To continue our rant from last issue about the fall and decline of American radio (with thanks to Fahrenheit San Diego, where much of the following appeared in the June 4 edition):
Say what you will about the '70s (and little of what's said tends to be positive), but at least radio was still fun.
True enough, it was an era when the playlists at rock stations where dominated by Kansas, Styx and Journey, supposed "soul" stations played pabulum like the Commodores and Earth, Wind and Fire, and country stations featured Kenny Rogers and Crystal Gale tough sins all to overlook. (Although that's hardly a universal sentiment see this month's Capos & Consonants for Jamie Reno's take on the glories of the decade.)
Today, playlists are selected by program managers and not even at the station, but at the national headquarters of the conglomerates that now own most of the radio stations. Those lists are getting shorter and shorter, with the stations maximizing exposure for the chosen few and shutting out dozens, even hundreds or thousands of other songs and artists that might have gotten airplay under the old system.
Most of what you have a choice to listen to on your local radio stations is decided by a very small group of people. With Clear Channel owning nine stations here in San Diego alone (and hundreds more nationally, including nine more just up the road in L.A., plus hundreds across the nation), the ability of a few Clear Channel executives to determine what's on the local airwaves is disturbing.
Worse, the Bush administration is supporting new federal regulations to loosen the rules governing radio, TV and newspaper ownership in a single market. Can you imagine if Clear Channel not only owned a good chunk of the local radio stations, but a TV station or two and the local paper?
Truth be told, while the Republicans now running Washington tout the proposed new regulations as being pro-business, it's not a boon for local businesses giving large corporations the legal wherewithal to lock up a media market can only result in higher advertising prices. That may be good for the sort of rich folk with access to the White House, but for the locals it makes a mockery of the Republicans' supposed belief in the free market.
Worse, it also makes for bad radio.
Stations owned by universities and colleges are supposed to offer a real alternative to this corporate takeover. So-called "public" radio stations are funded by listener donations and government hand-outs and in return, are charged to provide programming to benefit the local community.
But listen for just a few minutes to your local National Public Radio affiliate, and it's quickly apparent the national public radio system serves perhaps the narrowest demographic in the country. In truth, it's nothing more than talk radio for guilt-stricken affluent white suburbanites in Volvos and SUVs. Listening to their broadcasts a few months ago, you'd have never known there was a war just anti-war protests.
Even though so much of the music was so horrible in the '70s (although we didn't necessarily know it at the time), because the dee-jays picked the songs that got on the air, there were a lot more songs being played on the radio than there are today. Each dee-jay had different tastes, and so even on the same station what you heard played varied according to who was at the mic.
With dee-jays in charge of the playlists, you had the opportunity for novelty songs to break through. Ask Weird Al Yankovic how many hits he's had since the program managers took absolute control of the playlists. "The Curly Shuffle" came out almost 20 years ago, and that may well have been the last true novelty song getting played by anyone outside Dr. Demento.
When dee-jays still had a say, you also had a chance for local bands to score what were called "regional hits" simply because their fans called in and requested their songs. The Fabulous Thunderbirds (Austin) and Van Halen (Los Angeles) got their start that way. Here in San Diego, Moving Targets had heavy local airplay with "Stuck Behind the Cannonball," and local bands like the Penetrators, Playground Slap and, most notably, the Beat Farmers were all heard in the regular rotation on local stations.
Today, if popular local bands say Eve Selis, for instance get heard on the air at all, it's on a special "local music" show, usually at some odd hour when listenership is at its lowest.
Perhaps most importantly in the radio of the 1970s and earlier, because it was the deejays picking the songs rather than the corporate suits, more of us listened to each other's music than is true today.
While it might be hard to defend Anne Murray or Lionel Richie's music in retrospect, the fact that a country star and an R&B star were able to co-exist on the same radio stations at the same time, and draw an audience willing to listen to the other was at least partly what gave radio real social value back then.
We had cross-over hits back then; the Ohio Players would get played on the rock stations, while Little Feat might end up on the soul station.
And the local Top 40 AM station would be playing everything from country's Eddie Rabbit and Ronnie Milsap to rock's Queen and Aerosmith to the funk of Sly and the Family Stone.
The white and black kids in high school knew each other's music, listened to it even if they didn't necessarily dig it. There was cross-pollination, a sort of forced encampment in each other's worlds.
Today, not only will rock stations not play soul (much less Latin), but each school of music is further subdivided into different camps all reflecting the increasingly narrow microprogramming of the corporate broadcasters. You have "classic rock" and "alternative rock" and "light rock." There's a "new country" station and a "classic country" station; a soul station and an "old school" station. Outside of the handful of poseur whites listening to rap, nobody ventures very far afield of their own demographic.
It's all enough to make Dr. Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap cry into their bongs.
Or did you forget that there was a time when radio was interesting enough to inspire movies ("FM") and TV series ("WKRP in Cincinnati")?
Back before the Clear Channel juggernaut turned the airwaves into a giant loaf of Wonder Bread, radio used to have cojones. Real cojones, not the tiny little Howard Stern-size that confuse a junior high fixation on bodily functions with daring.
Real daring is playing a song that the studios aren't pushing with a national ad campaign. Having an on-air personality larger than a shtick that revolves around sex or your gastrointestinal tract.
The worst crime in this narrow programming, this refusal to trust the on-air talent to pick their own songs, is the reality that music radio is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
The fact is that listeners are finding other outlets for getting turned on to new sounds.
The Internet is one option, of course. Sites like AllMusic.com and MP3.com allow bands to connect directly with listeners without need of the radio stations.And there's still word of mouth the most effective form of advertising there is. One of the best-selling albums in recent years was the soundtrack from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" an old-timey country and bluegrass collection which got almost zero airplay, yet sold millions of copies.
None of this is to argue that any sort of music is all bad; what's bad is the narrow, play-it-safe programming heard on our local airwaves.
Want proof that letting dee-jays pick their own songs works?
Tune in to 88.3, KSDS Jazz 88, out of City College (and now streaming their signal over the Internet at KSDS-FM.org). It is one of the few stations anywhere where you're guaranteed to hear something new every hour. The on-air hosts, most of them volunteer, absolutely know the music. Every time you listen to John Phillips (who has a voice Lou Rawls would kill for), you learn something new. Every time Ida Garcia hosts her Saturday morning swing show, you'll hear a song for the first time in your life although it might be a song your grandparents conceived your parents to.
Joe Kocherhans may be program manager at KSDS, but he doesn't try to program every second of the day. I don't know what his specific instructions are, never having had the privilege of sitting in over there. But it's pretty damn loose based on what the dee-jays are playing often on vinyl. And anybody who can get Fred Lewis and his deep-pile plush voice back on the air gets extra kudos in my book.
Does KSDS rule the ratings?
But the station is growing, building a larger and larger membership of folks who are willing to fork out money to keep the station and its format alive and well.
For many of us, Jazz 88 is a lifeline to sanity, a reminder of a day when radio of all styles was open, when it breathed with creativity.
When radio was still alive.
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