..oh yeah right. I'm too lazy to change the CD out in my car. Guess I'll have to start exercising and reach across to swap them out, because almost a decade later, the radio dial is as much a lobotomized wasteland as it was when I stopped listening to The Bone, and The Real Eagle was put to pasture.

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