Radio, What's New? Someone Still Loves You

By shane

"Radio, for everybody,
Give em what they want,
Remember where you heard it first,
The sound that's heaven sent.
Hey radio,
Been so long since I loved you,
Hey radio,
No one else knows what to do."

- The Boo Radleys

Alright, so it first must be known that you need to click on Dean Carlson's column for April ("K-RAP") and then come back here. My apologies off the bat to my colleague Mr. Carlson, for anyone who's been a member of the Excellent UK Indie Mailing List will know that Dean vs. Shane can make for a pretty good debate. Our back-and-forth banter has oftentimes usurped the entire list consciousness, making many of our members bury their heads in the sand and wait for the storm to pass. So, when Dean became an EO columnist last month, I made an internal vow to never make one of MY columns to be a response to one of HIS, lest we start all sorts of higgledy-piggeldy. And, wouldn't you know, here I go (sigh.) BUT. the reason I write this response column is because Dean touched on a pretty active nerve with me. RADIO. It's my passion, it's my hobby. hell, I'll admit it, it was my major, and it's paid my bills (admittedly, only the SMALL bills.) Anyone who knows me knows that I can wax poetic about the current state of radio for eons. Here, I'll keep it to a few paragraphs.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not about to disagree with Dean's thoughts at all. radio sucks. Plain and simple. It's the spawn of Satan. It's a demonic force that must be stopped at all costs. And I love it. I love what it stands for. I love the potential. I love the premise. the idea. the thesis. I just hate the plot, cause radio's totally gone and lost it.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite memories were of Sunday nights. 10 p.m. Bedtime (school in the morning, doncha know.) My mom and dad would tuck me under the covers, shut off the lights, close the doors, and I'd drift into the bliss of slumber. Or so they thought. Instead, I'd lie there motionless until I knew for sure they were safe in their bedrooms. Then I'd grab the headphones and crank up the radio to Rock over London, about the best syndicated radio show in the history of history. Maybe it really shows I'm rounding the bend to middle age, but Rock Over London was THE BOMB for a kid growing up in the mid-80's in farmtown Illinois hell. I remember hearing bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, Aztec Camera, the JoBoxers, Fuzzbox. falling in love with it all. Developing my Anglophile roots faster than facial hair. And it was ALL thanks to the marvelous medium of radio.

So where did it all go wrong? How did radio become the useless communication tool that it's become today? Well, damn it if I'm not gonna blame the whole thing on Kurt Cobain.

Before the dawn of grunge, pop was pop, rock was rock, indie was indie, and there was a radio station of choice out there for the lot of us. What were the big formats? "TOP 40," the stations that played the hits. 40 of `em. Over and over again until you DAMN WELL hummed along to them all, they saw to that. "URBAN," where you'd hear slow jams and Motown soul. "CLASSIC ROCK," cause all growing boys need their Thin Lizzy. "AOR," where the older kids would go to listen to Pink Floyd album tracks. And then there was "ALTERNATIVE ROCK," which, back then, was Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Neil Young, etc. And then there was the worst of the lot, "ADULT CONTEMPORARY." Michael Bolton's paradise. Urgh. But it sucked. Egregiously. And we knew not to listen.

Then came spunky little Kurt Cobain. Flannel. Dirt. Yelling. Angst. And (gasp,) it SOLD. Chaos ensues.

Soon Top 40 stations were playing alternative rock, which really befuddled the alternative rock stations, who in turn became "adult alternative." Urban stations, in turn, started edging more towards Top 40. Classic rock stations stations started playing Pearl Jam. Adult contemporary stations started playing Toad the Wet Sprocket. It was a nightmare.

Enter "THE MAN," who sees that if kids are listening to Pearl Jam on the radio en masse, then, by gum, we're gonna sell some Snapple to `em. This was the death of the individuality of radio. Suddenly, the position that EVERY audiophile on Earth wanted to be, the (gasp) MUSIC DIRECTOR, the person who was in TOTAL control over what did and didn't get played over the air, was eliminated. I know a music director of a local station in town today. Know what he does? He opens CD's. And alphabetizes them. And says the word "okay" a lot.

Although you may not realize it, most radio stations in America are now controlled by "professional media consultants," aka THE MAN. Teams of hired guns who sit in skyscrapers in New York City, who perform "research" that tells them exactly what Farmer Bob in Iowa wants to listen to. Which is apparently Britney Spears and ads for Pepsi. Every hour. On the hour. Of course, a good chunk of that "research" involves dining with Madonna, doing meetings with David Geffen, and holding important think-tank sessions in the drive-thru line to the local bank depository. I've met some of them, these consultants. They're a spooky breed. A walking Dilbert character. They need to be destroyed. Now.

If radio is to return to SOME semblance of relevance, it needs to develop its individuality once again. No more syndicated morning shows. No more paid consultants. DIY isn't rocket science, kids. As Christian Slater once said, it's time to steal the air (back.)

Admittedly, radio's in a tough spot right now. Once upon a time, only the wealthy folk had cassette players in their car. Now, pretty much everybody's got an in-dash CD player. Once upon a time, radio was the only source of music variety. Now, Jimmy in Peoria can log onto and geek out to hundreds of choices. If radio is going to survive, if radio is going to remain (a debatable enough word) vital to society, it needs to accept the fact that it cannot simply CONTROL society (think of words like "playlist",) rather it needs to also REFLECT the needs and aspirations of society. Who do radio executives think they are, the NME?

If there can be ONE thing that radio has going for it, it's the simple fact that the medium EXCITES THE IMAGINATION. As famed communication theorist and nutter extraordinaire Marshall McLuhan once noted, "Radio, in contrast to the telephone [or other media], permits the listener to fill in a good deal of visual imagery. The radio-announcer or disc-jockey stands out loud and clear, while the voice on the telephone resonates in isolation from the visual sense. Nobody ever wrote a lament about "All Alone by the Radio," but "All Alone by the Telephone" is a classic of the twenties that was a resounding prophecy of high-rise living in the present time." Of course, it rhymed, too, but you get the point.

Radio excites youth. DJ's are oftentimes a kid's first hero. They're funny. They're edgy. They're famous. They "understand, maaaan." Kids can't immediately identify with someone like Harrison Ford. He's an actor, you know what he looks like - Harrison Ford is not a guy filled with secrets. But kids CAN identify with Rockin Ralph in the Morning, `cause Rockin' Ralph is a freak who plays Oasis, and their parents don't understand Oasis, ergo Ralph suddenly equals cool, even though Ralph is likely handed a sheet as he punches his timecard in the mornings that says, "8:42 a.m. - Talk intro - Fade Up #G24-A `OASIS'"

Understand the potential? If it's done RIGHT, radio has just as much chance at being a successful media tool at television or any MP3 site under the sun. We simply need to take it back. If you don't like what you hear on the radio, first off: good for you. You're right. So DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Don't abandon the medium, cause if you do, another Sugar Ray fan is waiting in the wings to take your place. Which means the station plays more Sugar Ray. And less Suede. And what happens? Sure, you come off as a cool guy, but then you moan and bitch when Suede get dropped from their US label because everyone's buying Sugar Ray. Then you get stuck shelling out extra quid for the import. Welcome to the evil life of an elitist Anglophile. Hallelujah.

Don't accept it. Do something about it. Grass-roots campaigning can make a difference. Call the station. Request Suede until you're blue in the face. No, they won't play it, but just maybe their music director will hear about it. And tell their consultant. Who might just give the record a try. If you have a local station that plays GOOD music, support their advertisers, tell them you heard their ad on WANK or KRAP or wherever. Support your local stations that don't succumb to the terrors of the paid consultant. These are usually the stations that play Van Morrison and Neil Young. The stations that (gasp) the actual air staff have a hand in selecting music. I'm not telling you to endure endless hours of the Backstreet Boys and Hootie-a-thons - I'm telling you NOT to put up with it - in an ACTIVE sort of way. Support college radio. Support National Public Radio shows like "World Cafe" that actually try to expose middle America to bands like Pulp. Support independence. Support creativity. Ignore the mainstream.

If you think the sorry state of radio is only to found on our side of the pond, you're wrong there, too. The quote I put at the beginning of this column is from a Boo Radleys track called "XFM is Ace," written for the UK indie-geared station during one of its final provisional runs before being granted British communications licensure. And it was great. while it lasted. Trouble is, THE MAN decided that more XFM listeners would drink Snapple if only there were. erm. MORE XFM listeners. So the station decided to play less indie, more Kula Shaker, and hire Mr. Personality himself, Sir Bob Geldof, to the morning drive shift. And it backfired in their face. Geldof was let go, and there are still kids picketing outside the offices today. XFM is quickly becoming the joke of the industry, and it's mainly due to massive pro-Indie campaigning by local activists and local activist groups who raised their voice and said, "Umm, hey, in case you didn't realize it, B*Witched are NOT cool."

Chucking your radio into the bin isn't the answer. Imagine the potential. Don't waste it. I'll freely admit it, I'm a radio geek. And I know that thinking about radio doesn't make EVERYBODY's back hairs stand on end quite as briskly as mine, but at least the general premise should be the same. We buy records, too. We drink Snapple, too. Time to appeal to US, Mr. Man.

Thus endeth my rant. The soapbox is destroyed. Dean, old boy, I swear to you that I won't make a habit of appending your columns in the future. You just got me a-thinking, and gosh darn, you had to pick a month where there's little else to be thinking about.

Join my happy little column next month, when there'll be something a little less preachy going on, I vow it.

Have a good April. Buy the Rentals album. Buy the Underworld album. Import the Echo and the Bunnymen album. You should already own the Olivia Tremor Control album. Then tell your radio stations to play them.