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How Radio Fucked Itself


Newton Minnow referred to television as “the vast wasteland,” a phrase which he may well have resurrected again were he alive to describe the current state of radio. It’s not healthy…it is a patient at the hospital of media. Voice tracking…the sterility of satellite jocks…one size fits all programming…the lack of opportunity for indie artists at getting a shot at scoring a bullseye at the penny arcade of the airwaves.

When I worked in country radio in California, we played more “indie” artists than any other commercial station around. The only ones who played more were late night public radio Saturday night blues shows. Most commercial stations wouldn’t touch an indie track with a ten foot phallus, but we did–like Wylie and the Wild West Show and other “cowboy” acts and people like Hank III before he was fashionable. So, was it indeed the MTV video that killed the radio star? Was it the iPod and the internet that fired the final shot into the body of the electronic upstart? No…radio in the 90s was on a self-destructive path to kill itself, to eat itself, and in a final act of self gratification…so to speak…radio fucked itself!

The Telecommunications Act of 1996, Clear Channel, the Attila the Hun of radio…Satellite…the evil empire that killed local radio by homogenizing its sound and offerings with some of the blandest talent imaginable. Voice Tracking…syndication…local radio didn’t stand a chance. Yet every now and then you’ll fine some local oldies show where an aging boomer who remembers radio and rock and roll as it was–and as it should be–goes local, takes calls, even talks to you, plays your request and radio becomes again a passion, a labor of love….a love affair between radio and the listener.

The radio revolution of the 1920s-1940s as family fare was passe by time the telly tube and TV dinners exploded in a cathode frenzy in living rooms across the United States just several decades later. Commercial radio in its heyday filled the airwaves with live orchestras, drama and comedy, from the Shadow and the Green Hornet to Jack Benny and Burns and Allen, along with everything in between. The Grand Old Opry blasted out of the studios of WSM radio in Nashville, and WXYZ radio in Detroit was giving birth to the adventures of the Lone Ranger. Families gathered around the radio to listen to the next adventure of some damsel in distress or some beat up Raymond Chandler radio detective in a what can only be termed as a murder for hire whodunit offering of audio noir.

Music was the sound of big bands, Glenn Miller and Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, and crooners like Sinatra and Hope. Ernest Tubb went electric and Hank Sr. died in the backseat of a Cadillac but not after leaving a lasting imprint on the medium of radio. Country Western was here to stay. Then along came the Bobby Soxers and Zoot Suiters who were ruling the radio roost when it came to music, fashion and lifestyle. Eventually shows like Your Hit Parade hit the airwaves with its watered down offerings of “music.” If music is sex, then the Hit Parade was the missionary position.

Early versions of popular soap operas began appearing on radio networks, a flashback to the old days of radio drama complete with sound effects of horses clip-clopping and newsprint being balled up gently to create the effect of a roaring fire consuming an apartment building that the murderess had just torched to disguise the crime scene of the illicit lover she had just offed with a stolen gun from a gumshoe’s desk to cast the blame as far from her as possible. Suspense sans vision. The commercials were in a class by themselves as well…live commercials, before disc transcription was introduced and later tape via cart machines and reel-to-reels and eventually the computer hard drive. No nets in those days…no second chances. You botched it, you lived with it without crash helmets to soften the blow.

Live orchestras would perform in massive studios with an actual audience as the music of Mozart drifted through the microphones across the expanse of airwaves and into the living rooms of American families. In the early days the radios were kits and you had to listen through headphones giving the visual impression of a French Freedom Fighter in the underground of WWII listening for messages from Britain that the invasion was underway. Eventually records appeared and the studio musicians disappeared in a puff of orchestral smoke.

Then along came Sam Phillips and a little record company in Memphis, Tennessee, that was about to rise above the radio horizon to usher in a new age of popular music with names you may recognize such as Elvis Presley. Then there was a new batch of cats who had country influences and created a new sound with a mixture of hillbilly and country with a new back beat…it was the birth of Rockabilly, and eventually Rock and Roll. Radio was now on a rock and roll track. Never mind the early days, radio was back, and it was stronger and more powerful then ever. It was live. It was local. Jocks had trademarks and gimmicks, and colorful names. In Detroit it was “The Weird Beard” but your city had theirs too. Think back…who did you listen to? Who did you call for requests for that new girl in school, or that guy you wanted to meet? It was interaction on overdrive.

Then along came Clear Channel, the Lee Harvey Oswald of electronic media, poised on the Grassy Knoll ready to fire the bullet that would kill local radio.  The advent of Clear Channel had the effect of putting radio in a cookie cutter blender that even Drake Chenault and its Boss Jocks couldn’t dream existed. But radio didn’t fight back and went along with it like a lemming with a death wish. Radio wasn’t killed; it died by suicide, through tight play lists, obnoxiously short rotations, lack of indie exposure…to reiterate, radio wasn’t killed. Radio killed itself, and in the end…we all got fucked!

Turn the radio on to your favorite station, get ready for the antics of your favorite radio personality, absorb the songs and put up with the commercials. Get ready to be the 50th caller to dial and win something…cash, concert tickets, free music…oh, forget that! This is the digital age where artists don’t make money anymore. It’s download time at the OK Corral and most of the artists promote this fact! Talk about shooting yourself in the foot! It’s time now for the Local Radio Highway 101.

The good old days of local live radio are gone forever, as it has morphed into something unrecognizable but also resembling the austere sterility of George Orwell’s giant 1984 screens that beam an image of a sinister Big Brother who leers at this subjects. In days of yore in a galactic world of modulation of AM and FM starships, there was no voice tracking. Voice Tracking is radio going up the lazy river without a paddle. The jock goes into a studio and using microphone and computer which is programmed for the “shows” and she or he records “bits” that will fall into place in between songs, that by the way, the computer picks–not the jock at the controls. In fact, there is no jock at the controls, only Kubrick’s HAL. In other words the radio station is out of the control of any human contact…especially at night. The 7:00 pm to midnight and overnight shifts are voice tracked or satellite fed. No one is there anymore.

The way things used to be, those two shifts in particular were the training grounds for up and coming talent. Making their bones so to speak to attain the rank of made man in the radio mafia. Eventually, if you were any good you could work your way into a Midday Slot–the “housewife time” it’s called (don’t yell at me, that is just what it’s called), which is a carryover from the arcane times of the 1950. Like voice tracking and the empty studio, the husband was away at work and the housewife stuck at home would carry on a adulterous affair with a mere voice on the radio.

The main drawback to voice tracking from the listener standpoint is you can’t participate or call in to win nifty radio shit like CD’s or records, back when they gave records away. The tracked voice doesn’t know you exist or care if you live or die. You cannot get an accurate weather forecast as it was pre-recorded at the dawn of time when creatures were emerging from the ocean depths to walk on land. You cannot request your favorite song because the computer will play what if damn well pleases…or actually what it is damn well programmed to play.

How about those loving lavish promos, you know the type: “I love your station, I listen to it all the time!” Those promos you hear never give a name, a town, or business name…why? The answer is simple and not blowing in the wind but blowing out the commercial radio station;s ass. They are pre-recorded in some studio by voice actors in Muscle Shoals perhaps, and shipped to radio stations across the country. The station then puts them together with their jingles trailing at the end like Neanderthal knuckles dragging on the ground.

They are designed to make you feel that if you don’t listen often, you’re a loser…plain and simple, you’ll be left in the cultural dust. Speaking of which, it used to be after a commercial set that the station jingle would play, and then move into “more music.” Now you hear the station jingle, and it leads into more commercials! Commercials take over more of a station’s music clock than music does anymore, yet the station keeps harping at you, “More music all the time…fewer commercials!” And like Big Brother’s legions, the masses eat it up, believing it…unbelievable!

So the next time you turn on the radio, the one with dials and knobs not Listen Here buttons….pick up the phone and call the station…see if there is anybody out there…anybody in there…and if not, get some new equipment, or a new station at least. Radio today has robbed us all of a pleasant experience that can’t be replicated with modern technology. It’s time to get something in return.


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